Tag Archives: #reputation management

First Aid for Media Burn

breaking-news-2Regardless of how well a company communicates with the press, it stands a good chance of being “burned” on occasion. From minor misquote to major hatchet-job, these real and perceived offenses occupy the attention of senior managers and their advisors, whose polite clarifications and outraged denials fill the “Letters to the Editor” section of every business and trade publication.

Unfortunately, no standard methodology exists for redress of grievances with the press. In the business of keeping everyone else honest, the news media is “one of the worst sectors in keeping themselves accountable,” according to American Lawyer editor Steven Brill.

There are, however, several field-tested procedures and certified blunders that can serve as a rudimentary first aid manual for companies. Initial triage for media burn—the decision about whether to act at all—should involve an objective appraisal of the injury’s potential for actual long-term damage, rather than a knee-jerk mission to set the record straight.

Some facts, figures and quotes, although they may be wrong or misleading, are just not worth squawking about in public. First City Bancorporation of Texas’ clarification in Business Week regarding the date of its chairman’s law degree (1956, not 1969) served only to portray that company as a nagging nitpicker. On the other hand, silence can be viewed as tacit approval of what has been reported, and misinformation no longer simply fades away. Electronic data retrieval systems, which store nearly every piece of print or broadcast information, now ensure that a news story, regardless of its accuracy, will have a life of its own.

Most reporters research current story assignments by reviewing what has been previously reported. In a classic case of this media “snowballing,” facts and opinions expressed by a California newspaper regarding Pacific Lumber Company’s tree harvesting practices—which cast the company as an environmental villain—eventually turned up in another Business Week article. Two years later, that same information provided the hook for a Fortune piece, which subsequently spawned a Reader’s Digeststory and “20/20” TV documentary.

Once the decision has been made to correct a misrepresentation in the media, a company should act quickly to document and state its case. Don’t be afraid to make some noise. A letter sent to an appropriate editor, rather than the reporter involved, should present extremely specific objections and clarifications. Very often, says Newsweek senior writer Jonathan Alter, “these letters start out, ‘There are so many errors that I can’t begin to list them…’ Right away my eyes glaze over.”

Pen Is Still Mightier Than Sword

If warranted, an initial complaint letter may be prepared by legal counsel; however, sabre-rattling at this early stage is often counterproductive. This letter should propose a reasonable solution to the problem, ranging from a mention in a corrections column to a full-scale retraction. But unless an error or bias can be proven conclusively, as most never are, an editor will stand by the story and consider the case closed. This is where more sophisticated remedies for media burn may be appropriate.

One very effective means of counteracting negative media exposure is to address the matter in head-on fashion by taking opposing viewpoints directly to target audiences. In response to a Consumer Reports article on home water filters which it considered incorrect and misleading, National Safety Associates distributed to its sales force a copy of its president’s letter to the editor of that publication; thereby helping company reps to handle the negative publicity about their products. If the stakes are high enough, direct communication with employees, shareholders and customers is in order.

Display ads with a message, a common device in proxy battles, can also be used to rebut negative editorial coverage. More often, however, companies withhold or withdraw advertising to punish “unfriendly” media outlets. The best known example involves Mobil Oil and the Wall Street Journal, but the tactic is still used frequently, with far less fanfare than the Mobil incident. Economic blackmail often backfires, however, as editors assume an even tougher reporting edge in order to demonstrate that their opinion cannot be purchased.

Boycotting relationships with the media provides a small measure of short-term gratification, yields no beneficial change, and displays an unhealthy level of arrogance. The traditional “Letter to the Editor” is often the least effective means of expressing an opposing viewpoint. Although this is a well-read section, most letters are boring, overly self-serving, assume that readers remember the original article, and can confuse the matter further. Additionally, publications such as Barron’s and the Harvard Business Review provide journalists with an opportunity to respond in elaborate fashion to the objections of letter writers.

Seasoned politicians appreciate the futility of debating anyone who controls the microphone; most rebuttal letter writers learn that lesson the hard way. A more effective use of the “Letter to the Editor” platform is to request support from a friendly, credible third party. This technique was applied by Safeway Stores Inc. following negative front-page coverage in a national newspaper. By no coincidence, the rebuttal from it s CEO was accompanied by supportive letters from company suppliers such as Sunkist Growers Inc. and Kellogg Co., an employee, a competitor, and even the chairman of the National Easter Seal Society, who confirmed Safeway’s generosity. In most cases a single letter should do the trick.

As a rule, companies prone to media burn display a chronic reluctance to announce bad news, and refuse to admit error. Chrysler Corporation’s guilt in a car odometer resetting scandal was defused effectively by chairman Iaccoca’s immediate apology and personal assurance that the mistake would not be repeated.

Que Sera, Sera

First aid for media burn calls for gracious acceptance of two important facts of business life: That an unflattering or dead wrong portrayal in the press should be viewed as an ongoing and acceptable risk when running a company; and second, that for better or worse, your firm’s long-term reputation with reporters, editors, and other important audiences is influenced by how well you manage the trauma of media burn, not simply by how adept you are at avoiding it.

[Editor’s Note: If you’ve read this far, you know the examples and sources cited in this piece are sorely outdated. This article was originally published in 1994, in the Journal of Business Strategy. Notwithstanding 20+ years and huge shifts in the media landscape, I stand by the relevance of the “media burn” guidance it offers.]

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Manage the Pedigree Factor in Professional Services Marketing

MissP1Institutional pedigree always matters, regardless of the type of professional service you’re selling. But to leverage pedigree as a marketing asset, you first need to understand why it’s important to your target audience, and decide what type(s) of pedigree will have the greatest influence on them. The professional credentials your firm possesses (or creates) are a major consideration in determining which doors to knock on, and which doors to ignore.

Pedigree means different things to decision-makers. In the classic sense, personal pedigree can take into account where you were raised, schools you attended, club memberships, employment history, who you know, and even your race and ancestry. For better or worse, there are many companies that hire employees based largely or exclusively on those external credentials, in order to create a consistent (albeit often elitist) institutional persona.

Whether they’re selecting a lawyer, management consultant or hedge fund manager, there are decision-makers who will always require the classic resume-based pedigree. Conversely, there are plenty of “meritocracy” buyers of professional services who will eschew external credentials and base their selections on the quality of ideas, past performance or future potential.

These suggestions might help you hack your way through the pedigree jungle:

Understand the fear factor in selection of an outside advisor. The old adage, “No one was ever fired for hiring I.B.M.” still rings true. Known brands are safe choices. When an individual selects an outside advisor, career risk plays a significant role in their decision-making. Their personal nightmare is twofold: first, that their selection will fail to meet expectations by a wide margin; secondly, that their own organization will not agree with their reasons for selecting the outside advisor…even if they supported the decision.

Unfortunately for professional services providers lacking strong external credentials, the reluctance to select them is far more prevalent at larger institutions. This is simply because the downside risk of making mistakes is much greater at larger firms. Selection errors may be tolerated at smaller firms, but as a company’s bureaucracy grows, so do the consequences related to selection errors. At big firms, taking a chance on an unproven or unknown outside provider is considered career suicide.

Reduce decision-making risk for prospective clients. If your firm doesn’t possess a strong traditional pedigree, there are several ways you can reduce decision-making risk for prospective clients. The most effective tactics involve generating either direct or indirect 3rd party endorsements that support your firm’s credibility. Here are three examples:

  • Earned Media: Positive exposure in respected, bona fide media sources (Wall Street Journal, Forbes, etc.) is still one of the most powerful ways to build credibility. Most small firms can’t afford a sustained PR effort delivered by an outside agency, but with a modest investment of time, creativity and determination, a DIY initiative can yield media placements that will bolster market confidence.
  • Industry Platforms: Most conferences, seminars and other types of industry platforms are now “pay-to-play” arrangements that extract significant sponsorship fees in exchange for a spot on the agenda. But the inherent 3rd party marketing value of these events is directly related to the credibility of the sponsoring organization. So rather than investing heavily in these events, seek opportunities to participate actively – as an officer or committee member – in professional associations that are respected by your targeted decision-makers.
  • Branded Interviews: This powerful but little known tactic involves alignment of your (lesser known) brand with a 3rd party (an individual or company) that’s well known and highly regarded in your market segment. One simple way to benefit from this “halo effect” is to create a quarterly publication that features non-self-serving interviews with these opinion leaders, covering topics of interest to your decision makers. In addition to driving top-of-mind awareness each quarter, when archived on your website, these interviews will serve to validate your pedigree.

Take advantage of non-performing, highly credentialed competitors. Some highly credentialed firms will coast on their reputations, and are not as hungry or diligent as their competitors that rely on performance rather than pedigree. This market opportunity often involves mid-sized firms that have engaged high pedigree providers, in hopes of receiving first-class service, only to be disappointed by treatment as second (or third) class citizens.

Thanks to internet transparency, these “abused client” opportunities can be easy to identify if you look for them. A straightforward “Are you receiving what you’re paying for?” solicitation can resonate in the prospect’s corner office, and often initiate conversations that lead to engagements where your firm is viewed as a hero simply for providing a level of service that the client deserves.

Conduct a pedigree “sniff-test” before you knock on doors. Marketing success relies heavily on hunting for high potential targets, and not wasting time elsewhere. A prospective client’s own pedigree is a strong indicator of their selection preferences for outside providers. Here’s the sniff test: if a potential client employs people with very similar academic and professional backgrounds, and your firm’s credentials are not a match, then don’t waste your time where you’re unlikely to be considered. Instead, look for pedigree landscapes that are compatible with your firm’s credentials, or seek opportunities where your firm’s credentials will be considered a cut above the prospective client’s pedigree.

Mark Twain once wrote, “In Boston they ask…How much does he know? In New York…How much is he worth? In Philadelphia…Who were his parents?”  The most effective professional services marketers define precisely what’s most important to their targeted prospects, and showcase their pedigree accordingly.

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Why and How to Market Your Firm’s Brand Integrity

As the limitations of a virtual marketplace continue to reduce most B2B firms to commodities, it’s become increasingly important to communicate not just what your company does, but to generate interest in what your enterprise stands for. This task of expressing your firm’s raison d’être involves far more than sticking a “Mission Statement” on its website.

Prospective clients not only want to know what makes your firm unique; before they put you on their short list for consideration, they also want assurance that your company is a “safe choice.” Decision-makers at every level are unwilling to risk their career on selection of an outside firm that may fail to meet expectations, or even harm their firm.

Regardless of whether your firm is the leader or an upstart in its marketplace, brand integrity matters. And it’s a corporate asset that needs to be marketed.

Unfortunately, telling target audiences and opinion leaders that your company is smart, honest, unique, innovative, creative, cutting-edge, trusted, etc. never succeeds. People require hard and soft evidence to support their own conclusions about your brand attributes, notably its integrity.

So how does a B2B firm market its brand integrity through online and offline channels? Here are 10 tangible and intangible factors that, on an individual and combined basis, can drive marketplace opinion on brand integrity:

  • Transparency: Is information regarding your firm’s philosophy, products / services, processes and people available and easily accessible? (Acid Test: How much digging is required to gain a basic understanding?)
  • Consistency: Is all information kept up-to-date, and relevant to current market conditions? Does bad news get communicated to your clients as quickly and openly as good news? (Acid Test: What’s the frequency of content generation, and the number of direct and indirect “touches” with target audiences?)
  • Enthusiasm: Does your firm appear genuine and enthusiastic about communicating with external audiences? Or does communication appear to be treated as a necessary evil? (Acid Test: How often are innovation and fun baked into those efforts?)
  • Values: Are your company’s core values expressed in a compelling manner? More importantly, are those values demonstrated through its actions? (Acid Test: Are they aspirational and inspirational? Is there tangible evidence that values really drive decision-making?)
  • Clarity: Are explanations clear, devoid of technical jargon or mystery, and easily understood by all outside audiences? (Acid Test: Would an 8th grader get it?)
  • Culture: Is there a visible common culture, beyond shared academic credentials or charitable activities? Are there tangible signs that employees are valued, have a unified vision and enjoy working together? (Acid Test: Other than the annual mud run photo, do employees appear to be engaged as a team?)
  • Associations: Who and what are the people, organizations, ideas and causes associated with your firm? Are those associations respected, credible and trustworthy? (Acid Test: Is the firm actively connected with the outside world?)
  • Validation: How is your firm’s value proposition validated by objective 3rd parties? Do reliable sources express open support or inherent endorsement? (Acid Test: Do credible media sources cover the company? Do clients identify themselves by name and company?)
  • Leadership: Are efforts made to share / promote your firm’s intellectual capital in a helpful manner that’s not directly self-serving? (Acid Test: Do other opinion leaders reference your firm’s ideas or contributions? Are white papers just poorly disguised sales collateral?)
  • Persona: Does your firm appear to be run by interesting human beings, or hide its personality behind an opaque, institutional veneer? (Acid Test: Does the overall impact of public-facing communication project warmth and sincerity, or distance and arrogance?)

Marketing tactics aside, companies looking for a guiding principle on brand integrity are well-served by heeding the advice of the late John Wooden, basketball coaching legend, who said, “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

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The Attention Web: What B2B Marketers Need to Know

For B2B marketers who are too busy to keep up-to-date on every marketing trend and buzzword, here are a few thoughts on all the current noise about the Attention Web:

  • Attention as a marketing asset is not a new concept: Top-of-mind awareness has always served as a cornerstone of effective B2B marketing.  In their 2001 book, The Attention Economy, social scholars Thomas Davenport and John Beck proposed that in today’s information-flooded world, the most scarce resource does not involve ideas, money or talent. They argued that unless companies learn to effectively capture, manage and maintain attention – both internally and in the marketplace – they will fail. Here’s one way to understand what’s happening:

Attention Web

  • Pageviews, Likes, Clicks, Shares and Downloads do not measure engagement: Now that the advertising industry is using actual data to evaluate online behavior, smart B2B marketers can validate what they’ve always suspected about the metrics that are used to measure the effectiveness of the content they produce. There is now hard evidence that shows the number of clicks, comments, and shares are not indicative of how much time people spend engaged with the actual content. One recent study, reflected below – produced by Chartbeat and based on a boatload of data – demonstrates that there is no relationship between how often a piece of content is shared and the amount of attention the average reader will give that content. The good news for B2B marketers is that there are now editorial analytic tools that can provide attention and engagement metrics and insights.

article sharing

  • Attention, engagement and business relationships are driven by quality content: Beyond whatever products or services they sell, all B2B companies must establish credibility and trust with clients, prospects and referral sources. Initial inquiries and longstanding relationships are not nurtured by bombarding target audiences with aggregated content from 3rd parties. The most successful B2B firms only associate their brand with highly relevant content, most often home-grown, that supports their value proposition, stakes out intellectual territory, avoids self-serving claims and truly differentiates their company from competitors. Less can be more, when it comes to B2B content.

 

  • Don’t rely on the internet exclusively to generate market attention. For B2B firms, direct communication (email, snail mail, face-to-face, etc.) with target audiences remains the most effective means of gaining and maintaining engagement. If you’ve created high quality content, ensure that it earns an adequate marketing ROI by consistently putting it in front of the right people; don’t expect them to find your content by themselves on your company website or blog, on LinkedIn or through Twitter. Those online channels should be considered a secondary, rather than the primary means, of generating attention and engagement through content.

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Peter Drucker on “The Four Roles of the CFO”

Dr. Peter F. Drucker, Management Thought Leader

In the early 1990s, Highlander Consulting was engaged by Phibro Energy to help introduce energy derivatives to Chief Financial Officers at corporations with substantial exposure to fluctuations in oil, gasoline and jet fuel prices.

As part of an integrated marketing strategy, management legend Dr. Peter F. Drucker, then serving as a professor at Claremont Graduate School, was engaged to serve as keynote speaker at the Phibro Energy Risk Management Forum, held at The Metropolitan Club in New York City.

Dr. Drucker, who passed away at age 95 in 2005, chose to speak on what he called, “The Four Roles of the CFO.” His remarks before more than 200 CFOs appear to be as relevant now as when he spoke to them nearly 25 years ago.

Here are some highlights from Peter Drucker’s presentation, which can not be found in any one of his 39 books:

The CFO as Information Officer:

“The original role of the CFO was to be the information officer of the business…Accounting, which is information, is changing today more than it has changed in the last hundred years…CFOs will have to make an important decision for their companies not very far down the line, on how to get rid of the pernicious rift between information that is concept-focused, which is accounting, and information that is transaction-focused, which is computerized information…

“The notion that you should split these two universes of information between the Chief Financial Officer, who is responsible for financial information, and the Chief Information Officer, who is responsible for non-financial information is not a good idea…

“The only reliable information we have available to us basically is “inside” information, mostly in our accounting systems. And yet, the events that really determine the success of business do not happen on the inside…So CFOs have a big job ahead: bringing together information channels, and learning an accounting system that’s going to be very different. It will require an ability to get “inside” information by manipulating figures quickly, and combining it with “outside” information, which is largely anecdotal today.”

The CFO as Financial Advisor:

“The Chief Financial Officer must think about the financial consequences of projected policies and actions, not only in terms of costs but in terms of the allocation of scarce resources…So the chief financial adviser’s job is to think about opportunity costs, and most CFOs don’t do this…As a CFO, you must think about what a policy or project is likely to return. Also think about the consequences if it doesn’t work…So the chief financial adviser basically is a conscience, a financial conscience.”

The CFO as Productivity Manager:

“There is a third CFO function, which is managing money for the business. I’m not talking of the treasury function; that is only a small part of it. The biggest part of this involves managing the productivity of capital…It’s my view that you can increase the productivity of capital in any organization three percent a year compounded, by just plain hard work, provided it’s allocated properly. And this is a function which is not, bluntly, on your professional agenda today…

“Top management doesn’t think financially. They think in terms of next quarter’s dividend, and that’s not thinking financially. They don’t think in terms of the financial impact of business decisions and the business impact of financial decisions. And that, I think, is your biggest educational job ahead.”

The CFO as Asset Protector:

“The fourth dimension of the CFO’s role is the preservation and protection of assets. This is a duty of a company that benefits not only the shareholders, but also society…The stupidest thing you can do is attempt to predict the future. Brilliant people have seen that those who predict eventually come to grief. Truly brilliant people understand that they must make external fluctuations irrelevant to their business…

“The protection of assets involves making sure that the risks over which you have no control are managed, and do not interfere with the conduct of the business. Losses based on fluctuations of commodities are no longer permissible, any more than it is permitted to have a factory burn down without insurance coverage. These are manageable risks.”

If you’d like to receive a copy of Peter Drucker’s complete remarks at the Phibro Energy Risk Management Forum in 1991, just shoot me a note.

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Client Newsletters: Empty Suit of the B2B Marketing Mix

Most Client Newsletters Deliver No Tangible Value

Most Client Newsletters Deliver No Tangible Business Value

Client newsletters are the most widely used, often abused and hotly debated B2B marketing tactic for professional services firms of any size. Here are three highly subjective myths and realities to help your firm determine whether it’s a worthwhile tool, or how to improve your current newsletter.

MYTH #1:        Your Firm Needs a Client Newsletter

Marketers want you to believe that your firm needs a client newsletter. But traditional newsletters – containing commentary ranging from tax legislation to new technology, or who’s joined the firm – are not a marketing necessity. In fact, at many firms their client newsletter is a marketing albatross. Each issue involves a frustrating hunt for timely information of genuine interest that has not already been provided to clients by another news source. Some firms avoid this pain by slapping their logo on boilerplate content purchased from a 3rd party, but those firms can pay a bigger price, in terms of brand damage. Canned content says to target audiences, “We value our relationship, but we don’t really care enough (or know enough) to produce our own newsletter.”

REALITY #1:     Your Firm Needs to Drive Top-of-Mind Awareness

The intrinsic purpose of tactics that communicate with clients, prospects and referral sources is to reinforce the perception that your firm is smart, trustworthy and prepared to help. Beyond keeping and growing existing clients, your primary marketing goal is to drive top-of-mind awareness with target audiences. That way, when a prospect is seeking assistance, there’s a greater likelihood your firm will be selected, or at least will be put on the “short list” of candidates. If that’s the goal, then consistency and quality of the contact are critical; neither of which necessarily require a newsletter format to accomplish.

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MYTH #2:        People Want to Learn About Your Firm’s Success

It’s nice to think that clients and prospects really care about your firm’s growth and accomplishments. The sad truth is that your success is more important to your competitors, and to current and prospective employees than it is to clients who generate revenue for the firm. Blowing your own horn can also backfire. When your firm touts that a senior partner has just published a book and was a guest on CNBC, your target audiences may wonder why that partner isn’t focused on client matters rather than self-promotion, or whether the cost of his book’s publicity tour will result in higher hourly rates.

REALITY #2:     Your Clients, Prospects and Referral Sources Care about Themselves

Understanding that all people are self-interested can make you a better marketer. Rather than creating newsletter content that’s based on what you know, on what you’ve done or on what you can do, focus instead on the ideas, talents and accomplishments of your target audiences, regardless of whether your firm played any role in their success. This is a very tough concept for many B2B firms to understand and embrace: that the most powerful form of thought leadership does not involve pushing out your own ideas. Instead, it involves deciding what ideas merit the attention of your target audiences, as well as what voices are worth listening to. True thought leaders seek to manage the conversation, not to control it.

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MYTH #3:        A Newsletter is a Cost-Effective Marketing Tactic

The old saw, “Cheap is dear” rings true when it comes to newsletters. If it’s created in-house, few firms actually track the hours required to write, edit, approve and publish their newsletter. If it consists of cut & paste content, few firms consider the cost of producing a newsletter that very few people will read or respect. Regardless of content, only a small number of professional service firms proactively work to expand their newsletter’s reach, to maintain an adequate CRM capability, or to properly leverage readership analytics from open and click-thru rates, if their newsletter is delivered online.

REALITY #3:     Your Marketing Requires More than a One-Way Conversation

Newsletters are one-way conversations. A fundamental marketing objective is to engage clients and prospects in a conversation regarding their specific needs and opportunities. Despite the buzz regarding social media, that channel can also fall short in terms of engagement. If your firm’s traditional and social media marketing tactics do not serve as catalysts to drive Face-to-Face discussions and Word-of-Mouth referrals, then their “cost-effectiveness” can never be measured on a meaningful basis.

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Stop the Insanity. Fire Your PR Firm in 2014.

The attribution is unsupported, but Albert Einstein is often credited with the quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” Its source notwithstanding, the axiom applies perfectly to the great number of companies that retain PR firms, year after year, to generate publicity that will have little or no impact on tangible business outcomes.

Over the past 5 decades, to rationalize hefty monthly fees, the PR profession has successfully promoted three underlying assumptions:

  • Any publicity is good publicity.
  • The more publicity, the better.
  • Publicity generates revenue.

Here are just a few reasons why it’s insane for most businesses to base their marketing strategy on any of those assumptions:

  1. Lots of Media Exposure is Worthless. The “worthless media” category can include one-off quotes or mentions in round-up stories that also reference your competitors…if you’ve gained no unique mindshare.  It can include appearances on network and cable TV…if the topics have a short shelf-life, or are unlikely to be of interest to target audiences.  And it always includes exposure in advertorials (regardless of the sponsoring publication’s stature) and feature articles in pay-to-play vanity publications…because you gain no credible 3rd party validation.
  2. Counting Media Clips is a Zero Sum Game. PR firms often justify their value by the sheer volume of media exposure they generate…regardless of whether it stakes out intellectual territory, supports a client’s value proposition, or differentiates them in the marketplace. The goal should be to create an arsenal of effective credibility tools; not simply to generate clippings to hang like hunting trophies in the “Media” section of a website.  This zero sum game is also played in social media, where scorecards of “likes” and “followers” are used as hollow substitutes for meaningful business metrics.
  3. It’s All About Merchandising. Business leaders must address two key questions in advance of seeking any publicity: “1. What type of media exposure will benefit us most?” and “2. If we gain that exposure, what will we DO with it?” Responses to Question #2 must provide clear direction regarding how it will support the firm’s sales and marketing strategy; how it will be used to drive leads; how it will initiate meaningful conversations with clients and prospects; and how it can be leveraged to gain other opportunities for targeted exposure.

Most PR firms fail to deliver on the potential of their craft because performing it correctly requires really hard work, takes time, and demands accountability for business results. Your role as a responsible client requires that you hold your PR agency’s feet to the fire by expecting results that have a measurable impact on your company’s balance sheet. It also means that you must provide your agency with the time and guidance necessary for them to deliver something more than a pile of useless press clippings.

If you’re unwilling to make that commitment, or if they’re incapable of delivering on your expectations, then it’s time to stop the insanity. Fire your PR firm in 2014.

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Should PRSA Sanction Public Relations Practitioners?

In his bi-weekly column on customer service, “The Haggler,” New York Times writer David Segal addressed a long-standing and well-founded gripe that many journalists have against public relations practitioners who send out press releases and other solicitations in wholesale fashion; regardless of the content’s relevance or likely interest to the journalists they’re pitching. According to Segal, hundreds of thousands of these unsolicited pitches – or “P.R. Spam,” as he calls it – “belly flop into the email systems of journalists every day.”

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been contentious. Reporters claim PR people block their access to sources, and sometimes to the truth. PR counters that journalists often don’t care about facts, or twist them to suit their editorial agenda. But because the press can deliver exposure and credibility that PR craves, journalists have always been in a more powerful position. As a result, effective public relations involves pushing a company’s or client’s agenda (or products and services) without being a pest, and ideally, by being helpful to reporters who are in a position to reciprocate with media coverage. It’s a dance that both sides understand.

Over the past decade, three developments have upset the already rocky relationship between PR and the press:

  • Email, and “blast email” in particular, has become PR’s most frequently used communication device. Standard PR procedure at most firms and agencies is based on “shotgun” tactics designed to reach as many media sources as possible, relevance or interest notwithstanding.
  • Database companies, notably Cision and Vocus, empower PR people to create enormous lists of journalists in a matter of minutes. What was once a painstaking research process now involves a few keystrokes.
  • The internet and a fundamental shift in how news is reported have greatly reduced the number of journalists. Conversely, more schools are pumping out graduates with PR degrees. So there are now significantly more PR people chasing a much smaller number of journalists. And many newly minted PR people have not been taught the unwritten rules of effective media relations.

Why should serious PR practitioners care about the behavior of the growing number of people within their profession who display no regard for fundamental media relations protocol?

In his column, New York Times’ David Segal reports that he has removed his contact information from the 5 leading media database companies. Calling on other reporters who also seek fewer unsolicited intrusions in their mailboxes, Segal provides detailed instructions on how they can delete their listings from those databases.

But it matters very little whether Segal is the canary in the coal mine for this issue, foreshadowing mass defections of journalists from online databases; thereby making those tools useless. In fact, PR may also be better served without them.

What does matter is that this sloppy, lazy, abusive practice of media harassment by so many PR people increasingly harms the stature of the profession, and makes it even more difficult for serious practitioners to work effectively with the press.

Public relations has fought for decades to be recognized as a bona fide profession, similar to medicine, law or accounting. But until the profession is in a position to self-regulate – to reprimand or sanction, in transparent fashion, individual practitioners or organizations that harm the reputation and effectiveness of the discipline – PR can never be considered a legitimate profession. It will remain a business function, nothing more.

If the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in its role as the industry’s trade association, has serious interest in protecting the reputation and collective interests of the nation’s public relations franchise, the issue highlighted by David Segal provides an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership by reversing a troubling trend. An online “complaint box” for journalists to identify abuse, combined with a “Wall of Shame” to call out repeat offenders – both featured on the PRSA website – might be an effective first step in changing industry behavior.

Any other ideas?

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5 Ways to Merchandise the “Masthead Value” of Publicity

Not to be confused with "The Wall Street Transcript"

Not to be confused with “The Wall Street Transcript”

Many companies will invest considerable effort seeking positive publicity in influential media sources, and then fail to benefit from the masthead value of that exposure.

Originally a seafaring term relating to the brass plate attached to a ship’s mainmast that memorialized its owners and builders, a publication’s masthead lists the members of its current editorial and production staff. The industry term “masthead value” can be defined broadly as the level of stature, credibility and influence associated with a specific media source. The Wall Street Journal, for example, has high masthead value; the Wall Street Transcript…not so much.

Masthead value can be relative. A respected trade or professional publication in a particular industry may have greater masthead value – in terms of its influence with a particular audience – than well known publications such as the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. For example, physicians are likely to assign the New England Journal of Medicine greater masthead value than the Journal or Times on topics relating to clinical care of patients.

Masthead value should drive your publicity strategy. A placement from a single highly respected source can be far more valuable, in terms of influence, than a dozen hits with low masthead value. Because gaining inherent 3rd party endorsement is the end goal, in the publicity game quality always trumps quantity.

Here are 5 ways to leverage media placements with strong masthead value:

  • Put high value placements directly in front of your target audiences – Even if your coverage appears on the front page of the Wall Street Journal or makes the cover of Fortune magazine, don’t assume it will be read by clients, prospects, referral sources…or even by your employees. There’s simply too much offline and online noise to ensure that any media exposure on its own will gain the attention you’re seeking. If you’ve developed an internal CRM-driven discipline to communicate directly and regularly with target audiences, then you’re well prepared to apply that distribution capability to increase the chances that decision makers will notice, remember, and respond to your high value exposure. (Lacking that discipline, your time may be best spent building an effective distribution capability, in advance of seeking additional publicity.)
  • Avoid “Hey, look at me!” self-promotion – Pickup in a media source with high masthead value provides some reason for high-fives internally, but it should not serve as a platform for self-promotion. Extreme examples of this error include companies that issue a press release, or generate Twitter and Facebook postings to announce, for example, that their CEO has been profiled in Inc. magazine. This type of over-reaction to high value publicity suggests to target audiences that you were surprised to receive the media endorsement, and therefore may not have really deserved it. The key is to showcase the media exposure in a relevant context (you may need to create this), to make the media placement secondary to the underlying content (such as the reasons why your CEO was profiled in Inc.) and to pull off these tasks with a matter-of-fact level of self-confidence.
  • Rank graphics over content, in terms of impact – Most people are surface readers. Online visitors are more likely to scan images, heads, subheads and captions, than they are to read body copy. (Long blocks of copy on websites that require scrolling are rarely read.) If you’ve earned a placement with high masthead value, you can increase the likelihood of your company being associated with the “endorsing” publication by displaying its logo with the capsule description and link to the placement. To be clear: the critical element is the logo. If your placement is from the New York Times, for example, you should replicate the logo – as it appears on the front page of that publication. Based on how people gather information, simply typing, “from The New York Times,” or a similar attribution, is about 75% less effective than actually depicting the New York Times logo.
  • Prominently showcase high value placements – If you’ve invested and succeeded in generating media placements with high masthead value, why make it difficult for target audiences to find them on your website? Rather than burying influential publicity in an obscure “In the News” section that requires multiple clicks for visitors to locate, you can amortize your investment in publicity (and perhaps improve your website’s bounce rate in the process) if you create a location for these high value items on your home page. This can be accomplished by applying a design format in which the content either remains fixed or is refreshed regularly. For formats that supply current information, extend the shelf-life of each placement by not including its publication date.
  • Cite a relevant endorsement on your home page – One of the most effective  ways to  merchandise high-value media exposure is to select a very brief, relevant phrase from the coverage, for placement in a prominent position on your home page. Here’s a hypothetical example:

“…a recognized authority in Big Data technology.”

                                                       –Wired Magazine

By limiting your publicity efforts to media placements with high masthead value, and by ensuring that those placements are effectively merchandised through direct communication, social media tools and proper website visibility, PR practitioners will spend far less time worry about the ROI of public relations. The fruits of their labors will be self-evident in tangible business metrics, ranging from lead generation to high search engine page rankings.

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4 ½ Reasons To Avoid Using Celebrity Endorsements

With those big guns, can we be sure that Tony's not using HGH?

With those big guns, can we be sure that Tony’s not using HGH?

Here are 4 ½ good reasons to avoid celebrity endorsements:

  1. OJ Simpson
  2. Tiger Woods
  3. Lance Armstrong
  4. Oscar Pistorius

4.5  Elmo the Muppet

The marketing world is littered with celebrity endorsements similar to these train wrecks. Yet companies will continue to dole out lucrative contracts to sports heroes, actors, politicians and other personalities du jour…in hopes of leveraging their popularity or notoriety.

Why do marketers continue to roll the dice with their company’s brand reputation?

One reason: celebrity endorsements require no creativity and very little effort. Nike’s ad agency simply shoots some footage of Tiger bouncing a golf ball 25 times off the face of a pitching wedge, and voila…there’s a 30-second commercial.

Companies rationalize this brand risk by assuming that the public will assign them some sympathy for having been duped by the murdering, philandering or drug abusing ways of their fallen celebrity. Marketers also may believe a celebrity’s fall from grace will provide their company with an opportunity to publicly cancel the contract, express sorrow or indignation, and gain additional time for their brand in the public spotlight.

But in terms of long-term brand management, association with a celebrity who’s fallen from grace is a losing proposition. For starters, it demonstrates poor judgment. So ignore the assurances from your ad agency, even if the celebrity they’re proposing is Mother Teresa.

But if you’re determined to use a celebrity, it may be a safer bet to hire an animal than a human. To my knowledge, RinTinTin never bit anyone, but Orca whales have a very poor track record.

Better yet…create your own celebrity. The Geico Gecko, Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, and StarKist’s Charlie the Tuna all have clean rap sheets. So far.

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