Walking the Tightrope-Advice for DMV Advocacy and PR pros after the 2018 Midterms

By Lawrence J. Parnell, Associate Professor, George Washington University

Walkin’ the tightrope between wrong and right
Walkin’ the tightrope both day and night

Lyrics: Stevie Ray Vaughn – Tightrope

Now that we are past the 2018 Mid Terms it’s time to consider the way forward for area communications professionals.

First, where are we? In Congress, the results were mixed – the House went one way, the Senate the other. Women and veterans won elections, and some are ascending to important positions in the political and government arenas. Several key states have changed Governors. State and local governments are in flux as well.

Let’s begin with the realization that this is how it will be for up to two years. Two entrenched camps in Congress seeking an advantage over the other, while the White House bobs and weaves like a fighter trying to avoid the knockout punch. “Crazy Town”, indeed.

So, how do we defend/enhance corporate reputations; advance causes or represent clients?

The short answer is we must be constantly alert and aware of public opinion about our issue, cause or client – not to mention the latest Tweet from you know who. We need to be responsive and effective without losing our balance or our voice. And, we must be ethical throughout – even if others are not – or we risk damaging our own reputations.

How do we do all that?

In a recent outlook piece in Holmes Report, Bill Dalbec of APCO’s DC office suggests:

“The idea that you can do your stakeholder mapping, and know where everyone is going to be, is out the window. (The current climate) is really forcing companies and trade associations and others to be more agile and adapt on the fly, try new things and constantly be reinventing themselves.”

SKDKnickerbocker managing partner Hilary Rosen, quoted here as well agrees: “Since the issues have become more divisive, (organizations) need to work harder to get their point across,” she said. “The stakes have gotten higher from both sides.”

Truly, companies and organizations are being challenged like never before. Our students tell us they came to GWU to learn how to leverage social media, understand global trends and interpret public policy to be more effective.

We think they are on the right track. We add a basic understanding of finance and business – which is required if you are trying to navigate the intersection of Main Street, Wall Street, Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Ave.

Clearly, the next few years won’t be boring. If we are successful, and avoid falling, we can bring value to our clients, companies, candidates or causes. Good luck – and be careful!

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Issue, Impact, Importance, and Results: What We Learned at “A Modern Approach to Grow Clients and Accounts”

By: Kathleen Boyles, News Generation

What’s the biggest issue you face in growing clients and accounts? On November 28, PRSA-NCC hosted an event with keynote speaker Ian Altman to help us get to the bottom of this question, and how we can overcome it. Altman, a former technology and service business executive, works to inspire and educate audiences with a unique approach to sales and marketing. His approach focuses on growing clients and accounts through integrity and teaching professionals how customers make their decisions.

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Thoughts from the National Board

By Sam Villegas, APR, Mid Atlantic District Director, PRSA National Board

As my first two-year term on the National Board of PRSA comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on the experience, in search of the lessons I can impart and take with me into my next term. It’s been a challenging couple of years, but strangely, I don’t feel drained or defeated by the challenges. In fact, sitting here thinking back on the year and looking forward to next, I feel hopeful, empowered and wiser for the wear. And I think that’s because of three things: gratitude, patience and perspective.

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How the Tables Have Turned: Mentorship through PRSA-NCC

By Allie Erenbaum, Co-chair of PRSA-NCC’s University Relations Committee

Every young professional knows the value of strong and compassionate mentorship. When I was studying PR and marketing at American University, I made an effort to actively facilitate conversations with my peers, professors, and internship supervisors. From making decisions about what classes to register for to deciding what job applications to pursue, I appreciated being able to gain a wide variety of perspectives to make informed decisions about my career. I knew I didn’t want to lose momentum with building connections after graduation – that’s where PRSA-NCC came in.

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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!

Client on a Roll? Help Them Slow It.

I’m talking about a spokesperson being on a roll during a press interview with relevant and tangible information being rapid-fire peppered at a reporter.  Most people in leadership and subject matter experts can talk for days on their given topics, right?

That, however, doesn’t mean that they should.  In fact, it’s often counterproductive and doesn’t allow for a natural back and forth in the interview process.  As public relations pros, we need to prepare spokespeople for media interviews.

I recently interviewed a CIO for a freelance article I was writing. While he was knowledgeable and well-spoken, he truly never stopped talking.  I was struggling to keep up and capture the good points he was making in quote form.

I even asked him to slow down and repeat a key point, which he then couldn’t remember.  Not only did he not slow down his pace of speech, he also kept shooting words out fire-hose style which only made the exchange more difficult and annoying.

Effective spokespersons are true story tellers who are adept at speaking in sound-byte form – leaving time for the reporter to take good notes and either follow up or move on to their next question.  All of this takes practice AND preparation – as well as timely reminders from PR folks like us.

Not every client wants or even needs full-scale media training. If you are the one prepping a spokesperson then you can showcase your added value by some quick, ad-hoc interview prep reminders prior to an interview so they are top of mind.

Agree to get the client on the line about 10 minutes before the interview and first do a quick review of talking points and pivots for possible tough questions.  Then set them at ease and get their media “game face” on by reminding them they need to be as human as possible to maximize this opportunity for good exposure.

Basic interview tips to share:

  • Talk much slower than normal – if it sounds unnatural or strange, you’re doing it right.
  • Try to speak in three sentence increments when answering questions.
  • It helps to repeat the question to buy time to formulate a strong and concise response.
  • REMINDER: dead air is ok and don’t feel obliged to keep talking just because there is silence.
  • Avoid language like, “First of all” or “As you know…”
  • Steer clear of industry jargon and acronyms.
  • DO NOT add a new thought if a reporter asks, “Is there anything else to add?” Either emphasize your most important point or you’re all done!

If you are on the phone staffing the interview, you want to remain on the sidelines as best you can. You can interject at the end if there is something you think needs clarifying or defining if some jargon creeps into the discussion.

Securing the interview is the hard part but prepping the source so they can shine in the process is crucial to actually generating positive coverage – the ultimate goal.

By Scott Frank, President, ARGO Communications and former Senior Director, Media Relations for the American Institute of Architects

Moving Communications from Tactical to Strategic Implementation

Inspiration for this post came from sports radio of all places.  Washington Nationals superstar, Bryce Harper, is in a contract year which creates a general sense of “outcome anxiety” that can become a major distraction for the player and organization.

I couldn’t believe my ears when the host suggested that the front office needs to have their PR team close at hand to prepare them for what the team, the manager and Harper himself are likely to face in terms of media scrutiny on the contract issue at every stop as the season unfolds.

10888776353_9c71574e19_z-620x248It struck me that this was both an excellent idea so that they can proactively prepare messaging adequately, and it is also a unique concept to elevate a PR team to a more strategic function within a baseball team.

Communications teams in organizations of all sizes are often brought in after a leadership decision (often semi-informed or outright flawed) to either promote a campaign, to clean up a bungled initiative or forced into an uncomfortable position to reactively handle a crisis response.

So many of these botched efforts (think the recent Dodge Super Bowl ad that used a sermon from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the various customer service fiascos perpetrated by airlines to very questionable celebrity endorsements) could have been triaged more appropriately, or avoided all together, if only communications professionals were at the table from the outset.

When everyday people are bemoaning how badly even a global brand handled a highly publicized issue, it’s high time to flip the script and work to showcase the bottom-line value of having communicators be an integral part of an organization’s strategic planning.

Here’s how:

  • Package your successes for leadership and don’t just share high-profile media coverage or a well-executed campaign – give the backstory on the strategic approach and any obstacles overcome that led to positive results. This will build your own credibility and value proposition to big-picture organizational thinking.
  • Ingratiate yourself into various business units to get a better sense of good story telling opportunities. This can help you stay in front of major organizational decisions that you can offer communications advice on.
  • Ask pointed questions that make leadership or decision makers think beyond their own narrow focus. This way you can advise on both how to best promote an idea, but (more importantly) you can share some worst-case scenarios that might ruin an initiative unless a few items are fine-tuned.
  • Create a brief PPT of well-known examples of “worst practices” of tone-deaf marketing campaigns or clumsy and debilitating crisis responses. Save to present to leadership soon after a well-publicized blunder happens – and these days, you won’t have to wait long to showcase instances of “we don’t want to be this.”
  • Read the room in meetings and see who might be most inclined to your point-of-view through body language. Be active in these meetings, but also be judicious as to when you speak up. It’s wise to wait until many perspectives have been put forth and you, through the communications lens, can give your perspective to help sway the strategic direction of whatever is being discussed.

The more you can position yourself as an asset to your organization’s everyday function, not merely the one who writes a press release to announce fill-in-the-blank, the more your counsel will be listened to and ultimately sought out.

It’s all about positioning yourself or your team to get crucial buy-in from leadership that communications needs to be an integral part of the overall planning process.

We will see if this happens with the Nationals this season or if they endure a constant drumbeat like the Redskins forced themselves into with the Kirk Cousins contract situation that has been a communications albatross around their neck for two years!

Internally, you want to function like one of the more famous advertising campaigns of the 1980’s, when EF Hutton talks…people listen.

 

By: Scott Frank, president of ARGO Communications and former Senior Director, Media Relations for the American Institute of Architects.