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Start Your Community With Role Models, Not Influencers

I just finished reading this article in last month's Fast Company where the CEO of Pinterest, Ben Silbermann, discusses how Pinterest got started, where it's at today, and what its future may hold. In it, they highlight some of the ways in which Pinterest defied best practices when they first started – they didn't include any leaderboards, they didn't highlight the most popular pinners, they used an infinite scroll layout instead of pushing for more clicks and pageviews, and most interesting to me, their first community members weren't "influencers" with high Klout scores. They were role models who would care for the community as if it were their own.

"In Pinterest’s early days, Silbermann gave out his cell-phone number, attended blogger meet-ups, and personally composed weekly emails that were sent out to Pinterest’s tiny, but growing, community. "It’s like you’ve built this little city with nobody inside of it yet," he says. "And you want to fill it up with the right kinds of people who are going to teach future people what they should be doing when they move in." Most Silicon Valley types look at early users as viral marketers; Silbermann saw them as role models. (Until recently, Pinterest’s welcome email advised users to "pin carefully" because "your pins set the tone for the community." The site bans nudity and discourages users from posting images of too-skinny models, otherwise known as "thinspiration," after the phenomenon became a problem.)"

What if PR and social media community managers stopped worrying about targeting the influencers with the most Klout, the highest PeerIndex score, or the highest Empire Avenue share price, and instead worried about identifying the people who are best equipped to create and maintain a healthy community? What if we looked for qualities like good taste, helpfulness, and compassion instead of followers, pageviews, and likes? What if we focused our efforts on the people who will become the community leaders, rather than simply the people with the loudest mouths?

If what we're doing is truly building online communities, shouldn't we first recruit the people who will actually be you know, building that sense of community and modeling the behaviors you want to see from all members?

One of Pinterest's first and most active members wasn't a social media influencer. She's the founder's mom. Silbermann's tactic of starting his community with role models isn't new. This is a tactic that I've used when building online communities behind corporate firewalls. In those closed communities, the first members weren't the VPs or the corporate comms people – the people with the most influence – they were the people who were most passionate about the community. These individuals felt a deep sense of responsibility for the success of the community. They shared the same goals and philosophies. They were the ones who modeled the behaviors that we wanted the rest of the community to emulate. They were the ones who would tell the boss he was wrong so that it would be ok for others to do the same. They may have only brought in 50 new people, but that wasn't their purpose. They were recruited because they were the ones to create that strong sense of community among the current members so that when new members joined, they joined a community with an established culture and purpose.

Now, if your goal is to simply get a million Facebook likes or sign up two million users to your branded community, then by all means, pay Lil Wayne to Tweet your URL to his 8 million followers and watch the numbers stack up. You can trot out your pageviews and member numbers to your boss all you want. Just don't expect those thousands of people to actually do what you want them to do. On the other hand, if you're looking to build a vibrant community of brand advocates who will buy your products, share your messages with their networks, give you honest, constructive feedback and build other brand advocates, then you should instead look for people who will model those behaviors. These people may not have the biggest names or the most "influence," but they're the ones who will create the foundation for what your community will be.

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Why I Hate the Word “Pitching”

I've grown increasingly frustrated when I hear my PR colleagues tell me they're going to "pitch the media." Maybe it's because my non-PR friends look at the term so pejoratively. Maybe it's because it implies a certain level of salesmanship. Maybe it's because it erodes my own idealistic view of the media as the fourth estate and that I hate seeing so much of it be controlled by pitchmen who take advantage of lazy journalists. Maybe it's all of the above. For me, it's almost as bad as our industry's most hated word – "spin." Then I read Amber Mac's excellent piece on Fast Company about how social media can help save the PR industry from bad pitches as well as Gini Dietrich's follow-up post on Spin Sucks, and I got all riled up again how PR people rely on blind pitching instead of focusing on the "relations" part of public relations.

When someone tells me that they're pitching something to the media, the default image in my head has sadly become this –

From spamming thousands of reporters and bloggers at a time in the hopes of getting 1% of them to cover your "news," to copying and pasting entire pitches and only changing the name, to using outdated information, PR people have become used car salesmen, interested more in making the sale than on building an honest relationship. At some point, it became acceptable to send an awful pitch out to 10,000 people and hope that 1% would cover it instead of crafting customized pitches that go to 200 people with the expectation that 50% would cover it. Wonderful. Glad to see that we're modeling our pitching approach after Nigerian email scams. Aren't we better than this? PR people have to stop trying to take the easy way out. Stop being lazy and start taking pride in each and every pitch you make. It is YOUR name after all that will be tied to that pitch. It's YOUR agency's name that may end up on a blog somewhere as an example of a bad pitch.  Act like every pitch you make is a reflection of you and your agency…because it is.

One of the things I've told my teams over the years is that the best media pitch is usually pretty simple. It's usually something along the lines of "hey man – just read your latest post and wanted to clue in on a client of mine who's got a cool new product that I think you'd like. Check it out and let me know what you think." While the "pitch" is surprisingly simple, the reason it works is because of all the work that's required to get to that point. For it to work, it assumes that you've established a relationship with this person, that they trust you, that you only share things like this that they are truly be interested in, that you've interacted with them before when you weren't pitching him on something, and that the link they click will give them everything they need to know – photos, videos, quotes, contact information, research, etc. In other words, there's no need to worry about crafting a perfect pitch if you've already laid the groundwork – at that point, it's just two people talking with one another.

Let's all work together to change the connotation of the word pitch and agree that we should aspire to be better than used car salesmen and spammers.  Let's make pitching less about trying to sell the media on something and focusing on providing them with what they need – good stories to tell that will be interesting to their readers. Let's pledge to:

  • Get to know the people covering our clients before we start pitching them
  • Read at least three different stories/articles/posts they've written before reaching out to them
  • Know if my contact prefers to be contacted via Twitter, email, Facebook, phone, or carrier pigeon
  • Avoid making our first contact with the blogger/reporter our pitch email – Retweet them, comment on a blog post, answer a question they have
  • Help the media do their job even if there's no direct benefit for me
  • Pitch fewer people but aim for a higher success rate
  • Stop blindly "trying to create more buzz" and instead be more of a PR consultant to my client
  • Write my pitches in actual English like I'm talking to a person instead of my client's key messages
  • Refrain from spamming dozens of reporters with the same email
  • Never ever send an email with any form of the words – "just checking to see if you got my email" (because they did, and then they deleted it)
  • Validate everything that I find out about a reporter/blogger from a PR database
  • Clearly identify the "what's in it for me?" for everyone I contact
  • Include my name, contact information, and links to more information
  • Stop overselling our pitches – when everything is ground-breaking, innovative, and the first-of-its-kind, nothing is
  • Coordinate our pitches with our clients so that they aren't surprised by questions from the media
  • Realize that no one likes to feel like they're being pitched, but they do enjoy hearing a good story
  • Read and proofread and read and proofread everything before I hit send

These are just off the top of my head – I'm sure there are plenty of others. If you're a PR pro, what other tips would you add here? If you're a reporter/blogger, what do you wish PR people would do better when pitching you? 

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From the Government to Big Brands, From the Left Brain to the Right Brain

Three months ago, I made a huge change in my life. After eight years as a government consultant in DC, I picked up my family and moved to Chicago to work at Cramer-Krasselt. I went from DC to Chicago, from consulting to PR, from government clients to big brands, from the suburbs to the city, from leading virtual teams to being in the office with my entire team every day, from being at the tip of the spear of the #gov20 movement to being just another PR guy prattling on about social media – and for the last three months, I've been trying to adapt to this new life of mine.

As you can tell, a lot has changed, but a lot has remained the same too. I still spend way too much time in meetings. I'm still having varying levels of success managing office politics. And I'm still trying to change the status quo. I'm not ready to say that PR in the private sector is any better or worse than government consulting – it's just different. And for me, different is good. Instead of being the grizzled veteran who's been with the company longer than most people, I'm the new guy. Instead of being the guy everyone runs to for social media advice, everyone here at least knows the basics, with many knowing much much more than that. Every day, I feel challenged. Every day, I learn something new. Every day, I realize I'm in an entirely different world now. Even though I still do PR and communications, the clients and the environment are very different. So while there are some similarities, in many ways, it's like a whole new career.

This isn't to say that one is better or worse than the other – in fact, it's the dichotomy of the two that I'm enjoying. While I find myself learning more and more about branding and advertising every day, I'm also teaching my new colleagues a lot about staff forecasting, team management, performance reviews, and strategic planning too. If I've learned anything over these last three months, it's that the typical PR pro would be more effective if they thought more like a consultant, and that the typical government consultant sure could benefit from some more creativity and risk-taking.

If you've done PR in both the public and private sectors, what kinds of differences have you experienced?

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The Future of Branding is About Making Friends, Not Ads

Make friends, not ads.™

That's the message that greeted me when I first opened the Cramer-Krasselt homepage and again when I walked into the lobby for my first interview five months ago. Seemed especially fitting for me as I've railed against traditional advertising ("look at me!! come buy my stuff!! Now! Now! Now!") and traditional PR ("we're the world's leading provider of innovative solutions…") for what seems like forever. Five months after that first interview and six weeks after my first day, I realize that this is much more than a tagline – it's the future of branding. 

For years now, I've been telling my teams, my clients, and anyone else who will listen that they need to read the Cluetrain Manifesto, internalize it, and put it into action. In fact, stop reading this post and do yourself a favor and read the 95 theses included in that book. It has really changed the way I think about business, branding, public relations, and advertising. Now, maybe I'm just naive or I haven't been in the private sector long enough, but I'm seeing signs that this industry is finally starting to get it. Success isn't about creating that one really cool ad, but about creating lasting relationships with your employees, your customers, and the public. 

Here are a few of the recent articles that I've come across that seem to back this up – 

Consumers Are Most Likely to Forgive USAA, Hyatt, Chick-fil-A and Costco Because Of Their Customer-Service Records, According to New Research — But Much Less Likely To Forgive Chrysler, US Airways, Comcast and BofA

"Forgiveness is a valuable asset that you earn by consistently meeting customers' needs, but many companies don't have enough forgiveness stored up to recover from their miscues"

It's Time for Advertising to Take a Lesson (Gasp!) from Public Relations

"They're not your customers; they're your constituents. It's been said often, but it bears repeating: People don't buy brands. They join them. So modern brands must function like political parties, identifying issues, expressing a coherent world view, staging debates and structuring dialogues."

Social Media Is About Cultivating Community, Not Corralling Cattle

"The harder you try to sell, the more you scare — or simply bore — people away. This central truth is not difficult for brands to understand, but for some reason it is hard for them to internalize and act upon. What is first required is to embrace social relationship-building not as the latest marketing fad, or even as a new reality that has been forced upon you, but as a means to revaluate who you are, what you stand for and why you are in business in the first place."
"As agencies, we have to be honest with clients and help them figure out how big or small their footprint should be in an ever-expanding social universe. Are we crafting community strategies with the brands' objectives truly in mind? Marketers should take the time to step back, look at how many things their consumers have in common and build social presences around what their customers care about and why they are connecting."
To a PR guy like me, I'm reading these articles nodding my head saying "ummmm…no shit. I've been saying all of this for years, and Cluetain said it more than a decade ago." Unfortunately, to many, this is still revolutionary thinking in the advertising, marketing, and even PR industries. THIS is the future of branding – it's not about social or mobile or location aware apps or retargeting – it's about fundamentally rethinking what we learned about PR, advertising, creative, and digital in college. It's about making friends, and not Facebook friends or Twitter friends – it's about making real, honest-to-god friends. Friends who will forgive you when you mess up, who will accept a higher price because they understand and empathize with you, who will step up and defend you when you're being attacked, who will pay more because they share similar beliefs, and who will talk about you with their friends and family because they believe in you. 
Ads alone aren't going to win you many friends. The most successful brands have already realized this and are using all of the tools at their disposal – advertising, public relations, community relations, creative, CRM – to build real friendships based on mutual trust, integrity, and respect. So, take the advice I see every day when I walk into work and start focusing on making friends, not ads.  
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