Tag Archives: prsa

Is Our PR Community Part of the New Pittsburgh or the Old One?

This post originally appeared on PRSA Pittsburgh’s blog. 

Kayaks on the Allegheny

Creative Commons image from Flickr user Slackley

In this month’s Pittsburgh Magazine, there’s a story highlighting how millennials are literally and figuratively transforming my hometown.

Where there once existed the attitude that young people had to leave Pittsburgh to find a career, there’s now a sizable part of our city that feels is staying in Pittsburgh to create their career. And people around the country are taking notice.

From startup incubators to entrepreneurs to civil activists, Pittsburgh is attracting a demographic I grew used to being surrounded by over the last 12 years in both Washington D.C. and Chicago. People who care more about making an impact rather than getting a promotion. People who volunteer alongside competitors and clients to advance a cause they believe in. People who go to as many networking events, conferences, and happy hours as they could just to be a part of the energy around them.

When I moved back here in August, my friends and colleagues all asked if I’d miss that feeling, that energy. They said that atmosphere doesn’t exist here because if you’re talented and ambitious, you know better than to stay in Pittsburgh. They said I’d miss that vibe and that I’d wish I didn’t move. They said Pittsburgh is where you go if you can’t hack it in a bigger city or when you’re ready to slow down and take it easy.

I want to prove them wrong.

Pittsburgh and other mid-size cities get a bad rap in the PR and marketing industry. “You need to be in NYC to get access to the media,” they say. “The most creative work comes out of the big agencies because they can afford the talent,” they say. There’s a hell of a lot of talent outside of New York and Chicago that tends to get lost because, paradoxically, PR people generally do an awful job at promoting themselves. Even in our own city, it’s the startups in the East End, or the CMU engineers, or the foodie restaurants that are opening up who get all the attention for the “new Pittsburgh.” Where’s the PR, advertising, and marketing community in all of that?

I want to show them that we’ve got some cool things up our sleeves too.

And I think there’s a whole lot people here in the Pittsburgh PR community who feel the same way. Whether it’s the wonderful team that I have at my agency or the enthusiastic PRSA Pittsburgh Board members or the people I met last night at the PRSA Pittsburgh Renaissance Awards, I’ve seen that ambition and desire to make an impact, to be at the tip of the spear of something big. The potential is there.

This year, let’s show the rest of this city and the country what we’ve got here.

Let’s commit to never saying “because that’s how things have been done before.”

Let’s do a better job at educating the people in our organization about the value we bring.

Let’s collaborate and come together more often (virtually and physically) to learn from and push each other to do big things.

Let’s think bigger.

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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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PR Pros and Wikipedia: Can They Ever Get Along?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user bitjungle

All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view. This means that editors should avoid stating opinions as facts, avoid stating seriously contested assertions as facts, avoid presenting uncontested assertions as mere opinion, use non-judgmental language, and accurately indicate the relative prominence of opposing views.

One can easily see how these five attributes may be in conflict with the way many PR professionals do their jobs. Whether it's cranking out news releases (where "news" is obviously very loosely defined) or getting paid for covert smear campaigns, the PR industry isn't exactly known for being a bastion of authenticity and impartiality. It's no wonder Wikipedia has advised against PR pros editing articles directly. There seems to be a pretty clear conflict of interest that exists. Paid advocates making edits that are supposed to be impartial, fair, and balanced? Would you want a judge presiding over a hearing where his/her son is the defendant? Would you want to read a restaurant review from a reporter who is also part owner of said restaurant?

That's a big reason why most PR professionals have avoided Wikipedia for so long, fearful of the wrath of the editing community. Even if their edits were truthful and impartial, many would think they weren't, citing their conflict of interest. That's the thing with conflicts of interest – often, the mere perception of a conflict of interest is almost as bad as an actual conflict.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia is now experiencing the unintended consequences of locking out PR pros. According to a study conducted by Marcia W. DiStaso, Ph.D., co-chair of PRSA's National Research Committee and an assistant professor of public relations at Penn State University, 60% of Wikipedia articles about companies contain factual errors. Moreover, when asked how long it took respondents to actually engage with one of Wikipedia's editors via the respective Talk pages, 40% said it took "days" to receive a response, 12% indicated "weeks," while 24% never received any type of response. A recent infographic by David King further illustrates Wikipedia's problem with keeping company Wikipedia pages up to date – according to his research, 86% of company pages are incomplete and 56% of the article tags are flagged as needing better citations.

Here's the problem. PR pros, the people who often have the most accurate and up-to-date information about these companies, are advised against sharing it directly with the Wikipedia community and subsequently improving the quality of these pages. Are our only options to ban PR pros from editing Wikipedia pages, accepting incomplete, inaccurate information OR concede impartiality and allow the rampant addition of puffery and marketing-speak? I don't think allowing PR pros to edit Wikipedia directly and preserving impartiality and factual information have to be mutually exclusive. Just like other industries have created extensive processes and policies to mitigate potential conflicts of interest, so too should public relations.

This year, at least two separate groups have been created to help improve the relationship between the public relations industry and Wikipedia. The Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE), started by Phil Gomes, and the WikiProject Cooperation, started by David King, are taking the first step in bridging this gap. PRSA itself has also weighed in on the subject, with PRSA Chair and CEO Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA saying,

"The issue over edits made on Wikipedia is one that affects more than just the public relations profession. It has implications for every business, organization and institution around the world, given Wikipedia’s widespread use as an information resource. We believe there is a case to be made for PR professionals to responsibly edit client Wikipedia entries in an ethical and transparent manner. At its most basic level, it is a matter of serving the public interest.”

There's clearly a need to transfer the knowledge that PR professionals into the largest encyclopedia in the world. There are too many incorrect and incomplete entries that could easily be fixed and made more valuable for the community if the people with this information could more easily edit and add it. However, I don't think this is Wikipedia's problem as much as I think it's the PR industry's problem. Even if what a PR person says is completely true, there's a perception that it's propaganda and that we're hiding the actual truth. For years, PR pros have been caught in scandals, lies, and unethical practices. Just like when we were in school and a few bad kids ruined it for the rest of us, so too have a few unscrupulous PR firms and people ruined the public perception of our industry. The dishonesty of a few has burned too much trust with the public, the media, our clients, and within our own organizations. We have to earn back this trust as an industry before we can expect other people and organizations to trust us to be impartial, transparent, and honest with anything, much less Wikipedia.

Corbett says that PRSA wants to work with Wikipedia to develop rigorous and explicit editing guidelines that can be used throughout the profession. That's great, but unfortunately doesn't help address the thousands of alleged "PR professionals" who aren't, never were, and never will be, members of PRSA. We can't disbar unethical practitioners like lawyers can. We can't take their license away like doctors. We can't even take their medallion like taxi drivers. As long as anyone can practice public relations and call themselves a PR pro, we will always suffer for the sins of a few unscrupulous ones. That's why I think the relationship between the PR profession and Wikipedia will always been adversarial.

The real opportunity for initiatives like CREWE and the WikiProject Cooperation lies not in lobbying for the profession as a whole, but in working hand-in-hand with Wikipedia to create higher (not lower) barriers to entry for PR professionals. ALL PR professionals shouldn't be able to edit Wikipedia – I would instead prefer to know that those who do have been vetted, trained, and advised by the community. This "Wikipedia Editor License" for PR pros would serve as a clearinghouse for Wikipedia to ensure these select few individuals would understand how to properly disclose and mitigate any potential conflicts of interest and edit according to the community standards. In short, this issue may present us with opportunity to bring some regulation to a profession sorely in need of it.

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Identify the Right People to Manage Your Social Media Initiatives

A version of this post originally appeared on this blog last year. I'm re-posting it with a few minor modifications because I just gave a presentation based on this content at PRSA's Digital Impact Conference. The full presentation is embedded below and available here.

Who leads your organization's social media initiatives? Is it someone who rose up and took the role or is is someone who was assigned that role?

Social media isn't something that can just be assigned to someone any more than you can just assign someone to be the homecoming king. Adding "social media" to that junior public affairs officer's job description isn't suddenly going to turn your organization into the next Zappo's. While you're at it, you might as well add "organizational budgeting" and "legal review" to his job description too – those are two other things that he/she might be able to do well, but would you really entrust those duties to them?

This is why so many social media initiatives fail – not because of technology or policy, but because of people.  We talk often about what department should lead social media, how to get leadership buy-in for social media, or what technology should be used, and while those are important discussions to have, you should be focused on identifying WHO should be leading the social media initiatives.  Not whether that's the Chief Marketing Officer or the Director of Public Affairs or the Community Relations Lead, but actual names of people.  Remember, social media is driven by the person, not the position.

The best person right now might be Joe over in Marketing, but what if Joe leaves the organization?  Who leads the social media initiatives then?  The answer isn't necessarily Joe's replacement.  It might be Kim over in HR. It might be that new guy over in community relations, or maybe it's your webmaster.  The point is that social media doesn't fit nicely into just one job description.  There's a very real human element to it, and identifying the wrong person, even if it is the right position is often the biggest determination in the success or failure of your social media initiatives.

To find the right person to handle social media for your organization, look for people who:

  • LOVE your organization and really understand its mission – first and foremost, find the people who love their jobs and believe in your mission. This isn't a job for the person interested in just the paycheck.
  • Believe in the transformative power of social media – it's not about applying the same old processes to new tools. It's about fundamentally transforming the way your organization interacts with the public, your customers and with each other.
  • You enjoy being around – If a person is a real butthead in real-life, he's going to be that way online too, and you can't afford to have someone like that representing you or your organization
  • Have little fear of failure – Early in my career, a client pulled me aside after they shot down 3 straight ideas I had and told me, "I want to make sure that you understand we WANT you to continue bringing those off-the-wall ideas because it forces us to think of things we never thought of and even if we don't take your suggestions now, they all become building blocks for future ideas."
  • Enjoy working in teams – Social media is "social" – you have to enjoy working with a diverse group of people
  • Are responsive – There is no 24 hour news cycle any more. It's real-time baby. You need people who you KNOW will reply to emails, tweets, texts, etc. quickly and thoroughly. Interestingly, these are also often the people who are the most ambitious and passionate about your organization too.  (*note – these are also the people who may take longer lunches or come in a little late because they don't just "shut off" at 5:00 PM)
  • Can speak like a human being – Corporate marketing speak, statistics, facts, and figures are good, but when was the last time you got inspired by a pie chart? Find people who can connect with their colleagues/customers/clients on a personal level
  • Are very aware of their strengths and weaknesses and are open about them – One of the first things I tell new employees is to find out what you're good at and find out what you're not good at, and then find people who are good at those things and make friends with them. In social media, you're going to come across issues regarding privacy, IT, legal, communications, and HR, not to mention specific functional areas of your organization. You can't know it all – know what you don't know, and know who to contact for help.
  • Are humble -People mess up in social media. A lot.  It's ok.  Admit you're wrong, fix what you messed up and move on. Not everyone can do this, and very few can do it well.
  • Are diplomatic – The point of social media isn't just to get more followers and friends. It's to help your organization reach its communications, marketing, and sales goals. That's why social media managers need to know how to educate others across the organization and demonstrate how social media can help their business.
  • Are dedicated to building a scalable, sustainable team – People go on vacation. People take other jobs. People get transferred. Make sure that your social media manager has the organization's long-term interests in mind and isn't just focused on raising his or her profile.

Now that I think about it,these are many of the same qualities that exist in any leader, right?  So, what other qualities would you look for when trying to identify someone to head up a social media initiative?

This post was inspired by Andrew Wilson's "Innovation Lab | Who Should Be At The Table" post and Lovisa Williams' "The Intersection" post. Fantastic stuff (as usual) by the both of them.

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