About Me

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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why Your News Release Needs Enzyte: 10 Causes of Impotency

Despite not being the magic bullet to securing media coverage some executives (and PR Pros) believe it to be, the news release is still a time tested and valuable tool of the public relations trade. I’ve been in the PR profession for about 15 years now and I’ve probably written and/or edited more news releases than I care to remember. With the exception of the Investor Relations release, I’m intimately familiar with all manner of news release types imaginable, so no one is ever going to throw me for a loop in asking me to draft a specific kind of release.

Over the years, I’ve come to know the good, the bad and ugly of news releases. Unfortunately, for those in my profession, it’s usually the bad and the ugly that we get called out for by our brothers across the aisle wearing the journalism hats. And if we are to continue utilizing the news release as a tool, we are going to have to stop writing ineffectual crap and sending it to the media in hopes of acquiring coverage.

Call me the News Release Whisperer.

To assist in this effort, I offer the following 10 suggested reasons that your news release might be coming up limp and not getting the results your company or client desires:

10. Drafting a release for the wrong reason. Many news releases start out D.O.A. because they are drafted for all the wrong reasons at conception. When someone first suggests drafting a release it is always best to ask the na├»ve question, “What are we trying to accomplish by drafting this and who is its intended audience?” You’d be surprised to learn that sometimes the media (the original reason press releases were first created) are the last audience the release was intended for and sometimes they don’t make the list at all.

9. Misguided attempts to create content. Sadly, sometimes news releases are drafted simply as a source of content for an organization’s website or social media outreach. Granted a good news release drafted for legitimate reasons also will achieve this goal, but for whatever reason, some opt to forgo the legitimate aspect of it and go straight to the dessert. The hunt for SEO and fresh content has given rise to the unnecessary news release. Yes content is still king (and if not king a very buck wild prince on a weekend bender in Vegas) but a news release shouldn’t be used as some stand in for an informational enticement. If you want to create new content that doesn’t particularly lend itself to announcing news, try instead writing a new blog post, a case study or an issue brief.

8. Your news release only makes sense to you and those closes to your company (staff, industry peers or Board of Directors). Having worked at a PR agency I’ve seen this occur on numerous occasions. When we would draft a release, on a client’s behalf, in understandable language for the media using the universal AP style of writing and submit it to them for review/approval, the client would return the draft chocked full of their industry’s jargon, terminology and rewritten in the style of their industry (think legalese or real estate). This happens a lot when the release really wasn’t meant for the media to begin with (see #10). As an organization you must remember that not every reporter knows your industry or what you mean when you say {insert indecipherable industry lingo here}. It’s always best to follow the K.I.S.S. rule and write for the media receiving the release.

7. One size does not fit all. The same news release that you write for specialized and/or trade media outlets may not work for the general market/consumer media. If the ultimate goal of your news release to generate a B2B outcome, it might be best to just focus your efforts on outlets that are more suited to achieve this result. But I already know what your boss probably told you, “We want to maximize our exposure. Besides, business people read {insert name of highly coveted publication} too.” While trade media outlets don’t always have the readership of general market media nor are nearly as sexy, they often attract the right people. And let’s not forget that the trade and general market media don’t necessarily speak to the same people, and definitely don’t speak to their audiences in the same way. The focus of your news release shouldn’t only be targeted to a reporter’s interest and beat, but also their audiences.

6. Too damn long. I’m almost certain there is a special place in hell for people who draft four to six pages long news releases that have nothing to do with investor relations. I remember the very first time I saw a news release that boldly encroached upon the four pages mark. I cringed reading it as the information seemed to go on and on and on. I couldn’t wait for it to end. If that was the feeling I had as a PR pro, I shuttered to think of how a reporter receiving that thesis paper of a news release would feel. If your news release is more than 1 ½ to 2 pages, you are officially doing too much. News can often get lost in a sea of words and concepts. And if the reason for the lengthy release is directly related to the inclusion of a slew of c-suite approved boilerplates, consider just supplying a hyperlink back to the org website pages that contain that same information. (I have a specific boilerplate rant, but I’ll save that for a future blog post).

5. You’re giving away the milk for free. In follow up to the previous cause of impotency (see #6) sometimes a release is too damn long because a company wanted to throw everything in it, including the kitchen sink. I understand that you want to give the reporter as much information as possible to aid them in the coverage of your news, but there are other ways of doing that (think social media release). I’ve never viewed a news release as a do it all solution, but rather as an enticement to want to find out more. I prefer that the interested reporter follow up with me to learn more or ask to speak to one our subject matter experts or executives. A great pitch or news release will always leave them wanting more. And if they like it, then they should put a ring on it (and in our profession that ring comes in the shape of well rounded, positive story).

4. Lack of creativity. Somewhere in the history of the press release, probably shortly following its genesis, I believe a meeting was held by a secret order of c-suite executives that made a pact that from hence forth, all news releases should be written in the same manner for all eternity: The header shall begin with the name of our company followed by a commanding verb; the opening sentence of the lead must begin with the name our company followed by an authoritative verb; the opening sentence must contain a differentiating positioning statement and/or some elements of our boilerplate; and we must include an executive quote that repeats what was said in the lead paragraph (but only in a more executive tone). Yeah, I know how many of these things actually came into being, but the circumstances driving their necessity have long since passed. We are now in a new age that requires new tactics. Reporters receive goo gobs of news releases on the daily, so you have to do something to make yours stand out and scream report me! Don’t be afraid to embrace creativity when it comes to drafting your news release.

3. Death by benign quote. Ever seen a news release with an inconsequential executive quote, or worse a plethora of inconsequential quotes from a variety of different people at the company? I have. And I’ve also seen the multiple quote approach used where everyone quoted was offering competing variations of the same nothing burger statement. When was the last time that you saw a quote included in the news release actually included in a story being covered by a noteworthy media outlet? I’ll wait. The reason, you’ve probably not encountered this unicorn sighting is because most executive quotes are really bad and don’t offer any new information. Also, good reporters want to conduct their own interviews and get their own quotes. But just think of how much you’d increase the odds of having the quote used if it contained some actual valuable information (not found elsewhere in the release) or was actually interesting.

2. I hear voices (but none of them are consistent). More does not automatically equate to better. Sometimes there is a painful downside to group think and crowdsourcing, and that usually occurs when a bunch of different people at one company (sometimes external consultants chip in on this too) all contribute to the writing of a single news release. Want to take your company news announcement from concise to gumbo, just ask everybody to contribute to it. When different departments evaluate a news release’s intent, it is often done so through the lens of their departmental needs and not of the overall organization and brand. My counsel would be the less cooks in the kitchen, the better. Trust your org communicators, the guardians of your voice and brand.

1. No News is bad news. The one constant that every effective news release shares is that it contains actual news. Without the news part, what you have is giant waste of a reporter’s time. Now here is where things get really tricky, because every company actually believes that the thing they want to talk about is news or at minimum noteworthy of mention. However, in reality most of these instances don’t pass the news smell test. This is when sound PR counsel becomes paramount. Before you begin crafting that “news” release, you need to ask yourself some simple questions, such as: Will anyone outside of our office find this interesting? Does this provide a solution to an existing problem or make life easier for others? Has anyone else ever done this before? Has this been recently covered by the media? And lastly, can you provide a real life example showing how this works? There may be other questions that help you determine whether or not you have news to share, but these five ought to do the trick. In my experience, more times than not, the thing a company wants to pitch is not actually news and may be better suited for an ad. Always be honest in your assessment of what’s news and you’ll have better results.

So in the future, if you want your news release to be a little more potent and stand out with the media, think of adding some natural news enhancement. You're are bound to see some improvement in your...(cough)..."coverage."

 Okay pr pros and journos, did I leave anything out to improve the company news release?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

When Disaster Strikes

By now everyone with access to a news media outlet or a social media platform is well aware of the devastating storm that recently wreaked havoc across the country, especially on the east coast. And if you’re not learning about the storm second hand, then you’re probably one of the more than a million people that personally felt the storm’s wrath (myself included).Today, there are an alarming number of people and businesses still without power.

Whenever a natural disaster such as this occurs and it negatively impacts people’s lives on a large scale, the target of the most public ire is usually the local utility company, followed by the local government. Most of the people’s angst and anger can be directly attributed to the loss of electricity that typically follows a storm of this magnitude. Without power, food spoils, temperatures rise or fall, entertainment is extinguished, business is lost, and everyday life-functions that we normally take for granted come to a screeching halt.

In the area where I live and work – the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) – the two dominate energy providers are PEPCO and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company (BGE).Because I live within BGE’s coverage area and my home was without power for roughly 24 hours, I’ll just focus on their handling of storm’s aftermath…from a public relations standpoint.

Nobody likes a bad storm, especially when it involves the loss of electricity. But what people hate even more than the storm is the company responsible for returning life back to normal when that storm is over. With a total of 1.24 million customers in the DMV and a large portion of them without power, BGE faced a daunting challenge of restoring everyone’s electricity without sustaining a crushing blow to consumer confidence or its public image (think BP Gulf oil spill).

While the storm itself wasn’t BGE’s doing (or any other energy company for that matter), it was perceived as their fault that people had to go days without power. And with 100 degree temperature days being the norm, one can understand if people are a little pissed. No A/C on a very hot day is more than the inconvenience of not being able to watch the latest installment of HBO’s True Blood, it can mean the difference between life and death.

So how did BGE do in terms of their PR and crisis communications efforts? In my opinion, they did outstanding. I give them a grade of an “A minus.” I watched them closely to see how they would handle this delicate situation of communicating with a fragmented audience residing in a 3.0 world.

Measuring the return on a PR initiative can be, at times, subjective, but how you respond and communicate during a crisis situation is pretty straightforward – you either did a good job or a bad job. Fail at crisis communications as a company and it can cost you your business, or at minimum brand equity. People have a tendency to remember how badly an organization handles a crisis (think Hurricane Katrina and Waco).

Because of how I receive a large portion of information these days, I decided to see what BGE was up to via Twitter. In checking their Twitter feed, I saw not only good information about what was happening and what they were currently doing to alleviate the problem, but I also saw that they were engaging with, in some cases, irate customers via Twitter. As such, I decided to tweet them with my observations (FYI, they didn’t directly respond back to me).

Overall, I liked BGE’s messaging and use of Twitter, especially the additions of the images via their Flickr account. But while I thought it was beneficial to show the visuals of the damage that was done so that people could grasp the scope of the problem and understand why they had no electricity, I thought it would be even better to incorporate visuals of the BGE technicians working tireless to fix the problems. I’d like to think that my suggestion was heeded, because on July 1st, the photos on Flickr switched from disaster porn to nothing but images of BGE workers solving the problems.

In addition to what was happening on Twitter, BGE implemented a full court social media press, also communicating and responding via Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. Most of the relevant social media touch points were covered (sorry Google +). BGE also made excellent use of its website’s homepage. For what they were doing in the digital space, in light of the circumstances, I gave them high marks. It just goes to show that if you don’t have a social media crisis plan, you need to develop one immediately.

I also thought that BGE did a solid job on the traditional media relations component of their crisis communications. Whether it was with TV, radio or print media outlets BGE consistently got the message out as to what they were doing to solve the problem or provide solutions. They even drafted and placed that magical position missive known as the Op-Ed (it ran in both the Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore Business Journal). And even the company’s online media center stayed current with the latest news releases and company blog posts.

As a PR Pro, watching the BGE Comm Team at work was somewhat exciting, taking me back to my crisis communications days at the Maryland Transit Administration. While the circumstances surrounding why they had to test the readiness of their communications apparatus in the first place was due to an unfortunate nature, and by no means does this glowing review of their PR efforts mean that they’ve fixed all the power problems, it was refreshing to see a company execute a crisis communication effort in an effective manner.

Oh by the way, I gave BGE an A minus for the response rates or in some minor cases a lack of a response via social media, and for what appears to be non sanctioned spokes people going on camera and/or talking to the media.

So how does your company/organization’s crisis communication plan stack up?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

So You Want To Be In PR?

When it comes to the consensus of public relations professionals, one of the few things that we all can agree upon is that hardly anyone outside of the communications industry understands what it is that we actually do for a living (especially our relatives). Even our industry had to have a national dialogue to define the term “public relations.”

Most of the general public confusion is due in part to the role of the PR professional being so varied and stretched across multiple communication and publicity functions. Are PR people spokespeople, marketers, staff writers, event coordinators, or social media specialists? The answer is yes, and then some.

While many in our profession happily specialize in just one of the previously mentioned disciplines, many others (like me) are multi-tactical, cross functionary strategists that are required to do a lot of communication related things, and that makes the position hard to define.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to share what a typical day for me resembles in my role as director of communications for a DC-based trade association.

A Day in the Life

7-8:30am: On the commute into work I begin the mind numbing process of whittling down and reading/responding to what will be a plethora of emails I will receive throughout the day (some are carryovers from the previous day). I also begin mentally planning out my assignments for the day and prioritizing projects that are in process.

8:30-10:30am: I’m in the office but still responding to various emails, in addition to scanning through newspapers, trade pubs (online and print), the internet, and social media sites for association/issues related news items, industry trend stories/news, or significant member company related news.  Following, I evaluate the daily reports from our media monitoring service, then the fun part starts – updating division heads and executive staff of news they should be made aware of.

10:30 am-12 pm: This is usually my prime media pitching time as I distribute already approved news releases, or follow up with media outlets that were previously pitched news stories or sent releases. This is also the time I draft and distribute new pitches or return non priority reporter messages/calls.

Also, somewhere between 8:30 am to noon, I participate in Comm. Team meetings with the Director of Digital Communications and the VP of our department. During and after these meetings is prime time for creative thinking and coming up with new ideas and strategies for telling the association’s story or communicating its messages.

12-1:30pm: I spend this time updating the association’s social media communications typically, editing and/or drafting numerous written pieces such as: e-blast communications, news releases, internal departmental memos, marketing copy, meeting minutes or blog posts (I’m the red ink guy). I also use this time to update the organization’s website copy or evaluating website traffic data.

1:30-3pm: Meetings with various division heads to discuss what’s new or updates on specific issues, prep for media interviews, and occasional crisis communications as opposition groups, activists or concerned consumers outfits like to issue statements, negative studies, or invites to press conferences around this time of the day. As a result, I’m usually busy researching an issue, preparing a statement or responding to investigative media. Also during this time, I’m typically shooting down an onslaught of request from vendors looking to work with us.

FYI – The emails never stop coming throughout the day.

3-5pm: During this period I attempt to wrap up as many projects/assignments as possible (as they are almost always due by COB). I also spend this time trying to update and/or clean up the media monitoring reports so that they are ready by month’s end. This also is when I review a number of association produced materials, or products to ensure quality control and brand consistency/standards. And when called upon, I work with our affiliate groups on a number of communication needs (media relations, editing, issues management, etc.).

Then there's the impromptu meetings I have throughout the day with the VP of Comm. to give debriefs, status updates or participate in quick strategy sessions.

So as you can see, despite lacking "the sexy," it’s a pretty busy day and can be rather intense on occasion.  While each and every day does not look exactly like the example I’ve provided (new priorities pop up and the time frames aren’t so concrete), it does offer a pretty accurate reflection of what I do on behalf of the association. But it's all public relations related.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to singularly focus on media relations or social media, or if I would get bored operating in such a targeted lane. My average day working at an agency was a helluva lot different from role in in-house communications (maybe one day I’ll doing something on a typical agency day).

Now that I’ve peeled the curtain back and let you look in, do you think you’re cut out for PR work? Or if you’re already working in the profession, how does your day stack up against mine?