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!

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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.

Time To Step Up, NCC

By Samantha Villegas, APR, PRSA-NCC past president and PRSA Board member

In January, a few of my colleagues and I, who are also more senior like me, were recognized by the chapter for our contributions. It was an honor, and something I will always cherish.

My colleagues and I who received these honors do a lot for the chapter and always have. Between us, we have received more than our fair share of these awards, if that’s possible. I think it’s safe to say that service is in our DNA, but also, as senior practitioners, we each feel a deep sense of gratitude and purpose for PRSA and giving back just feels right.

But, I don’t want this award again.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s an incredible honor, and I am humbled by the recognition. Both awards I have received from the chapter have a prominent place on the bookshelf in my family room and I absolutely cherish them. What’s more, I have no plans to stop serving in whatever capacity I can to advance our mission. But, it’s time for others to be recognized.

This is not a comment on the nomination or selection process. I don’t deny we were – and are – deserving of the recognition. This is a comment on the rest of you. I don’t mean to come across harsh here. But, it’s time to step up.

When you do, here’s what I can promise: Succeed or fail, if you try and put some heart into it, you will learn. You will advance. You will make friends. Most of all, you will gain life-long, trusted colleagues who will mentor you, recommend you, and stand by you (or tell you when you need to be told that you are wrong) as my fellow award winners do with me and I love them for it. But, time is ticking, and your chance to make a difference is now.

So, step up, jump in, and really give this organization and its members the same care and attention PRSA has given you throughout your career. And, when you get the award next time, as I will be hoping you do, I’ll be in the crowd clapping loudest!

Samantha Villegas, APR is currently a national PRSA Board member. Sam was 2016 Chair of NCC’s IPRA, 2013 president of PRSA-NCC, and she served in several other capacities over the years including Mid-Atlantic District Chair, District Rep to the National Nominating Committee, Professional Advisor to GMU, Assembly Delegate, and APR Chair. She was the 2015 recipient of NCC’s Platinum Award and the 2017 recipient of the Diamond Award. 

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.

Pro Bono Call for Proposals

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

  • John Wesley

 

“Do all the good you can.” A powerful and inspiring, yet simple statement.

DCAYA photo

Former PRSA-NCC pro bono client, DC Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA). Pictured (L to R): JR Russ, DCAYA director of community engagement; Sabrina Kidwai, PRSA-NCC president; Lauren Lawson-Zilai, vice president and pro bono and community support committee liaison; and Maggie Riden, president and CEO of DCAYA. 

As public relations professionals, we serve as a gateway to our organizations’ audiences and the public, and hold responsibility for the brand, image and reputation of our organizations. That’s why I chose to work in the nonprofit sector — so that I can effect change for causes and organizations which have missions I feel passionate about.

In the nonprofit space, some non-traditional professional skills come into play, including “servant leadership” and caring more about what you can “give” to others than what you are going to “get” from the organization. Service to nonprofit constituents or association members demands agility, persistence and stamina within the framework of a little budget or limited capacity.

I know this from experience. My career didn’t start off in the nonprofit world. I was able to get a perspective on it by contributing to a local D.C. nonprofit through pro bono work. In the process, I garnered skills that were assets to me professionally, including event management, fundraising, partnership building and writing strategic plans. I learned valuable lessons about leading and motivating a team, holding people accountable and more. I was bolstering my understanding of how nonprofit organizations function while simultaneously making a difference in my community. It was definitely a win-win experience for me.

That’s why I am thrilled to announce that PRSA-NCC is accepting applicants for its next two-year pro bono client. Nonprofit organizations, especially those with limited staff, often have a challenge or situation to address but not the bandwidth to execute. They rely on volunteers to achieve their missions. PRSA-NCC’s pro bono and community support committee  works with its two-year, adopted client to help assess its organizational priorities and advance its goals through strategic communications in order to provide an infrastructure and foundation for the future.

The best part of this is that it is complimentary. As with my personal experience, this relationship is a win-win! Committee members give back to the community – while the nonprofit benefits from the committee’s expertise. The committee has the opportunity to get hands-on experience with an industry they may not typically be involved with, expand their networks and discover new approaches.

If you know of a nonprofit in the D.C. area that needs additional resources, encourage them to apply by midnight on Friday, February 9. And if you are a PR professional looking to give back, I encourage you to join the committee. Volunteer-based experiences are often equally as beneficial as on-the-job experiences, and the ability to articulate your role in a successful project with limited resources can speak volumes to your impact and leadership skills.

Lauren Lawson-Zilai is a vice president on the PRSA-NCC board and liaison to the pro bono committee. She previously served as chair of the pro bono committee and has also served as the international PRSA conference gala chair, the Thoth Awards Gala Chair, board director, secretary and on the membership, professional development and association/nonprofit committees.

Crisis Management in the Age of Citizen Journalism

By Aaron Ellis, Professional Development Committee co-chair

If you attended the National Capital Chapter’s “Crisis Management in the Age of Citizen Journalism” professional development event Nov. 7 at Hager Sharp in downtown Washington, you probably walked away feeling you invested your time wisely.

Brian Ellis - Padilla Executive VP, presents on crisis communications 11-7-2017For most, it was their first interaction with crisis management expert Brian Ellis. A former broadcast journalist who is now executive vice president for Minneapolis-headquartered Padilla public relations and who also teaches crisis management at Virginia Commonwealth University, Ellis’ riveting, rapid-fire lessons about responding to various crises reminded participants that advance preparation is the key to success.

In today’s age of citizen journalists, where anybody with a smart phone can record an event and post it online within minutes, the timeline as to who controls the narrative of a story has collapsed to mere minutes. That means professional communicators and the organizations they represent must anticipate questions in advance to tell their side any story, or risk losing the advantage.

According to Ellis, there are three steps for effectively communicating during a crisis:

Brian Ellis5 - Padilla Executive VP, presents on crisis communications 11-7-2017

  1. Identify what audiences want and need to know by writing out in advance the questions they are most likely to ask.
  2. Based on the anticipated questions, develop three key messages and short, memorable quotes to go with them.
  3. Practice your messages and quote(s) out loud, honing your transitions until they’re seamless.

Ellis said the key messages should focus on: a) showing compassion for those impacted; b) providing information about your organization’s crisis response plan, and c) explaining your organization’s crisis investigation and how to ensure something similar doesn’t happen again.

For his advance crisis preparation exercise, Ellis provided each table with one of three scenarios: a data breach, a criminal activity and an active shooter incident. Each table’s participants were then given a few minutes to develop a list of questions they thought they might be asked, write out three key messages and quotes to use in response, and write out four social media posts and five action steps to take from a communications perspective.

The more questions each group anticipated, the more articulate were their key messages, social posts and action steps.

“In the blame game of a crisis, the CEO will usually get fired if he or she isn’t prepared and then tries to wing it,” said Ellis. “Being unprepared is inexcusable.”

Ellis cited an example of the apology made by BP CEO Tony Hayward during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Hayward concluded his apology by saying, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

“Few will remember (Hayward’s) apology, but everyone remembers those infamous last five words,” said Ellis. “They negated everything else he said.”

In a more recent example, United Airlines made the mistake of using the term “re-accommodate” when referring to the action the airline took in dragging a recalcitrant passenger off one its planes. “United lost $1.4 billion over that incident. They transport millions of people a year. They should have foreseen the risk and been prepared to respond appropriately,” said Ellis.

In today’s 24-hour news cycle, Ellis noted that the “media beast” must constantly be fed. To that end, he highly recommends creating a dark website that can be quickly engaged in a crisis, then reviewing and updating its content regularly. He also reminded workshop participants that an organization’s internal audiences can be either their greatest allies or worst enemies in a crisis, depending on how they are treated and kept informed.

“In a crisis, the best strategy is to always play offense and be out there telling a positive story,” he said. “By pointing your audience to what they perceive to be inside information, they’ll pay more attention to your side of the story.”