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Posts Tagged ‘public relations’

Kevin O’Keefe over at Real Lawyers Have Blogs recently brought up a very important point about the shift to content creation in today’s marketing playing field. While traditional methods like print and TV news media are still effective routes to reach target audiences, there’s no doubt that this arena is shrinking and in its place, content hungry social media sites continue to grow by leaps and bounds.

Shifting to the role of content creator in your marketing efforts requires a substantial time investment. Blogs need to be well thought out, accurate and frequent. Sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are great tools to reach the masses but require an extensive amount of legwork to establish feeds that captivate and engage online audiences. Today, trade publications are much more apt to publish guest articles or guest blog posts but if the business professionals – let’s use attorneys as in O’Keefe’s scenario – find themselves stretched thin by their responsibilities to the practice of law, how can the firm expect to create a regular stream of technical wisdom to help promote itself?

O’Keefe weighs the idea of using a third-party content creator to outsource content but I’d like to suggest a stronger alternative. Public relations professionals have been creating content for busy executives since long before the marketing shift toward content creation and we’ve been sharpening our skills accordingly for many years. While using a third-party for content means starting at the ground floor each time a complex writing assignment arises, a true PR pro works to gain an innate understanding of his or her client with the added bonus of playing a crucial role in guiding the marketing strategy of a particular brand.

Having worked in PR for six+ years, my job role has always included an emphasis on content creation. Whether the topic covers semiconductor chips, pharmaceuticals or medical devices, I regularly work with complex subjects and the brilliant minds who deal in these subjects to develop valuable content. Susan Ennis, founder of EnSpire Communication, has been at the content game for more much longer with special expertise in legal matters, among others.

Not trying to brag, but using PR professionals for your content marketing yield a few extra bonuses:

  • We think in the big picture. Content is only created if it is advantageous and productive to the brand we are marketing.
  • Comprehensive is our favorite word. We repurpose content to create cohesive communications outreach while being efficient.
  •  We understand audiences. Whether we are fine tuning complex messages for a B2B audience or repackaging complicated concepts for the general public, it will be on target.
  • We are researches at heart. All PR programs begin with research, crucial skills to support the content needs of our clients.
  • We can work social media. Even the most brilliant blog post won’t reach target audiences if a viable social media following is not cultivated by using the right channels.

In the end, O’Keefe isn’t sold on third-party content creators – I wonder if I can sell him on PR instead?

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Where is your company today? Where do you foresee it being in the next year or in five years? One thing is for sure, organizations must constantly embrace change in order to survive and thrive in a fiercely competitive environment. And, the other thing we know for sure is that change is never easy. In fact, Fast Company magazine has devoted a number of articles to the mechanics of change saying, “significant organizational change is one of the most difficult strategies to implement.”

Here, we will focus on one critical piece of the mix, whether an organization is restructuring, merging or just shaking up the org chart – employee communications must be a priority. The one truth that should never be overlooked is that employees are an organization’s most critical audience and their reaction to change can make for smooth sailing or place the company’s very survival in jeopardy.  Employees not only keep operations running, they are brand ambassadors – representing the face of the organization to customers, vendors, the community and the media. Ensuring that employees understand and embrace the change and are prepared to deliver key messages to external audiences is an essential element of the process.

Internal communications during a time of change takes careful planning, regardless of the size of the organization. One mistake we see far too often is that senior management waits until there is a backlash and the gossip vine is running rampant before bringing in a communications professional. It’s smart to include a professional communications strategist at the very beginning of discussions, making him or her a part of the strategic team.

So, what value will a professional communications strategist bring to the transition process? Expect a series of steps that will include initial research, the development of a plan that outlines specific objectives, and careful implementation that allows for continuous feedback. The following steps can serve as a guideline for establishing an internal communications plan.

1.    Do the Research

The first, and arguably most important step is research. A strategist will need to know how internal communications are currently structured or if a communications program will need to be built from scratch. Are management and employees engaged in a two-way conversation? Will focus groups need to be convened? How will the planned changes impact employees, the community, and the longevity of the organization?

Internal audiences will need to be clearly defined, especially in large, complex organizations. Each group of employees may require different channels of communication (emails, small group meetings, etc.), and the changes may impact different groups in different ways.  Demographics must be considered. For example, people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds may not fully understand the use of bankruptcy as a corporate strategy and become fearful that the organization is liquidating.

Managers’ communications skills will need to be evaluated and training provided as needed. Those on the front lines must be empathetic to employee fears and prepared to relieve anxieties.

Even senior management should be evaluated, as they will set the tone and provide inspiration for success. The strategist will want to consider every eventuality.

2.    Identify objectives, develop a plan and communicate often

Together with the strategy team, the communications professional will identify key objectives such as maintaining morale and productivity, retaining high-performing individuals, getting buy-in for the vision and establishing the credibility of new management.  Once objectives are agreed upon, the strategist will develop a plan and a timetable for implementation.

Employees deserve timely, frequent updates. They must be given the opportunity to express their concerns and know they are being heard. Knowing what to expect, even if it’s negative outcomes, will help relive anxiety and avoid wild speculation. Throughout the process, top executives will need to be visible and accessible.  Employees will respect management for providing explanations as soon as possible. Allowing employees to hear of the merger by radio on the ride home will cause distrust and anger. If things are not yet certain, tell them – they will appreciate the frankness.

Executives will need to be prepared to tell employees how the change will impact jobs and what the future holds. Tell a story – link business objectives and goals with strategies and values. Engage the employees and allow them to become a vital part of the process, to experience the changes and see the benefits. Communications strategies must engage, motivate and inspire management and employees.

Part of the planning process will include the selection of communications channels. Face-to-face meetings tend to be the most effective during times of change. These may include manager briefings, one-on-one meetings with with key personnel or in the case of multiple locations, a town hall style meeting with senior management appearing by video in all locations. Today’s technology allows these types of meetings to actively engage the audience and immediately capture employee reactions.

Ensure that employees have ample opportunity to make suggestions, ask questions and express concerns. Surveys, focus groups, employee hot-lines, suggestion boxes and open-door policies are just a few simple ways to encourage employees to engage in two-way conversation.  The key is to communicate often, let employees know how the merger is progressing and how their roles may change. Make employees feel as though they are part of the family, that the success of the business strategy is important to them.

When layoffs are unavoidable, let employees know as soon as possible. Use tact and be empathetic in the messaging. Treating employees with dignity will engender respect. Smoothing the transition by providing resources to employees who are leaving, including payouts and retraining, will create good will with those who remain. Avoid making promises as change is risky and circumstances can change.

Finally, be sure to thank employees for everything they are doing to ensure the success of the merger, restructure or management change.

3.    Evaluate consistently, listen to external conversations, and make adjustments as needed

Every communications program should include several measures so that the success or failure of tactics can be evaluated frequently as the plan progresses. Two-way conversations are an important tool for understanding if employees understand the business strategy and their roles.

As with most communication plans, the strategies and tactics for internal and external audiences will dovetail with one another. Monitoring external conversations is critical to tracking all the factors that shape employee perceptions. Social media can allow a rumor to go viral in a short period of time. Launching an internal social media platform in the communications mix might be a good way to encourage employee feedback and gauge reactions.  But don’t overlook the buzz on the outside – your employees are certainly hearing it. Mainstream media will need to be tracked so inaccuracies can be corrected and rumors dispelled. Community leaders will need to be engaged, as they will have concerns regarding the impact of large layoffs or the closing of local facilities, and their reactions will have an impact on employees.

Ultimately, organizations must communicate early and often, with total honesty during periods of change or risk severe damage to the credibility of the management team. Bringing in a communications strategist early in the game is good business strategy.

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We’ve all heard the phrase “cutting through the noise” in reference to advertising, and unless you live under a rock, it’s impossible to avoid the daily barrage from advertisers. EnSpired Thought recently looked at the large number of FTC cases involving deceptive advertising and the potentially dangerous outcomes. If there is a complete lack of trust from consumers, are the advertiser’s messages being completely shut out?

But playing it straight with consumers isn’t enough to move the needle. It’s merely the bare minimum. The Rep Man blog recently reported findings from an interesting study: a survey of 7,000 consumers revealed that only 23 percent felt they had a relationship with a brand. That means that after we gain consumer trust, we still have a long way to go in terms of making a lasting impression with target audiences.

Here are a few questions to ask about your brand to build a strong foundation and move toward stronger relationships with consumers.

  1. Does your brand have a clearly defined message and objectives? Does it align with the organization’s overall goals?
  2. Have you done the research to clearly identify a target audience? Who are you currently reaching? Is it ultimately the right group of people for your brand?
  3. Do you know how your target audience has responded to your brand and current outreach? Do consumers perceive the brand the way you intended?
  4. Are you consistent with brand messaging? Could a consumer quickly recognize your brand identity?
  5. What have you done to encourage brand ambassadors? Do you currently have consumers that are willing to represent your brand in a positive way?

If the questions above identified a few holes, it’s time to get back to the basics. Plan for a brand refresh and make sure essentials like messaging, audiences and consistency are solid before branching out to the more ambitious (and fun) aspects of branding.

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been kept busy recently with a bevy of high-profile cases concerning false and deceptive advertising. While we have the FTC to police these types of issues, deceptive behavior toward consumers erodes trust and ultimately harms not only the advertiser but also the advertising, and by extension, public relations industries as a whole.

While many feel that a reasonable person should be able to understand that tennis shoes will not give you a fit body or that a hazelnut spread is a delicious but in no way nutritious addition to your child’s breakfast, these types of outlandish claims foster consumer skepticism and weaken the level of trust and belief consumers have in the advertisements they are exposed to every day.

Furthermore, not all of these cases are so overtly deceptive. In 2010, the FTC cracked down on statements from Kellogg Company about two different cereals. According to an FTC press release, the company claimed that Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal was “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20%” and Rice Krispies cereal “now helps support your child’s immunity,” with “25 percent daily value of antioxidants and nutrients – vitamins A, B, C, and E.” The cereal packaging also claimed that “Kellogg’s Rice Krispies has been improved to include antioxidants and nutrients that your family needs to help them stay healthy.”

Phrases like “clinically proven” alongside quantifiable statistics masquerading as scientific data make it difficult for the savviest of customers to discern fact from fiction.

If businesses, its advertisers and public relations teams do not take it upon themselves to increase the level of honesty and transparency in all communications, we risk falling into the treacherous category of the snake oil salesman.

In addition to ethical considerations, consumers are inundated with advertisements on a daily basis. Cutting through the noise and getting noticed is hard enough – let’s not add “accepted as truthful” to the obstacles.

 

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You’re ready to hire a public relations firm and have worked through the exercises we suggested in the first two blog posts.  You’ve identified your objectives and have a good idea of what you need from a PR firm.  Now it’s time to find the right fit.

Size counts

There are many different types of firms out there – large multi-national organizations as well as free-lance PR consultants, and everything in between.  To help you narrow your search, we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of working with different size firms.

Larger firms have many advantages – associates experienced in working within multi-cultural environments, large staffs available to expend concentrated energy in a short amount of time and in different locales, deep internal resources including industry-specific knowledge and experience, and ready access to graphic design and advertising professionals.

Mid-sized and small PR firms can either operate as generalists – applying the core principles of public relations theory to a variety of industries, or as boutique firms – specializing in specific industries or applying specific PR tactics such as publicity and promotion or crisis management.  Mostly regional in nature, some of these firms are aligned with a large multi-national firm, allowing them access to resources while also providing local contract services in areas where the large firm does not maintain offices.

Technology has spawned a new form of PR firm – those that work virtually.  These types of firms vary in size and structure, generally relying on building a network of PR professionals with specific skill sets to fill client needs.  Without the overhead costs associated with brick and mortar, many of these firms are in the position of providing exceptional services at a lower cost.  The very nature of their structure allows these firms to engage professionals in different regions of the country in order to better service client needs.

Generally, larger firms won’t consider taking on a client for less than $15,000 to $20,000 a month, but some have worked with smaller clients in recent years in order to weather the recession.  If your organization is smaller, you may want to restrict your search to small and midsize firms.

It’s all about building relationships

When you begin talking with PR folks, you want to look for someone who listens carefully and takes the time to understand your needs.  Look for curiosity – learning about a new company or industry or taking on a new challenge energizes some of the best PR pros.

Look beyond fancy offices and long impressive client lists.  Instead, find out how long the firm’s clients have maintained their relationships with their PR counsel.  Ask for references.  Effective PR is all about building relationships with your customers, your investors, your employees, the media and your community.  Are the people you’re talking to good at building relationships?

Red flags and ethical considerations

It’s important to know if the firm promotes ethical standards among its staff.  You won’t want someone representing your company who doesn’t abide by the PR industry code of ethics.  A simple way to assess this is by asking if managers are accredited or certified in the field of PR.  Do they support continued education and accreditation of junior staff?

Find out how your work will be staffed.  In many cases, once the contract is signed you may find that the people you met during the presentation phase take a big step back and your work is assigned to junior staff.  When this happens, you may find that you have to provide more guidance and oversight, which may defeat the whole purpose of hiring a PR firm in the first place.

Find out how the firm handles conflicts.  If they represent several companies in your industry, how do they determine which client gets the referral when a journalist asks for an expert opinion?

Make sure you understand the billing system.  Will you be billed by the hour?  Is there an alternative?  What about costs associated with media databases and news clipping services?  If you are placed on a retainer system, what exactly does the retainer cover?  Is your account manager experienced at managing a budget?  Be wary of discount pricing – you’ll only get what you pay for.

Are you being promised front-page coverage in the New York Times?  Do status reports provide clear information?  Are you finding yourself mentally correcting grammar or have you caught typos in the presentation materials?  Has the PR pro been a little lazy, quickly throwing together a plan that doesn’t address your objectives?

While no one firm is expected to be perfect, you can find the best fit for your company when you do your homework.


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It seems that customer service is often a luxury these days, only afforded to those with the time, perseverance and downright stubbornness to handle the curve balls our many service providers throw at us.

Comcast recently charged me $40 for a technician to come out and fix several months of extremely poor quality of service. After questioning the charge, Comcast immediately removed it, but not before 30 minutes on hold and being transferred to two departments. Four months into a six-month lease, my apartment management felt a significant increase for a lease renewal was justified. After a brief meeting, the price increase had been completely waived from the lease renewal.

This “let’s see what we can get away with” approach surely makes sense to the number crunchers of a company, but this strategy comes with dangerous consequences.

According to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Comcast had 22,360,000 basic video subscribers as of September 2011, not mentioning its Internet and telephone product lines. Let’s say just one percent of Comcast’s video subscribers (223,600) received an erroneous charge for a technician visit and either didn’t read their bill carefully enough or didn’t have the time to navigate Comcast’s phone system. That equates to $8,944,000 in “found” money.

But in an ever-changing landscape, this approach to customer service will not lead to long-term stability or gains. There will always be something bigger and better on the horizon and it’s a solid relationship of trust and service that will keep customers from straying.  When running an organization, don’t get caught up in short-term gains that will ruin the overall longevity of a business. Developing a sound rapport based on transparency, trust and quality are the right strategies for success.

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On Wednesday, January 18, you were more than likely impacted by the protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA). Major sites like Wikipedia, WordPress, and Reddit shuttered websites for the day and many others, like Google and Firefox, emblazoned homepages with protests of these two pieces of legislation.

The Internet community took this message by storm, generating an incredible amount of buzz around the issue and I don’t know of a member of Congress that would touch PIPA or SOPA with a ten-foot pole.

I found an especially intriguing grassroots campaign by Fight For The Future on the WordPress homepage. After watching an informative video explaining the issues surrounding SOPA and PIPA I was led through the following steps.

  • Option to provide your zip code and phone number to be directly connected to your local Congressperson.
  • Talking points to review while waiting for a phone call from Fight For The Future.
  • Receive phone call with instructions that reinforce key talking points and provide coaching tips for how to handle conversation with politician.
  • Connect directly to local legislator’s office to voice concerns.

Whether for or against PIPA and SOPA, we can all agree this was a superb campaign. If all grassroots programs were this organized and well executed, we would see more changes in how our society operated.

Lessons learned are:

1) Drive home key messages.

2) Equip audiences with the tools to deliver these messages.

3) Provide an immediate outlet for audiences to exercise these tools.

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