An Anchor or an Asset? The Value of Experience in PR Part 3

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Thinkstock

To wrap up our series on the value of experience in PR, we will look at if experience is actually helping us or holding us back.

On one side of the coin, experience is an incredibly valuable business asset that a certain Mr. Shakespeare referred to as a jewel. Even in the rapidly changing technology industry, experience has proven time and again to be the difference between the winners and losers. Yes, there are the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, but it’s no coincidence that as their companies grow and come under pressure to generate profits, they quickly fill their management teams with experienced executives.

The danger comes when people cling to experience and fail to acknowledge and embrace changes. People naturally fear change, but for anyone who works in PR, resisting it at either a strategic or tactical level is a fast way to obsolesce. Of course wisdom gained from past experience should be factored in, but it is only one factor to consider.

So how do we deliver innovative campaigns that give us the opportunity to appropriately apply experience and embrace change? One answer comes from the experts at the Innovator’s DNA. Their recent book includes a four-step process they call the Innovator’s Method. It encourages people to start by casting a wide net for insights, spend time exploring the problems and to evaluate the potential solutions before nailing down the strategy. It may sound simple enough, but when pushed for time (which of course no one ever is in this industry), we all know it can be tempting to simply apply past experiences and jump straight into developing the strategy and tactics.

Is experience an anchor or an asset for PR pros then? The answer is it can be either. If we simply rely on recalling and repeating the strategies and tactics of 5 or 10 years ago, we leave so many opportunities on the table. If we use the number of years experience we have to justify decisions and viewpoints, we risk missing out on fresh ideas and insights. And if we stick rigidly to former ways and don’t embrace new channels and forms of content, we have little hope of reaching and engaging audiences in a meaningful way.

It’s an exciting time. The rules are being rewritten. And PR has a huge opportunity. If we can use our experience wisely and embrace the changes, we can reach and engage audiences in new ways. So next time the temptation comes up to use past experiences as the primary guide for strategies or tactics, think first about what has changed and don’t focus on the problems that creates…but the opportunities it presents.

Authentic Storytelling—Creative Destruction and The Power of Being Real

Credit: Lin Kristensen
Credit: Lin Kristensen

Let me share a secret about myself: I’m a trouble-maker. I like shaking these up. I thrive on change. And I like daring people to do new things.

Over the course of my career, I’ve expended a fair amount of energy fighting this tendency. Sometimes being a trouble-maker is a pain, and it’s not always popular.

But over time, I’ve found that I’m happiest—and most effective in my job—when I am true to my nature and play the role of a disruptor. To be clear, I get no joy from destructive disruption. But I do thrive on creative destruction—challenging old assumptions and switching things up to clear the path for a better way forward. I particularly enjoy helping friends and clients burn away unhelpful patterns so they can discover their own authentic identities.

That’s what exercises like authentic storytelling can help accomplish—clearing away the debris that interferes with your corporate identity. Debris like buzzwords, unsubstantiated superlatives, hype and over-promise, chest-thumping about financial results, jumping on the latest bandwagon, creating yet another insider acronym, or over-rotating on speeds and feeds. In tech storytelling, the process of creative destruction begins with getting rid of all this white noise to make room for messages that are real, compelling and differentiated.

That’s what we at Blanc & Otus love most about our messaging work. A successful narrative brings out the most authentic aspects of what you, your solution and your people are really all about.

It’s striking how often authenticity arises as an issue. Over time many in our profession fall prey to the “say anything” syndrome. This is not to say that folks are dishonest or misleading, but it is often tempting to contort a corporate identity or brand to whatever will sell best to customers, investors or employees. This is particularly an issue at the start-up phase, when product direction and business models are still fairly pliable.

And yet, at some point you just have to decide who you are and what you stand for. After all, brands are meant to mean something. They’re meant to last. We seem to forget that the original use of the word “brand” signified a red-hot piece of metal twisted into a particular shape that seared designs into living flesh. For early humans, branding often took the form of tribal tattoos that held deep spiritual meaning. Brand was a commitment. It said something about who you really are and what you believed. And in some cases, these brands even conveyed special skills and powers—what today we might even call “benefit statements.”

This sort of empowering transformation is also possible in the world of technology branding and messaging. When a company is crystal clear about its purpose and its value, it resonates with people. It helps close deals. It attracts talent. It drives corporate valuation. And when stories are built around the company’s purpose and vision, those stories become powerful, persuasive and pervasive.

Ultimately, this is what I find most exciting about authenticity in marketing and communications: the ability to bring out what’s real and potent in your company. Not only does authentic storytelling help you communicate your brand, your differentiation and your value proposition more convincingly (because it’s actually true), that same authenticity often inspires others in our industry to do the same.

If you’re interested in hearing more about authentic storytelling, register to come hear me speak at LinkedIn TechConnect next Tuesday, September 23. 

Viral Storytelling—Mythic Models for Audience Engagement Part VI: “The Power of The Viral Question”

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Thinkstock

We conclude our XTC series on Viral Storytelling with a quick look at how questions, more than sound bites or “key messages,” can generate real audience engagement and create a longtail effect for marketing and communications campaigns.

To review, we define “Chapter 5: The Viral Question” portion of our story as a provocative, open-ended question designed to generate positive word of mouth around the topics that matter most. And this is important as our study of tech decision makers showed that the number one source of positive buzz is a brilliant question that makes people look smart when they answer it. And that same study found that such discussions had an impact on business priorities and budget line items of a company, as well as on individual purchase decisions.

The potential is impressive, but what makes a viral question powerful? For starters, binary questions are useless. Anything that can be answered with a “yes”, “no” or “I don’t care” is a non-starter. A viral question works because it plays into existing pain, ambition, curiosity or pleasure—it works because it taps into a topic that’s already relevant but frames it in a new way that makes it both fun and productive to answer the question.

And there’s no better place for inspiration for fun and productive questions than to examine the endless supply of not fun and not productive questions that abound around a company and its offerings. So, for example:

  • If your sales force is getting peppered with boring and non-strategic questions on price and commoditization issues, flip the script and ask, “Where are progressive companies unlocking hidden value from proven technologies?”
  • If your IR team is dealing with continued questions around unwanted acquisition rumors, look at the question behind the question and ask, “How do we empower partners, and what are the win-win’s we are creating for our industry?”
  • If reporters continue to draw unhelpful comparisons between your company and the wrong set of competitors, ask the question, “What business are those companies really in, and what’s their real revenue agenda?” and use the response to that question to differentiate your company more intelligently.
  • And if your customers are buying your entire story, but you’re still experiencing excessively long sales cycles and they seem to be stuck on not seeing tangible ROI, ask the question, “If the ROI seems fuzzy here, then what’s the cost of doing nothing? What’s the risk of inaction?”

These questions, posed across multiple channels, can help change the course of a conversation, initiate a new direction in the public dialogue around your company and your category, and engage your audience in a more meaningful discussion that benefits them as much as it benefits your own marketing programs. Popularize these questions in private desk-side briefings with the influencers who matter—reporters, analysts, bloggers, academics, regulators and pundits. Pose these questions at the end of speeches, panel discussions and interviews. Tweet them. Test them with LinkedIn groups. And incorporate them into your internal communications programs.

Not only will you generate some positive word of mouth, you might just generate some truly useful insights from people with a completely different perspective. And when we genuinely get curious about the answers to these viral questions, it’s amazing what we can learn and apply … and perhaps even inspire the next five-chapter narrative campaign.

This concludes our Viral Storytelling Series. For more information about Viral Storytelling, including training modules and case studies, please contact me at jreynolds@blancandotus.com.

No News Is Not Good News in PR: Tips for Consistent Media Coverage

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Thinkstock

The single most important job of a PR professional is getting your clients nice placements in the media. But what do you do when a client doesn’t have groundbreaking product announcements or exciting customer wins? A smart PR agency knows that you don’t just passively wait around for hard news to fall in your lap – you take an inventive approach to media relations. In B2B technology PR this is especially crucial, because drumming up buzz can be tricky for some of the world’s less “sexy” technologies.

Struggling to keep your clients in the press? Use these tips that we have success with on a regular basis:

Join the conversation
Increase brand awareness and drive credibility by inserting your client into larger industry conversations. When a reporter is working on a news story, they usually like to include third party commentary for perspective and authority. By staying on top of the news in your clients’ space, you can proactively pitch your executives as subject matter experts to reporters. In doing so you have made the writer’s life a little easier and also landed thought leadership in an article on a topic that directly relates to your client.

Be sure to closely monitor newsletters like ProfNet and HARO, which are great services that match up journalists with sources, and act quickly on postings relevant to your client.

Show some personality
Executive profiles are a great way to secure major feature articles without news. Start by doing some digging on what makes your clients’ top executives unique. Interesting childhoods, cool hobbies and unorthodox leadership approaches are all great hooks. Often the founder of the company will have a great story about what led them to create their business – use that when possible. There are lots of reporters in business press and local publications who regularly profile executives, so do some research and pitch accordingly.

Get back to the basics
Some of the most successful media placements are not the result of pitching a press release, but instead uncovering a natural match between client and media. Take the time to find that perfect reporter who should definitely know about your client, write them a genuine note explaining why you think they’ll care, and offer them an introductory briefing. Coverage won’t be guaranteed, but this can be a great way to forge important relationships so that the reporter may think of your client when working on a story down the line.

At my agency, some of the biggest hits we secure are the result of proactive outreach rather than an announcement. We see time and time again that being both creative and tenacious in your approach to media relations can lead to impressive results.

When there’s no hard news, what other methods have you had success with for getting clients media coverage?

XTC 7/24 – Viral Storytelling: “In a World” of Changing Storytelling …

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Thinkstock

In our second installment on Viral Storytelling, we look at how the world of storytelling has changed over the past few years, and the challenges that poses for storytellers. We also take the opportunity to drink our own champagne and invoke the first two chapters of the five-chapter mythic model of storytelling: The World Has Changed, and Change Creates Challenge. (See what we’re doing here? Nice, right?)

All storytelling has always begun with a phrase like “Once upon a time”, or if you’re a movie trailer voiceover buff, the phrase “In a world …” The best stories begin with a memorable opening, something that makes them stand out, but all of them accomplish the same thing—setting the scene. And in the world of tech PR, the scene consists of a number of different elements—technology, human behavior, business dynamics, regulation, and environmental factors. Or as I like to put it, platforms, people, profit, policy and planet.

The trick is, not everybody sees the world the same way, and therefore not everybody sees change the same way. So when we’re writing the first chapter of our viral story, The World Has Changed, we have to pick a lens and be specific about it. Better yet, we can look at a perfect storm of change and examine how the winds of change are combining to create all sorts of challenges.

And that’s how storytelling has morphed over the past few years. With the rise of social media we now have several communication tools that let us surgically segment our audiences not just by “demographic” but also by passions and perspectives. And that allows us to write multiple beginnings to our story and take advantage of more than just one hook. In short, we can be relevant for more than one reason, depending on which lens of change we want to use.

A perfect example is the electric vehicle. When the EV discussion was just getting hot again a few years ago, it took off in a global discussion because it was at the nexus of multiple perspectives—environment, economics, politics, and the transformation of the transportation industry. No matter what you cared about, you could care about EVs and EV infrastructure. That’s the play many tech companies are looking for today.

But then once you become topical in Chapter One: The World Has Changed, you now have to become emotionally relevant in Chapter Two: Change Creates Challenge. And again, in the old model of storytelling, you had to guess why people would really get involved in your story. Focus groups were conducted at great expense to help us guess what would resonate most with people who looked, talked and spent like the people we had on the other side of the one-way focus group mirror. Ultimately, we were still guessing and generalizing.

But now, with the rise of multi-channel storytelling, we don’t have to guess. We can describe the challenge as it feels to different personas, different kinds of peoples and different perspectives. And perspective is extremely powerful as a storytelling tool. How does the change we’re describing feel to a young, digital native consumer? To an older, more traditional business owner? To a progressive politician? To a mom-preneur? We can interpret and personalize the challenges from any number of perspectives and again give our viral narrative more than one way to reach the hearts and minds of our audience.

But then, of course, there’s a twist in the plot … how do we reunite all these different strings of story and weave them back into one coherent narrative? How do we prevent our story from careening off course into a chasm of customization?

That, dear reader, is the topic for part III in our series—“A Shift in Thinking”.

What’s Your Point? Ernest Hemingway Would Like to Know

“Yeah, writing the great American novel was cool, but I’m glad my legacy is forever preserved by this mobile app.” (Lloyd Arnold/Wikimedia Commons)

“Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”

Those are the final few lines of what I consider to be the best novel by my favorite author, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is famous for his simple, direct, and unadorned style of writing, likely owing to his beginnings as a newspaper reporter. Some people hate this style, claiming that it’s too elementary, but many others love it, because it gets straight to the point without losing any appeal.

As PR practitioners, we are constantly trying to better understand the wants and needs of the journalists we pitch. And one of the most consistent pieces of feedback we get from them is, “get to the point.” We’re thus always looking for the most efficient and direct way to make the most impact, which means avoiding jargon at all costs. Unfortunately, the technology industry is one of the most jargon-laden; when you’re “engaging by utilizing a cloud-based interaction and collaboration tool,” you’re really just catching up with a friend on Gchat. Heck, there’s now a Google Chrome app called The Dejargonizer, which detects jargon on websites and provides that term’s definition in “everyday” language.

In a turn of events that delights me to no end, there’s another language-centric tool aimed at simplifying prose, and it’s called – wait for it – the Hemingway App. This app highlights various parts of text in different colors – such as adverbs in blue and passive voice in green – but the best part is that it highlights sentences that are difficult to read in yellow and very difficult to read ones in red.

This may well be career-limiting, but let’s see what the Hemingway App thinks of some of the recent writing from our fearless leader, Josh Reynolds. Take this sentence:

“Whether you’re in a maturing space with massive consolidation and commoditization of technologies, or whether you’re in a hot new space flooded with startups, there are so many different companies clamoring for attention that virtually every PR practitioner has their own formula for smart messaging.”

The Hemingway App gave that sentence one big fat red highlight. But just to show that I’m not above picking on myself, the app also gave the last sentence of my prior paragraph an identical fat red highlight.

Of course, it’s often impossible in tech PR to avoid superfluous language. But while the Hemingway App may be a harsh critic, it’s also a handy reminder that unless you’re writing fiction, your audience probably wants you to do what Mr. Hemingway did best: Get. To. The. Point.

5 Things Margaery Tyrell from Game of Thrones Taught Us About Public Relations

Caution! Here be Game of Thrones spoilers.

Whether you’re trying to take over the world, or just seven kingdoms, there’s a lot to take into consideration besides your army, your claim, and your beard (although the last one seems pretty important). What do your people think of you? If they don’t like you, how can you change that? If they do like you, how do you maintain their loyalty? With PR, baby! Image is everything, and Margaery Tyrell knows that better than most. As we gear up for the Game of Thrones Season 4 finale, let’s check out five PR basics we can learn from Margaery.

 1. Adaptability

So far, she’s two-for-two on dead husbands, but that doesn’t bring her down. Margaery is always adjusting her plan and keeping her eye on the prize.

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 2. Reliability

She understands the significance of a contract, and so far she hasn’t reneged on a deal. For instance, she would never agree to marry a Frey, and then marry someone else anyway – leading to a horrific wedding with a nickname – à la Robb Stark.

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 3. Networking

She’s a networking guru who knows that every contact is potentially useful. Within days of her arrival in King’s landing, Margaery befriends Sansa Stark in order to gather information about her monster-husband-to-be.

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4. Public Presence

Little miss Tyrell captured the hearts of everyone in King’s Landing when she hopped out of her carriage on an impromptu goodwill mission. She might not have a Twitter channel or a camera crew following her around, but you can bet that her little stunt spread like wildfire through King’s Landing, skyrocketing her popularity faster than you can say “Valar morghulis.” Well played, Margaery.

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 5. Collaboration

Margaery is a great collaborator, working with a small group of people to achieve her ultimate goal of being Queen. She frequently meets with her grandmother to discuss strategy and next steps for Operation-Iron-Throne. She also understands the necessity of working with a team that shares a clear vision. Remember, we’re talking about the girl that said, “I want to be the queen.” She’s clearly a great communicator, and there isn’t anything quite as vital to the collaborative process as clear communication.

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Did we miss any PR wisdom from Margaery? Tweet us with #BandoThrones to let us know!

PR Best Practices from Old-School Rap Geniuses

Credit: Raelene Gutierrez
Credit: Raelene Gutierrez

In the sprit of knowledge sharing, my colleague Bill Rundle and I recently debuted B&O Street Insights.

What started as friendly banter between a guy from the “Yay” and another from the “mean streets of South East Auckland” morphed into an internal communications initiative. Now, we’ve decided to share this musical treasure trove with you – the fine readers of Above The Fold. The purpose of this project is to take our fondness for old-school rap/R&B/hip-hop, and use it to further enhance each other’s knowledge on the key concepts of PR in a unique, fun and (sometimes) creative manner.

Basically, we’re going to show you how the old-school rap geniuses were actually speaking to music lovers all over the world about communications best practices. Our first four installments are below. Come along for the ride and enjoy the lyrical journey.

Volume I: Mr. Robert Matthew Van Winkle

Stop, collaborate and listen.

This nugget of wisdom comes from the profound words of the poet Vanilla Ice. An evangelist for teamwork and active listening, Mr. Ice reminds us that we should take time to stop what we are doing, think about how we can collaborate with our co-workers and clients, and listen to customer and industry feedback.

Volume II: E-Z Rock and Robert Base

Ladies love me, girls adore me, I mean even the ones who never saw me
Like the way that I rhyme at a show, The reason why, man, I don’t know

Robert Base describes a situation in which his personal brand is known and adored, reinforcing the value of word of mouth. His brand ambassadors were born as a result of high-quality messaging being delivered through a successful speaking and awards program. When asked about his strategy to build brand ambassadors and fan loyalty, Mr. Base was hazy on the details.

Insights: 

  • The most successful PR campaigns build brand reputation, loyalty and generate word of mouth.
  • Agency staff need to remember to save their PR plans on the server so they can be replicated at a later date.

Volume III: Jonathan Smith

Shots shots shots shots shots shots
Shots shots shots shots shots
Shots shots shots shots shots

Mr. Smith refers to a popular form a of liquor consumption (a shot) multiple times throughout the prose. He expresses enthusiasm for the micro-portions of alcohol with a raw and unrefined delivery. Smith’s approach is highly engaging and persuasive, and stands out as an example of highly effective messaging.

Insights:

  • Keep messaging simple and concise
  • Repetition builds familiarity
  • It’s all about the delivery
  • Shot Friday is an essential element of the PR lifestyle

Volume IV: David Jude Jolicoeur

Hey how ya doin’
Sorry ya can’t get through
Why don’t you leave your name
And your number
And I’ll get back to you

As PR practitioners, we are often caught in situations where we are unable to answer the phone, and Jolicoeur’s best practice guide to voicemail greetings still rings true today.

His voicemail strategy involves a greeting delivered in a friendly yet professional manner, which acknowledges the inconvenience that your absence might have caused the client/journalist/influencer. Jolicoeur then recommends callers leave their name and number, before communicating intention to return their call.

While most voicemail strategists agree that callers should be encouraged to leave their name and number, many have criticized Jolicoeur’s weak suggestion (‘why don’t you leave your name and your number’) and believe this should be a firm request.

Insights:

  • Ensure your voicemail is friendly yet professional
  • Encourage callers to leave their name and their number
  • Communicate your intention to return their call
  • It was probably the Wall Street Journal so return that call as soon as possible

That’s all for now. Get at us next month for more rap-infused PR tips and tricks.

Bill Rundle also contributed to this post.