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Lessons in Preparedness From Harvey, Irma and Maria

This week marked the first time in modern meteorological history that three Category 4 hurricanes hit American territories in a single year, and hurricane season still has months left.

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 this year, 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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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.

Posted in Blog, Brand Awareness, Content marketing, Thought Leadership | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Ask the PR Pro, Messaging, Writing | Leave a comment

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

Lights, camera, action: the importance of video in media training

When I first learned to ski, I made a conscious decision to take lessons in Colorado rather than closer to home in the Midwest. Yes, it was more expensive to travel there and the terrain was significantly more challenging. My reasoning was: if I could excel in the mountains, then I could easily handle the Midwest hills.

A similar approach works for media training. Adding a professional video camera and lights to closely mimic an on-camera interview during a media training session can significantly improve results.

Yet, we often get push back about bringing a cameraman and lights to training sessions. Some executives think that since most interviews happen via phone today, they should save on costs and not train to this level.

This is a mistake. On-camera media training is an essential tool for showing executives a host of interviewing mistakes, from talking too fast to coming across as aggressive. It has the added benefit of allowing executives to visualize their demeanor, which is valuable in itself.

Here are some reasons we recommend inviting a cameraman to a media training session:

Executives train under real-life conditions. The presence of cameras and lights make the experience very real, so it’s difficult to step out of role play. Executives soon learn that the hot lights are uncomfortable and cameras cause distractions that can throw them off their game. Professional journalists have a lot of experience with this, and will appear calm and cool next to sweating executives. Training with cameras allow executives to learn how to focus.

Cameras provide instant feedback. Nothing makes it easier to understand and correct a negative behavior than when you see yourself do it. During media training sessions, we turn the monitor around periodically and let trainees evaluate their performance. Once they see themselves rocking in a chair, playing with their hair or fidgeting with their rings, executives quickly see how distracting their behavior is and can make a conscious effort to change it. Video also allows executives to pinpoint negative behaviors of which they may not be aware. For example, it’s natural to look up when searching for a response, which makes executives look unprepared or unsure. Looking down projects thoughtfulness.

Everyday hair and makeup may not cut it. The everyday makeup that women wear to work may not work on TV. The camera tends to flatten features so you need more definition, more contrast and more highlights to appear natural on camera. It comes as a surprise to male executives that they too need makeup. While men can skip the eyeliner and mascara, they do need translucent powder to take the shine off the top of the head and absorb any beads of sweat from the hot lights.

Finally, media training is all about learning to tell your story under pressure. Work with someone who knows how to ask likely interview questions so you are prepared for the unexpected.

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Measuring the value of PR on a shoestring

For decades the public relations industry has been trying to up its game when it comes to measurement. Now that PR increasingly is considered a function of marketing, the pressure is even greater.

Unlike marketing, however, PR struggles with trying to measure results that often are difficult to quantify, including attitudes, perceptions and engagement. Traditionally this requires significant upfront research and ongoing focus groups or surveys to benchmark and chart these trends. Lately a few software solutions have emerged to fill the void, but these approaches often are priced out of reach for many growing B2B companies.

The fall-back position was to assign an equivalent ad value to media placements, but this approach has been discredited by the industry, and for good reason.  Advertising Value Equivalents (AVE) only look at the output of publicity, a small portion of what PR does. What’s more, it’s generally acknowledged that earned media (publicity) carries more weight (value) than advertising.

B2B firms shouldn’t give up the effort. There are several ways that companies can measure the effectiveness of their PR efforts without spending a fortune:

Map results to goals. At the outset of your PR effort, and regularly after that, marketers should define specific goals for a successful PR program. This can be as rudimentary as increasing exposure in specific publications or as advanced as filling the sales funnel. Goals should be as specific as possible so they can be measured regularly. When possible, associate results to business goals, such as lead generation, increased sales and enhanced funding opportunities.

Build in measurement vehicles. Look for easy ways to measure every effort. Embed links into articles and blogs. Create good content that is shareable via social media. Offer a white paper, study or infographic that can be downloaded from your website. Then measure the results of these efforts. We did a PR campaign for a company that included an infographic and a companion white paper, which was gated. The infographic whet the appetite, and the white paper provided detail. Those who downloaded the white paper entered the sales funnel, so we were able to track that prospect all the way through the funnel. (By the way, the ROI on this was 6,900 percent!)

Look beyond traditional measures. Because good PR positively impacts attitude and perception, it’s okay to look for “soft” measurements that really contribute to the company. For example, one company we worked with told us that their sales reps noticed that the sales cycle started shortening as the PR program took off. That’s because reps didn’t have to spend so much time upfront educating prospects about their company. Other companies we’ve worked with had successful exits that executives credited in part to their increased profiles.

Account for quality. Not all results are the same. Some automated measurement tools treat all media placements as equal, so a press release appearing on an obscure blog is given the same weight as a byline thought leadership article in a highly targeted publication. Measure the value of the output as well as the quantity by devising a matrix that scores articles on sentiment, credibility of the outlet, suitability of the outlet, messages conveyed, accuracy of quotes, etc.

Watch for trends. A good indicator of the equity your PR program is building can be found by benchmarking metrics such as website traffic, website keywords, new/repeat website visitors, social media followers and amplification, and search engine rankings, then measuring at regular intervals to chart how these metrics are trending. A solid PR program should build awareness and contribute to the growth of these metrics.

Share of voice. You can get an idea of how your PR program is performing by tracking outcomes to those of your competitors. This can be done by setting up Google Alerts and tracking the sentiment of these articles, along with their quality and reach. There are software services that can do this automatically, but they often can’t distinguish between high-value and low-value placements.

Finally, give PR programs an adequate amount of time to perform before starting to measure (three months is a good start), and use what you discover to tweak your program. For example, a client was surprised to learn that one of its coveted publications actually did very little to drive sales leads. With this knowledge we were able to pivot our efforts and devote more time to channels and outlets that delivered desired results.

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Five Steps to Building Engaging Thought Leadership

B2B thought leadership can be one of the most effective means of driving potential customers into the sales funnel. Content that educates prospects without trying to sell them builds trust and leads to sales, according to a recent study of 1,300 U.S. business decision makers.

In fact, 45 percent of business decision makers in the survey sponsored by Edelman and LinkedIn said that reading thought leadership content produced by a company directly led them to give business to that company.

Unfortunately, the same study shows that a lot of the thought leadership being produced by companies is of such poor quality that it may actually be driving potential customers away. With a whopping 86 percent of thought leadership considered just good, mediocre or poor, 45 percent of decision makers said they lost respect for a company after consuming subpar content.

If your company is considering embarking on a thought leadership program, take the time to do it right. This includes:

Educating, not selling. There are few things as annoying as downloading a “white paper” only to find that it’s little more than a sales brochure. It’s even worse if the content is gated. Good content doesn’t need to overtly sell in order to be effective. Instead, educate readers by discussing the problem, offering potential solutions (not just your own), and highlighting peers who successfully tackled the issue.

Generating, not rehashing. If you plan to add to the conversation, take time to generate original content. This can include forecasts, surveys, studies, research and data that belongs to your company. We worked with a lead generation firm to create an infographic based on their calling data which showed by industry how many calls it took to generate an appointment, the best time and day to set an appointment, and the prospect title most likely to agree to an appointment. This was new and very valuable information for the industry.

Having an informed opinion. Company leaders can add value to a conversation by understanding the industry, current events and trends. In fact, some of the most successful content pieces we’ve developed have been trend forecasts. In addition to adding thought leadership to content pieces, knowledgeable company leaders can become go-to sources for industry reporters looking for commentary or background on a topic.

Being media trained. If executives will be interviewed for their thought leadership, media training is imperative. A trained executive who is comfortable being interviewed will deliver an interview that will further your goals and will be valued by the reporter. While most interviews today happen by phone, media training should include videotaping responses and demeanor. This is becoming more important as reporters expand their channels to include podcasts and video casts.

Using journalistic rigor. Journalists are held to a high standard when reporting the news. They must have credible sources, practice impartiality and use sharp writing. All these qualities are necessary for good thought leadership. Since contributed blogs and byline articles are a good source of thought leadership, make sure articles are written to reporter standards and are turned in on time.

Thought leadership can be a cost-effective and successful marketing effort. All business leaders must do a better job of producing great content that builds confidence with prospective customers.

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Media Training: it’s not just for interviews

If you’ve ever been through media training, you understand how a seemingly easy task becomes nerve-wracking when the camera and lights turn on and you’re being asked unrehearsed questions.

Suddenly, the value of practicing an interview in front of a camera becomes very clear. It’s infinitely smarter to learn the skill of interviewing in a controlled (and friendly) environment than cutting your teeth during a live interview with a reporter.

Even if you may never speak to a reporter, media coaching can teach you how to think on the fly, respond so you get your message across, and project the right demeanor. There’s nothing quite like seeing yourself on video to realize the importance of this kind of training.

We’ve used media training to help prepare executives for all kinds of scenarios. Some of the most popular include:

Crisis communications—A crisis can impact a business at any time, so executives who may not normally talk to the press need to be prepared with interviewing skills. This often includes leaders in HR, security, fleet, product development and IT, to name a few. Media training helps these leaders feel confident knowing they are prepared if they are ever called on to help during a crisis.

Speaking opportunities—Not every executive is a natural presenter. Media training prepares leaders to deliver engaging presentations in front of audiences both large and small. Body language and presentation cadence often suffer when an executive is nervous, and training can make leaders feel more comfortable and confident. Since many speaking opportunities include an impromptu Q&A session, training also helps executives deliver thoughtful answers in that situation.

Investor presentations—When raising funds for your business, how you pitch your idea  to investors and think on your feet can be the difference between getting funding or not. Media training can help executives develop rapport with investors and be prepared to answer the toughest of questions.

Depositions—Depositions are among the most unusual scenarios for which we’ve provided media training. Instead of training these witnesses to talk with reporters, we work with them on being likable, understandable and believable by a judge or jury. This includes working on demeanor and language so answers are to the point and the witness exudes confidence.

The essence of media training is developing the skill to confidently tell your story in clear, compelling language in a stressful situation, and that’s a skill that can be used in many scenarios.

Posted in Crisis Management, Media Relations, Messaging | Leave a comment

5 Ingredients of Killer Messaging

When it comes to company messaging, journalist Sydney J. Harris got it right when he said, “Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”

Unfortunately, a lot of company messaging tends to be information-giving as opposed to communicating. Having worked with close to 100 companies to craft their messaging, I can say that most try to cram as much information as possible into the messaging platform without much thought to whether their message is understandable or effective.

Creating an effective messaging platform capable of communicating what makes your company unique often takes a good deal of thinking and refining. Outstanding messaging contains these five ingredients:

The right format. Format is crucial when it comes to messaging because it will drive how your executive team reaches consensus on messaging statements and even language. I’ve seen many types of formatting over the years—from pyramids to traditional vision-mission-position statements. The format we use follows the 5W1H that every journalist learns: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. This makes sense for our clients because they often follow messaging creation with a media relations effort. During interviews, our clients then have the information on hand to answer typical questions, such as: who are you, what do you do, why is this important, how are you different?

Knowledge of your audiences. Messaging can have many audiences, including customers, employees, investors and journalists. Understanding what each of these audiences finds important, and identifying the common links, will provide a good basis to drive messaging. For example, a start up company that is backed by an experienced leader and/or venture capital can allay fears of failure that concerns all these audiences by referencing the experience of the backers. This message should be front and center.

A focus on benefits. The main mistake I see companies making when devising messaging is talking about what their company or product does instead of how it benefits clients and customers. Generally, people don’t buy features; they buy problem-solving. This is especially true for business-to-business companies. Instead of describing a feature, ask yourself one question: “Why does anyone care?” The answers to that question should be the foundation of your messaging.

Simple language. Boil down your messages to their essence, then use concrete, action-oriented words that people understand. Fight the tendency to pack messages with lofty ideas and jargon. While using some of these terms may seem cutting edge, they are used at the expense of true communication. Pick and choose the most important things to include in messaging, then use language to make it so enticing that people will say, “Tell me more.”

Affirming anecdotes. Some of the most effective messages are told from the perspective of people outside your organization. To really make an impact, include independent research, customer or analyst statements, and examples of how people use your product/service. This is especially helpful in statements that describe why your company/product is important (what problem it solves).

Finally, test your messaging platform on various audiences to make sure your messages are communicating. As George Bernard Shaw so wisely put it, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

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