Video: Tips for hiring a PR agency

If you’re hiring a PR firm, check out our newest video for tips.

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Insider’s Guide on How to Get More From Your PR Agency

If you work with a public relations agency, you’ve probably wondered if you’re getting everything you should from the team. This is especially true if you inherited an agency, or if you suspect that your long-time firm is getting a little complacent.

Having worked in agencies for most of my career, I can attest that the level and quality of service agencies deliver can vary drastically. I’ve also worked with many clients who have confided their agency horror stories to me. When I ask why they stayed with the offending agency, the response usually was: we didn’t know any better.

One way to find out if your agency is delivering everything they should is to compare services by working with multiple agencies for a period. But who needs that hassle? Instead, here is my simple insider’s guide to ensuring you’re getting the best work from your agency.

  1. Does your agency act like a business partner, or an order taker? Both agencies and their client managers should view the engagement as a partnership, not simply a vendor relationship. The difference is that a partner will be keenly focused on helping the client achieve important business objectives. This includes challenging clients about PR goals that may run up the metrics but don’t advance meaningful progress. Your agency should regularly ask questions such as: what are the quarterly marketing goals; has the vision of the company changed; what are the most pressing challenges the business is facing today? Then they should provide solutions to meet these challenges.
  2. Is your PR team comprised of visible and active senior level contributors? It’s common in the industry for agencies to stack early meetings with senior level associates, but then turn the day-to-day work over to much more junior staffers. This shortchanges clients by removing the experience that drives real value. If you’re not interacting regularly with a senior associate that may be a sign that your business isn’t all that valuable to the agency. It certainly is a sign that you’re not getting the best mix of talent.
  3. Does your PR team regularly deliver fresh ideas? The best PR pros are those who read voraciously, stay updated on trends, and visualize connections in information. These pros are good at finding new ways to tell your story to new audiences by identifying how to leverage news and trends to promote your brand. They also are excited to bring new ideas to the client to try. Your agency should regularly bring you new, creative ideas, instead of waiting for you to direct their activities.
  4. Do you trust your agency team to represent your brand? Your PR team acts as your surrogate when it comes to interacting with reporters, so it’s important that you trust their experience, judgment and temperament. You need to be confident that your team understands what journalists want and the best way to approach them, and also deliver top-notch materials. It’s increasingly common for frustrated reporters to call out poor PR reps publicly on social media, so missteps can reflect negatively on your brand.
  5. Is your agency team accountable for their progress? A good PR team will work with a client to put measurements in place that are meaningful and to host regular meetings to exchange information. They also will deliver insight from metrics to make pivots in strategy in order to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. Over time, this makes the PR program much more effective and efficient. Agencies also should have the capability to benchmark your share of voice with your competitors. If your agency is reporting only on output versus results, you are being shortchanged.
  6. Does your agency team take pride in their work? Effective PR encompasses many different skills, including the ability to write, a quick understanding of complex issues, and attention to detail. It’s also important that executives honor deadlines, and are available when needed. A lack of pride is evident when materials are poorly written, deadlines are missed, and team members don’t feel the same sense of urgency that you do. You should expect your team to produce work that they are proud of.

If you’re not getting what you need from your public relations agency, speak up. If your agency truly is a partner, they will be happy you did and will do whatever they can to improve the relationship.

If things don’t improve, don’t be afraid to make a change. See our tips for selecting the right PR firm.


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Tips for Selecting The Right PR Agency

The summer months are behind us. School is back in session. It’s time to begin the serious work of planning for next year. For many organizations, those plans will include partnering with a public relations firm.

Whether you are hiring your first firm or undergoing an agency review, selecting the right agency is an important decision with broad implications. It’s important to understand that selecting the wrong PR firm can have lasting repercussions, including lost business, a damaged reputation and strained relationships with reporters.

A good PR firm, however, can become a trusted advisor, helping to strategically position your company with precisely-crafted messages and targeted communications to a variety of audiences.

When reviewing potential agency partners, here are some important tips:

  • Beware of the bait and switch. When you meet with a prospective agency, you will no doubt meet with one or more people with a vice president or higher title.  It is common practice to stack the deck with big titles during the “pitch” and planning phase, and leave implementation to junior associates—sometimes very junior. It is wise to ask those pitching your account: how much time will you spend working on my account?
  • Go for experience. Before selecting a firm, get the account team’s names and bios. Ask probing questions to determine just how experienced the team is. Consider if you are comfortable with the associates representing your brand with the media. Keep in mind that if your company’s leadership is young, seniority in business partners can be especially helpful.
  • Seek strong management controls. Nothing can ruin a communications program faster than blowing through a year’s budget in the first several months. Ask prospective agencies what controls they use to manage your budget and how they report their progress.
  • Ask about the planning process. PR programs should be based on the marketing objectives of a company. For that reason, every PR plan should be customized for your business and industry. If an agency tells you what you need to do before understanding your marketing goals, keep looking.
  • Look for a team that is professionally aggressive. The best agencies are those that continually learn about your industry, look at trends, and identify opportunities to insert your company into important issues. You should expect your agency to bring ideas and opportunities to you. You also should look for a team that has a history of developing trusting relationships with reporters, not one that will burn a bridge to get a story.
  • Insist on messaging. Being able to talk about your company, why you’re important and how you’re different is imperative to a successful PR effort. Look for a PR firm that makes messaging development #1 and has a track record of creating memorable messaging.
  • Seek a team of coaches. A good PR partner will help you improve your interviewing skills, will challenge you with new ideas and will help advance your brand.
  • Factor in company culture. It’s likely that you’ll seek an agency with related industry experience, which is okay but not necessary. More importantly, look for  an agency that can relate to your business culture and issues. If you’re a fast-growing company, a company that watches expenses closely, a family-owned business, etc., these issues should play a role in the match you make.
  • Be wary of “yes” agencies. One reason you hire an agency is to employ independent thought and experience. If you talk to an agency that doesn’t challenge your ideas or offer new thoughts, you should keep looking.
  • Ask about measurement. Determine if the agency is measuring the right things. Metrics should be based on your marketing goals. Ask questions like: how do you know if the PR program is successful? How do you continually improve the program? What role do I play in measurement?

Finally, don’t hire a firm based on its purported contacts. Some agencies will drop one reporter name after another to impress you. While having contacts helps, it’s more important to understand how the media works, to be skilled at packaging interesting stories to pitch that are relevant to the reporter, and to be able to quickly build relationships with reporters based on trust. These skills are important because reporters change beats and publications at a high rate.

With these 10 points in mind, you are sure to pick a great PR partner.

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Lessons in Preparedness From Harvey, Irma and Maria

We are coming up on the one-year anniversary marking the first time in modern meteorological history that three Category 4 hurricanes hit American territories in a single year.

In business, as in life, it’s human nature to want to put off planning for things that can go wrong. But as many have found out, not planning for a crisis can be perilous.

It’s difficult to understand why so many companies continue to be caught unawares when a crisis hits. According to a survey by the Canadian Investor Relations Institute (CIRI) and Fleishman-Hillard, many companies are mindful of the potential damage crises can cause to their sales, reputation and shareholder value, yet few have  effective crisis management plans in place to deal with negative scenarios.

Crises come in all shapes and sizes—from a major data breach to the death of an executive. Regardless of the scenarios, how a company communicates during a crisis can affect how the company is perceived by customers, the media and Wall Street. 

In addition to better preparing your company, crisis planning can also help executives anticipate and head off crises before the storm clouds gather.

Crisis planning should be conducted at the highest levels of the organization, and should include stakeholders from operations, sales/marketing, IT, human resources, communications, logistics, among other areas.

There are several steps to crisis planning:

  1. Identifying potential crises. As a group, stakeholders verbalize and discuss potential problems that could sideline the business. This exercise shouldn’t include every possible scenario, but should include those that are likely and harmful.
  2. Naming affected constituents. For each potential crises, the group should note who could be harmed and how. Every potential audience should be noted, including employees, shareholders, customers, the community, etc.
  3. Drafting positioning messages. When possible, a position statement on each of the crises should be written. For example, if a company vehicle is involved in a deadly accident, there should be verbiage drafted and ready that describes how drivers are trained, company policies for drivers, and the company’s safety record. Trying to draft these statements while the crisis is unfolding often can take too long to address the immediate needs of the media.
  4. Creating a crisis workflow. When a crisis happens, a workflow that assigns pre-planned activities to specific individuals will ensure that the crisis is managed proactively rather than reactively. This workflow should trigger actions by stakeholders throughout the company so everyone is working in tandem under the direction of one leader.
  5. Developing policies and procedures for communicating with constituents. Crises can evolve very quickly, which increases the chances of misinformation in the media. To ensure that the most up-to-date information is disseminated to head off speculation, policies should be developed that empower only certain people to speak with the media, and prohibit others from doing so. A solid plan will have a mobile press office ready to go.

Once the plan is developed, it’s a good idea to do mock drills so stakeholders in the company can envision how the plan will unfold in a real crisis, and can identify and fix weaknesses in the plan.

Finally, the crisis plan should be reviewed and updated regularly, at least once a year.

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Messaging isn’t just for media interviews

What does your company do?

This should be a simple question for anyone in an organization to answer. Most people think they know, but chances are good that each employee has a different idea of what your company stands for and why your work is important.

In fact, we did a little experiment once with a group of executives who begrudgingly attended a messaging workshop we were leading. To help them understand why it was important for these executives to participate, we asked each person around the table that one simple question: what does your company do?

We got a different answer from every person, and the executives had a new appreciation for messaging.

That’s why we were excited when we were asked recently to work with a division of an animal healthcare company to help refine and simplify their messaging, and why we were really jazzed when they asked us to teach their top executives how to deliver these messages with confidence in various situations, not just media interviews.

What a great idea.

This division had recently pivoted within the organization and were tackling their market in a completely new way. They needed to promote their new position without diminishing competing segments of the company. Leadership understood that employees would have difficulty verbalizing what the division was doing, and why it was important to customers and the company as a whole.

To do this, we first defined the various audiences that employees would be speaking to, and what kind of information those audiences were looking for. Audiences were varied and included other employees, industry peers and acquaintances, in addition to several other.

After introducing the new messaging, we discussed ways to convey messages to meet the needs of divergent audiences, while staying on track and sounding genuine. We discussed how to address uncomfortable questions, and even did some role playing to demonstrate how difficult this can be without practice.

It was a good reminder that knowing how to deliver the company messaging is important for everyone in the organization.

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How to be a trade show show-off

You either love ‘em or you hate ‘em, but trade shows remain one of the best ways to “kick the tires” of a host of products and services in a few days while also staying current on industry innovations and thought leadership.

For marketers, trade shows can be a great way to come away with actionable leads, new potential partners, and some great press. Yet with new trade shows popping up every year, skyrocketing exhibit costs and a multitude of look-alike companies vying for the attention of attendees and media, it’s more important than ever to plan ahead to get the most for your trade show budget.

Here are a few ways to make a big impact at your next trade show.

  1. Meet with the media. Reporters who cover an industry often use trade shows as forums for gathering more information and building relationships. Even if you don’t plan to announce a new product at the show, reporters may be willing to meet briefly to better know your company and executives. As an exhibitor, you should have access to a registered press list. Contact reporters 3-4 weeks before the show and invite them to individual meetings at your booth or at an on-site conference room. It’s important to note that travel budgets for many publications have been slashed, leaving some reporters covering a show for multiple news outlets. As a result, a growing number of reporters are refusing to make firm appointments, preferring instead to do booth “stop-byes.”
  2. Make an announcement. Smaller trade shows are great venues for making an important announcement, such as a product launch. Plan ahead to secure a venue and invite reporters, making sure your announcement doesn’t conflict with other announcements or with important trade show events/seminars. Have media material to pass out. It’s also a nice idea to leave reporters with a small premium item that reminds them of your announcement. If you want to make a big splash, target important reporters or prospects with half of a gift, with the second half available at the announcement. When a new Air Jordan sneaker came out, a company we worked with asked us to call VIPs to find out what size shoe they wore. We mailed one shoe in advance with a note that the mate would be available at our announcement.
  3. Announce in advance. Large trade shows often are too busy to be conducive for anything other than the most impressive announcements. For large shows, consider making announcements a week or two before the trade show. This gives reporters an opportunity to include your news in pre-show publications, and creates excitement that drives traffic to your booth.
  4. Work the media early. Many large trade shows have a show daily that provides opportunities to highlight your product or service. Likewise, many industry trade publications produce show preview issues. Contact editors well in advance with information on what you’re showcasing in your booth and don’t forget to provide high-quality photos. Remember that once you give the news to reporters it’s fair game for them to use it, unless you have a written embargo agreement.
  5. Participate in special events at the show. Larger trade shows often showcase “cool new products,” which receive enhanced media support from show organizers and is usually the first stop for journalists covering the show.
  6. Be a speaker. Speaking at a trade show is an effective way to showcase thought leadership. Keep in mind that most trade shows prohibit blatant promotional presentations. Contact the show organizer 8-12 months before the show and request a “Call for Presentation” package. When proposing a speaker, keep your topic focused on what will benefit the audience. Look at the program from the previous year to get an idea of what show organizers are likely to feature. Whenever possible, suggest presenting jointly with a customer.
  7. Leverage social media. While attending the show, post pictures from the event, Tweet about the action on the floor and post online invitations telling people your booth number and what you are featuring at the show. It always helps to offer booth visitors something to entice them to visit, such as free popcorn (who can resist the smell?) or a photo booth. One of the most valuable items we’ve seen is a company offering to FedEx the material accumulated by attendees at the show back to their office. After all, who wants to lug all that stuff home?
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How to build a great personal brand

Most people think that brand-building is just for companies and products. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Consider Chip and Joanna Gaines, owners of the Magnolia franchise and stars of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.” Their carefully-honed personal brand has quickly propelled the success of multiple businesses, including the Silos destination in Waco, Texas; an online home goods store; their own furniture, paint and clothing lines; as well as books and a lifestyle magazine.

Almost everyone today with a social media account, such as Linked In, Facebook or Instagram, has a personal brand. Smart executives—like the Gaines’s—intentionally cultivate their brand to further their careers and propel their businesses.

Building a personal brand takes time and effort. Here are six steps to get you started:

Decide what you want your brand to say about you. If you’re a subject matter expert, this is a great place to start. Perhaps your interest doesn’t involve your career? Think of people you admire who have strong personal brands—Richard Branson, Gary Vaynerchuk and Laura Ries are great examples. Each of them is identified by their subject matter expertise. How do you want to stand out?

Establish topics you want to cover. What are you passionate about? Are you willing to comment on industry trends and events? Are you okay with taking a contrarian position? Sketch out some topics you are interested in covering and identify what you can add to the online conversation.

Identify the tone you want to strike. Everyone has a personality and your personal brand should reflect that. Do you want your tone to be informational and educational, sassy and irreverent, funny and cutting edge? What kind of personality can you bring to your expertise…are you cerebral or outgoing, funny or serious, pleasing or mocking? The tone you take will drive the kind of content you will produce and the audience you will attract.

Look for places to contribute. While the easiest place to begin contributing thought leadership is Linked In, think about other outlets. Which publications and websites are read by your ideal audience? Will they accept thought leadership articles from you? How much time can you devote to this effort? Look for other venues that will help you build your brand, including speaking as a thought leader at conferences.

Build your online presence. Make sure your online presence reflects your personal branding. This includes Twitter, LinkedIn, professional Facebook and Instagram accounts, YouTube, a personal website/blog, etc. Make sure everything you share on these channels invokes the same voice and tone in order to further establish your personal brand.

Monitor what people are saying about you. Just as you monitor what’s being written about your company, set up alerts to scan for your name (or the name of your personal brand, if different) as well as the topics you are interested in “owning.” Join the online discussions and add value to posts. Interacting with other thought leaders’ blogs is a great way to make connections and build your following.

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How to write an elevator statement

Every company needs an elevator statement, a memorable description that quickly describes what the company does and why it’s important. This handy statement can be used in many ways—from networking events to press releases.

The goal is not to divulge everything about the company; rather, to make people interested enough so they will say, “Tell me more!”

Having helped nearly 100 companies craft their elevator statements, I can tell you that it’s easier said than done. Executives tend to get bogged down in jamming as much information into an elevator statement as possible, or trapped by descriptions, words and jargon that just aren’t meaningful outside of their company.

To set the foundation for creating a successful elevator statement, it’s important to understand what makes a statement effective. Luckily, this is common sense:

They are brief. The key to a good elevator statement is making it easy to understand in under 30 seconds, hence its name. With just a sentence or two to describe the essence of your company, every word must count.

They are created for the listener. More often than not, people draft elevator statements that talk about features instead of benefits. The listener, however, will be hooked by a statement that includes how the company or product solves a challenge.

They use simple, memorable language. When talking face-to-face, you are competing with everything going on around you that can distract the listener, so it’s important to use words that are easy to grasp and remember.

There is no right approach to drafting an elevator statement, although it’s helpful to begin by jotting down some words that best describe your company, including nouns (things), verbs (action words) and adjectives (words that describe).

For example, an Internet of Things company might whiteboard:

Nouns: sensors, smart devices, water intrusion

Verbs: monitor, alert

Adjectives: quick, safe

Then draft a statement such as, “Our company manufactures smart sensors that monitor your environment for water intrusion and quickly alert you via text message if something changes.”

Other approaches that work well include:

Defining the problem. Set up the elevator statement by first describing a challenge. For example, “As baby boomers retire, companies are losing valuable experience that is hard to replace. We supply industry accomplished experts in the life sciences industry to help solve complex challenges and mentor young executives.

Making a comparison. Companies in emerging industries can benefit from comparing themselves to established businesses. For example, “People use FitBits to monitor their activity and adopt healthier habits. We apply this same idea to agriculture, helping farmers make better decisions for a more robust crop.

Being audacious. If you’re in an industry that puts stock in being bold, try a statement that’s a little cheeky. For example, “Today’s most innovative mobile merchants all have one thing in common: they use our payment solutions.

Finally, have a few additional talking points available to cover when the conversation evolves. Customer examples that demonstrate success are particularly effective in driving a fruitful conversation.

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How PR can combat “fake news”

If you’re skeptical about what you see online, in the paper or on the evening news, you’re not alone. Trust in the news media has been eroding for decades, and it took an even deeper dive during the past year. According to an annual Gallup poll, only 32 percent of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.

This is problematic for public relations firms specializing in “earned media,” the result of working with reporters and editors to have their clients included in news articles. After all, if people are skeptical of news media, they may also doubt the veracity of articles including client mentions.

Traditionally, earned media has been the most trusted and credible of the three types of media (earned, owned and paid). That’s because when reporters write an article the reader assumes the information has been vetted and is accurate.

In addition, earned media is a terrific source of qualified leads. In fact, lead generation driven by earned media out-performs lead generation driven by paid media by 10-15 percent, and it is especially effective with millennials, according to Bazaarvoice.

There are a few things companies can do to ensure their earned media retains a high degree of credibility:

  1. Let your customer tell the story. Recommendations from personal acquaintances or opinions posted by consumers online are the most trusted forms of advertising, according to the Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey. According to the survey, 90 percent of consumers said they trust recommendations from people they know, and 70 percent trust online consumer opinions. Articles that focus on how your company or product helped a customer can be a powerful way to amp up credibility.
  2. Produce good thought leadership. I wrote about the value of thought leadership recently. Executives invested in educating their industry through non-promotional byline articles, and those willing to provide context to reporter-generated articles, position themselves and their companies as trusted and knowledgeable experts.
  3. Mine your company data for news. Most companies are sitting on a goldmine of customer data that can be aggregated and analyzed to find trends, best practices and other newsworthy information. Plus, the data tells the story. For example, several years ago we were working with an email service provider, trying to help elevate them as trusted marketing partners when the industry had the  preconceived notion that marketing email was spam. We were able to look at email records from hundreds of companies sending thousands of emails to determine important tidbits, such as the best day and time to send a marketing email. This was valuable information to marketers and seen as highly credible information.

Finally, it’s crucial to adhere to strict ethical standards in earned media efforts. This means always being truthful, not overselling and being able to back up all claims.

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How to write the perfect customer use case

What’s more important: words or actions?

From a young age we learn that actions speak louder than words. In the world of B2B marketing that’s certainly true, which is why customer use case stories are among the most powerful and flexible tools in a B2B marketer’s arsenal.

There’s nothing quite like a use case that tells your customer’s story and demonstrates to peers the value of your company’s service or product. These endorsements are marketing gold because they can be used over and over in various mediums, including publicity, advertising, collateral and social media messages.

I’ve written and read hundreds of case studies, and can offer six tips to help you create a powerful testimonial:

Put the customer at ease. When emailing the customer to schedule the interview describe the process and attach your questions. In the introductory email I always tell customers that my goal is to make everyone look good and let them know that they always have approval of the final use case. This is very important to executives who often worry about saying the wrong thing in an interview. Sending the questions in advance helps to put customers at ease and also gives them an opportunity to think about their answers. The result is a relaxed and productive interview.

Focus the material. Customer interviews can turn up a lot of information, so it’s important to focus the questions if possible. Case studies can be focused on vertical industry, product features, customer challenges, etc. If this isn’t possible, review all the information gathered from the customer and pick one or two common themes. Remember, it’s not necessary to use all of the information gathered in the interview. In fact, doing this often results in a rambling story that fails to convey anything meaningful because it tries to do too much.

Describe the challenge and how you fixed it. Use cases should focus on how your company helped a customer overcome a problem. Unfortunately, they often miss the mark because the writer chooses to focus on product features instead. Remember, people buy solutions not features.

Include metrics. Relevant metrics are critical to a successful case study. Hard metrics, in the form of time or money saved, customers won, revenue increased or any other business-critical measurement, are imperative to the credibility of the use case. Soft metrics, such as good customer service, are fine secondary metrics but do not replace hard numbers.

Use quotes to illustrate the story. Think of client quotes as punctuation; they should be used to add color and emphasis to the story. It’s important to note that most customer quotes cannot be used verbatim, and that’s okay. Quotes can be revised slightly to fit the flow of the use case and to clean up grammar, as long as the customer reviews and approves them. If you have a great customer quote that doesn’t quite fit the narrative of the use case, use it as a visual call-out.

Write tight. The goal is to have people read and understand the case study. To increase the chances of this, keep them to one page. This will require you to focus (see above) and make every word count. Generally, case studies should be no more than about 400 words.

Finally, create a branded template for case studies so they all look similar. Make sure to include a photo that illustrates either the theme of the case study or the vertical industry of the customer.

Posted in Content marketing, Lead Generation, Public Relations, Writing | Leave a comment