Public Relations

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How you make the ask will go a long way in determining if you get what you want or not. It’s one of those things, though, that rarely gets taught in school, even though it’s fundamental to business, particularly in a tough economy.

Most people have to figure out as they go, largely through trial and error. Many leave a trail of burnt bridges behind.

How people make the ask matters to me a lot because I often must make the ask but with even greater frequency, someone makes an ask of me.

In fact, this past week on one day alone, 9 people reached out for free advice, looking for everything from media contacts, ad buy advice to one request for a full donated PR program disguised as “could you please take a quick boo at this.”

Every week, I donate some time to a good cause or person. Even if I were to work full time at nothing but the requests I get to donate free services, I couldn’t possibly accomplish all that I was asked to do on a regular basis. And there are a lot of other folks in the same boat as I am.

If you want your request to get to the top of the heap, here’s what you need to know and do before you make the ask:

1. Make sure in every way possible, you are respectful of the time and talent they give you.

Last year, someone invited me to breakfast to help him prep for a very big meeting. For a couple of hours, I helped him understand what to expect, prepared him for the harder questions, and rehearsed him through points he really needed to make. The bill came, and he sat on his hands waiting for me to pick it up, and then reluctantly kicked in his share. He had also chosen the day, the time and the restaurant. A sports bar. I’m not making this up.

I wish that were an isolated event, but I’ve seen and experienced enough to know that it’s not. I don’t think people mean to be rude but they consistently get a few things wrong:

  • They get locked in their own head about how important their situation or cause is and forget to think about it from the perspective of the person giving of their time.
  • They forget that strategy, planning and execution take time.
  • They forget to value that when you have a skill and can do something more quickly, better or faster than someone who doesn’t have your skill and experience, that doesn’t and shouldn’t diminish your value to them but it should in fact increase it.

People invest in a cause because we believe in it. But for the sake of their sanity, reputations, and even for the profession itself, they will walk away when we are abused.

It’s critical to treat people who give of their time and experience the same way you would treat someone who handed you a big fat wad of cash.

2. Invest in the other person, preferably before you make the ask.

Try being proactively helpful. If you are friends with people on Facebook, repost what is important to them, particulary anything they’re posting for business. Retweet their tweets, perhaps send along an article now and then you think might be of interest, and add them to your Christmas card list.

Build your relationships wherever you can, long before you need to make an ask. If and when you do need their help, it won’t come out of the blue, it will come within the context of a give and take relationship. You will have shown you too know how to be generous, and your relationship isn’t one sided, you doing all the taking.

It’s very jarring to have people you are friends with on social media but who don’t give you the time of day suddenly pop into your email box assuming you’ll drop everything to donate advice and services worth tens of thousands of dollars.

3. Let them know “why them.”

Don’t just ask anyone to help you. Target your asks and let that person know why you’ve chosen them.  Think about what might make it beneficial to them: can you (legitimately) offer that person paid work down the line? By being part of this, can they work with other like minded movers and shakers? Is what you are doing something that will make the world better or contribute to something they care about? Make sure you’ve thought through “why them” or you risk make them feel like you chose them because you’re the only possible source for free labour they know.

Speak knowledgeably about their track record, what they’ve accomplished and why this is a fit for them. Even if it’s a very small contribution of time you are asking for, make sure you let them know your ask is a considered one.

4. If you’ve asked for advice, and they’ve given you something other than what you asked for, there’s probably a reason.

People reach out to me all the time asking me to put them in touch with particular people in the media or asking me to send on materials, pitches and campaigns that aren’t thought through as they need to be. Or they want me to look at the whole of their business or cause and off the top of my head, create a campaign.

When I introduce a person or a cause to a media outlet, I’m essentially endorsing them and the product or idea. It takes time to create a smart campaign and it takes research. It takes understanding the lay of the land really well in order to create something truly newsworthy. The vast majority of people who want me to do them the quick favour of sending something along don’t usually realize how far off the mark their campaigns or materials are.

And often, they demonstrate through their approach and dealings with me that they do not really know how to manage or nurture any kind of relationship I would want to make for them.

If an expert comes back to you with concrete advice (like your press release doesn’t work: here’s what you need to do to fix it), make the changes they’ve given you before coming back and asking them for any more advice. And remember that what you think is a quick ask probably isn’t, particularly if your campaign isn’t in the shape it needs to be to get solid media attention.

5. Take no graciously.

One of the things I hate most in the universe is having to turn down a good cause or person who I know could really use my help but can’t pay. In any given week, however, I get so many requests, I have to say no way more often than I can possibly say yes.

But as Marc Pitman says, a no really means “not right now.”

I watch charities and causes, and I sometimes jump in quietly behind the scenes when I think I can be helfpul. And I’ll keep causes in mind when I hear of opportunities that might be useful. But an awful lot of people cut off their nose to spite their face.

I’ve swapped stories with lots of people who give what they can time wise to as many causes as they can but who have received terrible push back (being hung up on is a common one) when they just have to say no.

I know what it’s like to feel desperation in a cause. Through my volunteer work, I am very close friends with the parents of children who battle aggressive cancers.  I have worked along side them on campaigns where we all desperately tried to raise the funds for the research we hoped would be in time for their children. Too often, their children lose the fight, like Megan McNeil did last year.

As an advocate for a cause, however, your job is to enlist the people you need to your side. Trying to bully someone into a cause never works. You may not get them now, but we remember how people treat us when down the line we see an opportunity to help.

And yes, it may be too late to help with the urgent thing you have now.

But they may well be helpful to you in the future. And someone or an idea may pop into their head that they’ll reach back to you on. I’ve had that happen to me. Someone says they can’t help, and then they’ll meet someone or remember someone who can.

So best advice? Think big picture and always put yourself in the shoes of the person of whom you are making the ask. If you do that, your make the ask success rate will improve.

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Few PR activities are as important as corporate reputation management, but lots of organizations are having trouble shifting to the customer-centric mindset their publics increasingly demand from them.

The truth is, bad corporate reputation management is quite common, and often comes from forgetting to think through the customer’s likely response to certain activities.

Banks making it harder on struggling seniors while posting record profits? As consumer reporter Ellen Roseman points out, that didn’t go over so well with seniors or anyone who has ever loved one. Neither did the case of the energy retailer that made every mistake in the book while trying to roll out news of additional cancellation charges, including by burying the news underneath improvement announcements.

In both cases, the companies backed down, which begs the question: how necessary were these changes in the first place if each company could abandon them so easily?

It’s human nature to not want to have to tell people things they aren’t going to like. But when a corporation appears to hide changes or news consumers won’t like behind complicated language or other distractions, the public loses trust and business runs on trust. No amount of corporate reputation management can immediately build that trust back up.

Marketing departments sometimes launch corporate reputation management initiatives that fail in interesting ways. Rogers recently had a doozy when it launched a new service with a promoted hashtag on Twitter called #Rogers1number.

Customers used the occasion to attach their complaints to the hashtag and vent their anger at the company, which looked blissfully unaware of how many perceive them in the marketplace. To their credit, Rogers was quick tell the Twitterverse that they were listening to the complaints and trying to learn from them. Whether that will result in a cultural shift within the organization or was simply a PR crisis communications move to deflate this situation remains to be seen.

That may have been dissent by convenience but as a rule, by the time someone takes to Twitter to complain about a company, they’re pretty angry. Social Media speaker and author Jay Baer ties together a couple of related studies in this blog post, and notes that only about 29 per cent of companies even respond to complaints on Twitter. That means 71% don’t extend their corporate reputation management into social media, even though that’s where some of their most dissatisfied customers are.

Of the customers who have dealt with the 29% of companies that do deal with Twitter complaints, there is certainly anecdotal evidence to suggest they get better results. Many, myself included, have found satisfaction via Twitter when calls to help desks and 1-800 numbers went nowhere. Some companies, it seems, are a bit more responsive to complaints in public than in private.

I’d like to hope that most companies would want to have employees who will champion the customer’s point of view when someone new is suggested.

But I’m not sure.

Companies aren’t always good at hiring those who aren’t afraid to ask the harder questions internally before they get asked externally. But they should be; a company of “yes men” will ultimately lead to mediocrity and complacency.

It will also lead to a workplace incapable of hiring the best and the brightest. An emerging generation of worker has been raised to assume their opinions matter and they simply won’t stay where they don’t have a say. Some will go to where they will be heard. Others may go out and invent something new, perhaps even a competitor capable of reinventing the industry all together.

And at that point, not many will weep for those left in the dust, choking on corporate reputation management theory when really they needed to start with the customer and work back from there.

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Every week, I get calls from people who want to know how to gain publicity for their business or cause. Many are looking for a quick fix when what they really need is something much more strategic. I can’t blame them. After all, who wants to hear that a solid PR campaign takes strategy, planning and hard work? Or that it usually takes time. And it should always involve research.

But it does. And to tell you otherwise would be disingenuous. It’s a bit like weight loss. Who wouldn’t want to take a pill and have the weight fall off without ever having to break a sweat or reduce calories. It just doesn’t work that way.

Any one of my journalist colleagues can regale you with stories about the quick fix mindset sort of pitches they get daily. In the end, however, they hurt not help someone’s chances on the “how to gain publicity” front.

Imagine your inbox flooded with people who know nothing about what you do demanding, yup, demanding that you do something for them when you’re not even in the right business. But it happens to journalists all the time. Business writers are pitched entertainment stories, investigative reporters are pitched stories about fun fairs and, well, you get the idea. It’s no wonder some journalists have just stopped answering the phone…

Not every story is a media story. Some might be better suited to being told on your website or in your company’s newsletter or on a video post on YouTube.

Knowing how to gain publicity via traditional media channels means knowing if your story is newsworthy to the outlet and particular person you are pitching.

What makes a story newsworthy?

1. Relevance to the journalist and media outlet

The vast majority of pitches that journalists get have nothing to do with any kind of understanding of what the reporter or the media outlet covers. The one size fits all pitch doesn’t work. It never really did but it works less now than ever. Any pitch has to have immediate relevance to what matters to the end users of the outlet: its readers, viewers or listeners. Anyone who has information, advice or insights into a story they are currently covering is particularly golden.

2. Being topical

There are issues and topics that pick up steam in the media because their readers, viewers and listeners care about it. Know what stories are generating buzz.  Scour the news and ask your friends and colleagues what’s capturing their attention in the news. You may have a local spin on something that has been getting a lot of national attention. Or you may be part of a local phenomenon with national repercussions. Knowing what’s trending in media circles is crucial to topicality.

3. Scope

A story has newsworthiness if lots of people are or could be affected. You can’t fake this, and you can’t lie about it. We once watched someone try and position a disease as much more common than it was because she felt it gave it more punch. Some very red-faced journalists ran with the story but then felt duped when others within the medical community set them straight.

4. Proximity

Local media outlets don’t care so much about things happening elsewhere or that which is national in scope. They need local angles – people, places or things that make the story relevant to their readers. There are other sources for readers to get news about the world and community papers aren’t it. A community response to a world story, however, that may well be of interest. What a local community group is doing to respond to a disaster covered in the news may well be of interest.

5. Involvement of someone high profile

Like it or not, celebrity sells. But what constitutes a celebrity can change drastically depending on the situation. A local cause might find it useful to align itself to a higher profile institution or someone with name recognition who can act as a spokesperson or who can at least endorse the organiation’s work. Someone higher profile can be helpful as a spokesperson, active supporter or honourary patron. While honourary patrons are generally not paid, spokespeople often are, and the more famous the person is (rightly or wrongly), the more money they are likley to be paid. That said, you might find someone who cares deeply about your cause for personal reasons and who might help you by lending her name to it.

One word of caution. Just as it is important to make sure that the high profile person is worthy of the cause, it is also important to ensure that the cause or event is worthy of the person. I think of Prince Phillip, a champion of fine architecture, called upon to open the new annex of Vancouver’s City Hall. The original building is a beautiful work, and I imagine the Prince and his staff assumed that the annex would be as well.

Um, not so much.

Prince Phillip took to the mic and said: “I declare this thing open. Whatever it is.” Ouch.

6. The offbeat

Journalists are always on the scour for those who take a different path or turn what’s expected on its side. Doing or being the unexpected is a great media angle. Weird coincidences, things made out of unusual materials, anything where common sense or a common understanding of reality is turned on its head does very well.

7. Struggle

It is what makes us human. It inspires us to greatness, love, revenge and sometimes ruin. Where there is struggle, there is life and there is conflict. Conflict and scope make something newsworthy. I think of struggle as the wild card. Put it with any of the other six attributes and you get:

8. Human-ness

Big ideas are hard to understand theoretically. We may get them intellectually but until you’ve seen something through the eyes of someone who has lived it, its hard to really grasp it. Something can be newsworthy if it can help us to feel something profound. At Babble On Communications, we often say that to change someone’s mind, you sometimes have to go through their heart. Even sports and business sections and publications have room for stories that illuminate the human condition. We are all divided in so many ways, but we are all bound together by our humanity and our capacity to feel.

There you have it. These are big picture items, but they are crucial for anyone who wants to know how to gain publicity. Knowing whether or not your story is newsworthy or not is aboslutely critical before reaching out to any media. The goal should be to build bridges, not burn them.