Posts Tagged ‘reputation management’

Preparing Your Startup for Media Interviews: the Do’s and Don’ts

March 22, 2013

Successful entrepreneurs are known for being risk-takers, putting both their money and reputation on the line to launch a new product or service, often in a competitive or nascent market. Some psychologists suggest that entrepreneurs’ brains are hard-wired to take risks—they live for the dopamine high associated with standing on the edge of a tall cliff (or business deal).

It’s not surprising then that many entrepreneurs get an emotional charge when they are put in the spotlight to talk about their businesses with media. While risk-taking may pay off in certain situations, a media interview is not one of them.  Without careful planning, an interview can result in a wasted opportunity for good exposure, or worse, it can make your company the butt of “funny headline” jokes on the Tonight Show. Here is a list of do’s and don’ts to help you make the best of your interview opportunities:

Do’s:

  • Research the Reporter: Before every interview, you or your PR advisor should research the reporter to determine what he or she has already written about and what the tone of their reporting is like (e.g. investigative, light-hearted, opinionated, etc.)
  • Develop Talking Points:  Always solicit a list of potential questions from the reporter prior to the interview. With few exceptions, reporters will usually share some initial questions, because it makes their job easier when the interviewee is already prepared with important information. These questions should be used to develop talking points to help you steer the conversation in the right direction. The talking points should also include additional questions that could come up, especially the sticky ones.
  • Practice: If this is the first time you have been interviewed on a particular topic, or if there have been significant changes to your messaging since the last interview, squeeze in a little rehearsal time. This is particularly important when interviewing with reporters that have a reputation for being critical or when the format of the interview is broadcast, where a bad 10-second sound bite can spoil an otherwise spotless performance. If you have a PR advisor, make sure they provide you with media training.
  • Follow Up: There are times when you may do all the right things to prepare for an interview, only to find that a story is not produced or that the interview is edited out of the story. Sometimes this is unavoidable, such as when the story has to be trimmed to meet a specific word count or when the reporter quashes the story to make space for another pressing news item.  But other times it can be prevented with proper follow up. When following up, reiterate any points you want to make clear to the reporter and ask if he or she has follow up questions. Also consider sending them references to additional sources, including other potential interviewees, that could support the development of the story.

Homer Simpson

Don’ts:

  • Go Off the Record: The words “off the record” go against the grain of journalistic integrity, and, perhaps more importantly, the basic interest of the reporter in publishing a compelling story. Always assume anything you say is fair game.
  • Respond with “No Comment”: Reporters usually interpret this as stonewalling, and readers will likely think it means you have something to hide. There are situations when it is in your best interest to stay mum, such as when being questioned about sensitive financial or legal information or information that could reveal too much to your competition. In these situations, provide as much information as you feel is safe, and simply explain that you can’t go into any additional details at that time. This is also a good opportunity to bridge the conversation to a different, but relevant, topic that you really want to talk about.
  • Use Jargon: Reporters strive to make their stories as accessible as possible for their audiences. With the exception of trade or special interest media, where highly technical information may be required, you should stay away from industry jargon and try to simplify complex ideas into comprehensible points. Sometimes using metaphors can be a good way to explain an intricate point, but when a metaphor won’t do, you should have a succinct and lucid description at the ready.
  • Talk About a Competitor: This is another one where there are exceptions, but in general, you should let your competitors do their own talking. The two big risks here are that you may unintentionally build awareness for the wrong team, and perhaps more importantly, if you get your facts wrong, you may find your company getting slapped with a lawsuit.

Jacob Seal

Ask Not What the Media Can Do for You, Ask What You Can Do for the Media

February 13, 2013

Unfortunately, most emerging companies have approached public relations as little more than an extension of their sales promotion efforts, narrowly focusing their messaging on attributes of their products or services with the expectation that reporters will spread the word to the masses. At best, this approach usually yields a limited number of media placements originating around a product launch. At worst, reporters will view the announcements as editorialized sales pitches and discard them. Then comes the inevitable question from the corporate brass: “What value are we getting from that PR budget?”

kennedy

This scenario often could be averted if the question were turned around: “What value can the media get from our company?” Marketing professionals should appreciate this question—they are accustomed to defining value for potential customers, but reporters are not potential customers. Their needs are completely different.

To effectively engage reporters, it is important to understand how they evaluate information. Their raison d’être is to uncover what’s “newsworthy” to their specific audiences and to report this information in an easy-to-understand format. Thus, for a company’s message to resonate with a reporter it must be perceived to have a certain quality of newsworthiness.

Newsworthiness is a very abstract concept. It differs from company to company. A management change at a large conglomerate, for example, would be considered more newsworthy than a similar change at a startup. It also differs from reporter to reporter. Trade reporters, for instance, view newsworthiness through a narrow lens focused on a specific industry, while reporters with general business and consumer media often (not always) view newsworthiness through a broader lens focused on major social, economic or technological trends.

We’re at a time when major brands seem to wield more and more media influence, and reporters are becoming more and more immune to unsolicited story pitches. So how can a startup company demonstrate newsworthiness in such a tough climate?

The key is to start developing a PR plan early. It’s not uncommon for startups to focus their early-stage efforts on building out core business functions, such as sales channels, product development, logistics and other back office functions, putting off PR until the product launch approaches. This is understandable—resources are always an issue, and expenditures and staff time have to be prioritized. We also understand the competitive reasons for some companies to operate in “stealth mode” until they’re ready to launch sales. However, postponing PR planning until a month or two before going to market can seriously limit the company’s opportunities to drive greater visibility and lead to pitfalls that could have been avoided with proper planning.

As you begin crafting your PR plan, a key component is to identify story angles that will interest the media. This involves brainstorming with your management team and PR advisors to collect pertinent information about your company and its founders that is often scattered across many minds, and identifying the facets that could be used to create compelling story angles. Significant product news creates potential angles, as well as any anticipated milestones (e.g., acquisition of new management, new external partnerships, new funding, etc.). These events may offer good opportunities for exposure in some media outlets, with the highest potential usually being in trade and business media.

But there is no reason to limit the company’s story angles to these business events. PR planning is a creative process that requires you and your PR advisors to look beyond the obvious characteristics of your business to discover other aspects that could distinguish you from the flock. A great example of a company that has succeeded at this is Ben & Jerry’s. The company has been able to command media interest at will. Its products, however, are rarely what grab the headlines. Rather, much of the media coverage has focused on the company’s eccentricities: its unconventional founding (it was originally conceived as a bagel shop), its offbeat management practices (e.g. its erstwhile salary ratio policy) and its reputation as a champion of social issues.

Admittedly, the comparison between the media strategy of an emerging IT or biotech company with that of Ben & Jerry’s is tenuous, but there are opportunities for most companies to seize the limelight in unconventional ways if they try. Before they became iconic brands, companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Groupon and Flickr were successful at this, getting attention for quirks in their corporate cultures,  business models, operational development or founders’ stories.

The bottom line is, in order for your company to derive value from its media strategy, it has to first prove its value (i.e. newsworthiness) to the media. The art of PR is storytelling: mining the various facets of your business to uncover what sets it apart—its newsworthiness—and packaging that information into compelling story angles to engage the media.

Jacob Seal

9 Things Journalists Do & Do NOT Find Newsworthy

November 15, 2012

One of the most difficult parts of my job is to explain to a client why the announcement the company’s CEO wants us to make isn’t news and is unlikely to be covered by the media.

Here are a few examples of what journalists don’t find worth covering but companies frequently want them to cover:

  1. News that has already been announced and reported in the media is no longer news and will not capture journalists’ attention.
  2. The activities of a small privately-held company are usually not considered newsworthy to the national business media. We are often successful in getting start-up company clients covered by the media despite this, but the way we do it is to de-emphasize the company and pitch its activities as part of a new trend, or to demonstrate that it is developing earthshaking new technologies, or to position it as a threat to large and well-established companies, or to offer the CEO as an expert who has the credentials to comment on something currently in the news.
  3. Just because something is an important issue does not mean it is newsworthy, as Brad Phillips points out on his blog, Mr. Media Training.  For example, the growing number of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children is an alarming trend and an important issue. But it’s been written about from various angles for a number of years, and isn’t newsworthy.  An outbreak of a devastating disease like polio in the U.S. resulting from this trend, previously believed to have been eliminated from this country, would be newsworthy.
  4. The visit of a company CEO from abroad is not newsworthy unless the company has major business interests in the U.S., or has an announcement to make that will affect Americans. This is a situation we sometimes face. We are asked to set up a round of business media interviews for the visiting head of an overseas client company. Even if the company is fairly sizable and well-known in its own market, without a real presence in the U.S., journalists won’t have much interest. However, if the company president gives reporters news (that hasn’t already been announced) about a new plan to build a plant in the U.S., for example, or a new partnership with an American company, they’ll be very interested.

What’s Newsworthy, What’s Not

  1. Conflict is newsworthy, especially when it first appears. Peace and harmony are not, except for the exact time when they bring an end to conflict.
  1. Scandal is newsworthy. The juicier the better from the media’s perspective. Awards for good behavior are not.
  1. Surprises are newsworthy. Expected outcomes are not. The media give more time and space to a company that misses or greatly surpasses earnings projections than to a company that meets earnings projections.
  1. Lies are newsworthy (or rather, catching well-known or high-up people in lies is newsworthy)
  1. Announcements that have local impact are newsworthy for local media outlets. In many cases the definition of local is very narrow. Recently we approached news outlets in various Connecticut towns about the debut of a national company in the Connecticut market. Most of the media we spoke to at the small town news organizations told us they would only cover news related specifically to their own towns.

It’s natural to feel that the activities of the company you work for are important and to lose perspective on whether they’re of interest to the rest of the world. One of the advantages of working with a public relations firm is the more objective perspective that the agency PR team can bring to a company.

We’re paid to advise clients and develop workable strategies for their public relations efforts. It’s always a better use of our services and a client’s budget to ask us how to reach a particular goal rather than tell us what tactics to take to achieve that goal. Our collective years of PR, journalism and marketing communications experience will save a lot of money by preventing wasted efforts to build visibility!

Lucy Siegel

Advance Approval of Interview Quotes: a Self-Destructive Media Policy

September 19, 2012

We’ve all been there: despite training and practice, the CEO blows a good media coverage opportunity by saying the wrong thing to a reporter, and neglects to say what should have been said to communicate the company’s key messages. We all want to see the best possible media portrayal of our companies, or clients’ companies, and there are times we’d love to rewind the interview to answer differently.

We’re finding out that within the political realm, this is indeed possible. It came out this summer that the staffs of both Presidential candidates have refused to grant media interviews with the candidates, their wives and their key aides unless the media outlet would agree to submitting the quotes used from the interview to the campaign staff for approval. Big influential media outlets like the New York Times have been acceding to this demand.

Image

This practice clearly undermines the quality of the reporting by allowing the campaign staff to sanitize remarks made in interviews by changing quotes to make them more vague and less likely to offend anyone. Never mind that the quote reflected what the person actually said. The purpose of checking the quotes goes way beyond simple fact-checking; it’s aimed at damage control.

Quote approval gives the candidates the power to use the media to shape public perception.  The media play an important role in a democracy as independent third-party voices reporting the facts as objectively as possible. Allowing the candidates to control the reporting to the extent that they can take back what they said weakens the veracity of the reporting.

The cat is out of the bag. Some major media outlets readily admitted that reporters have been allowing quote checking (and alteration) by campaign staffers as a condition for obtaining an interview. Readers who are paying attention and now realize this is happening are bound to have less trust in the media.

This morning I attended a meeting where Bob DeFillippo, Chief Communications Officer at Prudential Financial, spoke about the ways social media has played a role in blurring the lines among earned media (i.e., what is reported by independent news organizations), paid media (i.e., advertising, and paid editorial coverage, often called “advertorial,” which is not earned media but advertising) and owned media (i.e., content that companies create and disseminate themselves, which is neither earned nor paid media). He pointed out that the definitions of the three are becoming more blurred every day, and commented that we need to respect the definitions, not contribute to changing them, because earned media plays such a significant role in building corporate credibility.

He concluded that it’s in the interest of PR people to safeguard the integrity of earned media in order to protect the powerful contribution it can make towards reputation-building. I totally agree with him.

There are many reasons for the blurring of the lines among paid, earned and owned media, not just the proliferation of social media. For example, “pay for play” media coverage – where a publication insists that an organization be an advertiser in order to receive any editorial coverage – is more and more common these days, unfortunately, due to the desperate financial straits many media companies find themselves in. My firm advises clients to stay far away from “pay for play” media situations.

It’s the responsibility of public relations professionals to prepare clients well for media interviews. Sometimes despite our best efforts to do this, clients aren’t portrayed the way we would like them to be in an interview. The solution is not to insist on the right to see and change their quotes. It is certainly not better to rely on “pay for play” media. We just need to see to it that clients get as many media opportunities as possible so that one media mishap doesn’t play a major role in defining the client’s reputation.

Lucy Siegel

Five Key Lessons We Can Learn from Mike Wallace

April 10, 2012

In May, 2005, I had the pleasure of sitting in the audience when Mike Wallace took the podium as keynote speaker at the annual “Big Apple” awards celebration of the Public Relations Society of America – New York Chapter. Then 87 or 88 years old, he must have been the oldest speaker PRSA-NY had ever had. You could hear a pin drop as he spoke.

In the public relations industry, Mike Wallace was one of the most respected and at the same time, most feared journalists ever. He could reduce public figures to blubbering idiots with just one simple question.  Even the rumor that Mike Wallace had a research crew investigating a company was enough to send executives and PR departments into a tailspin. ABC News’s George Stephanopolis commented that Wallace became more famous than most of his subjects by mastering the “in your face” interview. ABC News reporter John Donovan, in a story about Wallace, noted that Wallace “had a gift for making the unaskable askable.” Just one example: he had the nerve to ask Nancy Reagan how much President Ronald Reagan got paid for visiting Japan after he left office.

Much has been written about this legend of TV journalism in the last few days, but from a PR perspective, the best piece I’ve read was by Larry Thomas, president of Latergy, a video services firm. I direct you to his article in a communications industry publication CommPRO.biz, “Remembering Mike Wallace: Lessons from a Master Interviewer,” which summarizes the influence Wallace had into five key lessons for public relations, corporate communications and investor relations professionals .  Thomas ends his blog by saying, “RIP, Mr. Wallace. I’m glad I was able to see you (on TV, not at my office door).”  I can certainly echo that.

Lucy Siegel

How Do We Become Indispensable?

November 30, 2011

I just read an article in the Harvard Business Review about how to make yourself indispensable. The author describes an employee that has done a terrific job, done everything right. He applied for a promotion and was stunned when he didn’t get the position. It went to someone else. He asks, “What did I do wrong?” and his boss says, “Nothing, you’re doing a great job.”

The author argues that it’s much easier to improve your performance (and your position in the corporate world) if you haven’t been doing so well, but much harder when you’ve been doing a great job. He concludes that incremental
improvements don’t help as much as developing other, complementary strengths. For example, an engineer who indisputably does a wonderful job for the company would gain a lot less by becoming an even better engineer than by improving a skill such as writing or people management.

The article stimulated a lot of comments and debate. How do you make yourself indispensable: by keeping on top of the
ever-changing needs and wants of your bosses, and then working to meet those needs? Or by determining how you could become more valuable, based just on your own strengths?

This led me to think about how public relations practitioners can be perceived as indispensable by their clients or, in the case of internal PR staff, by the top management of their companies. There’s nothing more frustrating than losing a client, or not winning a client, due to a decision not to have an external PR firm because top management feels that PR isn’t a high enough priority. In these situations, when we are considered dispensable, the marketing department or the internal communications staff may disagree, but they’re overruled.

So how do we, as PR practitioners, make ourselves indispensable? Unfortunately, just as explained in the HBR article, simply doing a great job isn’t enough. The answer isn’t to provide even better results. If what we do is really that valuable to a corporation, then the onus is on us to make senior management understand that we are, indeed, indispensable.

It helps if we set measurable goals in the beginning of a project or a year and then actually do the measurement. However, this is a lot easier said than done, and a lot of attention has to be paid to what kinds of goals are set as well as how they are measured. Otherwise, who’s to say, for example, that it was the PR, not some improvement in the product or services, the sales methods or the distribution methods, that helped sell more?

It’s very hard to measure the impact of PR in isolation from other factors. It’s crucial to agree on goals that we can, without doubt, take credit for reaching.  Often even if we can suggest appropriate, measurable goals, our clients don’t have the budget to spend on measurement.

In my most cynical mood, I’d say that very often it’s the people who have to be indispensable in order to sell senior management on PR, not the actual contribution PR makes. The most successful people in the PR industry (as everywhere) are those who have strong personal charisma as well as the ability to cozy up to the decision-makers in an organization and win them over. Sometimes indispensable means a bond of dependency.  That kind of relationship trumps PR results every time.

I wish I had the answers to how we can make PR indispensable. Maybe you do. I’d like to hear what you think about this.

Lucy Siegel

How to Get Started with a PR Firm: Four Tips for a Fruitful Relationship

September 19, 2011

Frequently new clients don’t really know how to work with us when they first hire us.  There are a few common problems, and start-ups (our specialty), whether domestic or from overseas, are more likely to experience them.

A steakhouse appetite on a fast-food budget

The best marketing directors we’ve worked with are excellent at prioritizing what’s essential now versus what can wait until they can afford it. Most marketing directors at start-ups worked for companies with bigger budgets and more back-up internally in previous jobs. They’re very needy when it comes to PR and marketing communications.  They want a lot of help, but can’t afford a big budget.    Prioritizing is essential in that environment.

A winning formula in one country may not work in others

The first common mistake business people from other countries make is assuming that the market here can’t be that much different from their own.  Companies from outside the U.S. often start a relationship with a PR company here by asking for the same services they received at home: “Here’s what we want from you. We need you to [choose one:] “set up a press conference,” [or] “arrange Wall Street Journal and New York Times interviews and get our CEO on the ‘Today’ show.”

They don’t know how the U.S. media works and how different it is from their own country.  We have to explain that press conferences are rarely held in the U.S.  to make a corporate announcement – unless it’s Steve Jobs announcing the launch of the iPad or BP trying to manage the communications after an oil spill. They aren’t aware of how social media is being used in public relations and marketing communications in the U.S., since social media is mostly just social (so far) in a lot of countries. The size and diversity of the United States is just an intellectual concept to them and not something they’ve experienced, so they think PR will cost about the same here as it does at home.

We’re consultants. Ask us what to do, don’t tell us what to do.

The second mistake is telling us what to do instead of asking us what we think should be done.  In many other countries, public relations doesn’t garner as much respect as  it does here.  Some of you are snickering, reading this, because the PR industry has its own image problems in theU.S., and we often feel we don’t get enough respect. Nevertheless, we have it good compared to PR people in many parts of the world.   It’s not uncommon for the most senior PR person in the company to  report directly to the CEO and sit on the senior management committee.  That’s respect.

We can’t help if we don’t know what’s really going on

When companies get started with a PR firm, it’s really important for them to brief the firm thoroughly and answer questions honestly and openly.  The PR industry’s code of ethics requires that confidential client information be kept confidential.  A company that is nervous about this can require its PR firm to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

If a company is secretive with its PR firm, the PR firm can’t help position the company favorably among competitors. If there’s a big problem the PR firm doesn’t know about and it comes out, the PR team is in a very awkward and difficult position of receiving media calls about an issue they didn’t know exists. Delays in responding and hesitation about how to answer difficult questions cause the client to look bad to the media.

When a company hires a PR firm, there’s a learning curve on both sides. We have to learn about a client’s company, products and/or services and goals, and the client needs to find out the best way of working with us.  A good client/agency relationship and a satisfying outcome (for both the client and the agency) are much more likely if we can get started the right way.

Lucy Siegel


Can a Good Corporate Reputation Be Unprofitable?

October 8, 2010

This week the Wall Street Journal featured an article about risk to corporate reputations that cited a survey in which 80 percent of CEOs said this was their top concern. The writer concluded, however, “Reputational management is still too often something that companies feel they should do rather than something that they want to do. A good reputation is hard to quantify and may actually get in the way of delivering short-term profits or cutting costs.”

Reasonable people could disagree about how a corporate reputation should be quantified.  But when faced with surveys showing increased or decreased approval of the company, most would agree on the direction in which reputation is heading.   That alone is a valuable piece of information for a CEO to consider.

I don’t believe that a good reputation can interfere with positive short-term corporate results or with cost-cutting. The author seems to be implying that a company may need to produce poor products or act in a way that is unethical or inhumane in order to make a short-term profit. Since the reputational fallout from this kind of corporate behavior can have a negative effect on long-term profits, corporate managers who believe it pays to sacrifice reputation in order to make a short-term profit are very short-sighted.  

Cost-cutting such as staff downsizing doesn’t necessarily harm reputation if done in a logical and sensitive way.  Even though employees may fear and resent the effects of layoffs, in recent years they’ve seen other companies going out of business.  They’re aware that cost-cutting, even layoffs, may be necessary for survival.  

However, the author is right that many corporations don’t like to deal with reputation management.  I believe the reason most corporate managers are uncomfortable with this part of their business is because there are no formulas for success or for solving problems.  Each decision that has to be made is a judgment call, and those related to reputation sometimes have to be made immediately. For example, when there’s a crisis, there’s no time to appoint a task force to study the issue and make recommendations. The direction has to be decided at the top, and the boss’s decisions can be criticized later if things go wrong.   

This is where corporate PR counselors, whose sole focus is reputation, can be extremely valuable. They are trained to look at the issues from all sides and analyze the way different actions will be perceived by key audiences. 

Foreign companies in the U.S. and start-ups, the types of clients we specialize in serving at Bridge Global Strategies, are particularly prone to neglecting corporate PR. Start-ups generally put public relations emphasis on their products rather than the corporation. Understandably, they need to build revenue quickly in order to survive. Foreign companies frequently don’t understand the need for corporate PR in the U.S. and they, too, often focus their communications efforts totally on sales.  But if corporate reputation is damaged, customers won’t buy, no matter how much sales promotion a company does.

As reluctant as many companies are to spend the time and money on corporate PR, the cost of ongoing reputation management counseling is trivial compared to the cost of a damaged corporate reputation, or the effects of being entangled in serious crises.

 Lucy Siegel


%d bloggers like this: