Curtis Sparrer, principal at Bospar PR in San Francisco, shares terrific insights on why celebrity interviews are like a high-performance sport. He also explains how to set up really successful media engagements, tips on working with celebrities (he’s done award-winning work with George Takei of Star Trek fame), and how to grow trust-based relationships with clients.
Some of Curtis’ most memorable media coups have included getting a client featured in a Jay Leno opening monologue; another featured in Google’s daily Doodle; one on the cover of Wired and another profiled in a full-length CNN news feature.
Curtis was previously an Emmy-award winning Executive Producer of KRON-TV, the nation’s largest independent television station. His writing has appeared in a variety of outlets, including the Dallas Morning News. His behind-the-scenes media experience helps his clients attract the attention of the most coveted journalists. Curtis also puts his unparalleled TV training skills to work to personally prepare each of Bospar’s client spokespersons to shine during their many moments in the spotlight.
Curtis’ favorite mantra: “The difference between involvement and commitment is like a ham and eggs breakfast. The chicken was involved. The pig was committed.”
Working with a celebrity or CEO on successful media engagements:
Consider what they can and can’t talk about; do a deep dive with them and their management team about those issues before any media interviews.
Before an interview, clarify with the journalist what questions will be asked; ask for a written Q&A beforehand; be clear about ground rules; let them know what you want to focus on. Be clear about anything you’d like the journalist to include in the story. Send a follow-up note with thanks and a reminder of the key point(s) you’d like to have included in the story. If your key message isn’t included in the final version of the story, contact the journalist to politely ask that the message be included in that or a future story.
Crafting the message: First, ask celebrities what they are planning to say.
Repeat the message: Working it into every interview in several ways helps ensure that key messages are included in the final article. Use pep talks with spokespeople to help keep them on message and excited to keep delivering the messages.
Why celebrity interviews are like a high-performance sport:
For media tours, consider how many engagements is enough versus what is too many. For a celebrity, after about five interviews, you often have diminishing returns as they get tired.
Manage the message and the energy in interviews: For longer interviews or media tours, include refreshments to get their sugar levels/energy up so they can perform. Avoid including dairy products to keep the voice clear. Include long energy foods that won’t lead to a sugar crash; fruits like bananas are great. Check with the talent’s management or agent to information on what they prefer.
Use recorded media simulations to prepare senior leaders or other spokespeople for their on-camera interviews.
Give criticism in private to help them learn and develop their skills without needing to save face in front of their staff.
Arrive early to media interviews to give them a chance to get a feel for how the show is flowing.
Ask production assistants if they have a copy of the script, because it might have a copy of the questions.
Make sure your clients read the news on the day of their interview and give them a run-down on that day’s news in their sector, because they could be asked their opinion on breaking news. This keeps them from being caught off guard.
Pay attention to the news for opportunities to give your perspective on breaking stories. Local news producers are always looking to localize (find the local angle) national or international stories to make them relevant to their local audience.
When a story breaks, journalists are trying to figure out what will happen in the future, what people can expect in the next X days.
To get coverage that matters to your client’s business, have the CEO give a three-sentence statement, including what this news event means, what people can expect in the future, and why we are an expert to talk about this.
The importance of speed when responding to media:
Don’t perfect a statement to death; perfect is the enemy of the good.
A good-enough statement on time is far more valuable than a perfect statement that is too late.
Personal branding and networking for PR professionals:
Share with your boss what your professional priorities are; helps build your reputation with your coworkers and leadership.
On LinkedIn, talk about your core values and why they are important to you; make sure you also live those core values.
Don’t depend on building your brand on only one social platform; cross-pollinate content across your social platforms; show your personal side.
Brand consistency in developing your personal brand is important, with some exceptions: Authenticity that is not self-promotional (such as sharing photos from your birthday or other important personal event).
The biggest turnoff with LinkedIn is that it can be an echo chamber of bragging, so break that up with something other than how great you are professionally.
Be willing to talk about your mistakes and the lessons you learned. Failure is the best teacher and we can learn from it.
Fail fast, learn from your mistakes, and tell the story as you go.
Be willing to be vulnerable; it makes you human. This isn’t appropriate for all CEOs, so it’s important to know your client and what will work for them.
Media tours are a great way to bond with your CEO (or other client), because you’ll spend hours with them in the process. This presents opportunities to get to know them better and to identify other PR opportunities for them.
Make it a point to attend awards ceremonies and other events that are important to your client. They need to see you as someone who really is in their corner.
You want to be seen by your client as the trusted, safe counsel for them.
Authority Marketing is Michael Greenberg’s secret sauce for positioning people and brands. It is the act of positioning someone as an expert in order to bring in more business. As founder and chief strategist at Call for Content, Michael shares his uniquely powerful method of building authority through content and leveraging that for B2B marketing. He also provides a free link to download his Authority Marketing Playbook. Michael’s word of wisdom: “Start creating content; just do it.”
Key points about Authority Marketing:
Authority marketing is B2B marketing, but with core expertise that enables a client to be differentiated in ways traditional B2B content marketing doesn’t allow.
Authority marketing is the act of positioning someone as an authority or expert in order to bring in more business.
In this episode, I share some strategic communication lessons that I picked up from the Commandant of the Marine Corps. The Marines have focused on the art of building and leveraging relationships with key stakeholders; we’ll explore one example in greater detail here.
This is my first video podcast, so if you watch on YouTube, I want to give a special shout-out and thanks to Roberto Blake for giving me the push to move from audio into video. (This video on why podcasters should incorporate video was particularly helpful; thanks Roberto!)
I also want to give a shout-out to my transcription partner, Transcribeme.com. If you’d like to see an example of their work, you’re looking at it! They transcribe the podcast and it becomes these show notes! They do a fantastic job with really quick turnaround and they’re very affordable. If you’d like a 25% discount, go to Transcribeme.com/betterprnow.
Setting The Stage
In Washington D.C., the Marine Barracks Washington is downtown. If you’ve ever heard of “8th & I,” that’s the Marine Barracks. It’s the oldest post of the Marine Corps, having been founded in 1801. They tell a cool story of President Thomas Jefferson and the Commandant of the Marine Corps riding on horseback to pick a site for the barracks. They chose a location between the Capitol and the Washington Navy Yard (which is the oldest Navy installation), so the Marines could get to either quickly in the case of an emergency.
As the oldest post of the Corps, they do something very special every Friday evening during the summer, called the Evening Parade, which creates unique strategic communication opportunities for the Marines. According to their website, “The parade has become a universal symbol of the professionalism, the discipline, and the espirit de corps of the United States Marines. The story of the ceremony reflects the story of Marines serving throughout the world. Whether serving aboard ship, in foreign embassies, at recruit depots, in divisions, or in the many positions and places where Marines project their image, the individual marine continually tells the story of the United States Marine Corps.”
The Evening Parade
Let me paint a picture for you. You pull up and even though you’re on the streets of Washington, D.C. and it’s really crowded, with lots of traffic, you’re immediately met by a group of Marines who are in their full-service dress. The white hat, the blue jacket, the white pants, and they’re just exquisite. They’re all wearing their medals and they meet you, they park you, they bring you in, and they’re very, very welcoming and professional.
I was able to go to a VIP reception that the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert B. Neller, hosted for about 200 people. He gave remarks and he also introduced the guest of honor, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. There also were 3 other members of Congress who participated that evening, along with about 24 NCAA coaches. Those two groups are really important.
There were many other people there that night. After the reception, which lasts about an hour and a half, out on the parade deck there are bleachers that hold probably 2,000 people.
The Marines give an hour and fifteen-minute performance, in which they have Sergeant Chesty XIV, who is the current mascot of Marine Barracks Washington. He’s an English bulldog, and he has his uniform and decorations on, including all of his medals and awards.
The silent drill team, which is just absolutely astonishing in their precision, performs, and the Marine Band also gives a performance, including numbers by John Philip Sousa, one of the most famous Marine Band leaders.
Altogether, it’s an evening where you get to experience the Marine Corps on parade.
During the reception, we had both officers and enlisted Marines come up and ask us how we were doing, welcomed us to the barracks, and told us about their role in the Marine Corps. They are steeped in their traditions and history.
It gives you a very personal welcome and a really heartwarming experience, being part of that whole evening. After the performance, the members of the VIP reception were able to take photos with the Commandant and his wife, with the drill team, with the mascot, and with some of the bandsmen. It’s a wonderful evening.
If you’d like to watch the entire performance, click here.
For the purpose of this exercise, I’m talking about strategic communication in terms of stakeholder engagement that affects your organization’s ability to survive and thrive.
I’m not talking about media relations, I’m not talking about broad public engagement. I’m talking about focusing on those stakeholders who have some kind of really important effect on your organization and its ability to exist and continue to operate.
The AIDA Model
The lens I would like to look at this through, is AIDA, which is an acronym that stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action.
If you think about this being a funnel, at the very widest, open part of the funnel is Attention. You have to get somebody’s attention.
Once you’ve gotten their attention, you have to create Interest in what it is you’re doing, what your organization has to offer, whether it’s a product or a service.
Then you have to move them from Interest to Desire. You want them to, in the case of sales marketing, buy your product or purchase your service. In the case of the Marine Corps, you probably need to attract recruits, and there are other things that the Corps depends on, as well.
Finally, once you have that Attention leading to Interest leading to Desire, you want them to take Action.
In the case of the Evening Parade, there are three groups of people who are there participating: You have the Congressional members, you have coaches, and you have members of the public. All three of those are important for the future of the Marine Corps.
For the Congressional members: What does the Marine Corps, like every other government organization, rely on from Congress? One of the main things is funding. So, that night we had the House Majority Leader and three other members of Congress. Through that evening’s experience, they come away with a better understanding of the Marine Corps. They certainly have a positive impression of the professionalism, discipline, and polish of the Marines. That probably leads them to be predisposed to thinking positively about and supporting the Marines when they put in their funding request.
Same thing with the coaches. These are NCAA coaches from a lot of different sports. I believe that night they were Division III coaches from around the country. Those coaches, whether they are coaching only, or they’re coaching and teaching on campus, are interacting with students and with parents. They are in a prime position to make recommendations and suggestions for avenues that their students might follow for the rest of their careers.
Being able to recommend the United States Marine Corps helps point talented, professional, disciplined, young people to the recruiters. That also helps the Marine Corps, because they’re always looking for qualified new enlisted and officer recruits.
Additionally, to have the parents also being exposed to the Marine Corps in this very positive setting, gives another voice to recommend the Marine Corps as a potential career path for young people.
If you think about what the Marine Corps is entirely dependent on, they’re dependent on recruits and funding. Those are the two big things.
So, over the course of one summer season, you could have all of the members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, which play a major role in determining the funding for all the military services.
You could have most of the professional staff members that work on those funding packages. You could have most of the members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees for Defense also participating.
And so, if you have just the majority of them coming through over the course of a couple of years, now you’ve reminded them of who the Marine Corps is, what role they play in national security and national defense, why that investment in the Marine Corps is important.
You also have touched thousands and thousands of either potential recruits or influencers of recruits, whether they’re parents or teachers or coaches.
So, those become positive voices to represent the Marine Corps when young people are trying to make a decision about what path they are going to follow in life.
If you think about this from a marketing perspective, in terms of creating influence and positive impressions, and getting these groups of people to help you with your messaging to those who are potential recruits and new members of the Marine Corps or to those who make funding decisions about the Marine Corps’ budget, the evening parade is a fantastic way to do it.
Is this an opportunity that is only open to the Marine Corps? Absolutely not!
Every organization can (and, perhaps, should) do what the Marines have done.
The United States Army also does it with their Twilight Tattoos in Washington. As an aside, if you live in Washington or come for a visit, make sure that you see one of these events, because they’re absolutely spectacular.
If you think about it, any organization could create some kind of personal experience or personal engagement with the stakeholders that are most strategically important to that organization. Whether it’s a school, or a manufacturing company, or a services company, or a non-profit, there are unique ways to increase awareness, understanding, and engagement with your stakeholders.
The Bottom Line
For me, this is the main takeaway:
Understand who your strategic stakeholders are and why they are so important to you and your organization.
Find or create ways to connect with them that are meaningful and that help to build understanding.
These engagements should follow the AIDA model, in that they create attention, interest, desire, and ultimately, they can lead to action that is mutually beneficial for your organization and its stakeholders.
That’s the lesson for today. I hope you find it valuable and I really want you to get as much value out of this as possible.
What questions do you have about public relations, marketing, branding, or organizational communication? Drop me a line at Mark at BetterPRNow.com.
If you want to nominate a guest for the podcast, give me a shout.
Finally, I want to remind you about my transcription partner, who does a great job and is offering a super 25% off deal. Just go to transcribeme.com/betterprnow.
In this episode, Curtis Sparrer of Bospar shares secrets of his award-winning boutique tech public relations agency. One of these secrets: The most important thing with PR is asking your clients what business results they want to achieve, and then reverse engineering a PR program around that. Curtis also describes secrets to connecting a journalist with a client’s story.
This episode is sponsored by our official transcription partner, TranscribeMe. In fact, the transcript below was prepared by TranscribeMe. For a 25% discount on their services, go to transcribeme.com/betterprnow.
Today, we’re fortunate to be joined by Curtis Sparrer, principal at Bospar in San Fransisco. Bospar recently won the PR Week Boutique Agency of the Year award. Congratulations and welcome, Curtis.
Thanks. Thanks for having me.
So, as we jump in, I’d like to find out about how people got into public relations, how they started their career in communication. You graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a degree in Radio-Television-Film. What’s happened between graduation and ending up in San Francisco as a principal at one of the nation’s leading agencies?
Well, I think what happened in the short term is I got smart. But the long-term is a much more complicated story. I went to LA, worked for Roger Corman. He’s a famous B-movie producer and I discovered that I just did not have the patience to pay my dues in Hollywood.
Working as a journalist
When I was going to school at UT Austin, I worked as a video film editor for the local TV stations, and I used that skill to go back into news. And my first job as a producer was in Toledo, Ohio. I cut my teeth as a producer there for about three years, rising up the ranks and even moonlighting as a restaurant critic and advice columnist.
I then moved to Houston, where I worked the overnight show. And then I got an amazing offer to produce the 9 PM news at KRON in San Fransisco. I worked there, won a regional Emmy, and was promoted to executive producer. Then, as I kind of ended my career at KRON, I was faced with the choice that I could either move to a different city, or I could change my career trajectory, so I could stay with my friends.
Moving into Public Relations
I gave it a long thought and determined that it would be best if I took all my skills and applied them somewhere else. I applied at a lot of different PR firms, thinking that would be the best use of my skill set. I was really surprised by the obnoxious response of a lot of people.
I got some responses like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly qualify to do PR. It was far too complex.” “Oh, PR is just so difficult and you would not just understand it.” A lot of self-satisfied responses about how complex PR was and I didn’t get a lot of encouragement.
I answered a craigslist ad for a PR position, an internship really, and I met this woman named Chris Boehlke. After Chris and I had a very long conversation, she called me back and said, “I don’t want to do an internship; I want to get married. I want to hire you as our senior associate and I want to get things started.”
So I started as a senior associate and started learning, very quickly. I learned that a lot of people in PR were really good at telling clients “No,” and I decided that my fastest route for survival would be learning how to tell clients “Yes.” I treated clients like anyone would treat a television anchor, with the utmost respect, and I learned that really paid off well. I also learned that a lot of times the press release material that clients were trying to get in the media was not useful for any journalist, having both been a TV producer and also having been a writer.
Before we go any further, why was it not useful? Was there a pattern there?
Yeah, there was. A lot of the content was jargon-heavy. A lot of the content was something that would not fit in any kind of current narrative or current story that journalists were already talking about; it was very tone deaf.
“We needed to understand what our journalist contacts were working on and then reverse engineer our story so we would better match their priorities.”
A lot of the content was just tone deaf and it was as if a bunch of marketers were thinking, “I want to have this content run in TechCrunch,” without really bothering to think, well, what is TechCrunch [focused on] right now? What’s important to them? So my point to all our clients was that we needed to understand what our journalist contacts were working on and then reverse engineer our story so we would better match their priorities.
That sounds a lot like in the startup community, where people are tempted to — they have an idea and they say, “This is a really cool thing; let me go find a market for it.” As opposed to looking at the market, seeing where the pain points are, where people are having challenges, and then coming up with a solution for those challenges.
Working with journalists
Just because I have a story I want to tell in a certain way doesn’t mean that anybody is going to be interested in hearing it.
That’s exactly it. And that’s the problem that a lot of companies have and they kind of — the expression, of course, is drink their own Kool-Aid, but it’s kind of a reality distortion field where they seem to think that the news that’s important to them will be important to other people. The thing that I try to tell our clients is that’s not the case.
That’s true; how did the client take it? Were you able to convince them to take a different path?
“The most important thing with PR is asking your clients what business results they want to achieve and then reverse engineering a PR program around that.”
I have. I have been able to convince a lot of clients that the crazy thing they want to do is not really what they want to achieve. I think the most important thing with PR is asking your clients what business results they want to achieve and then reverse engineering a PR program around that.
I also counsel our clients that just because a story is published, doesn’t mean your target is going to see it. You need to take that story and put it in front of your target’s face, so that they can actually see it. I think it’s resonated with me more now than ever, since I’m a principal at my own firm and I use PR as our principal means of business development.
What you’re talking about is helping them shift from focusing on tactics, which is where all the bright, shiny objects are, to focusing on a more strategic level [that asks] what do you want to achieve? And then, figuring out, how do we get there?
“Sometimes it’s a matter of counseling a client out a bad idea.”
Absolutely. I find that when I do that, I am providing a much more full-service approach along the PESO model, where some clients will say, “Well, I really want the sense at this convention that everyone’s talking about us.” And then I can say, “Well, that’s really not going to be any story placement. What you’re going to want is to buy advertising space all over that convention, so that you are the only thing people see.” And the client’s like, “That’s what I want to do; you’re right.”
Sometimes it’s a matter of counseling a client out a bad idea.
I remember one client wanted to have a press conference. If you’re Facebook, Google, or Apple, you can probably do that. But when you’re a startup, that’s impossible. So I had to work very hard to not insult the client, but to convince him that wasn’t going to provide the results he was looking for.
Yep, that’s absolutely right. And frankly, that’s really challenging sometimes.
That is really challenging sometimes and I think that it’s one of the big things that all agencies and all people of marketing really face.
PR brilliance and humiliation
As you’ve been around the public relations world for a while, you’ve seen people execute in ways that I’m sure are just stunningly brilliant. And you’ve seen people do the opposite, where they fall on their faces. I’m not asking you to out anybody, but can you describe an example where somebody did something just incredibly dumb in public relations? The reason is, I think there’s a teachable moment and good lessons for all of us every time we see something like that happen.
You know, I think everyone has done something really stupid that they regretted. When I think of all the dumb things I have done, I think the stupidest thing was, I was trying to get a story placed because I had a crush on someone and I thought this would be helpful. I had the whole backstory with the journalist about the crush and how great it was. Finally, the journalist coughed up the story and I was so excited about it that I forwarded the whole thread to said crush.
Talk about being transparent.
Yeah, how’d that work out?
Well, let’s say I’m not married to them.
Okay. Got it. Got it. So flip it around. What’s the most brilliant thing that you’ve ever done in your career or that you’ve seen somebody else do?
You know, I will probably think of the brilliant things a lot later as I’m doing something else mundane and boring. I think one of the prouder, yet smaller, things I did is, I was faced with this press release that needed approval from this marketing company and everyone from the marketing company had gone home for the day. Their New York line was closed. Their San Francisco line was closed. And I really was beginning to panic, until I realized that this marketing firm was an international marketing firm. So I called their Australian affiliate. They were up. They were just starting their day and they managed to approve the whole thing. While that’s not an, ‘Oh, my God, I’m the next Einstein,” sort of thing, it’s that kind of thinking that has saved me time and time again, where we get in the mode of thinking in just a very narrow, narrow focus. The more that you can expand your thinking and expand your approach, the better you’re going to do.
Brand ambassadors and influencers
You recently wrote a blog post on the Bospar blog about how audience targeting is changing in the age of digital transformation. In that article, you talked about turning brand ambassadors into influence. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
You know, when it comes to turning brand ambassadors into influencers, it’s all about increasing their reputation and their footprint. You really need to promote them as you would promote any brand or company. And you need to do your very best to amplify what they’re saying, so that more people will see it and more people will see them as a respected third party who’s credible.
Advice for a career in PR
If you were talking to your younger self, as you were getting ready to finish college and start your career, what advice would you give yourself? Or what advice would you give young people who are just getting started or contemplating a career in communications?
I’ve never heard that advice before. It’s usually about “Hey, take more of these kind of classes,” but, okay.
An important thing that you can do is take an internship, because I think that everything is good in theory. But learning about something, that scholastic environment versus doing it, are two different things entirely. If I could have done something differently with how I was approaching that, I would have broadened the scope of my internships. I focused very heavily on journalism internships and wish I had done a public relations or marketing internship. I think that would have given more experience in the other side, and maybe I would have started off with PR instead of broadcast news.
Just because of the economics that are happening now, there are so many people moving from journalism into public relations. So that transition that you did, there are a lot of people doing the same thing. As you look around the field of PR practitioners, there are lots and lots of former journalists, people with journalism degrees, who, for whatever reason, made that change.
Absolutely. One of the things that I find is that I frequently counsel people who are looking to make the switch about how they can do it and what they can do. My number one advice to media people, journalists, who are trying to transition to PR, is to start doing charity work. That way you can get your toes wet and really get an understanding of how it works. I also recommend that they start taking informational interviews.
Finally, I recommend that they work at an agency, and they don’t go too big too quickly. I think the biggest example of a kind of Icarus falling situation was with one CNBC reporter who was brought into this war between Facebook and Google over privacy concerns. It was revealed that the former journalist was trying to get people to place contributed content under various names of reporters that would raise privacy concerns about the two companies. And it just blew up in his face in spectacular fashion. I think if he had been in PR longer, that would not have happened to him.
It sounds like the ethics lessons that we learned as we’re studying public relations or earning our accreditation, ethics is a major component to that. And that would have helped, I think, steer that person away from whatever temptation there was to take that shortcut.
“It’s always the cover-up that’s worse than the crime.”
I think there are a lot of marketers who want PR people to practice the black arts. And I’ve always advised marketing people who brought that up that generally, they always have a habit of blowing up in your face and just making you look bad. I have recommended often that you should just steer away from that. That’s just something that’s going to haunt you. It’s always the cover-up that’s worse than the crime.
Oh, that’s absolutely true and it always comes out.
It always does.
Whatever it is, it will always eventually come out, and it will be worse.
The importance of relationships
What’s your perspective on the importance of relationships in public relations practice?
It’s only the second word in Public Relations [laughter]. I think that media relationships are so important, because they give you a sense of what you can and can’t do in a story. And they really give you the reality check you need, outside of your experience with the client.
I make sure that I attend journalism conferences every year. I’m a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. Your listeners may have been able to figure that out themselves by the butch tone of my voice [laughter].
I find that being able to talk to journalists on a regular basis is the best way to inform a strategy and then come up with creative ideas. So I encourage every one of my colleagues to meet journalists, take them out for lunch, breakfast, dinner, drinks, whatever, and really get to understand what they’re up against professionally and personally, as well as understand what sort of story narratives are really important. I find that those relationships are key in really making some stories really work well for our clients.
You talked earlier about knowing what stories they’re following, what they’re interested in, and in reverse engineering your plans to fit that, which you only know if you’re talking with them.
And you can only intuit, or even better, have them tell you, “Hey, here’s what we’re looking for. Do you have anything that would fit?”
Absolutely, and during a crisis situation, having one of the journalist friendlies help you with your response or your reaction is critical.
I think that’s spot on.
Motivation to do great work
When you think about this as a career, like any career, there are challenges. It’s hard; it’s busy. I know in every job I’ve ever had in communications, there’s way more to do than you can possibly get done in a day. What keeps you inspired? When you wake up in the morning, and you think about going to work, what really gets you psyched up to go and tackle everything again, one more day?
The fear of being homeless [laughter].
You’re very practical.
No, I’m kidding. I think the thing that makes me most excited is when we do something wacky or crazy that just might work, and it does. I think that when I hear my colleagues achieve something that they didn’t think they could do, I love being a part of that. Saying that, I love cheerleading, I like to see people excited about what they’re doing, and I like to see people overwhelmingly happy with what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it.
Ultimately, I’m very, I guess, platonic, if you will, in the sense that I believe the end goal of life is to be happy. If people are getting that happiness out of their work, then I’m happy, too.
If you think about the real essence of public relations, it’s to help organizations have better relationships with the publics that they depend on and that depend on them. As a result, things should be better for everybody; everybody should be happier if we’re really effective at doing our jobs.
So that, generally, is what gets me going. I think the challenging part of this job is that I get that what we’re doing is of real value. Because what we’re doing is of real value, is transformative, and has the opportunity to make sales and make budgets happen, there sometimes is high anxiety and high pressure. Sometimes nerves are rattled and sometimes tempers get really, really out of control. So I bring that to bear when I’m working with these people, who are some brilliant executives, some brilliant minds and sometimes are really needing PR to be transformative in their business designs, and I get that.
On personal improvement
“Get things out quickly, fail quickly, and improve quickly.”
If there was one thing that you could do better, what would it be?
Everything [laughter]. I recently had a colleague call me and she was complaining that an email I sent wasn’t deep enough, it wasn’t thoughtful enough. I said, “Sometimes I just suck, and I just suck because sometimes there’s just not enough time to be as good as I need to be or as you need me to be.” So, I think that if I had anything, it would be more time in a given day. I know that’s pretty pat and cliche, but I think that is the one thing that you need in order to do your best work.
That said, I think the thing that annoys me the most is people who let perfection be the enemy of the good and will sit on things forever and ever, until the moment is lost. I remember one colleague who met a journalist who said she was interested in any kind of pitch, and that colleague took two months perfecting her email to the journalist until she sent it. And the journalist probably forgot who she was and never responded. So, I’m a big believer in get things out quickly, and fail quickly, and improve quickly.
The nature of the business we’re in, those windows of opportunity close pretty quickly. And if you’re spending too much time on perfection, the window of opportunity is closed.
I was a journalist and I didn’t have time for you to come up with your Gettysburg Address. I just needed someone to cobble together five sentences so I could get it out and meet deadline. I think a lot of marketers fool themselves into thinking that if they write the Magna Carta or something, that that’s really going to move the needle for them. But, it’s not that which is going to help them, it’s being responsive and being quick.
Sure. So, there’s that time component. There’s also the expectation of what it is the journalist might need from us. They don’t necessarily need us to write their story for them. They might just need a quote, or some facts, or something that allows them to complete their story on deadline.
Doing our homework
“You have to understand what problem you’re solving for somebody.”
Yep, and I can tell you, as a journalist, that’s so important. I think the other thing I’m seeing is, since I’m writing for a variety of outlets as well, I’m seeing some very lazy pitching. I had this one person pitch me this story, and she wrote, “Thought you might be interested in this,” and slapped the press release, and that was it.
No personalization, no doing some homework, trying to figure out why you might actually be interested in it and making that obvious to you.
I mean, in this very interview, Mark, you have shown that you have looked at my blog entries, my LinkedIn profile; you’ve done your homework. But this PR person did nothing. So, I wrote back and asked, “Why?” I forced her e-mail after e-mail after e-mail to do the work that she should have done from the beginning. I know that that’s not possible in every pitch. I know that that’s not something that can scale, but I do think that a lot of our new crop of PR people are needing to put in a lot more energy and a lot more thought in what they write. And so, whereas, I’m seeing that more and more, for example, and of course I can plug my own company, I have seen a lot of people —
This is a plug-friendly space [laughter], so plug away.
I have seen a lot of people pitch me who clearly have not ever considered what a journalist would need for a pitch to be successful.
You’ve got to know what they need. It’s no different than any other business. You have to understand what problem you’re solving for somebody, and then make it easy for them to understand how you can solve that problem for them. It’s no more difficult than that.
Yeah, it’s no more difficult than that. And, yet, it’s still that difficult [laughter].
I hear you.
I think even the simple things are hard.
Yes, that’s true. We talked about what kind of advice you would give to people starting their careers or to your younger self. What advice would you give, or do you give, to CEOs or other organizational leaders to help them be more effective in their communications?
Talk in shorter sentences!
Very, very true.
“Did I explain that well?”
I find that a lot of CEOs are brilliant people, and because they’re brilliant people, they think in a thought process that almost comes off like an impressionistic painting when they are talking. And yet, for a reporter who is trying to write it all down into short succinct sentences and thoughts, it becomes very difficult. I find that the reporters who come back to me are the ones who’ve been exposed to CEOs who could speak simply and easily — like you would talk to any regular person at a bar.
Is that unique to the tech world?
I don’t think so. I think the higher up you go, the more likely it is that you are brilliant. And so, I would say that the CEO of Home Depot is going to be just as brilliant as the CEO of an AI company, by virtue of all the work and talent required to get there. And I think the challenge they find is that they have been used to speaking in so many different kinds of dialects, if you will, professional dialects, whereas as an AI scientist, I might have an AI shorthand for all my researchers. When I’m talking to a journalist who may not have AI as his/her only beat, I’m speaking at a level that they can’t possibly understand.
And sometimes, that might actually be okay, if the audience speaks the same language. But if the audience doesn’t, if you’re speaking not to your peers, but you’re trying to speak to, say, consumers, it might go right past them.
It absolutely might go right past them; I think the real challenge is calibrating it correctly. And also, calibrating in a way that isn’t obnoxious. When we trained CEOs and other executives to talk to journalists, one of the things that we say is, “You should put the onus of selling your message on yourself.” Instead of saying to the journalist, “Did you understand that,” which makes it clear that the journalist might be the idiot in the room, you need to say, “Did I explain that well?”
That’s brilliant; you’re keeping ownership and responsibility for communicating.
Absolutely. One of the ways that this has really kind of come up is, I mentioned we are doing PR for ourselves just like we would do it for any of our clients, we practice what we preach at Bospar. So when I went in to the hot seat to do a TV interview, I really had extra pressure. I wasn’t just presenting this as the executive of a company, but I was also doing an interview as a expert in how to do an interview. When I was doing that, I really had to think about how I should take an interview and what are the best practices. And that made me evaluate everything I did, from what I would eat that day and what I would avoid – like dairy, for example – to how I would stand and how I would react facially, physically to questions, because this was on TV.
When executives are going in front of the camera, they really need to take an extra step to make sure that they are completely ready for the experience, because TV interviews are the very interviews that could make you an Internet meme forever, if you goof it up.
Artificial intelligence in PR
“Get smart about AI.”
If you look 10 years or so into the future, how do you see public relations and marketing changing, particularly in the tech space?
I think PR is increasingly going to adopt artificial intelligence. We already use artificial intelligence in a lot of our sales communication. And one of my clients, Conversica, for example, is telling me that probably one in five Americans have already talked to its AI platform. And that’s just one company. So if we’re looking at one in five Americans talking to AI right now, that number is going to increase where it’s a matter of how many times a day we’re interacting with AI.
The reason why that will be important for PR people is in their outbound communication. I mentioned the bad pitch I got from this random PR person. I suspect that if an AI platform had crafted the pitch, in about 10, 20 years, it’d probably be way better than this person had ever written. And it would be thoughtful and filled with links. And I think that’s one of the things that’s going to happen is that AI will be increasingly used for outreach.
I also think that AI is going to used for analytics that make the current analytics we’re using seem like caveman-like drawings by comparison. While that will be scary for a lot of people, I think that just like any sort of computer or technological revolution, it’s those people who really lean into it who are going to do well.
My advice to my PR colleagues would be to get smart about AI and understand what it does and what does not. That’s going to be the real challenge PR professionals face in the next 20 years.
I think the other challenge, of course, is going to be just the variety of outlets. We always hear about outlets shuttering and outlets closing and people being laid off. I think that’s going to continue to be a part of the PR landscape. That’s also going to be why social platforms are going to continue to grow in importance as they replace, in some instances, the media content that new sites used to have.
Is there anybody out there right now that you’re aware of who’s leading the charge on using AI for either analytics or for outreach?
I would say when it comes to outreach, one of the companies that is leading the way is a client of mine, and it’s called Conversica. And what Conversica is, is a sales assistant. It will send people emails or text messages about something that they showed interest in. If you were looking at a car, for example, on a website, you might get an email from someone who says, “Hey, I saw you’re looking at this Lexus, and I was wondering if you’d be interested in a test drive? We can schedule something.”
I think that is going to be adopted more and more for our PR model. I think that it’s going to take some further sophistication before we get to the point where a journalist gets a story like, “Hey, I saw you wrote about Battlestar Galactica and thought you’d be interested in this prequel. Would you like to go and see a reel?” But, I could very well see the day when that does happen.
Can you see a day when bots are pitching bots? That there’s AI on both ends, and we don’t even have to be part of that? [laughter]
I do see that. I think that’s interesting and I’m not sure what we’ll get. But I would very much like to see that experiment take place. I know that not all AI has worked out. I think the biggest example of AI that kind of blew up was Tay and that was too bad. It did blow up because of humans were mean. But I think that bots pitching bots will happen. I think the question is, will they produce anything that people will find interesting to read?
“I love email.”
On a day-to-day basis, what tools do you use? What do you rely on to be successful every day?
Don’t we all! [laughter]
Caffeine, and more and more caffeine. The other tools I rely on — I really love email; I know it actually sounds very old school.
I’ve never heard anybody say that.
I do. I love …
Seriously; I’ve never heard anybody say, “I love email.”
I find it is effective, not only as a means of communication, but as a means of a public record, and as a means of organizing projects. I can follow a project from start to completion by an email thread. I can make sure that things happen in a timely fashion.
I know that there is a rush to go into all sorts of project software. But in my estimation, or at least for me, that seems like an extra step. Whereas the email thread is a perfectly fine way of following a project on how it’s going.
When it comes to looking at resources, I’m fond of Harvest. I think Harvest is a very easy way for us to track where time is being spent. It’s also good for expenses, because who’s going to want to get all your receipts. At some point of the day, it’s much better to expense as you go. So Harvest is a great tool for that.
I’m also very fond of Zoom video conferencing service. And I find it to be so much more superior than any kind of pure audio conference, because looking at people physically gives you clues and ques. I can tell when someone wants to interrupt me. I can tell when people are bored with me. And that’s very useful for someone who probably is on a lot.
That non-verbal feedback really is important.
“Video is going to have a renaissance.”
What have I not asked you about that I should have?
I think that the big question that PR people have to face is not the coming AI invasion. It’s really going to be what people read, and how people absorb information. More and more young people are reporting that they are just visual, and they are following Instagram; they’re getting a lot of their content from that.
As PR people, I think the big challenge is “How do we make an impact when words seem to matter less and less?” I think that’s why video is going to have a renaissance. Because, if younger people are focusing less and less on words and more and more on pictures, then the best way to reach people will be through video. That’s what I see as important as the years go on.
Curtis, this has been a fantastic conversation. I tell you what, I’ve learned so much from you.
Shucks. Thanks. [laughter]
And that was Texas coming out right there!
Thanks for joining us for episode 14 of Better PR Now.
I want to give a shout-out to Professor Enrique Planells of the University of Valencia in Spain. He wrote a wonderful note expressing how he was using the podcast as complementary material for his students. He also noted how the podcast was bridging a gap between academia and the professional world. And that really is the main intent.
Thank you so much for listening and sharing the podcast, Enrique!
TranscribeMe is the official transcription partner of this podcast. You can enjoy a 25% discount on transcription services at TranscribeMe.com/BetterPRNow. They really do terrific work and the turnaround is super fast.
Senior Director of Marketing and Communications at Capital Impact Partners, Jason W. Anderson discusses how he got into a communications career, the power of good storytelling in connecting with stakeholders on a deep level, and why emotional stories hook donors.
“Have an authentic story to tell; don’t be afraid to yell it from the rooftops.”
Values and passion for mission-driven organizations have defined Jason’s career. This has led to many diverse opportunities for him to make a difference using a unique set of marketing, communications, branding, and corporate social responsibility skills.
He has helped launch a business unit and rolled out new brands, debuted a roller coaster with Disney, worked with Harrison Ford to change international environmental policy, escorted a TV crew through Ecuador on mules (in the rain and dark!), written copy for Starbucks’ coffee cups and McDonald’s Happy Meals, and been honored with a West African tribal name.
Through capital and commitment Capital Impact helps people build communities of opportunity that break barriers to success. A nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), Capital Impact has a 30-year history of delivering strategic financing, social innovation programs, and capacity building that creates social change and delivers financial impact nationwide.
Capital Impact believes that every community should be built on a foundation of equity, inclusiveness and cooperation. This requires them to break down the barriers to success by addressing key social and economic justice issues. That is why they are dedicated to delivering both the capital and commitment that help people build strong, vibrant communities of opportunities; places where all people have access to high quality services that foster good health, economic growth, and interconnectedness.
Welcome to episode 13 of Better PR Now. In today’s episode I have a conversation with Jason Anderson, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications at Capital Impact Partners in Washington, DC.
Before we jump into the conversation, I’d like to invite you to visit my friends at TranscribeMe.com. They’re the official transcription partner of the podcast and they have a special offer for you. You can get up to 25% off of transcription services. Just go to transcribeme.com/betterprnow. Now, let’s jump into the conversation.
This is the first podcast ever recorded, I believe, in a Whole Foods Market, and I know it’s the first podcast recorded in the Whole Foods Market in Pentagon City, Virginia. The reason we’re here today is there’s a tap takeover by breweries from Richmond, Virginia, and I’m joined by Jason Anderson, somebody I’ve known for a long time who is a really fantastic communicator. Jason, welcome to the show.
Fantastic. Now you’ve had a really fascinating career. We’ll talk about your education, and then you worked for CNN. So tell me about how you got into communications and what drove you towards a communications career to begin with?
Yeah. So I grew up in Southern California, and went to Claremont McKenna College where I actually majored in Government and Literature. I actually had an opportunity to attend USC for a broadcasting degree but decided that I wanted to really get the fundamentals of a hardcore political background. Because really my goal at that time was to get into political journalism. And that ultimately fulfilled itself by joining CNN for about 10 years where I literally started as what they called a video journalist, a VJ, at that time. Making roughly $15,000 a year.
Killing it. And there we did everything from running the camera to running the teleprompter with paper scripts. Which is something in this day of digital age if you think about it. And even robotic cameras, which we didn’t have back then. But there I saw a number of fascinating things, really cut my teeth on what journalism was. Learned how to edit videotape, learned how to produce a segment and did a whole number of things with them, but ultimately decided after a number of events, ultimately concluding with the Monica Lewinsky episode in Washington DC, that I decided it was time for me to move on and pursue some of my more personal goals along with journalism. Which was at that point thinking about the environment.
That’s wonderful. And so after a decade or so at CNN where you focused on political and other reporting, you moved over to the non-profit world. Tell me about that transition.
Yeah. So I saw an opportunity at an organization called Conservation International, which does international, non-profit environmental work in communities all across the world, and the opportunity was to take my journalism skills and apply them to public relations. How do we take the things that we do as an environmental non-profit and translate them into actually what news is, and serious news not just marketing, and talk to reporters about covering that news? So I did that actually for a division of Conservation International which was called the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, and it was really thinking about, how do we work with corporations to reduce their environmental footprint, to contribute to the things that we were doing at Conservation International and translate that all into good. You know ultimately, the public relations part in a sense was marketing, in a sense was how do we drive fundraising, how do we drive other corporations to do good things? How do we put pressure on the organizations that we’re working with to do more good things? But, ultimately, it was a really fascinating experience.
And then after Conservation International, you stayed in the non-profit world?
I did. At that point after 10 years of working at the global sphere and working with Fortune 500 companies like McDonald’s, like Starbucks, like Walmart to change their footprint and actually do some interesting marketing things with them. I really wanted to focus more in on local communities. And I found a small organization doing really fascinating things called Rare. And they would actually run marketing campaigns in local communities and these are hyper-local communities. Places you’ve never heard about or can’t even find on the map in Indonesia, in Africa, throughout Asia. And what they would do is, they had the ability to take over the radio, take over the newspaper, create mascots around essential message because you have that hyper-local opportunity to not talk about a product, but to talk about environmental conservation. And perhaps it’s water, perhaps it’s a species, perhaps it’s pollution. And you get folks really thinking about ways they can change their practices locally and using mass media to do that. It was fascinating to watch how that would happen. Now again my job wasn’t to do that work. We had specialists with a whole theory of change and the use of psychology, but my job was to get people interested in what we were doing. So, again …
Were they trying to change behavior?
Behavior change, exactly. That was at the core of it, which you can do in a place like that. Much harder where we are in Pentagon City to get people to recycle the cups that they were drinking from these fine, Virginia breweries (i.e., Hardywood Brewery, Ardent Craft Ales, and Kindred Spirit Brewing). But you can do it in these awful places and getting donors interested in thinking about that was part of my job.
So give me an example of one of the projects that you worked on.
Sure, so we worked in a village in the Philippines, where they essentially had no fish, which is a problem when fish is what you rely on to eat. So we had to really go in …
Was this because of over-fishing?
It’s over-fishing. So …
So you really needed to change that behavior or you’ll never fix the problem.
We needed to change the behavior of over-fishing. So we created a mascot called Meloy (From The Meloy Fund’s website: The campaign is named after Meloy, a Panther Grouper who was the mascot in one of Rare’s Pride campaigns in Inabanga, Philippines. The campaign, which started in 2011, is focused on community ownership and participation in protecting Inabanga’s marine resources.). And Meloy was central to this media campaign. He appeared in billboards. He appeared in local restaurants. He appeared in the newspaper. He appeared in local parades that you might see down our main streets. And eventually people got the message. I need to think about the fact that I can’t go out every day, 24-hour days, and fish. I need to think about okay, how do I fish responsibly with everyone else who needs to feed their families and also maybe some of the companies who are coming in and using us to buy fish to sell to distributors? And eventually, the metrics showed an uptick in that particular region in terms of number of fish available, but of course fish take a couple of years to spawn and reproduce and create a viable colony.
Then you move [inaudible] to Capital Impact Partners. Different mission, but also in the nonprofit world. Tell me about their mission.
Capital Impact was sort of my way to come back home. This is after the great depression, after the big financial crises that we all faced. And I thought to my self, certainly, there’s a great [inaudible] outside of our boundaries, but then, in the United States, we have a lot of communities that are suffering, and how can we help them recoup from what has happened to them. And so I joined Capital Impact Partners, it’s what’s called the community development financial institution, which is a long-winded way of saying, “Where are the good guy bankers?” We are a bank with the mission behind us. So we make loans to other nonprofits essentially, hospitals, healthy hood ventures, education, or people and organizations that are really trying to change the paradigm in their communities. But because they’re operating in low-income areas, big banks won’t finance them. So you can’t build that house center, you can’t build that grocery store that’ll sell healthy food, you can’t build the apartment that’ll have affordable housing. Big just won’t support it. We will, that’s our mission. That’s the risk we take, and in fact, we don’t measure our end of the year success by our profit, we measure it by how many desks are being built for students, how many more affordable housing units have been built.
That’s really tangible good in the community.
Yeah. What drew me to it is, they were interested as more than just a lender because they saw that just bringing money into a community wasn’t going to do it. So we had to bring research, we had to bring a team that would develop programs that addressed this systemic issues being faced and think about how to do it differently, how can we do it this way and instead of the old way. A classic example that we use is around the nursing homes system. You put people into institutional nursing homes, nothing changes, people grow old, they get sick, they eventually pass away. What we’ve decided was, there’s got to be a better way. So how do you go in, and develop a different type of nursing home that’s as a community where you’ll have your own room, where you go to a kitchen that feels like your home, where you communicate with the outside world? It’s called the greenhouse model. We were able to deploy it in multiple states across the country, and it’s become a real success. But it really shows that money is one thing, creating systemic change is a whole different paradigm, and that’s what really drove me to the organization.
So how do you tell that story in a way that’s going to [inaudible] and engaging to people who either might be in a position to support it or might be a potential customer or beneficiary?
Right. No. It’s something I struggle with each and every day because we don’t just working agent, we work across seven sectors. And how do I tell that one story to people in seven sectors, whether they want to borrow money from us, or change a program, and then how do I elevate that story to …
Is it possible to tell a story that reaches different audiences and is equally compelling across different sectors, and people who have maybe different motivations, and [inaudible] paying attention, or do you have to tailor the story based on your audience?
So I approach it from literally story telling. What is good storytelling? And that begins with someone who really has to overcome a barrier and how do they overcome that barrier, which is, if you think about any Hollywood movie, and I just took my kids last week to see Black Panther.
Yeah, me too.
Good movie [laughter].
How do they overcome that barrier of the mineral that they are trying to mine and save the world? Are we saving the world? Maybe. So one of the things I did was when I came into the organization about three years ago was to create a story section to the website. It doesn’t market our learning activities, it doesn’t market any of the other kind of programmatic activities we do, what it does do is tell the stories of the people it was serving. So in the greenhouse model, we literally sending a photographer, journalist. He spent a couple of weeks with these residences, and he told their stories to a series of photo captions. And it’s sort of that heart versus brain effects. How do I pull on your heartstrings to really get you understand this is what you’re doing at this kind of visceral level.
And we know. I mean, we know from theory that we also know from the experience that you can make a really, really good logical argument that makes perfect sense to the brain, but if doesn’t have that emotional impact, it doesn’t matter, people might not even pay attention to it. So if you don’t make that emotional connection, you need to be able to follow it up with a logic. But sales are made through emotions. Donations are made through emotions. People care about emotions. They want to follow it up with logic to prove to themselves there’s nothing else that their emotions were sound if that makes sense.
So [inaudible] make an example of that. We could talk about the greenhouse model as here are 10, 12 group homes with individual rooms, it serves maybe 30 to 50 percent of the residents around Medicare. That’s great. I mean, honestly, that’s a fact that’s excellent. Again, there was a guy named Irvin who we talked to. His wife, basically, she didn’t have the capabilities of living in the same room, because she could become violent. So what he would do is he would go, while she was sleeping, and literally cuddle up with her at night, and sleep with her, and then wake up in the morning, get up, and go back to his own bed. And she wouldn’t know, but now we have this opportunity to show this individual who is still able to be with his wife in their old age at a time when they went to the traditional nursing home. She actually might have been institutionalized, but this was not the case.
We might be able to empower them to keep their relationship alive for months or years longer than they normally would have.
And I was so proud, as a person in marketing, to tell a story that values that relationship.
Which I don’t often get to do.
Okay. So, all right, you just got my heart strains, right?
All right. So now I’m ready to make a donation which is sort of [inaudible], right? I mean, you want to make that emotional connection, and want to get somebody walk into your want to understand it and feel it, maybe feel it first. Then understand it, then get involved, and support it. So, thinking about when you were going to school, when you were starting your career, what do you know now that you wish you had known then?
I think it is the personal aspects of what I do. Drilling down into emotion and storytelling. I went to a school that valued– I went to Claremont McKenna College, which was mostly an economics school. I was sort of an outlier as someone who wanted to do nonprofit work. And so there it was research, it was analytics, it was data. Which was great, because it got me thinking about those things, because I never really thought about those things. But somewhere I knew deep inside me that there was still emotion and story that drives us. Maybe that was I was drawn to USC, because of their film elements and all of their production elements. Toss up whether I should’ve gone there or not, but ultimately I think that now is what makes me a successful marketer, is driving story versus data. Because I could easily talk about, we’re a lending institution at our heart. Before I came, we talked about, oh we financed this building. Oh, it’s 26,000 square feet. It’s in this area that has a 200% under the certain net worth for individuals. Government data, and I can’t remember. I can’t think of it, because it doesn’t drive me.
And that’s your proof right there.
Right. Who goes to school there? Who now has a home there? Who’s getting health care in that building? That’s what I care about.
And one person’s personal story can negate reams and reams and reams of paper of statistics and facts.
Absolutely, yeah. And I do think that you need to back it up, with the ultimate, we have the great story of Irvin, but I could tell you any number of stories. There’s a woman who was once homeless. She went to a health care center that we helped finance in San Francisco. [inaudible] San Fransisco, does that mean health care? Well, there are huge amounts of homeless people in San Francisco who have no access to equitable health care. Now it’s part of the mission of this– now she got off drugs, she got off alcohol, and she has now literally a board member of this hospital because they want a certain amount of their patients to be on the board. That’s not data, that’s a story, that’s a person’s life who has changed. But the data, ultimately, we still need to talk about. This hospital went from an alleyway to a building that serves 20,000 patients, who are uninsured possibly, and so they now have healthcare. That saves X amount of health care dollars. Yeah, so you need that data to back up the story.
So for somebody who’s an aspiring storyteller, regardless of the medium that they’re interested in, what are the things that they need to know, what are the skills that they need to develop?
You need to be emotionally involved in your projects. One, the word I always give to people when they think about communications and all of the things and the tactics and all of that is what is your authenticity? You can have your strategy, you can have your tactics down, you can have everything to a T, but if you’re not authentic, it’s not going to resonate with people. And ultimately, that’s going to you may get a– the phrase is, “Fool me once it’s on you. Fool me twice it’s on me.” Authenticity is the same way. You may fool a donor or funder or an investor a couple of times, but ultimately they’re going to get it. So make sure you have an authentic story to tell. And then don’t be afraid to tell it from the rooftops. Just yell it, scream it, promote it, put it on video, put it on social media. Don’t be afraid to be hyperbolic. If it’s authentic, it’s real.
Right. I think that’s really wise council. What tools do you use that you absolutely can’t do without?
Well, I’m old school, so I use a lot of pen and paper. We’ve been experimenting with a tool called Trello which is a kind of electronic tool for project management. I think you do need an editorial calendar of sorts because it allows you to be proactive versus reactive, especially for someone like me where I have multiple sectors to promote. And all those sectors need to ramp up into corporate objectives around social and racial justice. I need to think ahead about, “All right. We’ve got this day coming up. We’ve got this conference coming up. We’ve got this project coming up.” How does that react with everything else that we’re doing? So that the messaging can be funneled up to, kind of ultimately, what we’re trying to talk about.
What advice would you give for somebody, who is either starting school or starting their careers right now, who’s interested in following a path similar to yours?
So, this may be antithetical to most people. I did not get a background in marketing. I did not get a background in communications or any of this stuff. I’m not saying that’s not valuable. I got an education in what I loved and what I believed in. At that point it was government and literature. Now if you think about it, I know work in finance so– and with a stop over, a 15-year stop over, in the environment. So I was just say be passionate. Explore. Which also comes with a lot of self-learning and reading everybody else’s e-newsletters, websites, and understanding what they do. And there was some self-learning about what the consumer journey looks like. What does the donor persona look like? All of those things, so that I could apply what I had hints of in my brain and make them very tactical.
That’s wonderful, so these last two questions are sort of fun ones. What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever seen somebody do in communications and marketing?
All right. Off the top of my head I can’t think of the dumbest thing I’ve seen. But I will say that it’s funny watching an organization I left, and I will not name them, reuse a tactic that we used. And used to sort of minimal effect. It felt like an organization that was out of ideas and was just trying to think about, “All right, we’ll just reuse that in a different way,” Without really understanding what can we actually achieve with this. It was a social media campaign about investing in a certain project and who knows in terms of the actual tangible value of it? And I’ll pick another, which is another organization that I worked with, do a multi-million dollar campaign. Hollywood superstars, literally Hollywood superstars using cutting edge multimedia techniques, putting this out on every communication channel possible, but ultimately almost no impact. I’ve heard a superstar say this and I’m interested, because I’ve heard it in three or four different ways. Now what do I do? Well, what I do was give 10 bucks.
I take your point that you need to craft your strategy and your tactics based on the existing situation, which means whoever is working in communications and marketing needs to be acutely attuned to strategy and organization. They need to understand the situation, and they need to bring something fresh and creative. It’s not sufficient to continue to rehash what might have been a great idea before, but that is already played out.
Yeah. And I’ll also add to that. The idea that you’re going to run into a CEO who thinks that they can create a movement– and God bless you, if you can create a movement, do it. And don’t not try. Definitely try it. But go in with the market research of what the public says. And I’ll take the environment for example. So, I did that for 15 years. And creating a movement for the environment was always top of mind of the executive for marketing. You can affect any environmental space, 5% of the population, with what we call the dark greens. And they will give a ton of money. You cannot affect the 95% of the population to give their $10, which will equate to billions if they did it. And if you said, “Oh, hogwash,” think about yourself. I’m an environmentalist, and I do all the right things. I compost, I recycle, I drive a Prius …
Yeah, me too. We might actually be parked next to each other [laughter].
But are all of these people going to give their 10 bucks? It’s been proven time and time again that that’s not going to happen. And that’s for children’s charities, it’s for multiple charities. I would say the one example would be the Ice Bucket Challenge. Okay. Let’s talk about that for a minute. I know we’re doing my last questions, but let’s talk about that for a minute. I heard the woman who was on– I can’t remember the organization, which there in itself, right, should tell you something– talk about the Ice Bucket Challenge, made millions for that in a short amount of time. We don’t talk about them anymore. It was actually not self-constructed. It was an anomaly of a guy– I think it was multiple sclerosis?
ALS did it. No affiliation to the organization. He sent that video to three or four people, and it literally went viral. The organization literally had no idea how to harness that or what to do with it. They just rode the wave. And year one, they made X number of dollars. Year two, they tried to recreate it, were unable.
Of course, because the underlying dynamic was not theirs, and it’s since morphed into the cinnamon challenge and the dadbod challenge and something else that somebody’s going to come up with.
But there was an authenticity in the original Ice Bucket Challenge that people loved.
Which made it powerful.
Which made it powerful. And you can’t create that. Sometimes you just have to ride it.
“If you’re lucky enough to do something that goes viral, awesome. But don’t count on it. That should not be your main strategy”
Well, right. And you can’t program or predict virality. If you’re lucky enough to do something that goes viral, awesome. But don’t count on it. That should not be your main strategy, because it’s so unpredictable and so unlikely. Try. Try. But try with caveats to your CEO or your chief marketing officer or whomever that you’re not getting a ding for that if it doesn’t happen.
Okay. The last question I asked you was about the dumbest move you’ve ever seen in communications. What’s something that’s remarkable, that’s memorable, that you think is particularly powerful and well-done in the way of marketing, communications, or public relations?
I had a boss who stressed, ad nauseum, about the power of visuals. And to me back then, I was like, why are we agonizing over one photo over another? And I think the best example to give of that is if you watch the movie about Steve Jobs, where he talks about the 57 charts that he used in his Powerpoint. Now I mean that’s sort of an example, but what it shows is – and it goes back to storytelling – people are very visual. Iconography goes way back to when we lived in caves. That tells you something. So something about visuals and thinking about your Powerpoint presentation with 100 lines of text per slide. No. Stop it. Steve Jobs did presentations and they might not have any text.
Read that. Yeah. Read it. Yeah. A piece of advice that I give to people who work for me is, you’re going to get a lot of information about a particular project. And they’re going to want data, they’re going to want analysis, and they’re going to want all this stuff in their communications. But what do we all do? I call it the finger-up analogy. You flip your Facebook, and you just finger up through your phone.
You’re swiping up, or you’re scrolling up and down, or you’re swiping left and right.
Maybe you’re swiping right, if that’s what your thing is.
But you’re swiping.
You’re swiping. And you’re reading quick and fast. What catches your eye?
If you’re reading at all. Oftern, you’re just looking.
Right. You’re looking at visuals, and you’re getting maybe 50 characters of text. You’ve got to boil down your message to that to really communicate well.
Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. So, Jason, thank you so much for being on this episode of Better PR Now.
Yeah. Thank you so much.
And that wraps up another episode of Better PR Now.
I really want to hear from you. Let me know what you think about the podcast overall or about this particular conversation. Like to know what you think about recording on location. I know there was a lot of noise. But let me know. Was it too distracting? Was it okay? I want to hear from you. And also if you have any questions about public relations, marketing, or corporate communications, let me know, and I’d love to address those in a future episode.
Also, I want to remind you about a special offer that we have from the official transcription partner from the podcast, TranscribeMe. You can get up to 25% off their transcription services. Just go to https://TranscribeMe.com/BetterPRNow.
That’s it for this episode. I look forward to visiting with you again on the next episode of Better PR Now!
Founder and CEO of EvolveMKD public relations agency, Megan Driscoll discusses what drew her to a career in public relations, what the future holds for PR and marketing, and the interplay between media relations and social media. She also provides frank advice to those who are starting (or thinking about starting) a career in PR: “Roll up your sleeves and get in the trenches.”
Starting a PR agency:
Megan shares surprising lessons she learned from starting her own business three years ago, including the importance of rallying people around your effort, and the challenge of gaining access to credit to fund the business.
As a business owner, she likes controlling her destiny, choosing who to work with and who to hire, how to invest in the business, and whether to expand.
Why a career in public relations?
When working on an internship, Meagan says that she essentially fell into a career in public relations after her boss suggested it as a good career opportunity. She loves how dynamic this kind of work can be, as well as how you get a behind-the-scenes view of other industries and companies.
Advice for a successful career:
We have to continue to learn and grow, and we must be willing to always be challenged. As technology changes, and we consume news and media in new ways, communications professionals have to adapt. We also need to become adept at balancing the needs of our agency with those of our clients and the media.
Megan recommends that young PR professionals get well-rounded, diverse experience, especially early in our careers. This will help us avoid getting pigeon-holed as having expertise only in one particular area, such as digital, media relations, writing press releases, handling budgets, developing strategy, and so forth. PR pros need a wide range of tools and skills; developing them early and continuing to improve them throughout a career helps us be more effective at our jobs and provides a distinct advantage in the job market.
She also recommends taking writing classes (especially business writing) and paying attention to detail. Megan noted that “if your best-foot-forward includes typos, that’s not good enough.”
In addition to developing solid writing skills, we should also “get comfortable with numbers” by taking classes in accounting, financials, and statistics. “You have to have an understanding and appreciation for math,” Megan advises.
When speaking with new college grads, Megan tells them to “Be ready to work, roll up your sleeves, and get in the trenches.” You grow and learn by having a lot thrown at you.
Some of the things that can be frustrating about working in public relations include a lack of education among potential clients, who don’t know what PR is now and how it has changed in a digital environment). In addition to educating clients about the full range of benefits that PR can bring to the table, Megan also works with clients to broaden their understanding of what PR encompasses and how it can be a valuable voice of reason.
The importance of reputation management:
“Our job as communications professionals is to gently remind business leaders that you can say whatever you want, but if you don’t have the proof to back it up, you shouldn’t be saying it.” As communication specialists, we help ensure they have thought through what they want to say and how they should act.
“Good PR people want their company or client to speak the truth; that’s an important part of the job.”
Megan noted that some clients can be short-sighted when thinking about the effect of their communication. “The energy you put out there, the words you put out there, and the actions you put out there carry weight and have business implications.”
Advice to business leaders:
You can’t just talk the talk, you also have to walk the walk.
Think about what is behind a clever or fun campaign; what will you need to do from an operations perspective to reinforce the campaign’s message?
Media relations and social engagement must work together.
What do your leadership teams look like? Do they reflect the consumers you’re trying to reach?
Understanding your customers:
“If you don’t interact with the people you’re trying to sell to, how can you have an effective strategy?” Engaging your customers (and other publics!) and listening to them is a really effective way to understand their values, needs, wants, opinions, and attitudes.
United Airlines’ handling of the removal of a passenger from a plane and the communications follow-up. Bad operational decision made worse by ineffective communication afterward. How could this have been handled better?
An example of a company making a mistake, but handling the aftermath well was Alaska Airlines’ (@AlaskaAir) prompt, on-target handling of Randi Zuckerberg’s (@randizuckerberg) complaint about sexual harassment by a fellow passenger. The airline took immediate accountability, was open and public about it, and resolved the issue in a classy way.
Just because you make a mistake, doesn’t mean you’re doomed; you have to own the problem, proactively acknowledge and solve it, and communicate with clarity and compassion. Showing you genuinely care in this way keeps a mistake from turning into a crisis.
Megan noted how most “PR crises” actually start as operational issues that are mishandled.
What does the future hold for PR and marketing?
From Megan’s perspective, PR and social media are so intertwined that they will require integrated communication strategies. Communications must be integrated and consistent for an organization to truly have a positive reputation.
Megan’s must-have tools:
Cell phone (it’s an appendage!)
Mophie battery packs to keep mobile devices charged, so you can keep working and also stay connected
Cision, to create media lists, identify journalists who might be interested in covering your story, and keep track of your history of engagements with journalists (using Cision as a Customer Relationship Management tool)
Access to social media platforms
Speaking of using social media for research:
Megan uses social media tools like Twitter, which provides a great resource for understanding what stories reporters are working on, what competitors are doing, and for following the news
In addition to using Twitter for research, she uses groups on Facebook and Instagram to stay engaged with other communication professionals and journalists.
Helping clients avoid the shiny object syndrome:
With new social media platforms appearing almost daily, it seems as if everyone wants to be on Snapchat, or whatever the new hotness happens to be. But just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it will fit. Unless you’re trying to reach teens and those in their early 20s, Snapchat probably is not right for you or your company. As Megan put it, “Snapchat is not the tool to sell anti-aging products.” Truly.
Facebook might not be cool anymore, but it might be a great tool, depending on who you’re trying to reach and to what effect.
Megan noted that, “Having great media relationships isn’t enough to be a great PR person, you also need to understand the consumer your client is trying to reach.” That understanding will help identify the appropriate media and engagement activities you should pursue.
“Over the holidays, we lost a great leader and friend to the field … Lou Williams was an integral part of the Institute for Public Relations. He served as an IPR Trustee starting in 2002, thanks to being recruited by his friend Ward White, who passed away in 2016. In 2007, he became an Honorary Trustee and continued to be engaged until his death. Lou made tremendous contributions to the IPR Measurement Commission and served as an IPR Research Fellow. When I first started my role at IPR, Lou told me his call to action would be how to better interest, educate, and engage practitioners around research. He started doing this more than 30 years ago with a two-day conference he created in the 1980s, along with writing his best-selling book Communication Research, Measurement and Evaluation: A Practical Guide for Communicators.‘
Speaking personally, I can honestly say that we are all much better for having known and worked with Lou, and we will miss him greatly. I first met Lou as we enjoyed a lobster feast at Katie Paine’s farm in New Hampshire years ago. He was a kind and generous soul with a brilliant intellect. Lou, this episode is for you!
Thank you, my wonderful listener, for spending this time with me and for being an important part of this community! Please let me know what you think by leaving a rating and review on iTunes, by dropping me a line, or by sending a voicemail with that handy little orange button on the right (yes, that one).
Megan Driscoll is a sought-after strategic media and communications professional with nearly 16 years of experience in healthcare, aesthetics and dermatology, and prestige beauty. Key to her success is Megan’s ability to always find a way. She finds potential in every opportunity for her clients through determination, relationships, agility, and sound strategy coupled with a creative spirit.
Megan has cultivated relationships with physicians, consumers, key opinion leaders, and taste-makers to gain her clients national recognition. At the end of the day, Megan wants to surround herself with smart, passionate people who value integrity — people who are serious about their work, but don’t take themselves too seriously. This philosophy is at the heart of founding EvolveMKD, where Megan provides day-to-day client counsel, strategic direction, and a savvy eye for what makes news and who can make the news happen.
Evolve’s chief capabilities range from traditional public relations (PR) campaigns to social media content creation, platform management and metrics reporting to physician and influencer relations.
EvolveMKD is a tight-knit collection of storytellers, brand builders and caretakers, data crunchers, media hounds, digital strategists, and collaborators. They operate as an extension of your team, getting to know your brand, your work, and your customers. They will work directly with you to develop an effective campaign to meet your brand’s needs and strengthen the connection between you and your customers.
Doreen Clark, Director of Public Relations at SmartBug Media, shares some of her secrets to generating great press coverage, coaching executives to communicate more effectively, and the intertwining of PR and Marketing.
According to Doreen, public relations is a powerful tool and that we should, “Communicate in a way that is not just beneficial for us, but also for the people we’re reaching out to.” This forms a trifecta of solid media relations that comes together when we understand and communicate:
What our audience needs to learn,
The information reporters need to know to cover the story, and
What we want to deliver for our company or client.
She notes that, for media relations professionals, it’s easy to deliver the facts that journalists need. But journalists also need us to offer an opinion, because that helps them craft stories with perspective and emotion.
Doreen has trained a lot of senior executives to be better spokespeople for their organizations. When she provides media training for senior executives, some of the key lessons include:
Coaching leaders on speaking to the common person, by using language they can understand. Executives are used to speaking with other experts in their industry; they frequently use jargon and technical language that the man on the street might not understand. Shifting their focus to be able to communicate with those who are not experts in their industry takes work, but helps them be much better communicators.
Helping executives learn to speak in soundbites during interviews. Long-winded, detailed explanations allow the speaker to be precise, but they run the risk of losing control of the messages that will come through in the final news report. Making the information digestible by giving clear, but concise quotes, helps ensure their most important messages are included in the story.
Everyone is a spokesperson:
In an age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, everyone connected to an organization essentially is a spokesperson. Having a strategic plan, in which everybody knows their role and what they are expected to do, is key to success in public relations. Doreen also recommends that we identify the subject matter experts in our organization, train them to be effective spokespeople, and that will lead to more opportunities to engage the media. It’s important for communication in an organization to be “by all, for all” and not just downward from managers.
Working with freelance writers:
When asked what she is most excited about, Doreen said that working with freelance writers has become a secret weapon. Her force-multiplier tip is to build relationships with freelance writers. It’s common for them to write for many different media outlets, both online and off. These relationships can help us get more coverage, if they are willing to share the work they do for us with their contacts in these outlets.
Merging PR and marketing:
Looking into the future, Doreen expects that “Public relations and marketing will become even more intertwined and might become synonymous.” She sees a blurring of the lines already, with paid advertising taking the form of earned editorial coverage. She sees a future in which PR will have more pay-to-play coverage, as advertising does now. While such changes could present signification challenges for those currently working in both PR and marketing, it could have certain beneficial effects, as it will drive improvements on both sides. For example, she notes that, “PR measurement tools are getting better and will eventually be on par with marketing measurement.” “
Doreen also sees a future in which podcasts and videos that are engaging, but brief, will become more important. After all, journalists need things to write about and to share as examples within their articles.
When asked what she knows now that would have been good to know when starting her career, Doreen said, “You don’t have to be everything to everyone; hone your craft; it’s okay to specialize.”
“If you really pay attention, you can become an expert in anything.”
“Relationships are everything.”
“Stay up to date on your craft; you have to always be a learner.”
“PR is necessary, 100%.”
“PR is about elevating reputation and building credibility.”
“When you decide to do PR, make sure you’re starting from a strategic perspective.”
Doreen Clark is the Director of Public Relations at SmartBug Media. She has worked in PR and communications for more than a decade, on both the agency and the corporate side, and across multiple industries.
Doreen has created strategic plans to increase visibility, build credibility, and promote thought leadership through targeted media relations. She also is a member of the Forbes communications council, and a contributing writer for Huffington Post.
About SmartBug Media:
SmartBug is a leading intelligent inbound marketing agency that assists businesses in generating leads; increasing awareness; and building brand loyalty through inbound marketing, digital strategy, design, marketing automation and Public Relations.
What’s wrong with Public Relations (and how do we fix it)?
Key points from the study:
To be a profession, we must figure out who we are and what we do, and agree on a definition of the practice; it should speak to the good we provide to organizations and society.
We need to respect the difference between PR as a strategic management function and the journalist-in-residence role.
We must educate organizational leaders on how well-educated, strategic PR professionals can help improve the quality of their decisions, because they are attuned to the organization’s publics.
There are requirements that we behave in a professional, ethical manner, including advocating on behalf of the public when we’re talking to the dominant coalition.
Other key points from the conversation:
PR serves as the eyes and ears, as well as the mouth of the organization.
We’re ethical because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s the pragmatic thing to do.
PR is a strategic management function for organizations, not a technical support or communications support function for other departments.
PR leaders often are not part of the decision-making process; they must be part of the dominant coalition.
The best PR prevents problems, rather than putting out fires after a problem has happened.
PR professionals must think about the organization and all of its stakeholders holistically to understand how publics will likely react to decisions; in this way, they can anticipate unintended consequences.
Universities do a good job of training PR technicians, but don’t necessarily train people to be PR strategists who can think holistically, anticipate problems before they happen, and help organizations avoid unnecessary conflicts.
In many ways, PR is being subsumed by marketing; instead of thinking about strategy, PR practitioners end up doing publicity.
Excellent organizations have strategic managers running the PR department, but they also have excellent people who know how to implement communication programs.
Excellent organizations often had a crisis where the importance of doing strategic public relations came to the fore.
PR professionals should stop thinking of themselves as communicators only, and start thinking of themselves as organizational problem solvers.
PR’s job is to identify and fix problems with public relationships when they’re small, rather than waiting until they’re large problems; think about what are the relationships we have with our various constituencies, what are the potential threats to those relationships, and what can we do to make sure those bad things don’t happen.
Mark: Welcome to Better PR Now, episode four. In the last episode, we had a great conversation with Boston University’s Doctor Dustin Supa about his research on the Dude Deficit among undergraduate Public Relations students. In this episode, we visit with Professor Dave Dozier and Lou Williams on a paper they presented titled “What’s Wrong with Public Relations and How It Might Be Fixed.” They provide a thoughtful assessment on the state of Public Relations as a profession, and they offer four specific steps that we might take to move our profession forward. Here we go!
Dave: Yeah, I teach in the School of Journalism and Media Studies (@SDSU_PSFA) at San Diego State, and my content area is public relations. I’ve been doing that for 35 years and prior to that I worked in both journalism and public relations.
Mark: Fantastic. Lou, how about you?
Lou: I came out of journalism as well, but practiced as a practitioner. Much of my experience is on the consulting side. I ran a public relations firm for about 30 years.
Mark: Fantastic. So, during this conference you co-presented a study you had done entitled, “What’s Wrong with Public Relations and How It Might Be Fixed.” Can you talk us through what that study consisted of, and I would like to get into what you learned from it.
Louis: Dave, why don’t you start that, because you’re the one that really had the concept for this, I think?
Dave: Well, I think the fair way to describe it is it’s our look at the field after years of experience; together it gets close to 100 person-years of work in both the academy and in the profession. And we just took a look at where things are now and where we had hoped it would be back many years ago when we were young and enthusiastic about the future of public relations. I think we’re still enthusiastic about the possibilities, but there hasn’t been a lot of change in the sorts of things that we thought were important.
It’s basically a strategic management model that says that public relations is a strategic management function. It’s not a technical support or communications support function for other departments in organizations. One of the most important things about public relations is that you have to be part of the dominant coalition in organizations, that’s just fancy rhetoric for saying access to the C-Suite or a seat at the decision-making table.
And it doesn’t have to be a formal relationship. It can be informal, but to be the best that we can be in public relations, we have to be able to influence organizational decision making.
Why? Because the best public relations is when you prevent problems rather than putting out fires after a problem has happened because somebody in senior management made a decision, didn’t think about the possibilities, and some of the unintended consequences now you’ve got a big mess and you’re the person that has to stand in front of the cameras and try to justify something that may not be justifiable. So that’s core.
Then the next part of that is okay, so why aren’t we at that table? And obviously this doesn’t apply to every single organization. We’ve had folks come up here from IBM and General Motors saying, “Wait a minute, we do have that access to the C-Suite and we do impact the decision making. And so okay, make some exceptions for some people who are doing some really excellent public relations. But by and large, PR practitioners are separate from that decision-making process.
So how do we gain access to that? And I think part of the answer is that if you are simply providing communications support functions, you have nothing to contribute to decision making. So why would you be invited? What possible value-added do you bring to the table?
Mark: It sounds like a catch-22.
Dave: Exactly. But, if you think of two-way communication, that is you’re the eyes and ears of the organization, as well as the mouth of the organization, you’re the expert on how the public is likely to react to decisions and can anticipate unintended consequences.
Senior management’s not going to want to make a decision without getting your take on “Okay, what do you think’s going to happen if we do this?” And how do you do that? Well, you do focus groups, you do analytics, web analytics, you do surveys. You either do them yourself or take advantage of secondary analysis of existing surveys.
You’re the expert on these relationships and how organizational behavior affects those relationships. You’re not afraid of evaluating your programs, because if your program doesn’t work, wouldn’t you want to make it better. So I think those are all part and parcel of what would make for an excellent public relations department that really does best practices.
Dave: Well, Jim Grunig was the principal investigator, but yeah, Lou and I have an intimate relationship with the excellence study. Our worldview is heavily influenced by it.
Lou: For sure. You know, it really all leads to the question for the profession of asking the question, are we bringing in the best and the brightest? Are we getting people who are up to the standard that we know has to be met? I’m not sure we are.
I know there are some university programs where public relations is a second choice, an alternative to what they really wanted to do. That’s not unusual necessarily. I know I ask myself constantly, “Are we really answering the hard questions that managers and leaders really need to ask?” Do we have the ability to be able to think strategically, are we being trained to do that, and do we have the innate brightness to do that?
I think the jury is out for us right now. There is a fair amount of high interest I guess is the phrase, high interest in numbers, and the numbers have to do with technology. Technology is queen, and technology is really nothing more than a technique, a tool that we as practitioners can use. If we use it well, it’ll work on our behalf. If we don’t use it well, it won’t.
The numbers we’re seeing have to do with everything from clicks to click-throughs. And they’re really not very helpful, but we really cling on to them as if they were coming down from above; but they’re not. So we really have to get into a discussion of how we’re training people? Is it the right training? And are universities innovators? Are they asking tough questions? Are they thinking outside the box for research? Is the research that we’re doing today as good as the research that was done when Dave was doing it as part of the excellence study?
Mark: Great questions; what did you find? What are your conclusions?
Dave:Well, where we ended up was trying to figure out who the enemy was, and it turns out it’s us, all of us. I think the education in public relations has moved into a very comfortable place.
In our paper, we discuss the paradigm shift that Jim Grunig (@jgrunig1), Glen Broom, and Scott Cutlip, and a number of the other academics that really did some very, very innovative thinking about taking public relations from the set of craft skills – and both Lou and I come from a journalism background, so these are our people and we can say this. The notion of being a journalist in residence, where you used to work for a newspaper or a TV station, and now you’re doing public relations and it’s basically the same job. You’re basically a distributer of messages and that’s a real comfortable place to be.
I’m in a school of journalism and media studies, so it’s very easy to see public relations as this communication output function. And I think we both are very adamant, very clear, that you need to do that very, very well. It’s not to say that isn’t important; it’s to say that’s not enough.
And when we start looking at what kind of preparation that we are doing within the university to prepare people for strategic management, I don’t think, you know there are some exceptions to that, but generally across the board I don’t think we do a very good job at that.
I think universities do a good job of training public relations technicians. They don’t necessarily train people to be public relations strategists, public relations managers, people that can think outside of the box, think holistically, anticipate problems before they happen, and help organizations avoid unnecessary conflicts. And I think that was the academic side of it.
As a side note, the research in public relations has moved from answering big questions to answering smaller questions.
Mark: Which normally happens when a discipline matures.
Dave: Yes, it’s moving from scientific revolution to normal science, to use some of the rhetoric of the academy. I think we’re definitely in a normal science phase.
Mark: Do you see that as problematic, given that we don’t have broad agreement on sort of central theories?
Louis: What is “Public Relations?” We don’t even have general agreement on that. I was with a group of people last week who said ‘Oh, you’re a spin doctor, eh?’ And then on the other hand, I was in the hotel and in the middle of the hotel lobby was a chair and a table, and on top of the table it said “Public Relations.” They were guiding people to rooms and answering questions about hotel events, etc. What is “Public Relations?”
Mark: Right, so we’re drilling down into the esoteric questions, and maybe that’s a normal thing, before the discipline has matured to that point. Maybe it all happens simultaneously.
Louis: I’m not sure how much the field has matured. I can remember 30-40 years ago watching public relations managers and leaders be part of the dominant coalition. If there are more people doing it now than there were then, it’s possible, because there are more opportunities. But, I’m not sure if it’s necessarily matured. I think it’s larger, I think it’s more powerful, but I think it’s losing some power.
In many ways the field is being subsumed by marketing. The worst possible thing could happen to us.
Mark: Why is that?
Louis: Because, when you get under the marketing aegis, you are then all of a sudden a tool for them; instead of thinking about strategy, you’re doing publicity. You’re trying to sell a product, sell a service, whatever, and you’re not thinking holistically about the organization. You’re not at the table. Whoever you are working for might be at the table, but you’re not. So it just makes it more difficult for us to make a mark.
Mark: That then precludes the public relations professional from functioning at a strategic level and adding strategic value to the organization.
Dave: Exactly, because the problem then becomes that the strategy that you’re implementing adds a communication support function for marketing and that you are helping to implement a marketing strategy. And at a conceptual level, there’s this overarching function that every organization needs. So there’s got to be somebody there that’s thinking about the organization and all of its stakeholders holistically. Everybody else has their silo; they have a particular focus. Because of that, you do things that have unintended consequences. Those unintended consequences can be catastrophic. I’ll give you one quick example.
So, as a former public affairs officer, you’ll probably relate to this. And you may recall that in Afghanistan they discovered that prisoners of war were passing messages back and forth written into the Koran. And so somebody thought it would be a really good idea to confiscate all the Korans and burn them.
That ended up getting American soldiers killed. And so that’s the problem with having everybody in the organization focusing on their own particular narrow objectives, and nobody’s thinking about the big picture.
And there are lots of other examples that we can come up with, where if you had somebody thinking holistically about all of these strategic relationships that organizations have with constituencies, including in war, where a public is the enemy, or prisoners of war are a group of people you have to be concerned about.
You need to think about these things holistically, and I don’t think that the academy is training people to do that. I don’t think practitioners are necessarily comfortable doing that. And I think the professional associations or the trade associations are doing a very good job of promoting that; I do think they’re more concerned about maintaining membership than moving us from a craft to a profession.
Mark: That’s a very dangerous place for us to be as a profession. So, in the study towards the end, you had some very prescriptive recommendations for things that we ought to address to improve the situation. Would you like to go into those a little bit?
Dave: Yeah, we had basically a four-point plan; reasonable people can disagree and we expect them to disagree. That was kind of our purpose in doing it, to stimulate a dialog rather than actually tell people that this is exactly the right way to do it.
Point 1: Figure out who we are and what we do.
But we have some serious concerns about, collectively, folks in public relations, reaching a consensus on a good definition of the practice. Our concern is that it ends up being this tactical communication support function. And if left to their own devices, we might end up doing that. So we need to agree on a definition of the practice; what is the practice? It needs to be much like this ideal that we described, rather than what our comfort level is, what’s easy to do, or what’s going to help PRSA and IABC maintain their membership. It needs to be something that really speaks to what good do we provide to organizations and what good do we provide to society if we want to aspire to professionalism. So that’s step one. Figure out who we are and what we do.
Point 2: Respect the difference between PR as a strategic management function and the journalist-in-residence role.
Second step, we need to respect the difference between strategic management function in public relations, and the communication technical support, journalist-in-residence role.
It comes across – and I’ve been criticized for about 25 or 30 years for doing this – that managers are high, they’re better than these lowly technicians. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the excellence study showed us that excellent organizations have strategic managers running the communication department or the public relations department, but they also have excellent people that know how to implement communication programs. They have great, creative, artistic practitioners, as well as great strategic managers.
So that’s key, and we need to develop a track that allows us to say, okay, if you want to do this creative artistic stuff, there are going to be consequences for that. Your life will be less stressful. You’ll probably have a longer life expectancy, but you’re not going to get paid as much money.
On the other hand, there’s this strategic management function; a parallel career track. It’s more stressful, you may not live as long, but you’re going to make a lot more money, because you’re providing a value-added as somebody that helps organizations functions better. So that’s the second step in the process.
Point 3: Educate organizational leaders on how PR can improve the quality of decisions.
Now the third one is something we’ve encountered. At San Diego State we have a program for military public affairs officers that started in 2005. We get feedback from our officers who came in with a lot of professional experience. We talk about some of the problems they have in terms of being strategic thinkers and all of that. And the opposition they get from their commanding officers – you know exactly what we’re talking about. They go back to the fleet and they encounter commanding officers who think, “Oh, yeah, you’re the person who takes pictures when we do cake-cutting ceremonies.” When, in fact, they could be helping with much more sophisticated problems.
So, a third step is we need to educate the people that we work for in organizations; the dominant coalition if you will. They need to understand that public relation is a much more sophisticated activity. Yes, we are the communication experts in your organization. Yes, we know how to put together messages. We know what appropriate channels are. But we’re also the experts in what’s going on out there and we can help improve the quality of your decisions, because we know what’s going on out there better than anybody else. We need to get the people that we work for to understand the resources that a well-educated, strategic public relations practitioner can provide.
Mark: So we need to have a seat at the table so we can inform decisions, but we also need to be prepared to take on that role when we find ourselves at the table or earn our way to the table. So that was number three.
Point 4: We must behave in a professional, ethical manner, including advocating on behalf of the publics.
Dave: And number four is – and this will probably be the one that a number of people will be most unhappy with – that we like to call ourselves professionals. Professor (Don) Stacks (@donstacks) has insisted here at the conference that we stop calling PR practitioners ‘practitioners’ and start calling them ‘professionals.’
Well, ‘professional’ actually has a very specific meaning, and we’re not a profession. And in order to be a profession, you need to first of all have a body of knowledge, and I think we’re there.
We have to have a social benefit; a good that we provide to society. Not just to our organizations, but good that we provide to society that justifies licensing. And so, if you’re going to be a real profession, you license people. If they behave in an unethical manner, they get thrown out of the profession. It’s the same as doctors and lawyers. There are requirements that you behave in a professional manner. And that has very specific meanings and has very specific consequences when you don’t behave in an ethical manner.
Lou: It has to be enforceable.
Dave: It has to be enforceable, and until we’re there we’re really not a profession. Now here’s the thing that’s interesting about that: One of the things we argue in the paper is that as a public relations practitioner, you advocate on behalf of the public when you’re talking to the dominant coalition. You’re the person that goes ‘Well, wait a minute, what about this?’
You’re the person that knows what it’s like to be or think like the folks outside of the organization and get people inside the organization to understand that, while you might all be in a consensus about this, a lot of folks out there don’t look at the world that way and you need to be sensitive to that.
That’s, I think, where we can argue a societal benefit from doing public relations ethically. So, we’re ethical for two reasons: Because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s the pragmatic thing to do. Because – and you’ll have to decide whether you want to use this in your podcast – when the **** hits the fan, you’re the folks that are going to have to go out and make excuses for it. So it’s to your advantage to make sure that doesn’t happen. You have a lot of motivation to argue for ethical conduct to your organization.
And if you had a professional society that says, “If you don’t do that, you’re behaving in an unprofessional manner.” You can use the pressure of professional sanctions as a way to justify, “Look, I know you don’t want to hear this, Mr. CEO or Ms. CEO, but I have a professional obligation to tell you that this is unethical. It’s the wrong thing to do.”
Lou: And here’s an irony: This concept of licensing was pushed very hard and for decades by Ed Bernays, one of the real founders of our business, (but) could never get it done. We’re talking about the advances of public relations in public relations, and yet he was pushing for this in the ‘20s and before.
Mark: And we’re still not there
Lou: No, we’re still not there.
Mark: So, is it hopeless? Where do we go from here?
Lou: I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of guy. I think we are making progress. I think it’s going to be slow. I have some serious questions. My big serious question is, “Are we getting the best and brightest?” If we don’t get the best and brightest, we will not make it, and I’m worried that that situation is, if not on top of us, at least close to us. So, I think that really is the tipping point.
Dave: I think from my point of view, I will always be grateful to the mentorship of Glen Broom, who helped me clarify my thinking on the strategic management approach to public relations. I was thinking, “Okay, we’re five years out; five years from now, everybody’s going to be doing it the way we’re training our students to do it.” Then after I was there 5 years, well, okay maybe (it will take) 10 years.
So there’s a part of me that says, “Well, this isn’t happening very fast.” But like a lot of things in life, things sometimes take a lot longer to accomplish than you think they will. And I see things to be optimistic about.
Lou and I serve on the (Institute for Public Relations) Commission on Measurement and Evaluation. You know, there’s some excellent work being done there as practitioners, academics, and vendors sit down and try to agree on things like ‘What do we mean by this?’ and ‘How do we measure this?’ Again, as the Institute for Public Relations describes it: Trying to build the science beneath the art of public relations. Those are all very optimistic sorts of things, so I don’t think it’s hopeless at all.
I just wish it would happen faster. I’m 66 years old now and I’d like to see it before I’m dead. It may not happen that fast.
Mark: You’ve got four areas that we need to move forward in. If you could see one through what it be? What’s the one next-most important step?
Dave: I think the most important step is agreeing who we are and what we’re about. Again, that is inherently problematic, because the easy answer is ‘we’re a communication support function; we’re part of the marketing mix.’ That’s the easy answer, but then you’re not public relations anymore, as far as I’m concerned. And at a conceptual level, you’re not doing public relations anymore; you’re a publicist, and you’re basically cranking out communication in support of marketing.
Mark: And your value proposition is entirely different.
Lou: I think Dave’s right. Without that foundation, nothing else happens. We need to understand that and then we need to take that and build it into all of the elements of the business: University level, agency level, consulting level, organizational level, everywhere, because everything else will follow after that, if that makes sense.
Lou: I think it’s a step in the right direction. It’s flawed, but it is helping. One of the Barcelona Principles is that you don’t use AVEs (Advertising Value Equivalents). People are still using them all the time everywhere, I mean, it’s just everywhere. They’re not rules, you can’t enforce anything, so how do we make that happen? But it’s a step in the right direction.
Dave: I agree. I think it’s a step in the right direction. But until we can get to the place where we’re going to set standards and enforce standards on our practice, then it allows anybody with a credit card and access to a photocopy shop to have a business card printed that says ‘Dozier and Williams,’ or more accurately, ‘Williams and Dozier Public Relations.’ We could be street people living out of a shopping cart and we would still be as much of a practitioner as somebody who has APR or APR+M.
Lou: A few years ago, I actually counted in the Yellow Pages in Chicago how many public relation firms there are in the Yellow Pages. Would you like to hazard a guess?
Mark: I have no idea.
Lou: 372. Now, most of them are one-person shops, you know people who hang out that shingle. But we don’t know who they are, where they’re coming from, how they were trained, what knowledge they have, how ethical they are; we have no idea. They’re just out there making this business.
Mark: We’ve talked a lot on and it seems that we focus a lot on the supply side of the equation. Is there something we can do on the demand side? On the supply side, we’re preparing people to enter the profession, and we are, hopefully, mentoring them as they progress in their careers. But what about on the demand side? Is there something we can do to create an expectancy that the public relations practitioners or professionals will be delivering more than just – I mean you have to be a good technician, but coming in with the ability to speak the language of the business, to understand the nature of the business, to have a strategic perspective, to be able to think critically – all the things that go into making a good senior Chief Communications Officer on the demand side to create that vacuum that might help move the profession along?
Lou: Doing the business well: How to do that and make that happen. That’s an easy answer and I’m not sure it’s the answer you’re looking for, but that really does help us. If we do really good work, we get more work. Anybody who runs a business knows that. Build a good product, you sell more product. Build a bad product, you sell less.
Mark: Deliver value, people want more of it.
Dave: I think in the excellence study – and I know we’re talking ancient history here, but it doesn’t mean that just because it’s old doesn’t mean that it’s any less true now than it was when we did the research back in the 1990s – and one of the things we found intriguing and came out of one of the follow up case studies is that, real quickly, what we did is we had an index of excellence which had you know multiple measures of excellence and this was all quantitative. Then we identified organizations that were excellent. Then, in the euphemism are public relations, there were a bunch or organizations on the bottom of the scale that were less than excellent. And we went out to try to find out why are you excellent and why are you less than excellent?
And one of the things that we found about excellent organizations is that very often they had some kind of a crisis where the importance of doing strategic public relations came to the fore.
A great example of that is the oil industry. Without mentioning names there were several petroleum companies that were in the study and they basically had very excellent public relations departments and that was in reaction to oil crisis. And at that time it was Exxon Valdez. Now it’s BP. But the problem was that, up until a particular point, the CEOs were basically engineers, and public relations was equated with publicity.
And then you basically lay an oil streak along the Alaskan coast, and all of sudden public opinion is kind of important. So they either hired new people or took advantage of people that might have been frustrated managers that had never been asked, “How do we deal with this stuff?” And they were doing some very sophisticated stuff in terms of measurement, environmental scanning; and all of this was due to a crisis either in the industry or that particular organization. That’s kind of a pessimistic way of looking at it: Something bad has got to happen before you realize the importance of public relations. Maybe we can be more proactive.
But I think that speaks to our third point, which was: We need to educate dominant coalitions. We need to educate the top managers of organizations that public relations can do more for you than what you think they can do. And if you’ve got people that can’t do this, then you need to get additional people that can help you with that.
Mark: Create expectations.
You might have really great artistic creative folks: Great communicators, great at message design, really understand media relations, you know, whatever. But you know there’s nobody doing the strategic management aspect of public relations. And if you don’t have somebody doing that, you need to get somebody to do that for you. It’s too important in an interconnected world, you know shrinking globe, interconnected world to where everybody’s hooked up to communication, multiple channels of communication; two-way communication going back and forth like a spider web.
You really need to have somebody who knows what they’re doing to provide the strategic thinking to make public relations and organizational effectiveness better than what it is now.
Mark: Totally agree. Shift gears real quick and briefly; what advice would you give to somebody who is either just starting their career or is relatively early in their career to prepare them for success, to prepare them to be able to do what you just described, to deliver that value to their organization? What can they do to prepare themselves?
Lou: Well, I’ll give you a couple of things. One is take business courses, read, understand the business of business, I guess is a better way to put it. And get a foundation, the writing foundation. I don’t care if it’s Twitter, or an annual report, or the Bible. If you can’t write well, it ain’t read well, so you need to have that. David, you have a much more sophisticated answer
Dave: I don’t know, we’ll see; wait until I’m done before you say that. I think that this is kind of a mantra that we do at San Diego State with our undergraduates and now with our graduate program and especially with public affairs officers, which is basically ‘you need to stop thinking of yourself as a communicator only, and start thinking of yourself as somebody that solves problems for organizations.’
And the minute you shift gears, and in fact I have this wonderful moment, a young Marine who was going through the program, and at the end of the program she was turning in some loaner books that I’d given her. And she said, “I’ve got to level with you. When I first got here and you guys started talking about the strategic management approach to public affairs, I didn’t know what you were talking about. It just didn’t make any sense at all.”
But she said that somewhere around week two or week three, because we had this very intensive program where it’s like five days a week, most of the day. And she said that somewhere around week two, it was like, “I got it. It made sense. We aren’t just simply distributing messages, we’re basically solving or preventing problems for the fleet, for the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense. And she said, “I got it. And after that everything started to make sense in a totally different way.”
So, there’s almost like a mind shift that happens when you stop thinking of yourself as the journalist-in-residence, basically distributing messages for the Navy (@USNavy) or Marine Corps (@USMC) or you know a large corporation or an NGO (non-governmental organization), or whatever. And you stop thinking that way and you start thinking yourself as a person who has to think about what are the relationships we have with our various constituencies, what are the potential threats to those relationships, what can I do to make sure that those bad things don’t happen, and my job is to basically solve problems before they’ve become problems. Or fix them when they’re small problems, rather than waiting until they’re large problems.
Lou: That’s a much more sophisticated answer.
Mark: They’re both great answers. Gentlemen, thank you so much. How can listeners get in touch with you?
Mark: Thanks for joining us for this conversation about a topic that’s really important to our profession. I think Dave and Lou are really onto something vital here. As public relations professionals, whether we’re scholars or practitioners, or have a foot in both worlds, we have a vested interest in moving our profession forward toward a more strategic approach. As mentioned in the interview, this really is a long process, but we must keep moving forward.
I’d love to hear what you think about their assessment and recommendations, as well as any questions that you would like to have addressed on future episodes. Give me a shout by clicking the orange ‘Send Voicemail’ tab on the right side of every page of the betterprnow.com website. It’s a quick and really easy way to participate in this ongoing conversation.
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