Seven Secrets of Top Washington PR Agencies

By Christina Nyquist, PRSA-NCC Marketing Committee

Twitter: @cnyquist

Washington, D.C., is an exciting place to work. Public relations professionals in our area are charged with communicating about some of our world’s most critical issues, from new vaccines to public education initiatives. These stories can change lives—but often get lost in today’s busy media environment. That’s why organizations turn to public relations agencies to help make sure their message gets to the audiences who need it most.

But what makes a great PR firm? More importantly, what can we learn from some of D.C.’s top PR pros? Each year, the annual Thoth Awards recognize outstanding Washington communicators, and in 2018, PRSA-NCC has introduced a new team award for PR agencies. With two weeks left to submit entries, I checked in with past Thoth Award winners to learn how they craft effective campaigns that not only meet but elevate their clients’ goals. Here are six traits that stood out.

A Focus on Client Service

Great PR agencies keep the focus on their clients, taking care to be responsive and keep communication lines open. “Clients appreciate the attention they and their project are given,” says News Generation’s Kelsey Pospisil O’Planick. “Accessibility and undivided time are critical in a successful project and in nurturing a relationship with a client. Clients have told us they appreciate how seamless the process of working with us is, and that we are very upfront and transparent the entire time.”

A Thoughtful Approach

Organizations value agencies that steer them in the right direction. Sometimes, that may even mean being able to “say no” or suggest a new approach. “We are a media relations firm that strictly works to get clients earned coverage,” emphasizes Kelsey. “We love brainstorming with clients to help them pull out the most newsworthy elements of their story, because ultimately we want them to be happy and we want to keep journalists happy by offering them great content.”

Experience in the Field

D.C. is famous for the often nuanced and complicated issues organizations must address. When it comes to telling these niche stories, Hager Sharp’s Debra Silimeo says it’s important to look for firms that are familiar with the field. “Look for an agency that works deeply in your space or has the special expertise to meet your current need—whether it’s public health, education, social change, product marketing, or crisis help,” she advises. “Then find people you can trust and like to work with. You might not get to pick your family, but you can pick your consultants!”

A Forward-Thinking Outlook

Today more than ever, change is the one constant in the communications profession. Agencies need to stay on top of new storytelling platforms and a quickly evolving media landscape. Kelsey says News Generation stays ahead of the curve by tapping into the region’s resources. “We’re lucky to live in D.C. where we have a plethora of innovative and on-trend professional development opportunities. Groups like PRSA-NCC and Washington Women in Public Relations are invaluable to communicators who live and/or work in the D.C. area.”

Doing the Homework

Debra says it was Hager Sharp’s behind-the-scenes legwork that made the difference in winning the 2017 “Best of Show” award for its HPV Vaccine is Cancer Prevention campaign with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Research is the foundation for crafting effective campaigns,” she counsels. “Know your audiences. Bring a diverse group of staff expertise to the table to get the best ideas. And build in measurement along the way, so you know whether you are being effective.” The agency’s research showed that healthcare provider recommendation is the single biggest predictor of vaccination, so Debra explains, “We developed a campaign that began with a heavy focus on providers and strong peer-to-peer clinician engagement before expanding the audience to include parents of adolescents.”

Enthusiasm

Above all, leading PR professionals are driven by a love for what they do—and that shines through in the final product. I asked both Debra and Kelsey what excites them about going to work every day.

  • Debra: “PR is a great field where you can be constantly challenged by change and get joy and meaning from your work. Mix in a great team at Hager Sharp and clients who want to make a positive difference in the world, and voila! Wake up and seize the day!”
  • Kelsey: “The fact that every day I know I have the opportunity to both contribute and learn is huge to me. I’m fortunate to enjoy my co-workers and work for a company that values building a strong internal culture. And all of that translates into delivering strong projects for clients.”

There’s still time!

If your agency worked on a standout campaign this year, you still have two weeks to get your application in. Compile and submit your Thoth Awards entries here by 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 1.

Thanks to Kelsey Pospisil O’Planick and Debra Silimeo for sharing their insight for this article. Kelsey is the director of marketing and operations at News Generation. Debra is executive vice president at Hager Sharp. You can read more about their award-winning campaigns with the Centers for Disease Control and the American Psychological Association here.

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Why Marketing and PR Should Go for the Gut

By Aimee Stern, Chief Bravery Officer of Brave Now PR

I went to a media training workshop recently and the core message I walked away with was connect on an emotional level with the person interviewing you, and you’re golden.

I’ve been watching top tier advertising lately and the best of it makes me want to help, obtain, email, tweet or just pick up the phone and find out more. That’s because I’m listening and I’ve made, at the very least, an investment in taking more time to go further.

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What it Means to Win a Thoth

By Katherine Nicol, Senior Vice President, Hager Sharp

The Thoth Awards recognize the most outstanding public relations programs and components developed and produced in the Greater Washington area, highlighting the top accomplishments in PR. That’s pretty meaningful recognition. Adding the fact that Thoth Awards are judged by many of the ‘best of the best’ of our industry – well, that’s where the significance of a Thoth really hits home.

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Emotional Intelligence: Rising Up in the Face of Organizational Dis-Ease

By Heathere Evans

We are living in an era marked by epidemic dis-ease and misconduct in the workplace. More people every day are finding their courage in a unified outcry for a better way. As communicators, how can we help unhealthy organizations heal and detoxify our workplaces so they stay healthy? A starting point is emotional intelligence.

What is Emotional Intelligence (EQ)?

The term “emotional intelligence” was coined in 1990 in a research paper by two psychology professors, Peter Salovey of Yale and John D. Mayer of UNH. While some popular definitions focus on qualities like optimism, initiative, and self-confidence, this definition is misleading. EQ comprises skills in five areas that all require specialized communications skills, using our inner voice, outer voice or both:

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Go for Both!

By Mitchell Marovitz, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, 2018 Chair, Universal Accreditation Board

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion about the APR certification with a group of government communicators.

What a thrilling opportunity! I joined two of my colleagues, one from the Universal Accreditation Board and a second representing the National Capital Chapter, to discuss the benefits of seeking a professional certification.

It was easy for me to explain how certification made me a better, more confident communicator, giving me a proven process and access to thousands of fellow practitioners who share my passion for high quality ethical practice.

One of the attendees asked a question that really intrigued me. She wanted to know if I would recommend seeking certification instead of a master’s degree. Intriguing, because not only am I this year’s chair of the Universal Accreditation Board, I am also a college professor! Now, how to answer…

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Storytelling: Five PR Programs that Succeeded Based on a Big Idea

By Helen Sullivan, APR, Fellow PRSA

I’m into the transformative power of a big idea. You can think, think, think and work so hard to get to a big idea that will be the engine behind a successful public relations campaign. Once all your efforts come together—and research certainly helps that process—big ideas always end up sounding so simple. That’s one of the hallmarks of a big idea that will work.

#1 Turning a Big Idea into a Bigger Budget

Even when clients say they have no money or a too-small budget, I have found that somehow there is often money available for a big idea.

An association client of mine years ago had an annual public relations budget of $300,000. Although this was a national campaign that clearly needed more money for expansion, we couldn’t get the client to increase the budget. Then I decided to stop thinking about it as an “annual” budget.

Instead, I pitched the client on a big idea—one they could leverage to their membership. We were going to launch a million-dollar public relations effort. That had a nice ring to it, and it would be a big splash to share at their board meeting, in their trade publication and at their annual conference. While $300,000 a year had been too much, all of a sudden a two-year, million-dollar PR program became a huge hit.

#2 Sleeping on Big Ideas

Two big ideas have been responsible for the sustained success of the mattress industry under its Better Sleep Council PR arm.

The first early on was that the industry doesn’t sell mattresses—it sells a good night’s sleep. That notion now seems commonplace, but when this program launched in 1983 it was a game-changer.

The second idea more than paid for the campaign: If you could reduce the time that consumers keep a mattress by even one or two years, the revenue increase would be a windfall for the industry. A key program message was that mattresses should last eight to 10 years (which now has dropped to about seven years). The program’s measurable outcomes not only increased revenue and unit sales, but the industry also created a category for ultra-premium bedding that had not previously existed.

These big ideas contributed to the program earning both a PRSA Silver Anvil and PRSA-NCC Best of Show Thoth awards.

#3 Noodling a Big Idea

For a national association of pasta manufacturers, sales had been flat for years. The association’s public relations program was centered around the message that noodles aren’t fattening, and outreach was relegated to recipe drops in food magazines and publications with food sections. Focus-group and man-on-the-street research found that message to be unmotivating and not credible.

What we did notice in talking to consumers was that people smile when you engage them about pasta. We mounted a national campaign to make pasta trendy, focusing on pasta as a lifestyle product. It featured tiered messages to different groups (gourmet, budget, easy-to-portion for singles, etc.).

The pay-off was a complete industry transformation. Within two years of the campaign launch, per capita pasta consumption had increased by one pound. That’s a lotta pasta!

This program won a PRSA Silver Anvil and an American Society of Association Executives Gold Circle award.

#4 A Big Idea that Proved Fruitful

What won over an association of apple growers? A big idea that was so simple, yet irresistible.

For decades, their letterhead had featured an illustration of red apples. Why were they all red? Our new design had seven apples—one for each day of the week—mixing red, green and yellow. The apple farmer board members from Washington state (home of the Granny Smith) were all in.

On a very modest budget, we maximized our campaign by riding the coattails of something familiar (another good idea for shoestring budgets)—an apple a day—and created a program that focused on the health benefits of fresh fruit, which is the industry’s most profitable product.

#5 Driving a Big Idea Home

For the International Parking Institute, the largest association of parking professionals, the goal was to raise the visibility of the often-misunderstood, unappreciated profession as a true profession. We also wanted to earn their members a seat at the planning table with architects, developers, building owners and urban planners.

In laying the groundwork for the PR effort, it became clear that members of the profession didn’t truly understand their worth. An industry-wide public relations and marketing initiative called Parking Matters® turned that around.

A recent survey of parking professionals showed that more than half believe that perceptions of parking have improved in the past five years.

 Building Big Idea Skills

These are just a few examples of big ideas that helped achieve big goals. Beyond the big idea, they were all supported by a comprehensive plan following PR’s four-step process: research, planning, implementation and evaluation.

I love reading about successful campaigns and analyzing messages that really resonate—even corporate taglines—to discern the big idea behind them. Coming up with big ideas is a muscle that needs to be exercised to be ready for the next challenge.

Sometimes the big idea involves narrowing an effort to a single, most-influential target audience or condensing the timeframe to a particular month. Sometimes, the big idea is rethinking how it’s always been done and framing a whole new view of the situation. Once you feel confident you have that big idea, your next challenge is to sell it. We’ll tackle that in a future blog post!

Welcome to Washington, What Do You Do?

How to Get the Most out of Informational Interviews

By Laura Gross, Principal and Founder of Scott Circle Communications

“What do you do?” From networking events to first dates, that is perhaps the question that begins many conversations here in Washington, D.C. More often than not the underlying question is actually “who do you know?” or “how can you help me?” Unfortunately, people seem to be more interested in leveraging themselves than establishing an authentic human connection. I have seen this over and over again in the infamous informational interview.

With an established career in PR in the same city for over two decades, I have plenty of experience to share which is why I suppose I’ve been frequently called to give advice. I’ve received requests from all sorts of people: recent grads who just moved to D.C. looking for a job, college students debating a career in PR, senior professionals deciding whether to go out on their own as a consultant and job seekers too – especially job seekers.

I know why people contact me and I genuinely want to be helpful (in fact I average one informational meeting each week). So, in the spirit of being helpful, here are some suggestions on how to truly get the most out of an informational interview and make the most of someone’s time.

Whats Your Goal?

The first question I always ask is: What can I help you with? If you asked for the meeting, you should have a good substantive answer. Do you want to learn about my career path? Do you want to know more about how to do PR in DC? Do you want feedback on your resume? Use this informational interview to do exactly that: interview me to gather information.

Be Presentable

If you are looking for career advice or networking for a job, prove that you belong in the workforce. It seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how often people come dressed casually and not prepared. You should arrive on time, if not a few minutes early. And dress professionally too – you don’t know what type of office you are showing up to. The more you can show that you have made an effort to present your best self, the more likely you are to leave the interview having left a good first impression.

Bring a Resume

Yes, you might have sent me an email with your resume when you requested a meeting, but I get hundreds of emails every day. Always bring a copy of your typo-free resume with you to show you are one step ahead. I often take notes on the resume, which then sits on my desk for a while. You will be top of mind if I see a relevant job posting that might come my way.

Come Prepared

With one Google search, you can find out almost anything about anyone. What is my firm all about? What is my background? You already know these answers, so how can I actually be helpful? A better question to ask me is what do I look for in a candidate? What is the interview process like at your firm? Do you mind looking at my resume and giving me feedback?

Write a Thank You Note or Email

I’m not looking for the next best seller – I just want a simple thank you email or handwritten note (bonus points for handwritten!).

Follow-up

Let me know what happened to you. Did you get a job? An internship? Decide not to pursue PR after all? Finding success in Washington and other cities often revolves around who you know. Future jobs and opportunities are all about connections, so it will only benefit you in the long run to keep in touch with someone you met. And maybe, just maybe, one day you’ll be the one paying it forward and I’ll be the one requesting an informational interview with you.

About the Author: Laura Gross (@lgross) is Principal and Founder of Scott Circle Communications (@scottcircle), a full service public relations firm based in Washington, D.C. with a mission to make the world a better place.