Monday, April 27, 2015

Earning your PR stripes

I don't know how a startup PR company can claim to have 330,000 media contacts. Email addresses, sure. But I've been doing PR for more than 30 years, and I'd be stretched to say I actually know 10,000 media contacts.

You need to earn those relationships, not merely collect a list of email addresses and shepherd them via software. That's what Cision does.

By André Karwath aka Aka (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5
via Wikimedia Commons
But, when an ambitious company called PR Zebra tweeted me and asked for "support" for their concierge-style PR business, I checked out their website, not just their crowd-sourcing link. They promise you local, regional, and national coverage. And they've posted a few news releases, often for small business owners and entrepreneurs.

They offer a three-tiered pricing strategy that's relatively affordable. Like a lawn service.

Nothing wrong with this approach, as a business model. But read their material, and you soon realize they seem more enamored with their business model than building readability. A few observations:

1) You get what you pay for. The news releases feel like they're copying a faux news style, written by someone who has minimal journalistic background. You'll find awkward phrasing, misspellings, and cliches. Those traits don't impress news editors.

2) Anyone who promises you "coverage" had better own a TV station or newspaper. PR people can't promise coverage. We can help tell your story persuasively, and get it in front of media decision-makers and bloggers. That's who decides whether to cover the story.

3) Why would I "support" a PR purveyor with an endorsement on social media, unless we'd worked together? LinkedIn endorsements are one thing (and somewhat questionable). But extending my reputation for PR Zebra's marketing is a fool's errand. Had we collaborated, I might have some positive things to say.

As with other alternative PR distribution services, PR Zebra may find a niche, serving clients who think PR can be done on a scale akin to a monthly lawn service. 

But I think clients prefer a strategic approach, and a relationship with their PR provider. And quality writing that's strong enough to persuade an editor or news producer to follow up with a published story. Not promises of coverage. And not cups of coffee consumed. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Owning a transit center in crisis

Scenario: You build a $50 million transit center where commuters can change buses in the warmth of a modern, heated terminal. And you have an $11 million contract with the city school district to transport students on your transit authority buses, often via the transit center.

RTS Transit Center, Rochester, NY. Photo by David Kassnoff.
Something disturbing takes place. There's a fight between students. And another. Then, an assault. And a stabbing. Some of these injure taxpaying commuters who indirectly helped build your $50 million wrestling/transit center.

Perception: your transit center is a dangerous place. Even the mayor says so. Publicly.

Your response? If you're the transit company, you blame the offending high school students. If you're the school superintendent, you keep repeating: "We can't fix it alone. Parents need to be involved."

My response? You both were absent when the class on "Leadership" took place.

There's no way to dollop out enough PR to fix this problem. You in the transit business won't be upfront with the media on what a public transit authority spends on private security, so your credibility is iffy. You in the school district have unruly, unsupervised, angry kids. You both have security guards whose main deterrent is a two-way radio. You have police officers who want to prevent crime, not supervise teenagers. 

The solution? Own the situation. Don't talk about it. Own it. Here's what that means:
  • The school superintendent needs to relocate his office to the transit center. Leave the site for meetings as needed, but being visible is essential. Walk your talk.
  • Same deal for the transit company's CEO. You built this shiny new facility; now go live there. Walk your talk. If it's really a safe place, show up.
  • Parent involvement? Great, but motivate them. Incentivize a parents foot patrol. Give them free 30-day bus passes. And pair them up with those police officers. Make everyone visible. 
And the disruptive kids? Nice try, but all you really did was relocate them from an unruly outdoor location on Main Street to an unruly indoor location. So stop rewarding them with bus rides and a nice transit center. 

Instead, implement a one-strike-and-you're-out rule. Get ugly in the RTS transit center, here's a free pair of Skechers. You're walking for the rest of the school year. 

And, if all else fails, pipe Vivaldi and Mozart into your shiny transit center, 24/7. No kid's going to hang around in the face of classical music.

Oh, did you lose ridership because commuters wanted no part of a hostile transit center? I have ideas for fixing that. But those ideas aren't free.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Viral video? Keep rolling

Public relations professionals today dream of having a campaign go "viral." Earning countless views, shares, Tweets and re-tweets, and unending shares on Facebook.

By User:Otourly (Own work) [GFDL
( or
CC BY-SA 3.0 (
/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Last year's Ice Bucket Challenge for MLS was an extraordinary example, with people all over replicating and re-posting their attempts -- successful or otherwise -- at reducing their body temperature in the name of charity. And we couldn't turn away.

This week, in casual online conversation, I contrasted the relentless ice-dousing videos with the chilling 30-second clip of a North Charleston, S.C. police officer unloading eight rounds at an unarmed, fleeing Walter Scott. It was chilling video, can't-look-away content. NBC knew it, and ran the clip three times in the first eight minutes of its Nightly News report.

At first, I was angry. NBC was exploiting the clip. I thought: "How many times do they need to see this? Is this kind of violence now the equivalent of a winning Super Bowl touchdown catch, repeated over and over?"

And, in a few hours, I came to realize: if any video really needs to go viral, it's the shooting of Walter Scott.

It needs to be shown, repeatedly, in every police precinct. Every district attorney's office. Every courthouse. Because it's not a stunt. It's not a trailer from a movie. It's an abuse of power. Because it's happened over and over, to Walter Scotts and Eric Garners we've never heard of. Of every color. Who've been brutalized when a video camera wasn't around.

Yes, we love our viral video. And in recent days, we've been nauseated by the North Charleston video. But we shouldn't turn away when painful reality video forces us to confront racism and abuse in our society. 

Keep rolling. Maybe that's the way to end the endless shooting.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Need engagement? Add diversity

For many organizations, diversity is a nice-to-do function. When resources get tight, however, efforts to grow a diverse workforce can lose top-of-mind status.

But a quick look at many PR departments and agencies’ staff rosters – and the cheery photos accompanying them – leave the impression that few communications organizations pay much attention to diversity. One example: an agency in upstate New York features a slick video reel on its website with quick clips of its employees leading meetings and brainstorming. There’s not a person of color in that montage.

By The Conmunity - Pop Culture Geek from Los Angeles,
 CA, USA (Anime Expo 2011 - the crowd) [CC BY
2.0 (],
 via Wikimedia Commons
We all talk about engagement. When will we do more than talk about it among ourselves?

You’ll hear abundant reasons to bring diversity to a PR or marketing communications workplace. The one I advocate is the need for diversity in innovation. If everyone on your team agrees, you’re not getting that “out of the box” thinking everyone desires. Creativity is squelched. Period.

To avoid this become a long-winded harangue, here are three easy ways to diversify your organization’s creativity and ability to innovate:

  • Look around. If your team is all women, congratulations: you’re helping to shatter a glass ceiling. But you’re not availing your team of a different point-of-view. And you may be sending a “Charlie’s Angels” message in a society that may elect a female U.S. president in the next decade.
  • Recruit experience. Many PR organizations skew younger, assuming that social media is a mystery to executives over age 50. Nonsense. Not every candidate with gray hair carries a flip phone.  Sure, you want great social media skills. But you’ll appreciate when someone on your team understands how ethics and crisis communications experience can rescue you and your client when unexpected tweets detonate online.
  • Seek out people of difference. You need the experience of people of color who’ll point out when a campaign looks too white bread, or artificially urban. Clients struggling with mature markets will appreciate insights of people with disabilities, whose experiences in dealing with everyday transactions is vastly different than those of someone with no impairments.  
You don't grow engagement by visiting . Try reaching beyond the convention of a homogeneous workplace.