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It’s a Disaster! Crisis Communications (Part 3)

May 29, 2014 by Kay Paumier

shutterstock_110330666My previous two posts discussed what to do before a crisis. Here is some advice on how to communicate if, in spite of your best efforts, a crisis occurs.

Your first steps are to mobilize the team and review your communications plan, modifying it to fit the situation, as needed. Then:

Respond quickly.

Whatever the crisis, your responses during the first 24 hours are very important. You need to demonstrate concern, care and empathy. People are often emotional. They will not “hear” rational arguments until you get past their emotions.

So deal with the feelings first. Specifically:

  • Express your concern. State that you’re trying to find out the cause (or describe the cause if you know it). Explain what is being done to correct the problem. Describe the steps being taken to assure it doesn’t happen again (if possible). It’s doubtful you will have all this information immediately, but you will probably be able to cover most of these points in the first few media briefings.
  • If anyone has been hurt or killed, express your condolences immediately. Be sympathetic. Do not reveal the victims’ names until the families have been personally notified.
  • Get bad news out quickly and move on. People are very forgiving, but they do not like to be deceived.
  • If a mistake has been made, admit it and try to rebuild credibility and confidence.
  • Accept responsibility, whether you’re actually to blame or not. No one thought Johnson & Johnson put cyanide in Tylenol in 1982. But the company recalled the product at a cost of approximately $100 million. Tylenol has continued to sell well. And, more than 30 years later, J&J’s handling of the Tylenol crisis is still regarded as the gold standard in effective crisis management.
  • Make your responses conversational in tone. On 9/11, Rudy Guiliani stood out as a caring, compassionate leader, partly because he spoke simply and clearly.
  • Point out anything that might be positive in the situation. Perhaps casualties were kept low because a comprehensive evacuation procedure was in place. Maybe the company is providing generous severance packages for its laid-off employees. Perhaps the organization is getting supplies to people affected by a natural disaster.
  • Don’t talk “off the record.” There really is no such thing for the media.
  • Avoid saying “no comment.” Studies show that people think you’re guilty. You can, however, say that you cannot discuss a particular matter, or that it is too soon to be sure what really happened. 
  • If you do not know the answer to a question, state that. Offer to get back to the reporter as soon as you have the information. Most reporters understand that you won’t have all the facts instantly.
  • Do not speculate or repeat unconfirmed reports. Only reveal the information that you have verified. It helps to use phrasing such as “what we know now is….” or “we have verified that….”

Control the communication.

  • Communicate honestly, openly and often. Set up regular media briefings and keep to the schedule.
  • Provide all reporters the same information at the same time. Don’t play favorites.
  • Post information online. Activate your “dark” website. Start a crisis blog.
  • Keep the media away from the accident scene, victims, survivors and relatives until a legal authority approves such access.
  • Make your spokesperson available to answer reporters’ questions. If the media see that you’re trying to help them cover the story, they are more likely to cooperate.
  • Assign someone to answer phone calls from reporters. If the spokesperson cannot take the call right away, promise to get back to the reporter as quickly as possible. Keep your promise.
  • Monitor coverage. Get back to any reporters who have the story materially wrong and try to correct their impressions.

Communicate directly with your employees and other important audiences.

Do not rely on the media to communicate with your employees and other important audiences. Use your website, email, blogs and other means to get factual, accurate information directly to your important constituents.

Remember that all your employees are PR representatives. If they feel secure and believe that the organization is dealing appropriately with the situation, they will project that confidence.

At the same time, don’t tell your employees anything you would not want to see on the news. Reporters might approach them directly, hoping for a “scoop.”

Cope with an online crisis.

If the offensive communication is on a website, discussion group or email list, try to find out what lead to the dissatisfaction.

Look for some common ground. If you made a mistake, fix it. Rogue sites have bashed companies just because someone did not receive ordered merchandise. Once the product arrived, the sites disappeared.

Websites such as www.snopes.com, which identifies urban legends, may be helpful in countering a false claim.

In any event, try to resolve issues peacefully. If you’re antagonistic, the situation could easily deteriorate.

My next post will discuss what to do after a crisis.

It’s a Disaster! Crisis Communications

May 15, 2014 by Kay Paumier

shutterstock_110330666

Product recalls. Corporate scandals. Natural disasters.

Almost any organization can be faced with a crisis. How it handles the crisis can easily determine its success or failure.

Consider the response of Malaysia Airlines after the disappearance of flight MH370 with almost 240 passengers on board.

Early on, some people praised the airline for being “clear, honest and open in their communications,” and for “exuding competence and leadership in a crisis that has rightfully captured the attention of the entire world.”

Others were not so impressed, saying that the company had “been totally lacking on the compassionate end of it from the get-go,” that it “was completely not ready for a disaster like this,” and that it “didn’t act swiftly enough, nor did they stay on top of the issue, providing updates, or even just communicating there were not any updates to be made.”

And then there was that infamous text message, sent to relatives of the passengers: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will learn in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minster, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.”

According to The Drum, the airlines claimed that most of the families had already been informed in person and by telephone. Even if that were the case, the text message seemed cold and impersonal to many observers.

Only time will tell what impact the crisis, and its aftermath, will have on the airline’s business. But the unfortunate episode does illustrate the importance of being prepared for a crisis, and of communicating appropriately when one occurs.

To do that, you need a plan. In this post, I’ll start outlining what to do before a crisis. In later posts, I’ll discuss what to do during and after a crisis.

Before a Crisis

Inventory potential problems.

In crisis management an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure. Fortunately, most crises can be anticipated because they have already happened to someone else at some point.

Your first step is to define a crisis for your organization. Consider all the things that could negatively affect your organization, directly or indirectly.

One approach is to ask management about potential vulnerabilities, which could include:
• Natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes)
• Environmental accidents (e.g., pollution)
• Management issues (e.g., corporate scandals)
• Employee issues (e.g., discrimination complaints)
• Safety and health matters (e.g., explosions)
• Legal issues (e.g., shareholder lawsuits)
• Online attacks (e.g., “rogue websites”)
• Bad publicity

Examine these situations and prioritize them according to their potential for harm. Focus first on the most probable and potentially most dangerous problems, and resolve or at least mitigate them if possible. In so doing, you can reduce the possibility that a crisis will occur.

Some of the most important crisis-management work is done at this stage. This is not the stuff of headlines. If you do a good job, almost no one will even know about it.

Sometimes you can’t totally avoid a crisis, but you can reduce its impact. One analysis of the World Trade Center suggests that hundreds of lives were saved because of the frequent safety drills conducted in the buildings. (“For Many on September 11, Survival Was No Accident,” USA Today, December 19, 2001) Surely 9/11 was a catastrophe of immense proportions, but things could have been worse.

Develop a plan.

Once you’ve identified potential crises for your organization, develop your plan, which should:
• Identify the crisis-communications team
• Prepare the communications messages and materials
• Plan the logistics.

Identify the crisis-communication team.

The crisis-communication team should include representatives from every department in the company, including finance, operations and communications. The president, CEO and any other appropriate spokesperson must be members.

Once everyone is identified:

• Give all members of the team complete contact information for everyone on the team, including office, home and cell phone numbers; Twitter handles; and emails for the team members, colleagues and even their partners.

• Designate a crisis manager and assistant manager who will be responsible for overall crisis management and communication.

• Determine the primary responsibilities of each member of the team.

• Identify the groups that you must communicate with, such as:
• Employees
• The Board of Directors
• Shareholders
• Customers
• Partners
• The media
• Community services such as police and fire.

• Designate a spokesperson and back-up spokesperson. This person (probably the president or CEO) will represent the company, make official statements and answer media questions. The back-up spokesperson will fill that role if the primary spokesperson is unavailable. Restrict all external communication to these spokespeople. It is essential that the organization present a unified image and consistent message.

• Prepare an up-to-date list of contact information for key internal and external people including the Board of Directors, the executive staff, major suppliers and customers, and important community leaders and services.

• Update your media list.

• Identify any internal or external experts who might be good resources. Third parties can add credibility in times of uncertainty. Include their complete contact information.

The good news is that a lot of this information is probably easily available. It just needs to be organized.

I’ll give more tips on what to do before a crisis in my next post.

Publicity Opportunities in August: National Dog Day

May 1, 2014 by Kay Paumier

dreamstimefree_209291Every dog must have his day and in August that day is August 26, National Dog Day, which honors the love and loyalty of dogs.

Like many celebrations, this day provides some publicity opportunities. For example, vets could discuss how to take good care of dogs. Animal shelters could promote the benefits of adopting stray dogs. Pet supply stores could offer seminars on dog care. And counselors and therapists could even discuss the beneficial impact of having a furry friend.
You get the idea.

Here are some other celebrations in August that might be publicity opportunities for you.

• August 1, 1990: Celebration of World Wide Web Anniversary

• August 3: National Mustard Day – celebrating mustard slathered on food

• August 4 – 10: Single Working Women’s Week – honoring single working women

• August 6: National Night Out – promoting police-community partnerships

• August 8: Happiness Happens Day – encouraging expressions of happiness

• August 18: Serendipity Day – celebrating unexpected discoveries

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Photo credit: Puppies Fighting, Yann Poirier, Dreamstime Stock Photo

February Celebrations = Publicity Opportunities

January 9, 2014 by Kay Paumier

Everyone knows Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day are in February.

But did you know that we also celebrate bubble gum, laughter and sword swallowers that month?

These—and other less-quirky anniversaries and celebrations—can give you the opportunity to promote your company, your product or your service.

Here are some other anniversaries and celebrations coming up in February. How can you use these to market yourself more effectively?

Seven Common PR Mistakes and How to Avoid Them (Part 2)

December 19, 2013 by Kay Paumier

In my last post, I discussed three common PR mistakes:

  • Having unrealistic expectations of PR
  • Ignoring the advice of PR counsel
  • “Believing your news releases.”

Here are four more mistakes.

Keeping PR on the “back-burner”

Most companies know they have to “do PR,” but often don’t allocate the time or money needed to do the job effectively.

Studies have shown that companies with a larger “share of discussion” than their competition become more successful. The discussion, the publicity often comes first. The success follows. So most companies really can’t afford to ignore PR or to relegate it to an untrained person.

The success of your company may require that PR be on the front burner. If it is not there now, move it there today.

Refusing to be media trained

Anyone who will interview with the media needs to be media trained.

Practicing some basic techniques and doing some mock interviews can make a world of difference. Oftentimes an outsider can help this process along.

Even veteran spokespeople sometimes have problems. Towards the end of his term, former President George W. Bush was asked what his greatest mistake was. He said he couldn’t think of anything, a response that struck many people as arrogant.

Soon afterwards he was asked the same question again and had a response. The second time was a charm, but many people only remember that first “nonresponse.”

 

Being erratic in PR activities

As a consultant, I have seen companies almost kill themselves to publicize a new product, only to “collapse” once the launch was over. These companies didn’t leverage the momentum they had generated to build an ongoing, sustained publicity program.

The result? A few months later, the company had to “re-introduce” itself when it had another product to announce. The company was repeatedly in start-up mode and remained in second place in its marketplace.

The moral of the story: avoid “stop-and-go” PR.

Being too narrow in your publicity activities

For many people, the publicity campaign means sending out the occasional news release.

That generally is not enough.

It’s true that PR people write news releases, but they do much more to generate publicity – everything from articles and product reviews to webinars and other presentations.

I formally analyzed publicity for a new client and its main competitor. My client had done a good job with its announcements. Its competitor got less coverage for its news, but maintained its visibility through contributed articles, product reviews, speaking engagements and other means. The result: the second company was perceived as the industry leader; my new client an “also-ran.”

Don’t limit yourself to barebones PR. Expand the scope of your program.

Summary

So there they are: seven common mistakes. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to avoid these errors. In so doing, you will definitely improve your PR program and probably help your company be more successful.

Seven Common PR Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

December 12, 2013 by Kay Paumier

Many organizations make some basic public relations mistakes, which can dramatically affect their visibility and credibility.

Here are seven common errors, with advice on how to avoid them.

Having unrealistic expectations of PR

Too many people think that they will become famous overnight if they hire a PR firm. Or that publicity will automatically generate sales or raise their stock price.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t automatically work that way.

Marketers tell us that people go through at least four stages in deciding to buy a product or support a cause: awareness, interest, desire and action.

PR is most important in the first two stages, helping generate the awareness and interest that is essential for any action. However, PR becomes less influential the closer people get to taking action.

Understanding this basic concept is essential. PR is important, but it will not change things overnight, make up for a poor product or service, or sell your product or service by itself.

Ignoring the advice of PR counsel

In a great scene in the TV series West Wing, Jed Bartlet was going into a potentially volatile press conference. C.J. Cregg, his press secretary, advised him to call on a particular reporter first and, if at all possible, to avoid another reporter.

What did Bartlet do? He totally ignored Cregg’s sage advice and called on the “forbidden” reporter immediately.

Since it was a TV show, everything worked out fine. But this is not always the case.

Unfortunately, too many companies are like Bartlet and ignore the advice of their PR consultants. Like other professionals, good PR people have a particular way of looking at the world. They have developed skills and talents, have a radar for good stories and potential landmines, and can bring a great deal to the table.

Ask for, and respect, their opinions. You’ll be better off for it.

“Believing your news releases”

This is also called the “parental-fixation” syndrome, when you become so focused on your company, product or service that you forget a bigger world exists out there.

This syndrome manifests itself in assuming that everyone will be interested in your news, no matter how mundane. This fixation also shows up when you treat reporters as if their sole purpose is to tell your story.

In reality, most of the time the media will be only slightly (if at all) interested in your news.

However, reporters are often working on overview and trends articles, or are looking for an unusual twist, a human-interest angle or the “next big thing.” These reporters need people to give them ideas, provide information and explain the big picture.

Be that person, that resource, and you will reap the reward of ongoing coverage. Oh, and kill that news release about version 3.003 of your product.

There they are: three of seven common PR mistakes. I’ll cover the others in my next post.

Publicity Opportunities in January

December 5, 2013 by Kay Paumier

January is the start of the new year, and what better time to “get organized.” That’s probably why January is Get Organized Month.

Like most anniversaries, this provides some great publicity opportunities. For example:

  • Professional organizers can provide tips on how people can reduce clutter, streamline processes, and in general get better control of their lives.
  • Manager of office products stores could promote products that help people organize.
  • And counselors and coaches could discuss the effect that good organization has on people’s emotional well-being and career success.

Got the idea? Here are some other events that provide opportunities for publicity in January:

 

Marketing a Service Business (Part 4)

November 14, 2013 by Kay Paumier

My previous posts discussed some online ways to market a service business, as well as some tips for dealing with mainstream media. Here are some more ideas.

Develop visuals that tell a story.

Magazines, newspapers and websites all need good visuals: photos, graphics and video. Editors need visuals to draw attention to the text, break up the page visually, and help tell the story. The editors get a lot of written material, but relatively few good photographs or illustrations.

Start a file of photographs and illustrations that catch your eye and tell a story. They may spark ideas when you need some inspiration.

For example, a pharmaceutical firm developed a board-game-like diagram that clearly illustrated the FDA approval cycle for new drugs. I still remember that illustration even though I saw it more than a decade ago.

Create news.

You may not routinely have news, but you can “create” it. So hold a contest. Take a survey. Celebrate an anniversary.

Depending on the type of news you create, you may have several publicity opportunities:

  • Announcing the contest, event and the like.
  • Reminding people of the deadline or event date.
  • Announcing the results and winners.
  • Inviting the media to the event.
  • Providing pictures to the media.

Conclusion

I hope by now you see that, although success is not automatic, there are many ways to market a service.

But remember, one of the best marketing activities is also the most fun: networking. Be active in one or two professional organizations. Help others out in their businesses. Participate in projects big and small. No matter how digital the world gets, we still like the “personal touch.”

A caveat: My rule of thumb is to do three marketing activities. Choose the ones that make the most sense for you; do them well and do them consistently. Doing no marketing risks having your business dry up. Trying to do too much can be distracting, time-consuming and even counter-productive.

If you’re not doing any marketing now, start small. Pick one activity and master it. Then add another activity and then another.

Let me know your results. I’d love to hear from you.

Publicity Opportunities in December

November 7, 2013 by Kay Paumier

December is so focused on the holidays, it’s easy to forget there are other celebrations as well.

For example, did you know that December 15 is Cat Herders Day

Before you laugh, think of how organizations could use that day to publicize their business or service.

  •          For example, pet stores, animal-rescue operations and vets could use it to promote the idea of adopting a feline friend.
  •          An organizational consultant could discuss “effective ways to herd the cats in your life.”
  •          Ministers, coaches, and counselors could use the day as a discussion of what it is like to be “tasked with the impossible” and to “manage the unmanageable.”

Got the idea? Here are some other anniversaries coming in December.

Marketing a Service Business (Part 3)

October 31, 2013 by Kay Paumier

In my past two posts, I outlined some ways service businesses could market themselves online. Here are some ways to get the attention of mainstream media.

Track media activity.

One of the best ways to get publicity in mainstream media is to track what the reporters are working on and what they need…and give it to them.

Fortunately, that is easy with HARO (Help a Reporter Out). This free service emails notices about what topics reporters are researching, and what kind of information or sources they need.

It’s a great service. The challenge is that it is very popular. So when you find that someone needs some information you can provide, reply quickly. Outline the information and tell the reporters a little bit about yourself. (You want them to understand you are a good resource.)

I have successfully arranged media interviews and generated publicity for clients through the HARO inquiries. A colleague was even mentioned in The Wall Street Journal, thanks to the service. So it’s definitely worth the effort.

Develop story ideas.

Developing story ideas can be an effective way to ingratiate yourself with the editors. Reporters and editors are typically overworked and underpaid. They appreciate it when someone does some of their work for them.

Develop a few ideas so that if the editor doesn’t like the first one, you can suggest another story. “How to’s” are often good, as are stories about trends, personalities and any unusual aspect of your product or service.

What do you do once you have these ideas? For one thing, you can just contact the editor of a publication or website and discuss it with him or her. That’s a little tricky, but can work.

Or you could suggest it as an angle for an editorial calendar topic.

Track editorial calendars.

An editorial calendar is a schedule of the topics publications (and some websites) plan to cover over a period of time. You can often find this information on the publication’s website, usually in the advertising or media kit section.

Two caveats. Editorial calendars change frequently. Topics get deleted, moved or changed. Also, often the editorial calendar just lists topics (e.g., “widgets”), not story angles (e.g., “the growing importance of widgets in medical imaging”).

However, when you find something that “fits” (or might fit) your company, contact the reporter. Find out if he or she has a specific angle in mind. If not, suggest something. (That’s one reason you developed all those stories ideas.) If the publication takes contributed articles, volunteer to write it. Otherwise, offer to be a source of information for the article.

I have successfully maintained PR programs for clients based almost exclusively on “working” the editorial calendars. You can do the same.

I’ll cover some more suggestions for dealing with the mainstream media in my next post.

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