A couple of months ago, I came across a journalist testimonial on Muck Rack on the 10 things that PR professionals do that immediately get their e-mails deleted by reporters. In the piece, the journalist, USA Today writer Natalie DiBlasio, infers that while she understands how stressful the public relations environment can be, account executives and publicists should still take the time to craft a pitch that’s appropriate for each reporter and outlet they want to reach.
She goes on to mention a couple of (embarrassingly) common PR tendencies that we’ve all seen at one point or another during our careers: getting reporters’ names wrong in the salutations of pitches, sending reporters unrelated story topics in the midst of an unfolding national crisis and pitching story ideas that are identical to pieces that reporters have just covered, to name a few. As I read through the list, I started to think about other, more basic aspects of pitches that I believe make certain ones more effective than others. Here are a few:
Brevity is key.
Every word that a journalist puts into a story is there for a reason, and pitches should be approached in the same way. It’s important to formulate each sentence in a succinct, straightforward manner. There shouldn’t be any flowery language in the pitch, and it shouldn’t take long for PR professionals to get to the point.
Target the right people. Even though most, if not all, public relations employees keep media lists with reporters’ beats and contact information, it’s essential to go through these lists regularly to ensure that they’re up-to-date. Reporters change jobs. Reporters change beats within the same jobs. And the nature of what constitutes a beat changes over time. If an account executive or publicist pitches a story to a reporter that he or she would never typically cover, it shows the reporter that the PR professional didn’t do the necessary homework before reaching out.
Know what’s going on in the news (and what’s already been covered).
This applies for not only the beats that your clients typically appear in but also for those that they wouldn’t appear in. You never know where you can insert your client into the conversation, traditionally or nontraditionally, and it’s a good idea to be as well rounded as possible when it comes to reading and current events. The more that you’re in touch with the news, the more opportunities that you will be able to generate for your clients.
Tell a story. The job of a journalist is to tell a story—not to promote a product or campaign. When talking to reporters, don’t waste any time highlighting the implications that your pitching initiative has for real people in real communities. Pitches aren’t meant to be sales-y or self-serving; they should be direct in telling reporters why they have an obligation to let their readers know about the story. The pitch should have a clear news hook right at its opening.
Sometimes, a little wit and humor helps. With some pitches, you may even have the opportunity to have some fun with the language. While it’s important to keep the tone somewhat light and conversational in any pitch, I’ve found that subtle humor and wit can also go a long way with a reporter for certain initiatives, as long as it’s not forced and the subject matter is appropriate.
On any given day, journalists receive hundreds of e-mails from persistent PR people who are trying to get coverage for their clients. With that in mind, constructing a pitch that is both memorable and informative will not only keep you out of future Muck Rack PR nightmare stories but also increase your chances of attracting media attention and aiding in the making of news stories simultaneously.
I recently had the opportunity to hear Ashley Brown, Group Director of Digital Communications and Social Media at The Coca-Cola Company speak at the PRWeek Annual Conference. For a PR professional, like me, it was both scary and inspiring at the same time.
Coke, a behemoth organization, took such a risk with its communications function that it has made me rethink what is possible. Coke’s corporate website? Gone! Microsites? Never to be created again! Coke’s PR professionals? They are content creators! Coke’s press releases? Reduced in half with the goal of eliminating them completely.
Everything that we’ve come to know about PR was replaced by Coca-Cola Journey. Journey is Coke’s corporate story telling mechanism. Go there! You would think you are checking out a very consumer-oriented news site… It kind of is, but it’s much more. It is Coke’s new way of creating content that showcases the Company’s values, priorities, and…. Oh yea, products!
Coke isn’t the only one taking this approach to communications. Nissan is doing something similar. They have actually created a video news studio on their campus in Japan.
Public relations and corporate communications doesn’t need to be just the bucket of ’same old’ tactics we are used to. It can and should be great story telling.
A Call for Independence for the Securities and Exchange Commission
After recently scoring a string of successes and appearing to have the wind at its back, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) took one on the chin earlier this week when a Dallas jury cleared Mark Cuban of insider trading charges. While this is not a big case in terms of scope or dollar amount, anytime you go up against a high-profile individual—whether it’s Martha Stewart or in this instance, Mr. Cuban—exposure and scrutiny increase dramatically.
When all was said and done, the SEC had far more to lose than Mr. Cuban. Already known for his outsized and bombastic personality, the most that could have happened to him was a few million dollar fine and a smudge on his reputation— but no jail time.
Conversely, the SEC walks away battered and bruised, once again failing to win big against a formidable opponent. With that said, I tip my hat to the SEC for at least having the guts to proceed with this case, which is more than we tend to see from government agencies.
And therein lies the problem: Because the SEC is an agency of the U.S. government, I believe it is impossible for it to act independently of the government influence. Time and again, we have seen examples where the SEC has chosen to turn a blind eye to potential malfeasances that have been committed within the scope of the capital markets.
While I don’t purport to understand the nuances of each example, the Monday morning quarterback in me can’t help but conclude that government, including state and federal agencies, has unfairly influenced the decision-making process of the SEC: i.e. which cases to pursue and which cases to offer a free pass.
For the sake of the reputation of the SEC, and to empower them to effectively do its job, I suggest that the SEC be “spun out” of the federal government so as to be able to maintain its true independence. While cutting these ties won’t completely eliminate or deter illegal behavior, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Anyone who has seen a good Western film knows that when the bad guys becomes too much for the Sherriff to handle, he often turns to bounty hunters and the like to clean up his mess.
While I’m not prescribing anything so drastic, I do believe that if the SEC was truly independent, it would be far more successful in bringing down the bad guys.
A Completely Avoidable Mistake Becomes a Lesson in Mea Culpa and Crisis Communications
Massachusetts Port Authority What Where You Thinking?!
On Wednesday, September 11, 2013, on the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) conducted a fire training exercise at Boston Logan International Airport.
Yes, really! Unfortunately, Massport made a major PR blunder in the planning and execution of this fire drill, which could easily have been avoided with a simple call to their PR team.
Yes, Logan did make an announcement regarding the drill at about 9:30 a.m. that morning, but it was only a brief two sentences on Twitter: “The Fire Department will be training this morning. Smoke on the airfield is part of the training.” Too litte, too late.
Television news camera footage later showed a large structure looking much too similar to a plane (!) with a large fire and billowing black smoke rushing out of it.
This one just baffles me. Seriously, Massport, what the heck were you thinking????! With all the people needed to organize this drill, the fact that you conducted it on September 11 is just astonishing. Didn’t anyone object?
“It’s just dumb,” Boston’s Gov. Deval Patrick said. “The timing could not be worse.”
That’s an understatement!
Sure, Massport pulled a mea culpa saying, “Safety and security is our top priority and constant vigilance and readiness is critical, but the exercise should not have taken place on the anniversary of 9/11,” Massport’s apology stated. “The airport community recognizes the day with moments of silence, a service in the chapel, and a wreath at the 9/11 memorial.”
Every company, listen up! Use this as the benchmark of ‘what not to do’. Massport had 364 perfectly good days to conduct this fire drill, but didn’t. I guess you could say it sure did turn into a fire drill – one of crisis management – fanning out the flames of absurdity or poor planing. If they had conducted it on one of the other 364 other days of the year, no one would have cared or even known about it.
Hey, Massport, you have a PR team, next time use them. And, if they did think September 11 was a fine day for a fire drill, then fire them and call us! We’ll help you out!
Twitter and Groundhog Day – what do they have in common?
I feel like it’s Groundhog Day. Don’t you? When it comes to investors and social media stocks, it really is true that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Over a year ago Facebook filed an S-1 for an IPO with a more than $100 billion valuation. At that time, I questioned the veracity of the valuation the company was putting on itself. The company filed an S-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The problem I had was that the information communicated in its filing failed to justify the valuation it was asking the markets to pay for its stock. Post-IPO, as we all know, the markets agreed that Facebook maybe “liked” itself a little too much and the stock fell significantly. That hurt a lot of institutional investors who had invested directly in the IPO as well as individuals who invested indirectly through mutual funds, 401ks, 529 plans, etc. (Clearly their communications of recent and performance have helped ameliorate this.)
As we learned yesterday, Twitter announced via a tweet that it also was going to seek the assistance of the capital markets by way of a public offering. The main difference between Facebook and Twitter is that Twitter filed confidentially under the guise of the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act, passed by Congress more than a year ago. This means Twitter is now able to gauge the receptivity of “institutional” investors via their lead underwriter, Goldman Sachs, without publicly communicating how their company should be valued.
So what’s my issue this time? I have a few.
First, Twitter’s tweet yesterday makes its “confidential” filing no longer “confidential.” We all know about it now. In my opinion this is an affront to the spirit of the JOBS Act which was to allow relatively “small” companies to consider an IPO without having to “publicly” commit to it. Well that cat is out of the bag. Does anyone really think they won’t eventually go forward with it, and is Twitter a “small” company as Congress intended?
Second, I don’t believe the JOBS Act was intended to allow companies to shield themselves from the obligation to be transparent in their communications and to have to justify their valuation. Yes, it is true that Twitter will eventually have to file, but again, does anyone think that an IPO isn’t a fait accompli? They should have to file now so we can all start to think about the company’s valuation and whether or not, if given the opportunity, to invest.
Third, as with Facebook, I have an issue with the fact that institutional investors are going to have an advantage over everyone else by way of information and communications. I may be wrong but I am pretty certain that in the coming months Goldman will not be hosting public, non-institutional investor exclusive events where Twitter management will make a presentation about its business and answers questions to explain why they believe the capital markets should invest hundreds of million if not billions of dollars. I don’t believe the JOBS Act was intended to supersede Regulation Fair Disclosure when it comes to leveling the playing field between the individual and institutional investor.
Facebook undoubtedly will be forever remembered in the history books as one of the great IPO calamities. Unless it does something different, it seems that Twitter might be included as well.
Will the SEC’s New JOBS Act Rules Hinder Investors and Hurt Startups?
Lifting the ban on advertising for private securities offerings was widely hailed, but it may come with a raft of new regulations that could make life difficult for both angel investors and the startup companies they fund.
On July 10 of this year, the SEC made a landmark ruling that essentially changed 80 years of securities law when it lifted the ban on general solicitation for private securities issuers raising capital under Regulation D, Rule 506.
Private securities offerings are an enormous source of funding for startup and early stage companies (some $900 billion raised in 2012, compared with roughly $40 billion for the IPO market that same year) and liberalizing the advertising rules is expected to grow investments in these companies dramatically – a key goal of the JOBS Act.
Complying with these rules may not be cumbersome for established companies or institutional investors with compliance, legal and communications teams, however this is not typically the case for startups with small staffs, or for angel investors – often the first source of funding for early stage companies.
Understanding this new communications and disclosure landscape is important for entrepreneurs and young companies who may face strict sanctions for non-compliance, including up to a one-year ban from accessing the capital markets – potentially a death sentence for many startups.
An immediate change, and one that is in place whether a company chooses to “advertise” its offering or not is “bad actor” due diligence. This is new for issuers under the Dodd-Frank Act and means that startup companies will have to actively undertake due diligence to find out if any of its investors or “other relevant persons (such as underwriters, placement agents and the directors, officers and significant shareholders of the issuer) have been convicted of, or are subject to court or administrative sanctions for, securities fraud or other violations of specified laws.” The SEC does not give specific guidance on how to go about this, but failing to do so could result in the loss of a company’s securities law exemption.
While this rule change is currently adopted, there are also a myriad of proposed new filing requirements and penalties that go into effect on September 23, 2013, with comments on the proposed rules due that same day.
Perhaps the most controversial requirement is that startup companies wanting to take advantage of Rule 506(c) fundraising will need to “take reasonable steps to verify that all investors are accredited investors.” This is a new change and puts the burden on startup companies to make sure that any potential investor is “accredited,” rather than relying on that investor to self-certify, as was the case in the past.
Complying with this could potentially require a startup company to ask for an investor’s “pay stubs for the two most recent years and current year;” or “reviewing copies of any IRS form that reports income,” (including Form W-2, Form 1099 or a copy of filed Form 1040)” as part of a compliance “safe harbor” for the SEC.
This has raised concerns among the angel capital community, many of whom feel this would result in angels refusing to participate out of fear of disclosing personal financial information. “With thousands fewer angels participating in this market, startups will have far less access to capital, the millions of jobs they create each year will disappear, and the economy will suffer,” said Marianne Hudson, executive director of ACA. “This is the exact opposite of Congress’ intent in its near-unanimous passage of the JOBS Act.”
Other potential hurdles for startup companies include a requirement to make a publicly available filing with the SEC 15 days in advance of any general solicitation or general advertising. This pre-clearance would seem to put a damper on the typical ebb and flow of discussions between an entrepreneur and a potential investor.
Another proposal states that startups, “submit to the Commission any written communication that constitutes a general solicitation or general advertising in any offering conducted in reliance on §230.506(c) no later than the date of first use.” Difficult to do in an age of Tweeting and social media.
Early stage companies will also need to be vigilant on their SEC Form D filings under the new proposed rules. Late filers can be subject to a one-year prohibition on Rule 506 eligibility on their next financing.
The proposed rules also raise a number of other questions: would participating in a demo day, business plan competition or pitching to an angel organization constitute a general solicitation and make an entrepreneur subject to the requirements above? Final rulemaking is set for September 23 and comments on these proposed rules are due the same day to the SEC. (to send comments via the SEC website, click here).
This new law is a dramatic and largely positive development for the entrepreneurial community in the U.S. It will mean, however, that startup companies need to coordinate closely with their legal and communications counsel at the very earliest stages of fundraising, to make sure they comply with the Commission rules and can take full advantage of the law’s new fundraising opportunities.
The Rise and Fall of BlackBerry: Is the Mobile Market Impenetrable?
Monday morning, the breaking news application on my Samsung GS3 notified me of BlackBerry’s plans to explore a possible sale of the company ($BBRY shot up 10%on 8/12 in light of this announcement). Now, as much as I don’t really believe this qualifies as breaking news, it says a lot about the current state of the smartphone industry, and the tech space in general.
It is theorized that eventually, we will reach an age in which technology will advance faster than we do. And if you take a closer look at BlackBerry’s recent history, you may start to believe that we are approaching that period; if we aren’t in the midst of it already.
In 1999, just 14 years ago, Research in Motion unveiled the original BlackBerry device; which was the first mainstream platform for mobile email. Groundbreaking stuff, truly.
Fast forward to 2009, RIM was still the dominant player in the space. BlackBerry owners had a culture all their own, with a ton of social taboos; such as: don’t you dare leave the house without your leather belt holster for that corporate-issued World-Edition, you better dedicate several hours of the day to setting your Brick-Breaker high score, and was anything more heart-wrenching than waiting for a BBM response from your girlfriend when you know she read the last one over an hour ago? (Cue the Old Classic: “I know you read that!! I saw the R!!!”)
Present day 2013: According to Forbes, the former dominant name in mobile has experienced a 93% drop in share price over the last 5 years ($BBRY, $RIM).
So, what happened? The answer: most would say the iPhone; I would say complacency. While Apple ($AAPL) and Google ($GOOG) raced one another for that next innovation—that next big thing—BlackBerry remained tentative to abandon the same old platform. Thus, BlackBerry missed the transition to 4G, never met our needs for customization or personalization, and actually tried to sell us the Storm (For real? Clickable touch screen is all you got?).
About six months ago the Canadian tech company coupled their new line of “Z” series devices with a ramped up marketing effort. Aesthetically, the devices were gorgeous. And after officially changing their name from Research in Motion to BlackBerry and hiring Alicia Keys as their new creative director, their return to glory seemed imminent. Then…nobody bought any.
From where I’m sitting, the smartphone wars are over; today we make most of our choices based solely on brand allegiance and convenience. But does that mean the mobile market is impenetrable? No way. Could a better product pull me away from the Galaxy series? Absolutely. Active players obviously have the advantage; but with the GS series Samsung’s having taken a large percentage of the iPhone’s market share, a growing number of Window’s phone users, and the recent unveiling of the Moto X, I think it’s anyone’s game.
BlackBerry’s downfall is attributable to their choice to stick to tradition, rather than pursue innovation; to focus on what’s selling today, instead of what sells tomorrow. With the rate at which technology advances these days, even tech giants have to ride the wave…or they might get left behind.
“Organize the world’s information.” “Put computing everywhere.”
These are Google’s lofty goals, and I’d say they’re making significant headway. Data is huge, and companies, located primarily in Silicon Valley, are striving to provide real-time data to its users, whether you’re on a mobile device or a desktop. How many times have you browsed an online shop, only to see the items in web ads later that day? It’s no coincidence, and marketers know it connects you to brands, and most importantly, drives sales. But consumers aren’t complaining.
For the most part, consumers love seeing relevant content in their web searches; it shows us that companies are paying attention to our wants and needs. (I can’t speak for the fringe.) On the flip side, though, we’re never sure what they’re doing with it. Past searches, purchases, reading habits, etc. are all fair game in Internet love and war. Marketers want to get as personal as possible with consumers, with data mining as a prime tactic.
But while most people are fawning over Silicon Valley, search innovation, and hardware, Doc Searls, editor at Linux Journal, is interested in better controlling our personal data. In his book The Intention Economy, Searls wrote, “The Intention Economy grows around buyers, not sellers. It leverages the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that they come ready-made. You don’t need advertising to make them.”
The intention economy is a positive for consumers, who search for their wants or needs and in turn, should receive customized solutions to the problem.
Of course, this requires consumers to want to be in control of their own personal data, giving it only to preferred brands and metering access. As the internet grows older and the online marketplace grows exponentially, consumers will become savvier and will want to limit push marketing. The vendors that understand this will thrive and become preferred brands.
Thoughts on the online marketplace? Do you freely give out information to vendors, as long as the content is relevant?
Time Heals All – A Bit of Positive PR and Great Golf Doesn’t Hurt Either
Thanksgiving 2009 almost seems like a lifetime ago, and if you’re Tiger Woods, you couldn’t be more pleased. As all of you remember, that was the day when Tiger’s highly controlled image was blown to smithereens. Not only did his wife (allegedly ) attack him with a Nike driver after finding out about his cheating ways and decide to leave him, soon thereafter most of his sponsors kicked him to the curb, instantly erasing tens of millions of dollars in annual endorsement income. At the time, no amount of PR could have put lipstick on this pig.
Who would have thought that Tiger Woods was capable of such missives? Clean cut, polite, single-minded about eclipsing the great Jack Nicklaus with the most Career Majors.
Or so we were made to think.
Chalk one up to great public relations.
The interesting thing is that much of what the general public was exposed to throughout Tiger’s career came down to public relations…really good public relations. In addition, Tiger was aided and abetted by the PGA tour, its players and sponsors, who were far too smart to overturn the applecart. Truth be told, Tiger was known by these tour insiders to be anything but gentleman. But like good soldiers, these individuals toed-the-line, knowing that their sport’s popularity and good fortune was linked to Tiger’s continued success. Therefore, most everyone spoke glowingly about the virtues of Tiger Woods – further fueling the Tiger Woods PR machine.
But a funny thing happened when Tiger became 2009’s Thanksgiving turkey. In addition to spousal and corporate abandonment, many players came out of the woodwork, taking Tiger to task for actions on and off the course, adding fuel to the anti-Tiger PR firestorm.
Call it comeuppance, but Tiger was now on his own to clean up this mess.
Spring forward more than four years later to last Sunday as Tiger once again asserted his dominance of the PGA tour, closing out the WGC Bridgestone Championship to win by seven strokes – his fifth win of 2013. With his game once again becoming the focus for sponsors, players and fans, alike, Tiger’s star is once again on the assent.
In addition for letting his game do the talking, Tiger has skillfully used the power of public relations to further right the ship.
Instead of giving his usual surly, one and two word responses during press interviews and conferences, Tiger is finally opening up the kimono and availing himself in a much more positive fashion.
In addition, Tiger is cleaning up his language on the golf course. Previously he was known to act less than a gentleman in the sport of gentlemen, freely cursing at himself, even on live TV. Today, while he remains the greatest competitor in the game of golf – or any sport for that matter – he has done a yeoman’s job of cleaning up his foul mouth. So much so that it wouldn’t surprise me if he got an Orbit Gum sponsorship!
When it became clear that the media was going to have a field day regarding his relationship with professional skier, Lindsey Vonn, he utilized his PR savvy to control the message – scooping the press and beating them at their own game, using Twitter to announce his relationship – and providing a perfect photo of the two – before the media could get its teeth into the story.
And finally, last Sunday as he triumphantly strode towards the scorers tent, he deftly used NBC to broadcast live his youngest child, Charlie, running into his arms and being carried off the course – giving a rare glimpse into Tiger as the family man.
So maybe time does heal all. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to have strong public relations support smooth out any rough edges.
In the immortal words of Tony the Tiger, You’re Grrrrrrrrrrrrreat!!!
On my first day of working at KCSA this past June, I read over the edits one of my supervisors had made on the first draft of a press release.
“What does this mean?” read the comment bubble. “Words have to have a meaning.”
I was instantly brought back to a moment in 7th grade when I was writing an English paper on To Kill a Mockingbird. My father waved my first draft in his hands, exasperated, and issued the same exact advice.
“What exactly are you trying to say here?” he asked. “Words have to have a meaning!”
As an undergraduate who majored in English, I was curious about how you transfer the skills you learn in college—researching, debating, synthesizing information—into something more practical. I knew that I wanted to break into the field of communications and deeply believed that I could use the skills I’d honed in my classes. But I did not exactly understand how that would happen. What was transferable?
On that first day working at KCSA, I realized the possible connection between my undergraduate studies and the professional world of public relations. The importance of words—the particularity of them and the need for craft, for care—never fades. In my two months at KCSA I have watched my supervisors revise content again and again, constantly searching for the best way to express exactly what they need to say. They value the connotation and denotation of each word, weigh the difference between various forms of punctuation, and edit as meticulously as possible. This process is not just for press releases or lengthier documents— it’s for each and every tweet we make for a client.
It seems almost so obvious as to be banal, but it’s easily forgotten: words should mean something. True, there are multiple ways to communicate the same message, and some words are, arguably, interchangeable. But if I’ve learned anything from my supervisors, it’s that there are many good ways and one better way, and that’s what we strive for here at KCSA.