Groupthink, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.”
Such conformity to group opinion can be a real danger when company leaders, believing that they and those around them have an accurate sense of their brand’s reputation, fail to generate external feedback prior to making branding decisions. Brand evaluation and reorganization can be a very positive and healthy thing. Every business must evolve to survive. Messages need to be updated. Websites refreshed. Ads evaluated. But when tackling these challenges, it is important to remember that public perception is what really matters, and that perception can sometimes vary widely from what’s assumed by the top brass.
For example, members of your sales team might not feel comfortable speaking up about their distaste for the current logo when sitting across from the company’s top executives, who likely approved that very design.
Your company’s clients, however, will probably have no qualms about being more direct.
So, what options are available for gathering meaningful data on corporate brand? Here are a few that can be much more valuable than an internal discussion in the conference room:
- One-on-one meetings with customers
- Focus groups
- Ad Readership Studies (if appropriate)
- Online survey tools like those offered by Constant Contact or SurveyMonkey.
In other words, don’t just make sure you are asking the right questions; make sure you are you asking the right people. Internal discussions are necessary, but the most coveted opinions should be reserved for customers and potential customers.
Simply put, a strategic communications plan is a description of a company’s marketing and communications goals and activities. And it should be treated as an essential document for any company, especially a start-up. While every plan should include a few key sections (outlined below), there is no single, one-size-fits-all approach that works for every business. A communications plan for a restaurant will be much different than one for a hospital, for example. But here is a snapshot of the crucial elements that every plan should include.
This opening section describes the nature of the business and how it plans to grow through strategic communications and marketing.
Arguably, the single most important feature of any communications plan is the background research and analysis. After all, how can you be expected to tell your company’s story if you don’t know much about the industry in which you operate? Generally this background research will identify the current market size, segmentation, target customers, growth opportunities, risks and competitors. In addition a SWOT analysis for the company itself would be helpful here.
Establish Your Mission, and Your Messages
Now is the time to define your brand, your products, your company and your value proposition to the market.
State Your Goals
Goals should be simply what you want your communications to achieve. These are specific, measurable outcomes: a percentage of market share, annual sales, growth into certain markets, etc.
Define Your Strategy
Strategies are the initiatives that will allow you to realize your goals. These should answer the question of “how” the company plans to communicate to its customers. For example, a restaurant might devise a strategy for becoming a go-to family gathering place on Monday nights, in the hopes of meeting its overall revenue goals. Or, a backup software company might create a strategy for focusing on a certain customer niche, like publishing companies or law firms, in order to support its own expectations.
Define Your Tactics
These are the tools of the trade. Identify the channels of your communications strategy here, such as social media, blogging, digital advertising, direct response marketing, or media relations. Be as specific as possible. It’s not enough to simply list a bunch of marketing channels – describe how they will be used. Consider the strategies you’ve identified above. Do your tactics support them?
Build a Schedule and a Budget
Now that you have a set of tasks to complete, put them on a schedule. Identify who “owns” each task, and list anticipated completion dates. Keep your team accountable and abreast of approaching deadlines. Also, is your marketing and communications budget in line with the strategies you plan to implement? Talk with vendors, publishers, printers and anyone else that can give you the necessary cost information to make sure what you’re planning falls within your budget.
Keep it Alive
You’ll put a lot of work into this plan. The last thing you want is to see it relegated to a dusty corner in someone’s office. Marketing and communications strategies evolve. You might have to prioritize certain goals over others. Test and measure what’s working and update your plan accordingly.
The press release, that tried and true tactic used by companies and PR practitioners for eons, has gone through quite an evolution over the past decade or so. Before the age of the Internet, the press release was generally only seen by, you know, the press. Companies and their PR agencies would distribute the announcement and hope that it was compelling enough to warrant a story.
Today, the release plays a more dynamic role. Social media and company websites allow for direct communication and interaction with customers. Releases are generally drafted with multiple audiences in mind – including journalists, customers and industry analysts.
But there is one additional “audience” that should not be forgotten – search engine spiders, or web crawlers. These automated bots constantly scour the Web for content, and their findings are used to determine which websites are shown when an individual conducts a search using various keywords. If you anticipate that your press release will be posted anywhere online – your website, through a newswire, or any media outlet with an online presence, then it’s important to consider the language used from a search engine’s perspective.
For example, if your business provides computer data cloud storage solutions, and you’re announcing upgraded security protections for customers, give the release a heavy dose of the technical upgrades you’re offering and how your customers will benefit. Generic, over-used language – groundbreaking, world-class, revolutionary – not only gets on readers’ nerves, it also does nothing for search engine optimization. The classic Gobbledygook Manifesto [PDF] shows just how frequently these terms are used – and the more often a term is used, the more competition there is for the attention of the search engine crawlers. Detailed, descriptive keywords are more effective in generating meaningful website traffic.
Press releases are a mainstay for public relations campaigns. By keeping search engine crawlers in mind when crafting the language within them, releases can continue to provide benefits for a long time.
This is Part 5 in a five-part series titled The Art of the Pitch.
Part 1, Four Factors That Make for an Ideal Pitch, can be found here.
Part 2, Doing Your Pitch Homework, can be found here.
Part 3, Crafting the Pitch, can be found here.
Part 4, Sending the Pitch, can be found here.
The most important piece for any media relations campaign is the source itself. After all, what good is a carefully crafted pitch if the interviewee is underprepared? It’s often the job of the PR agency to make sure that the source being interviewed knows what to say, how to say it, and how to handle any curveballs during the interview. Below are a few tricks that help to ensure your source is prepped and ready to go.
Opportunity briefs are summaries of the upcoming media opportunity that describe the focus of the interview, the media outlet, the journalist’s background and previous works, and logistical details such as time, location and estimated duration of the interview. Opportunity briefs serve to help give the source a better understanding of the Who, What, When, Where and Why.
Some journalists are willing to provide questions in advance to make sure the source is ready to give the most detailed, organized answer possible. Questions won’t be available in advance every time, but it’s usually worth checking just in case. Knowing what will be asked is obviously a tremendous help.
We could spend a lot of time covering what goes into media training and why it can be so important, but that’s for another blog entry. However it’s worth discussing that media training can be an essential exercise for interview sources, especially if they are inexperienced in dealing with the media. Just like any other skill, practice makes perfect. Media training sessions may cover different things depending on the type of interview – is the source going to be on camera, or speaking by phone? Will there be a press conference? Sometimes media training might be geared toward a specific interview on the horizon, while other training might focus on general preparedness. Either way, it can be an invaluable tool for helping a source feel comfortable and ready to handle the upcoming situation.
This is Part 4 in a five-part series titled The Art of the Pitch.
Part 1, Four Factors That Make for an Ideal Pitch, can be found here.
Part 2, Doing Your Pitch Homework, can be found here.
Part 3, Crafting the Pitch, can be found here.
Once your story pitch is teed up and ready to go, all you’ve got to do is send it, right? Well, sort of. While it’s easy enough to send off your story suggestion to the journalists on your list, it’s worth considering a few things before doing so.
One at a Time
We discussed the need to “keep it custom” in Part 3, but it’s worth reiterating here. Emails that begin with “Hello”, “Dear Sir”, or another generic introduction tell the recipient that your pitch was sent to multiple targets at once, making it less likely to be considered. Journalists favor exclusivity. Something as simple as addressing them by name, with a pitch that clearly indicates it’s been written for their needs, has a better shot at success.
That’s not to say that using a system to send multiple pitches at once is always a bad idea, but it’s helpful to weigh the benefits (speed, convenience) against the potential drawbacks.
Try to Avoid Fridays
Generally, Fridays are when companies and politicians release unfavorable news. There are reasons for this – generally media consumption is lighter on Saturdays, and by Monday there will (hopefully) be other, more recent news to cover. For media pitches, there is another reason to wait until Monday: if the email goes unread on Friday, it will be buried deep within the inbox by Monday morning.
Exceptions include breaking news on a Friday that you’ll want your source to be a part of, or publications that have midweek deadlines. In those cases, Friday isn’t such a bad option – but the earlier in the day, the better.
Careful With the Follow-Ups
Routinely and without fail, one of the biggest pet peeves cited by the media about PR people is receiving an immediate phone call after an email was received, in which the PR person says, “Just confirming that you received our press release.” Chances are they saw it, and they’ll write about it if it’s compelling. Calling immediately to follow up will probably land you in the reporter’s dog house and might do more harm than good.
There’s no official rule for when to follow-up, but I generally try to allow for a buffer period of at least 24 hours – possibly several days depending upon what type of medium I’m pitching and the urgency of the story. And when I do get a journalist on the line, I’m quick to ask if it’s a good time to speak before launching into the reason for my call. A little courtesy goes a long way.
Part 5 of The Art of the Pitch will be posted next week, in which we’ll discuss “Preparing the Expert Source”.
Once you’ve got a compelling story idea, an expert source at the ready, and a particular journalist in mind, it’s time to write that pitch. How well this is done can be the difference between an interview and an express route to the trash bin. Consider following these simple steps for maximum likelihood of success.
Keep it Short
The journalist you’re contacting is likely under a current deadline. Chances are also excellent that they constantly receive unprompted story suggestions, some of which are only marginally relevant to their beat. They don’t have time to read a novel, so you’d better get to the point quickly.
Don’t beat around the bush. Use the subject line to quickly summarize why you’re writing. Tell them what the story is, your source’s credentials, and what they can offer. A general rule of thumb to follow is three paragraphs maximum – and by paragraphs, I mean 2-4 sentences per paragraph.
Keep it Interesting
This is a no-brainer that can also be difficult to get right. I generally try not to get too cute when pitching journalists, but I don’t want to be overly vanilla either. Strive for punchy, concise copy that tells the reporter exactly how you envision the story, and your source’s compelling role within that story.
Keep it Custom
Whenever possible, tailor the pitch for the journalist that’s receiving it. Mention the publication. Talk about an upcoming issue for which this story would be a perfect fit. Make sure they know that you wrote this pitch with them specifically in mind.
And whatever you do, don’t use the salutations “Dear Sir or Madam”, “Hello”, or another generic greeting that basically screams “You’re on a mass media list and every one of them got this exact pitch.”
Part 4 of The Art of the Pitch will be posted next week, in which we’ll discuss “Sending the Pitch”.
This is Part 2 in a five-part series titled The Art of the Pitch. Part 1, Four Factors That Make for an Ideal Pitch, can be found here.
Know the Subject
In order to create an effective media pitch, a PR practitioner should know the industry well enough to know why this particular pitch is relevant.
“This could have a major impact on the industry” by itself is probably the biggest cop-out you can have in a media pitch. It suggests that the PR person hasn’t done enough research to know what impact, if any, there might actually be. Show, don’t tell, is a common theme used by journalists, and it should apply just as well for PR practitioners. Does the story you’re suggesting change legal precedent? Make us safer? Provide a new or better service to society? Improve upon an existing product in a meaningful way? General platitudes about “impact,” “shakeup”, and “trends”, without explanation or elaboration, will get you nowhere.
Know the Media
It’s not enough to know the industry – you’ve got to know the media that covers that industry. What outlets have covered this subject before? Which ones have done the best job? Is there a specific beat reporter, or should you go through an assignment editor?
Some publications allow contributed articles; some do not. Some have daily deadlines; others plan stories for weeks or more. Has the story you’re pitching been covered to death already? These are highly relevant details that should help shape your outreach.
Know the Journalist
Part of the PR professional’s job is to put him or herself in the shoes of the journalist. Make sure you’ve got the right contact before firing off that email. Try to avoid the “shotgun” approach in which you simply replace the name at the top and blast out a pitch to 100 people. Have they covered this issue or service before?
Customize. Empathize. Humanize. This approach may take longer, but it will likely yield better results.
Part 3 of The Art of the Pitch will be posted next week, in which we’ll discuss “Crafting the Pitch”.
This is part one in a five-part series titled The Art of the Pitch. Join us each Friday from May 4 through June 1 as we discuss successful media outreach strategies.
Just as advertisers try to “pitch” consumers a message they hope will resonate, public relations professionals pitch journalists with suggestions for stories, on behalf of their clients. But not all pitches are created equal, and it helps to understand what circumstances create the most favorable conditions for eventual media exposure.
For our purposes, let’s assume you’ve got a fully-prepared spokesperson ready and available to do an interview . All you need to do is secure and arrange the opportunity.
#1 – Business Relevance
The most vital step in any media relations program is to consider what kinds of coverage make the most sense from a business perspective. Coverage in the Baltimore Sun likely won’t do much good for a business that operates solely in Seattle, for example, nor will coverage in a consumer interest publication for a B-to-B manufacturer. If you want to sell more widgets, focus on the media whose audience may be interested in those widgets.
#2 – Current Events
News, by definition, is the reporting of a recent event. Journalists need sources to comment on these events, so the more you can match the needs of your source to the needs of the journalist, the better it is for everyone.
General, how-to stories work well enough, but the most successful pitches address a current event and provide a source for commentary.
#3 – Source Expertise
This one may seem obvious, but it’s worth considering for a moment whether the topic you’re pitching aligns with the expertise of your spokesperson. Sometimes PR people get a little trigger-happy with the media relations before doing due diligence with the source, and that’s a mistake. For example, with our law firm clients we are careful to check that a certain case or court ruling is something they’ve been following, and could speak about with authority.
The last thing you want is to secure an interview with a journalist, only to have the source decline because they’re not familiar with the subject.
#4 – Timeliness
The world of public relations revolves rapidly. What’s hot today is old news by tomorrow. Media deadlines are short, so timely outreach is vital. PR departments (and their agencies) need to pay close attention to what’s making news (or better yet, what’s likely to be making news in the near future). Make sure that your spokespeople are available and not, say, taking a cross-country flight in the next few hours after pitching an interview. Journalists won’t wait.
This is a bird’s-eye view of four critical elements that make for an ideal media pitch. Part 2 of The Art of the Pitch will be posted next week, in which we’ll discuss “Doing Your Pitch Homework”.
Law firm public relations is a tricky and competitive business. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the United States has about 759,000 lawyers. When a national news story of legal importance breaks, many of them would love to be a quoted source of expertise within that story. Unfortunately, the math suggests that most will be disappointed if they simply email the Wall Street Journal, offering to contribute. So what is an enterprising, media-friendly attorney to do?
Find your niche. And no, your practice area doesn’t count. It is a starting point. For example, for every attorney that focuses on United States patent law, there are thousands with the same qualifications. By narrowing the scope of your media relations efforts, you winnow the field, qualify your story prospects and better your chances of responding in a timely and helpful fashion to specific media opportunities. Go beyond “patent law” and find areas that match your background on which to focus. The human genome. Business method patents. Semiconductors. Major litigation. Something, anything, that creates a more specific public relations agenda will do wonders for your efforts.
After months of careful planning and preparation, a company launches its new product. The news media picks up the story. A prominent publication features an article online, and the reviews are glowing. Congratulations on the great PR coverage!
But wait, what’s this? Dozens of comments attached to this very article? Well, how flattering. Let’s just click these and see what the kind readers have to say…
Uh-oh. You’ve just entered the Danger Zone of online media – the comments section. These anonymous, thinly-moderated forums attached to most articles can be mocking, misinformed, off-topic and downright nasty. Do you respond? Complain to the editor? Ignore them? Tell your PR firm to begin an Astroturf campaign to drown out the nay-sayers? (I am kidding about this last one.)
Here are a few suggestions for dealing with the comments section. Keep in mind that each situation is unique and appropriate responses may vary.
Keep an eye on the comments, but don’t overreact. People will make disparaging remarks. Welcome to the Internet. The vocal minority has the megaphone, and they are not afraid to use it. Don’t mistake a few negative responses for general public opinion. Except for extreme situations, plan on letting much of this stuff slide.
If some comments offer legitimate, specific points of criticism, respond using your full name and title, and remain emotionally neutral. This can be a powerful rejoinder, serving to diffuse hostility and bring some light to the situation. People, even anonymous ones, appreciate companies that are willing to engage at a personal level. In this situation it also helps to have social media channels at the ready. If you’ve felt the need to respond via comments, chances are you should also make a statement via Twitter, Facebook and the company blog.
Notify the journalist or website moderator. Sometimes online discussions can turn downright hateful. Some media police for this sort of thing, but it’s not unreasonable to pick up the phone to alert them of something that’s attached to your story that needs removal. Hate speech, racism and profanity would fall into this category. But be careful to only use this option when necessary; calling to complain about all the negative comments in your story, frustrating as they may be, will probably get you nowhere while also irritating the journalist that wrote the story. Choose your battles carefully.
Comment sections are the Wild West of online media. By proactively monitoring and responding to each case as appropriate, companies can keep tabs on what is being said, offer direct responses when appropriate, and help keep the worst offenders at bay.