Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How to turn a question

Matt Lauer at NBC's "Today" show has been the subject of a few media training examples. The latest is how Anne Hathaway handled his extremely inappropriate question about her "wardrobe malfunction."  For those who do media training, use this as an example of how to take a remark and turn the discussion back to your key messages.  Of course, an actress stands a better chance at deliver than a CEO, but the key point here is that she obviously thought about this potential question and the issue coming up in an interview - and rehearsed a response.

It's all about preparation.

Another classic media training moment involving Lauer was when he was interviewing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz about the company's launch of a jobs programs.  Schultz stuck to his messages in spite of an effort by Matt to make the company's initiative appear to be something else. (Check out the PRSA blog on that one.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Holidays are ideal..for stories

The Thanksgiving weekend proved once again in my belief that long weekends are the perfect opportunity for feature stories about your client or issue.

A thorough scan of stories in print and online from Thursday through Monday, Nov. 26 suggest many missed opportunities for my profession. New cycles are shorter. Consider that the elections - and all the accompanying attention - were long over.  Stories about Sandy were fading.  Even the "fiscal cliff" is barely dictating huge amounts of coverage (although it should, given what my taxes may look like  next year). Hard news did not rule the day on Page One.

As I have sounded many times before, a long holiday weekend means reporters are required to fill multiple editions of news.  They are forced to "pre-write" a ton of stories just to fill the pages and airwaves that are Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.  Editors and news organization owners have not and will not carry a full staff on a holiday weekend. This extra duty on reporters typically means they want to crank out easy features. They simply don't have time to be choosy or to do in-depth reporting or investigative journalism. They may have just three days to fill seven days of news.

The evidence is clear.  Go back to your papers and TV websites. What I saw  were multitudes of stories that have been lingering for a while - features that likely would not make it any other time of year.

What a few enterprising PR pros did is this: Right after the elections they pitched a story that is important, but not immediate. They usually add the line: "You've got some time to work on this." If you provide the complete package and not force a reporter to make a lot of calls, it makes their lives easier. They have a couple of weeks to work on it and file it way before the holiday.

What kind of story fits this bill?  Obviously, holiday-related ones rise to the top. People (including reporters) are sentimental this time of year. They want the "human angle."  If you represent non-profits, now is the perfect time to develop the story about the plights of non-profits during the holidays (or how changes in tax law will hurt).  If there is a story you've wanted in print for a long time, now is the time to re-examine the angle and figure out why anyone would care today?  Do you have an issue or project/product in development that will rise (good or bad) to public attention in the first quarter of 2013?  Now is the time to set the "mood" for the debate and bring out the first one or two building blocks to what likely will be a complicated or ongoing issue.Look at trends: What is different about Christmas in 2012? For instance, no big-ticket kid movies are opening between Thanksgiving and Christmas. What does that mean to toys and other products that depend on big movies?

Always find the "real" people of your story, too.  Many stories are told from the individual in the center of the news.

Our next opportunity is a big one.  With Christmas and New Years falling on Tuesdays - that means reporters have a total of 12 days of news to fill in advance.  Each week it starts with Saturday and goes until Wednesday.  That means any story development must begin this week and pitches concluded by Dec. 7. (do it by Dec. 5 or the following Monday since some reporters will still do Pearl Harbor day stories).  Right now, reporters are starting to develop their 2013 trends pieces.  How are businesses gearing up for the new year?

Of course, a few of my colleagues like to surmise that a story published or broadcast during this period is meaningless - since "no one is reading or watching the news during the holidays."  But most ratings and surveys suggest otherwise. And, with stories remaining "alive" via online, it's easy to repurpose these to your heart's content.

Friday, July 13, 2012

All in a day's work

Water battles in California usually end up (or begin) in the public relations arena. 

Today's LA Times story points out that PR firms were hired for competing interests in a long-running battle in CA's desert to pump, store and move water to serve urban SoCal.  (Disclosure: I was on "both sides" of this issue - first representing Cadiz, then working for the Metropolitan Water District).

While this particular reporter has long made it a habit to point out when PR firms are used in water battles, as if to say "Hey, this is wrong, right?", the mention simply highlights "why" public outreach and strategic communications are a needed, must-have professional service.

This is especially true with a highly emotional and high-stakes item as water in California.

(I know - this sounds self-serving, given my firm has water clients.)

Yet, the plain truth is evident:  Public support is needed for most major water issues in the West.  And, the only way to get public support is....through "public" relations.

Let's face it:  the world is full of information all competing for our attention. A public relations firm provides valuable services to:

  • Call attention to an issue.
  • Help package all the facts in a way that makes sense
  • Provide answers to common questions
  • Respond to allegations, charges and attacks
There is a lot of work that goes into this:  research, developing strategies to effectively reach your audiences and make sure they are receiving the information in the "way" they want to receive it, monitor what is being said about the issue, anticipating where the campaign will go, contacting news organizations, building websites, designing brochures, holding community meetings...and the list goes on.

The common misconception is that PR firms "spin" their audiences or the issues.Wrong.  The best PR firms simply make sure the facts for their client's side are presented and given proper consideration.  The better term is that we "argue" on behalf of our clients - much like a lawyer would in court.  The really good PR firms will even acknowledge to news reporters the "failings" or vulnerabilities of their client's side of the story because we know no one is perfect. 

All in a day's work for a PR firm. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pay up front?

In light of another California city going bankrupt, it probably makes sense for PR agencies to negotiate deposits and up-front payments from their public agency contracts? 

Previously, such a demand would have been rejected by cities, counties, etc.  However, if a municipality really wants your services, they will find a way to "retain" you.  When I managed a technology team, we demanded from start-ups at least one-half of the monthly amount at the beginning of the month. This same formula could be tolerable for public agencies.

So, I implore all agencies to stick together on this one.  When finances improve, we can relax these demands.  What we don't need now is for public agencies to find the agency willing to accept shaky terms.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Conflicting stories

Putting aside the PR pen for a moment....

We may be returning to the old news of journalism.  When this country was founded, cities had multiple newspapers.  However, most of these papers carried their own unique bias or agenda, usually tied to the political party or movement they supported.  So, getting the complete and unvarnished truth was difficult to get from just one newspaper. 

More than a century ago, Americans were forced to read three or four newspapers to assemble some idea of the "truth" and the complete facts.

Flash forward to 2012.  Now, it seems, we need to do the same.  Only this time we go online to scan stories on a TV news' website, or a news gathering site, or, gasp, newspapers. This extends overseas, too. My European friends living in the U.S. gleefully tell me they read news online from their home country news organizations and get a better sense of world events than what U.S. papers cover.  My couch potato friends in the U.S. gleefully tell me they get all their news from Access Hollywood.

Do we get all the facts from a single news source?  And can we trust a single news source to be accurate?

Case in point:  A major pileup occurred Tuesday, June 26, on a Southern California freeway I once travelled frequently, and in an area where I used to work as a journalist.  OK, so I have, perhaps, a keener interest in this one that most. But, it is a nasty piece of freeway and this pile-up may prompt some changes, I hope.

Most reports had the cause of this horrific crash as this:  The highway patrol slowed traffic to a stop so they could remove a table that had fallen out of some pickup truck.  But, a semi-tractor truck coming up behind this "traffic break" couldn't stop in time and slammed into dozens of vehicles.  Yet, when you read another newspaper's accounts - there is no mention of this.  The pile-up occurred, according to this one newspaper's account, when cars began hitting the wayward table, then each other. There is no mention of the "double-haul" truck.

Which story to believe?  The photos clearly show a double-haul tractor trailer rig in the mess.

When we have some much information to glean in a day about a variety of issues important to us, it's my belief the American public is actually relying on fewer outlets for their news.  The average person doesn't have time to read multiple versions of the same subject. If you have news aggregation, are your inbound news sources the best ones?

So, do we end up simply believing what we read on a daily basis...since we only have time to get the news of the day from a single source?  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

PR firms growing by double digits

The economy needs public relations.

PRWeek's annual listing of Agency revenue shows many firms enjoyed double-digit revenue growth in 2011 over the prior year.

As many experts predicted, companies around the world would turn to PR to help pull them out of the recession.  What this year's Agency Business Report showed was clearly a year in which PR firms were now getting beyond the triage work and focusing on helping businesses grow.  In a competitive market, PR firms continue to be a critical component in gaining market share and sales growth.

The rankings also indicate that companies continue to use multiple agencies for different PR efforts, particularly when it comes to social media.  Specialty firms, many based in San Francisco, are evidence that specialty practices can and are surviving. Of course, it doesn't hurt that major corporations such as Apple and Google are based their, either.  Innovation is contagious.

California continues to be home to many large agencies, although revenue for many either declined or was not as robust as with other agencies across the U.S. It would be interesting to know the CA revenue impact on FinnPartners (a "spinoff" from Ruder Finn after Ruder Finn after, among other things, the acquisition of the Rogers Group in 2011).  

Like many lists, the PRWeek compilation is not comprehensive. Many "name" agencies are not on this list, and many public affairs shops simply don't feel compelled to enter these listings. It's always best to look at the Holmes Report and microsite for a truer picture of the global PR agency scene.  If you are focused on the LA scene, the Los Angeles Business Journal tries its best to compile a ranking.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

PR in the thick of it

If there was any doubt about the value of public relations, or that PR is just as much a part of a company's or organization's DNA as, say, bookkeeping, a handful of stories today should further push those questions away.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are undergoing a major ownership change.  Fans are slowing coming back after the outgoing owner alienated a large sector of (former) ticket holders.  More needs to be done to "welcome" fans back and return the good feelings they once had about their home team and coming to the stadium.  Sure, a league-leading record is helping.  But as a Los Angeles Times sports reporter points out, the Dodger's in-house PR folks need to develop and implement more strategies and tactics to create better relationships between fans and team.

What's at stake?  Nothing less than the bottom line. 

It is through these professionally trained and experienced PR managers - and, we hope, with the blessing of executive management - that a series of well-planned and, possibly, well-researched steps will occur to build trust, creative positive impressions and rebuild the reputation of one of the more storied franchises in the country. 

These are carefully planned steps to build confidence and respect. This is not fluff.  These are not empty attempts to "spin" a story. 

(Note: Various PR pros, both in-house and with outside agencies, have worked with the Dodgers over the years.  The outgoing owner received some great advice, but many times chose to ignore it.  Given the legal and other issues that beset the former owner, it's hard to tell whether any amount of strategic PR counsel would have made a difference.  But, now, reputation building is front and center - and this is certainly a job best suited for professional public relations.)

The other stories involve battles between Southern California water agencies - and public relations strategies are part of the mix (for good or bad).  See stories and news releases here, here and here.

Similar to how political campaigns have recognized the advantages of social media and online news, a handful of water agencies have created websites and written letters to the editor to launch salvos at one another. 

Again, public relations strategies and tactics are considered an important component - because all seem focused on winning over the public to "their side." 


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Media moves in LA

As reported by my friend Kevin at LAObserved, there is a new president of the LA Newspaper Group - which runs all LA-area papers owned by MediaNews Group (of the Dean Singleton fame).

Since Jack Klunder was raised from the circulation side of the newspaper business, don't expect any major changes in how the news side operates. Which, in this case, doesn't resemble the previous glory days when Jack Kent Cooke owned the LA Daily News and before newspapers began losing massive amounts of money as the free news on the internet caused circulation declines.

Many newspapers are still struggling financially, which in turn means the quality of journalism has suffered because there are fewer journalist and many of the good ones have left for other work (like public relations!)

It's easy to focus on the ownership blues of the LA Times, but no one should forget that MediaNews is no longer run by Singleton, but by a hedge fund. And a hedge fund is not about to spend dollars without any short-term return.

So, it will be interesting to see if Mr. Klunder is here merely to maintain cost-controls, or if he has any specific marching orders. Cost cutting at the Daily News has left it with a skeleton news crew, including forcing some veteran editors to go back into reporting duties. Similar downsizing has left other newspapers in the group with very small newsrooms.

And with AOL rumored to cut staff at money-losing Patch, it will be a few more turbulent years in the greater LA news media market.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Opportunity, not tragedy

Perhaps I continue to live up to that silly notation in my high school yearbook. My best quality? Being an optimist.

But in PR, we constant advise clients that there are ways to turn a potentially negative issue into a positive one, to take the energy that might be generated over a controversy and use that to bring attention to a solution that you can control and win admiration for your stance.

Here is the latest example.

PETA is (sorry) losing its fur over over a proposed bill in Kansas that would make Toto the state dog. PETA, as reported here, believes such a move will create puppy mills to meet the eventual demand for cairn terriers. PETA doesn't have a problem naming a state dog, they would rather see it as a mutt, since, presumably, that is all you will find in shelters.

Here is your chance, PETA. Rather than take the usual negative stance that has hurt your image over the year, look for the opportunity to final leverage legislation and the money needed for enforcement to put puppy mills out of business. We all know the source of our coffee beans - to make sure we're getting them from a sustainable operation - why not a similar effort for the sale of pets?

Why not make Toto the face of a dog urging future pet owners to do the right thing?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Start your campaign engines

California public relations and public affairs firms which have done well in the past with high-profile state issue campaigns shouldn't be worried in 2012, and beyond.

Today, Gov. Brown reaffirmed his support for both the state's very expensive high-speed rail project (that will be completed when my grandchildren have grandchildren), and a $12 billion bond measure to upgrade the state's aging water system.

For now, it seems the state water bond will make it to the November ballot, although the dollar amount may shrink. In previous state water bonds, several PR, PA and advertising firms have received handsome amounts to help convince voters to check "yes." Somehow, somewhere the forces come together to rustle up enough cash to pay for these expensive campaigns.

The gov's support for high-speed rail may prompt a renewed effort to seek outside help for outreach after the rail authority pulled back on an RFP and announced it would hire more staff to do the job in-house. We'll see. What do you think, Ogilvy?

More good news: The economy is definitely picking up. More RFPs are going out and companies are turning more to PR for help, primarily because PR has assumed a leadership position in social media. Anyone with transportation experience should look at the RFP issued by the folks who run Southern California's massive Metrolink system. (If the link doesn't work, sign up for "planetbids."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Treated water ready for prime time?

Is recycled water past its "image problem"?

California and other parts of the world are coming to grips with a reality about water: Fresh supplies are available through recycling.

As parts of the United States deal with drought and billions of people around the world deal with access to fresh water, recycling is quickly becoming a critical solution.

Two major reports out this week should do wonders to put aside fears when taking water from sewage treatment plants and scrubbing it clean enough it to a point that we can drink it.

As covered in the Los Angeles Times, a National Research Council report said reclaimed water is as safe as conventional sources and greater use should be encouraged.

Meanwhile, engineers at Brown University reported on a new process that can remove heavy metals from water.

For now, various rules and regulations generally prohibit agencies from directly sending into our water pipes the very clean H2O that originated from a sewage treatment plant and was then scrubbed at a water recycling facility.

Today, this treated water can only be used for irrigation, injected underground (where Mother Nature is presumed to have a better handle on "scrubbing" this water), used for industrial purposes (companies want this highly treated water because of its nearly mineral-free quality) or other "non-potable" uses.

What's holding us back from sending this water into our households?

Perhaps it is fear. "Toilet to tap" is still an obstacle some water agencies face. This phrase, coined by a (failed) candidate for public office in Los Angeles, is one of the biggest public relations challenges when it comes to broad acceptance of recycled water. As PR pros well know, a negative label can stick much better than a positive and is hard to unwind.

Science tells us recycled water is safe. While new research and improved treatment technologies continues to help, PR pros have spent consider effort to erase perception and fear when it comes to reclaimed water.

When I speak about this topic, I remind people that (a) we are all drinking dinosaur pee and (b) the astronauts in the International Space Station are recycling 97 percent of their urine and perspiration for drinking water. The first part is silly, I know. But the second is meant to demonstrate that the science and technology are "here" to safely and effectively drink recycled water.

At a recent tour of the water recycling facility operated by the West Basin Municipal Water District (an update of a tour I took about 10 years ago), I drank recycled water. It tasted great. I'm still standing.

The journey to my lips began a few miles away at the massive Hyperion wastewater treatment plant where this water receives its first rounds of cleansing. Once at the West Basin facility, the water is squeezed through filters and membranes, then treated with an ultraviolet process. This final stage kills bacteria and viruses, rendering the water actually cleaner than what is being sent to many U.S. households.

The "UV" stage was added since my last tour and is the "killer app" for recycled water. It takes away the last imagined fear for the public - viruses. Less complicated UV systems are being constructed for use in undeveloped areas of the world, where fresh water is a much bigger issue.

In California, health officials will likely require more steps before agencies like West Basin can connect the "outflow" pipes from water recycling facilities to the pipes that send water to our homes. One likely step will be a 24/7, real-time monitoring (with online readouts) of this water as it is about to enter the drinking water system.

And you wonder why our water bills are going up.