Tag Archives: PR

Know Your Audience

7 Nov

Knowing your audience is a fine art. This is my favorite quote from Ron Alsop’s book The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation, one that concisely sums up the spirit of being keenly aware of your audience, and their influencers:

“The stakeholder pyramid isn’t a static structure.”

What this means is that we’ve got to be constantly on top of the groups that are interpreting our image in the public space. They may or may not be customers. A good example Alsop provides is the Calvin Klein ads, noteworthy for those of us who first wore designer jeans in the 1980s. Although I looked nothing like Brooke Shields, I did love my Calvins. For the record, I had ONE pair. Lots of others loved their Calvins. They sent a message of youthful je ne sais quoi and corset-like zipped-upness.

imagesThe Calvin Klein ad campaign grew and developed into involvement of younger and younger models, which raised eyebrows for some. In the 90s, Klein’s underwear campaign became infamous for the heroin chic look of models like Kate Moss, known by her gaunt face and bag-of-bones body. At this point, the fashion popularity of Klein was very high, but his reputation began to suffer because of what older people—not his demographic—thought of the ad campaign.

For a long time, it was okay to push the envelope, with ads that were more and more risque, but that only has so much staying power. People pay attention, and they don’t put up having their intelligence be insulted.

The same type of phenomenon happened to Victoria’s Secret. When the company began, their brand promise went something like this: We make lingerie for real women, who are somewhat modest and have zero interest in tacky feather-laden teddies from Frederick’s of Hollywood. We will properly fit you for a brassiere that is uniquely for you, and will last for five years. But a couple of years ago, VS was selling Fredericks-esque teddies and trying to convince me that I needed to throw away perfectly good a year-old class of bras to buy Tyra Banks’ or Heidi Klum’s favorite because it was “just better bra technology.” Yeah, my foot.

What happened? How did they stray so far from their brand promise? VS did have very good success with its Pink line, for younger women, but they may have lost the market that has more money to spend: Women who are “of a certain age.”

Women who have daughters that are old enough to wear nice underwear…and want their daughters to buy nice underwear from a reputable, above-board shop. Yes, To Know Better is in that category, too. VS ended up with a tricky consumer with my demographic. I’m buying bras and panties from them, and my daughter is on the cusp of it. As a result, I am a proponent of VS keeping it clean. It’s only been recently that I have given VS another look, and it’s because they have started to get back to their brand promise. And I’ve wanted my daughter to have a better first bra-buying experience than my own, which involved my grandmother’s sudden bright idea of strapping on a training bra over top of my clothes in the middle of the Hart’s Department Store. For a 12-year-old girl, this was not a welcome experience.

So this is a good case in point for how much public perception matters. Even if Calvin Klein was not a proponent of heroin chic, or underage sex or people having to lay down on their beds to zip up their jeans, SOME people—influential people—in the investment community did believe so. And for Victoria’s Secret, their bread and butter consumer (yes, To Know Better and her friends) was not to be messed with.

Women with buying power are a force not to be manipulated. We stop spending when we get peeved. And even if a stakeholder group is not spending—like the investors that influenced Klein to get back on track with the basics—it is wise to monitor reputation with all key image-perceivers.

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Delis and Agencies: Lessons in Leadership

15 Sep

I wrote this post three years ago and am reposting due to the good nuggets in there. Made me a little bit sad to read as my first deli boss, Audrey Block, has since passed away.

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I started working when I was 14, at a Dairy Queen in Pickerington, Ohio. My commute involved a short but uphill bike ride to work, and a blissful downhill coast coming back home. Since then, I have worked at 14 places, including: six restaurants, one preschool, one au pair arrangement in France, two PR agencies, one university and one state agency.

Hands down, my favorite places to work have been those where true leadership reigned. The common theme was “here’s how we do it here,” but not in the McDonald’s way. The earliest examples were delis, all of which had standards for performance, built upon years of experience. And they were led by people with the ego strength of titans.

Audrey Block of Block’s Bagels is a good example. She never approved of my crazy mohawk or weird hair color, and made no bones about telling me so. She most liked the more carefully coiffed girls from Walnut Ridge High School who lived closer by. Probably because I was less presentable than these girls, Audrey had me come in to work at an ungodly hour, 6:30 a.m., to help the bakers take bread out of the ovens and pack it for delivery. Working with bakers is tough. They are an unforgiving lot, and I don’t think that they were very happy to be working with a little punk rock girl like me. I have never been quick in the morning, but this job made a keen set of reflexes absolutely necessary.

When you have hot loaves of bread being gunned your way by grumpy flour-covered men twenty years older than you, being light on your feet is a must. There are important people out there waiting for bread, and getting their order right is priority one. Being directly in the line of fire, I learned quickly. This was character-building at its best, both because of having to get up so early and because of not being cut any slack. Today, when I go into Block’s with my two kids, Audrey is always amazed that by all outward appearances I turned out normal, and she makes sure I know it. My kids have no idea what she is talking about and just think she’s a very opinionated grandmotherly figure.

Another common theme among my favorite leadership styles is this: We will teach you how to do it right, but if you want to put your own, individual stamp on the work–if it means adding quality that keeps people coming back–then be our guest. Even more: If you have a personality, please let it be known. It makes working here funner, and it makes our unique approach to service stand out in people’s minds. When waiting on people, throw some personality into it. For goodness’ sakes, don’t be shy. Feel free to give people a hard time if they can take it. They’ll remember you for engaging them in the sales process.

Katzinger‘s is probably the best case in point. This deli is anti-flair (ever seen Office Space?) but pro-individuality. Diane Warren ruled (and continues to rule) the roost. She’s small but mighty. All cheese had to be labeled with a hand-made sign, faced appropriately and wrapped so tightly that customers had a clear view of the goods. There is a special deli secret to doing this, so that you cannot even tell that the cheese has been wrapped.

And another thing…THE most important thing: TELL A STORY. This helps people to remember what you’re selling. Lack of interactivity in sales is a killer. If there’s not a story that goes along with that 15-year-old cheese, then why bother? The story should involve either a monk or a Red Riding Hood Grandmother-esque character involved in making the product. Preferably in an exotic or isolated location.

My deli learnings eventually led me into public affairs and public relations. I’ve found that, when done well, agency leadership models the discipline and passion that my deli leaders upheld. It makes a difference when a leader of any business–deli or agency–comes into the office every day, armed with the rigor and the vigor to make a difference. Sitting quietly in one’s office doesn’t get it. Mingling with the people in the business and constantly thinking about what’s next is what builds a business.

And another thing, which is the true measure of a leader: Let your people live up to their potential. My current leaders set the tone for how it’s done, and they expect everyone to go well beyond. There’s always a better way to do the work. It’s about discipline, getting there early and staying late on some days. But more than that, leadership in the client-focused world is about cultivating creativity, so that our clients’ success reflects back on us. All of us are leaders in one way or another, and the best organizations’ leaders know it. Good agency leaders are not offended when associates ask questions and try to improve business processes. Holding people accountable and expecting them to take on responsibility is the best compliment a leader can give.

In my last eight months at my current agency, I’ve seen this ethic hard at work. There’s always more to do, but the trick is in approaching best practices slightly differently each day. Quality is a given. What should be different is how we constantly improve how we do the work, so that we are always making it more of a challenge for ourselves. This is how we distance ourselves from the same old/same old…how we build business during challenging times.

Who knows, maybe I will start riding my bike to work, just like I did 27 years ago for my first job at the DQ. If it helps me to think differently in the process, then I’m one step ahead of the expected.

Strunked, or ‘Omit Needless Words’

10 Sep

Every year, there are two books that I re-read, at different seasons. At Christmastime, it’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (a poem, but the size of a book) because it has end of old year and start of new year themes. At back-to-school time, I re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. This post tells a bit about why.

I’m a bit of a language geek. I think about it a lot in my spare time. I enjoyed diagramming sentences in 8th grade, and I wrote my honors thesis for undergrad on Cajun French morphemes.

Words matter to me, and putting them together smartly, in particular in the business world, is the difference between grabbing or losing an important person’s attention. I write for a living, so for me it’s a practical matter. And it’s just plain enjoyable for me to read this tightly written book about being a better writer.

While the book includes many “how-to’s,” it is also chock-full of humor on the side.  For instance:

Rather, very, little, pretty–these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.

(First sentence to explain the rule: “Avoid the use of qualifiers.”)

The history of the book is also worth knowing. Many don’t realize that E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) kept the book alive “with” his Cornell professor William Strunk Jr, albeit after Strunk had passed. Professor Strunk wrote the book for his English undergraduates in the early 1910s, and White was one of them. Years later, the publisher Macmillan asked White to re-work the book for more widespread use, and White stayed true to the “little book” that Strunk created. The first edition was published in 1959, and since then there have been another four additions, each containing updates that keep it current.

The Elements of Style has become a necessary and nearby bookshelf item for all writers. Consider these words of wisdom that everyone tries to remember, without realizing their origins in the mind of Strunk (and White):

  • Omit needless words.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  • Nice: A shaggy, all-purpose word, to be used sparingly in formal composition.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Avoid fancy words.
  • Be clear.

I received my most recent edition from Bob Boltz (the most precise writer and honest editor I know) when working at Columbus, Ohio PR firm the Cochran Group. Bob would probably appreciate that I have threatened to give my daughter, newly a freshman at The Charles School, her very own copy of the book. She has indicated more than once that she’d rather I didn’t. If only these young kids would appreciate the wisdom buried in Strunk’s “little book!”

Here’s a closing thought from Strunk, called in E.B. White’s preface to the 1979 edition:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word should tell.

“Tell,” indeed. Every piece of writing should tell a story without “unnecessary” embellishment.

What’s the point? The best writing is created from the heart but polished by the discipline of the mind.

Managing Crises with Finesse

4 Jan
A crisis may feel like this, but remember that everything has a beginning, a middle and an ending.

A crisis may feel like this, but remember that everything has a beginning, a middle and an ending.

The words “crisis” and “finesse” do not belong together, but reputation-master Ronald Alsop combines them anyway. A crisis can be a defining moment for a company: Successful crisis management can separate a company from the pack—in a good or a not so good way.

You cannot prevent crisis, but you can keep it from spinning out of control. No plan is bullet-proof, but get as close as you can. Here are some important components that Alsop and others identify for bullet-resistant crisis management:

  1. Create a crisis team comprised of a balanced set of expertise. It should include representation from PR, legal and IT, in addition to line function representation. Everyone on the team should be quick-thinking and accurate to a fault. The leader should be the President or CEO, and the spokesperson should be a cool-headed and seasoned (not too much seasoning) member of the PR team.
  2. Define possible crisis scenarios. These can be grouped into various categories, such as natural disasters, human error (e.g., employee misconduct, corporate ethics issues) and product or service flaws. In order to best define these, work with your line managers. Ask them what they worry the most about—what keeps them up at night. Also make sure to list any crises that have been faced by your competitors, because it is likely that you could face the same issues at some point in time.
  3. Prioritize crisis management based upon probability of occurrence and level of risk to the company’s reputation  if the crisis should come to pass. You can set up a grid and work through each scenario based upon the combination of these two factors.
  4. Map out a plan of response for each scenario. High probability/high reputation damage risk  scenarios should be explored first because a crisis management approach is most crucial in these cases.
  5. Set up a crisis command center. The command center should be a “war room” where the team can convene and extend its tentacles as needed to take action.
  6. Create a crisis reference book. This should include all relevant contact information, protocols given various scenarios, templated releases for categories of crisis (natural disaster, human error such as corporate misconduct and product issues), and flow charts stepping through key steps in the reaction process.
  7. Put your staff through their paces with crisis simulations. The crisis team, and other staff, should routinely be exposed to mock crisis scenarios to test response time and accuracy. These can be announced or unannounced by management. Fire drills are a good test of your company’s crisis smarts.

Sugarloaf Mountain and Its Crisis Communications Win

31 Dec

NOTE: This is my perspective on the Sugarloaf chair lift accident on December 28, 2010. Although I did not eyewitness the accident itself, I did see the rescue efforts and PR response in person.

While the MOST important point of the day was the successful treatment of injuries and rescue of those stranded on the lift, I wanted to commend the stellar efforts of the resort staff from a communications perspective. Safety comes first — and I’m grateful for the fact that everyone injured seems to be healing — but there’s an important “oh by the way” here to congratulate Sugarloaf’s marcom team. Because I do this work with clients every day, seeing it successfully unfold in person — by a staff that does not handle crisis every day — was a unique experience. I hope that this case study is helpful to others.

The rescue process at Sugarloaf on 12/28/10. Image courtesy of nephew Nathan Roehrer

What’s every skier’s worst nightmare? Not being stuck on a Black Diamond or falling and breaking a leg.

It’s a chair lift accident. You can get pretty high-up in those things, and if you think about it too much the situation can seem slightly precarious. Every time I look up at the cable that my chair moves along via that smallish hook, I get a little bit nervous. All of us do, on some level.

My family of four, along with 10 in-laws, was at Sugarloaf Mountain on December 28, 2010, when the chair lift accident happened at about 10:30 am. People on five chairs between two towers where the cable derailed fell 20-30 feet to the ground — fortunately onto two feet of newly fallen snow. Eight of those who fell were taken to the hospital, none with life-threatening injuries. This news report includes video from one of those in the section that fell.

Our group had just exited the chair lift from our condo when the accident happened. It was a beautifully clear day, albeit windy. The temperature was about nine degrees, well below zero with wind chill, so everyone was in face masks and goggles. We came up from the condo late because we knew that many of the lifts were closed due to the wind.

I didn’t know there was a problem until about 10:35, when the chair lifts in the area of the accident were all closed to let rescue crews and medics up the mountain. A chair lift operator  informed me and my daughter that there’d been an accident on another lift and that other lift personnel were mobilized to help out. The info provided by that employee was calmly and succinctly delivered, and I remember that no one around us was panicking or worrying. We saw the Snowcats and snowmobiles zooming up the hill past us. They were all moving quickly, and everyone got out of their way.

View from a lift at Sugarloaf on 12/28/10. Image courtesy of nephew Nathan Roehrer.

Soon afterwards, I’d say within 30-45 minutes, the other lifts started back up again. My daughter and I rode Whiffletree up the hill and came down by the Spillway East lift — the one where the accident occurred. We saw the rescue staff unloading people with a pulley system. The usual crowds were at the resort, and everyone seemed to be going about their business and not worrying about the situation.

In the mid-afternoon, around 3 pm, my daughter and I stopped at the base lodge, where a news crew from a French-Canadian station was interviewing a resort employee who spoke French. Everything was handled very professionally.

Some key points for how Sugarloaf staff did it right:

  1. Messaging was provided in a timely fashion, without speculation or inconsistency. This included video provided by the resort of rescue drills. There was a CNN employee on-site the day of the accident, providing live updates as things occurred. Being under the news microscope is tough, and the Loaf’s staff were up to the challenge.
  2. Information was put on the resort’s homepage with regular updates on the incident. I’m not sure whether there was a dark site already prepared with messaging to handle any chair lift accident. Whether it was written on the fly or in advance, it was done well.
  3. Consistent reports were also provided on the Facebook page, as well as on Twitter and in forums, in a more informal tone that was appropriate for the medium.
  4. There have been a fair number of snarky comments on news sites, and even a few on the Sugarloaf Facebook page. Most of the comments seem to be critical of Boyne, the resort owners, or random comments about how attorneys will take advantage of the situation. I can’t find any evidence of Sugarloaf staff responding back in kind. All of the communications have been on-point and informational, without backlash or inappropriate response by employees. Big brands like Nestle (remember their less than sweet 2010 Facebook incident?) could learn a thing or two.
  5. This is a great case for how brand loyalty can carry an organization through crisis. There has been so much support shared online for the resort and its staff, as well as through “victim” testimonials in interviews by news media. Every video I saw of someone on the lift said that they will be coming back.

Some thoughts on how the Loaf could have improved upon their already very good effort:

  1. I would like to see a video statement from Sugarloaf leadership. This would have made their message more genuine and less “one step removed” than written statements. There’s a well-populated YouTube channel for the resort that would be well-complemented by a statement from leadership expressing concern for those injured and articulating a safety and go-forward strategy. The video would also be helpful on the resort’s website — in particular on the homepage. Even if it’s rough — as in the Domino’s example from 2009 — it demonstrates attention and caring.
  2. The special page dedicated to the incident only includes the latest press release. No false advertising here….it says so on the homepage. Having all of them in one place would be more helpful for people who want to see everything. I like the way it’s organized on the media page.

Clearly, Sugarloaf is well-loved by its devotees. This was my first visit, and I have to say that the professionalism of the staff and the beauty of the site and quality of the skiing will all bring me back.

Not Your Mother’s News Media

21 Jan

A post from the Werth Mentioning blog — one part of my day job.

Social Media Time Management

26 Oct

514845946_7922cff51aWhat’s that sucking sound? It’s the sands of time, the ticking clock and and my unfinished to-do list — all being eaten whole by Facebook, Twitter and my blog. I have succumbed to the time-sink of social media, and I’m all too keenly aware of my addiction. How do people draw the line between true engagement and online time-wasting?

It’s a difficult habit to kick when it partially drives the economic engine of my professional livelihood. Working in public relations, I feed the beasts of my own personal social media presence as well as my agency’s and certain clients.

I was recently asked a question about this on a panel. The question was: How do you find the time to “do” social media for yourself and clients? Doesn’t it take up all of your time?

The answer? It can if you let it. The best way to carve out the time is to set limits on how much time to devote to each social media footprint. The worst thing for me is to leave my time wide open. When I do that, I get caught up in “the zone,” or my “flow” space, where I lose all track of time. This is fairly self-indulgent for me—although it feels good in the moment, I can’t usually afford to let my time evaporate. I’ve got a family to get home to, client deadlines to meet and other normal life to-dos.

I try to spend 30 minutes on each Twitter account per day, 15 each in the morning and the afternoon or evening. With the blog, it’s a couple of hours a week. Just one post a week, usually. And then I’m reading others’ blogs through my reader, usually an hour a day.

Then there’s Facebook. How much sharing is enough, really? I try to limit myself to sharing just a few items per day of others’ content, with a couple of status updates and/or content of my own. This one is my real weakness, because I pore through information obsessively and tend to think that everyone should also ready the cool stuff I’ve come upon. This is where I have to reign myself in and exercise some judgment about not oversharing.

There are people I’ve friended that I filter out of my feed because they are constantly putting up stuff from third-party sources. To me, that’s as bad as someone telling me the minute details of their life second by second. Get original. Have your own thoughts and insights.

It does add up, all told. At least 10 hours a week for myself, probably another 15 or so for work-related items. When examined like this, the opportunity cost of social media becomes more stark. What real-life experiences am I missing due to social media interactions? How much outside time am I sacrificing?

What are others’ experiences? Amber Naslund, Director of Community at Radian6,  just put up a good post about time management in the midst of social media. Bottom line, it’s about knowing one’s goals and setting priorities aligned with them. She shares helpful information to guide social media priorities.

For me, it’s all about the balance. Easy to write about, not easy to strike!