Open Enrollment: Will Your Employees Buy Into the Awesomeness of Your Wellness Program?

On the workforce management calendar, Fall is known as the time for open enrollment for benefits. As employers across the country prepare for this year’s open enrollment period, many have some familiar but bad news to report.  Health insurance costs continue to rise and there’s no end in sight.

For all the hype, it seems the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has not collectively made health insurance more affordable. This is the news many employers must now deliver to employees.

This has led some organizations to refocus their efforts on promoting employee wellness programs. Many employers may already have employee wellness programs in place, but they may not have seen them quite the way they do now, which is as a critical means to take control of rising health insurance costs. Still, other employers are now are taking a more serious look at establishing new employee wellness programs.

For an increasing number of organizations, employee participation in a wellness program is the key to better manage health insurance costs. The rationale is that with a healthier the work force, there will likely be fewer claims, and as a result healthcare cost increases can be minimized.

The common emphasis in many wellness programs is on biometric screenings, preventive care, and an intensified focus on weight loss through exercise and better nutrition. In addition, employee wellness programs promote a tobacco-free lifestyle, and engage in more open dialogue on stress reduction.

The Communications Challenge

The challenge for employers is persuading staff members to commit to the employee wellness program to the extent that they can make and sustain lasting health improvements and habits.


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For its part, the communications effort in support of a wellness program should seek to do three things:

  1. Engage employees – create awareness of the employee wellness program, what it can achieve and what employees can do to manage their own health and health insurance costs.
  2. Increase wellness program participation – Create or increase participation in a new or existing wellness program. This means registering increasing numbers of employees, and then getting them to participate in each phase of the wellness program consistently, from biometric screenings to annual physicals.
  3. Keep the focus on positive outcomes – Because wellness programs are flush with data, it’s easy to gauge progress against goals. It is important from the start is to clearly communicate baseline numbers for the collective work force, and then to establish collective goals, be they averages or percentages. And then to keep those goals top-of-mind throughout the work force throughout the year and from year to year. Some employers provide financial incentives for employee wellness program participation and progress, but creative thinking and problem-solving can lead to more than just monetary incentives.

Brand Your Wellness Program

In a communications sense, every employee wellness program is a campaign. As such it requires a theme, a message platform and a campaign structure to create and build enthusiasm in a given time frame. Campaigns exist to package and deliver often complex information in such a way that it can be readily understood by targeted audiences, and so that enthusiasm for the message can be sustained.  For employee wellness programs, the campaign structure starts with the open enrollment period and continues throughout the year, following a schedule of quarterly, semi-annual and/or annual benchmark reports.

Given the number of communications vehicles now available to any employer, it doesn’t need to be very difficult to keep communications going and awareness of the employee wellness program high. From existing newsletters, employee events and communications, to Intranets, certain use of social media and special programs, all can work together to keep momentum up. And that’s just the beginning.

What do you think? What can employers do to get employees excited about employee wellness?  Let me know, and feel free to get in touch to discuss your own questions or concerns.

Every Press Conference Disaster Has a Point of No Return

preventing-a-pr-disasterAnyone who has run public relations for an organization will tell you that there is always a point of no return for any press conference disaster. Usually it happens sometime in advance of the actual day of the press conference.  That point of no return is what immediately comes to mind when you are five minutes from the start and in front of you is a room full of empty seats.

Call it a flashback if you will, but you stand there and your mind replays the moment of clarity when you were given every possible warning that this just wasn’t going to work out.

Perhaps the most common example goes something like this. You’re going about the business of providing excellent public relations support for your organization, and you are called into a management meeting.

Your boss tells you that you’re going to organize a press conference – not asks you if a press conference is the right approach, but more like, “We’ve got this new thing and we’re having a press conference.  It’s going to be on this day, because that’s when I get back from the West Coast.  Go over the details with Pete here, I’ve got another meeting to attend.”

Yes, the good old point of no return. Your press conference disaster awaits.  Had the head honcho asked you for your opinion before making his decision you might have gone over some of these questions:

  • Is the subject of this news conference newsworthy outside of our organization?
  • What makes it new, interesting, relevant and timely?
  • Is this a broadcast story? Meaning, is it visual, is it something the general broadcast audience cares about? Or is it more of a business story? (Read: We can do this just as well by phone.)
  • Can we get the same results without a press conference?
  • Does this story absolutely require that a reporter sacrifice a half-day or more just to attend the press conference, and then the rest of the day to write the story?

Of course, there are many other questions to cover, but they all point to the fundamental issue of whether a press conference is warranted.


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The challenge for most public relations chiefs is not to appear as a naysayer when the organization wants to have a news conference. Usually, when the organization gets behind a media relations initiative, that’s inspiration in itself.  But this kind of enthusiasm needs to be managed, to be sure.

The right balance involves not automatically rejecting the idea of a press conference, while trying to engage in a dialogue on whether the PR tactic is the most effective approach.

Two of the more common myths around press conferences is that they in-and-of-themselves generate news. They don’t.  Or that the media prefers to get its information in large-group settings.  Usually they don’t.

Here are some realities the organization needs to understand about the media:

  • Newsrooms are shrinking. That means there are fewer and fewer reporters to go around. Most news organizations require journalists to work on two or more stories per day, which means losing just one reporter to attend a press conference will likely going to drain the newsroom of a valuable resource. Unless you’re coming out with the next iteration of the iPhone, don’t assume the media will make that reporter available.
  • That said, technology does help lean newsroom staffs to gather news more productively. They can conduct interviews by phone, by email, and by video conference. For live press conferences they may prefer to listen from their desks via dial-in access. If you have a press event planned, don’t forget to provide live remote access, which can include audio and video.
  • Still, the optics of empty seats are never good. The best way to assure attendance at your news conference is to consider the following:
    • What visuals can we provide? Do we have any products to show or demonstrate? Can we go on location with the story? Will the background provide a visual to help tell the story?
    • Can we get all of our expert resources in one place at one time?
    • Would it make sense to have the press conference in a location where the media is already on hand like an industry event or trade show?

When There’s Still Time to Change Plans


Click on graphic to enlarge.

If, by chance, you have not yet reached that point of no return, here are some other questions to consider going over with top decision-makers:

  • Is the news we’re announcing something already likely to generate a good deal of media interest without a news conference? If so, the chances of media attendance go up significantly.
  • Logistically, will we have trouble responding to reporters on a one-on-one basis? This suggests demand is inherent and attendance is likely.
  • How accessible are our subject matter experts or spokespersons? The unusual nature of having all SMEs together could be a draw, but it’s important to be realistic about whether this is newsworthy.

If the answers to these questions suggest that having a press conference is not required and there could be a better way, keep these alternatives at the ready:

  • Of course, the standard tools of the media relations trade are press releases and telephone interviews. This is assumed, but usually only a starting point.
  • Depending on the nature of the news, you can offer “test-drives” of the new product, technology or service. Some journalists actually prefer immersive reporting.
  • Consider informal media briefings or site tours, which can be one-on-one or with small groups. Instead of a formal press conference, your spokesperson could meets in a round-table format with selected reporters.

Regardless of whether the decision to have a press conference is within or beyond your control, the one thing you can do is manage expectations. From the very beginning, take care not to over-promise or guarantee media attendance or outcomes.  Keep the focus on your process for giving the organization its best chance at coverage.   And then make it clear that you and your team are doing everything possible to assure the most positive outcome.

If you have any questions about media relations, or any additional thoughts to add, let me know.

Remembering September 11, 2001

Remembering 9-11The following blog post originally ran on September 5, 2011, ten years after 9/11:

It’s been ten years and a common question these days is, “Where were you on 9/11?”

My memory is probably less interesting than most, but for that matter, I remember being in a meeting with a colleague right next to the Pittsburgh airport. The air traffic outside became a distraction over the course of the hour we met. By the time we finished, as I was leaving, an administrative staff member asked me if I had a plane to catch. I said, “No.” She said that was good because all of the air traffic was backed up due to a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

I hustled to my car and listened to the latest on the radio. By that time, it was being reported that two planes had hit the towers and one of them may have been from Delta. I have a niece who is a flight attendant stationed in Boston at the time. I spent the ride calling my sister to see if my niece was okay. She was fine. By the time I got back to home base, like everyone else, I was fixated on the live TV coverage the rest of the day.

A few months earlier, I had been on the 93rd floor of one of the towers in a meeting with people from Fred Alger Management. This was in my prior position just before starting my own business in May of that year. I wondered how the people I had met were doing on that day.

In the days to come, like so many others, I gained a new appreciation for so many things and continued to watch the news more carefully than I already had been doing.

Eventually, an article in a business publication reported that 35 of Fred Alger’s 39 employees at the World Trade Center had lost their lives on 9/11.

This past week, National Geographic has been running a series of compelling documentaries centered on 9/11, focusing on how leaders at that time felt and dealt with the minute-to-minute decisions they had to make.

If you have the chance to spend an hour or so watching, you won’t regret it. It’s a very good way to step back and reflect on how 9/11 changed this country’s worldview.

When the One Thing Your Talented Manager Can’t Manage is People

Connecting with EmployeesSo, you have one of the most talented people in your industry right under your roof. He’s a knowledgeable, insightful visionary who gives the organization a competitive edge.  And he’s a manager, which means people skills is a part of the job.  Problem is, that’s where he’s not a star.

Informally, and perhaps formally as part of the performance review process, you find that he’s building a reputation for himself as “difficult.”

How can you salvage him?

To be sure, effective communication can come naturally for some while require a little bit of work for others. The good news is, anyone can become a better communicator, which means better at connecting with coworkers and customers, and ultimately become a better manager.

All it takes is some training and consistent reinforcement to help replace bad habits with good ones. In other words, it may take some coaching.

In reading this, if someone you know has come to mind, then maybe that someone could use some communications coaching. Here are some steps you can take to help that employee on the road to better communication:

Establish a Baseline

How you do this is very situational. In some cases, you may not want to single the individual employee out, but rather, introduce a corrective process with some subtlety, perhaps more broadly to include several managers in a particular division.  In other cases, it may need to be more directly communicated.  Regardless, you need some set of broad measures from which to base analysis of future progress.

These could include documenting informal feedback from the individual’s coworkers. Analysis of recent performance review reports.   If the review report is not sufficiently detailed on the communications challenges he may be facing, consider a specific and confidential assessment from those who work with him and his supervisor.

If the organization conducts larger employee attitude surveys, see if any data from that can be applied to this individual manager.

One thing to know before you start is to know whether the individual has any diagnosed issues that could be contributing to his behavior. If some things are beyond the individual’s control, that could affect the way you proceed.

Be Up Front with the Manager

Once you’ve begun this process, at the appropriate time, let the manager know of the organization’s concerns and what it is willing to do to make him a better, more valued member of the organization.

Not only is this the right thing to do, but by communicating in this way very clearly, the employee knows that he has to change, that there is a process in place to help him change, and that it will be monitored and evaluated along the way to give him incentive to take this process seriously.

Bring in an Objective Third Party for Coaching

When you bring in an objective third party for coaching, such as an executive coach, a communications coach, or even a counselor, you will eliminate certain challenges to the corrective process. A third party can affirm what you’ve noticed or give you new insights as to the cause and nature of the challenges.  The outside professional will have his or her own relationship with the manager and can establish trust independently of any internal workplace dynamics that may exist.  And it will remove the sense of subjectivity on both the organization’s part and the manager’s.

Start with Listening

No employee or coworker will ever complain about a manager who is a good listener. But listening is a skill.  Coaching should start with a focus on doing a self-inventory of listening habits, both good and bad.

Then there should be a discussion on how to become an active listener, which means knowing when to ask questions, which questions to ask, and when to simply let employees speak. During coaching, role-playing exercises are an invaluable way to imprint new habits.

Tied to the passive nature of listening is the need for the manager to document certain concerns or questions from employees and then to follow up. That is how employees truly know their managers listen to them.

Become Knowledgeable on How to Communicate more Effectively

Coaching should cover everything from body language and tone, to word choice and the right approach to individual situations, particularly when it comes to instructing subordinates, conversing with them, or giving feedback.

That’s why regular coaching is much more helpful than a one-time workshop. One session cannot instill discipline and help the manager best identify and respond to his own managerial challenges.

Please feel free to share this, or let me know if you have any specific workplace communications issues to discuss.

Finally! An answer to the question, “How do you measure public relations?”

Barcelona PrinciplesJust a few years ago, the public relations industry threw its resources at an issue that has plagued PR for decades – how to measure public relations performance. The end result was a haughty name for a set of seven principles for PR measurement.

They’re known as “The Barcelona Principles” because in 2010, that’s where the measurement leaders from across the PR field got together to vote these seven principles into practice. Something tells me the same measures wouldn’t have the gravitas they now enjoy had the group met in Toledo.

That said, formal adoption of the principles was long overdue for a field that has struggled to connect corporate, operational or marketing results with public relations activities.

Since they came to be in 2010, AMEC, the international association for the measurement and evaluation of communication, has updated the seven principles, meeting in 2015 to expand and clarify some of them.

This all leads us to the question: “How do we measure PR?”

The core of the answer is in these new updated principles:

#1 – Goal setting and measurement are fundamental to communications and public relations.

The main takeaway here is that you can’t effectively measure something if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish. You have to know what spells success for you before you even start a public relations program. It doesn’t have to be defined in numerical terms, but a clear vision of ultimate success will help PR professionals best determine what measures need to be in place to monitor and evaluate the progress of the public relations effort.

#2 – Measuring communications outcomes is recommended versus only measuring outputs.

The old outcomes versus outputs debate can be a bit jargony, but the words are precise. If you count the number of posts you post, news releases you send, speeches you give, then that’s measuring output and all you’re really doing is measuring your own productivity.  But if you shift your focus to how all of this public relations activity is making people feel, think, act, then you’re measuring outcomes, and that’s the real goal.

#3 – The effect on organizational performance can and should be measured where possible.

newsletter-buttonThis is a relatively new concept in terms of the way the public relations field thinks about its role. When I say new, we can go back about 20 years, but still the emphasis here is to try to elevate the practice of public relations with those of other fields like management consulting. It’s really not a stretch.  Good public relations work can improve organizational performance well beyond the domain of communications.  This is based on the understanding that solid communication is the catalyst for a high-performing organization.  What this principle addresses is the need to measure just how communications can most effectively play this role.

#4 – Measurement and evaluation require both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Now we’re talking. When people ask how to measure public relations programs, this is what they often want to know.  What do you do to determine success or failure?  Keep in mind, we live in the age of big data and analytics, so we can crunch numbers in ways we never could before. Social media and digital activities have data points attached to everything we do. We can see how people navigate our websites, review or share information, or even respond to it at an emotional level.

It takes some trained communications professionals to make sense of much of this data, mainly because it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusions if we accept some of the info on face value. One of the most obvious examples in social media is when someone retweets or “likes” a post on Twitter. When someone uses these Twitter functions, it doesn’t really mean they endorse the original post or that they really “like” it.  It just means they want someone else to see it, or they may want to come back to it again.  As the volume and kind of data continues to expand, we’ll need to be increasingly judicious in how we judge the information we receive.

Of course, data and analytics aren’t the only tools. We have sophisticated ways to conduct surveys and focus groups that can help us really get a deeper understanding of how our stakeholders respond to communication.

And then ultimately, there are the behavioral measures. Did sales go up or down?  What was attendance at the event? Are people using the service you’ve promoted? What was the outcome of the referendum at the ballot box?

#5 – Advertising Value Equivalencies (AVEs) are not the value of communication.

AVEs just won’t go away. If you don’t know what they are, it’s pretty simple. Back in the day, when newspapers ruled and advertisers based much of their budgets on the column-inch, AVEs were born. So, if you wanted to buy an ad in a newspaper, you might want a small one, let’s say one column wide by three inches long. That’s a three-column inch ad.  A big ad might be six columns wide, by 10 inches deep.  That would be 60 column inches.

So, if you conducted a publicity effort, and the same newspaper published an article about your client that was 60 column inches in size, that number would be used to assign a value to the result. If the newspaper calculated that 50,000 readers saw it, and the normal fee for the ad was $5,000, then the PR firm might come up with a formula to claim their article placement was worth $5,000 and that it was read by 50,000 people.

That’s just the beginning. Different formulas were used to create these AVEs.  Some even calculated “pass-along rates.”  In other words, if you leave a newspaper on a table in a barber shop, six people might see the article in that one newspaper that day.  Somehow, almost out of thin air, PR agencies came up with a wild guess and factored in that number.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this used.  Fortunately, I never bought into it myself and never used these statistics with clients. The good news here is that as a profession, the public relations field has formally rejected the use of AVEs through the adaptation of this principle.

#6 – Social media can and should be measured consistently with other media channels.

This is kind of obvious, but the operative word here is “consistently.” Since there are so many ways to measure social media, it can be a problem when you judge social media results within their own framework in such a way that you can’t draw correlations with other PR tactics.

In other words, if you conduct a survey to determine the impact of publicity using traditional media, you should factor in questions about the impact of social media campaigns on those same people. That way you can better compare apples to apples.

Even the general media has a problem here. All too often, they base their own assumptions of public attitudes on what is trending on Facebook and Twitter. That is often a mistake if you really want an accurate read of public perceptions. Only a small universe is active on social media, and demographically speaking, their attitudes are often do not represent the majority.

#7 – Measurement and evaluation should be transparent, consistent and valid.

This is pretty self-explanatory. Our methods should be easy to understand and thorough.  We shouldn’t sell measurement on the basis that we have some secret sauce or proprietary algorithm that sets us apart. Tell everyone how we’re judging results so they know.  Be consistent about it. Don’t change the criteria in mid-stream or from one project to the next. That raises doubts about the credibility and the validity of the information.

The next time someone wants to know how we measure PR, the answer is pretty simple. Check out the Barcelona Principles and go from there.

Please share this to get the word out on PR measurement, or let me know if you have anything specific you want to talk about.

O’Brien Communications Among the First Disability-owned Business Enterprises to be Certified Under Pennsylvania’s Expanded Small Diverse Business Program

Pennsylvania FlagPittsburgh, PA, August 24, 2016 – O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh public relations consultancy, has announced it is among the first Pennsylvania small businesses and first public relations firms to become a certified disability-owned business under the Pennsylvania Small Diverse Business program.  More specifically, O’Brien Communications has been certified by the Pennsylvania Department of General Services (PDGS) as part of its expansion of the Bureau of Diversity, Inclusion and Small Business Opportunities program.  The certification and verification process led to O’Brien Communications’ designation as a Small Diverse Business in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

In July 2016, PDGS expanded the program this program to include small businesses owned by people with disabilities (Disability Owned Business Enterprise – DOBE®), and businesses owned by members of the LGBT community. This expansion was part of efforts to maximize inclusion and diversity in Pennsylvania, and the Governor’s Executive Order 2015-11 on Diversity, Inclusion and Small Business Opportunities in Commonwealth Procurement and in Pennsylvania’s Economy.

image004To qualify for certification, O’Brien Communications has met the state’s eligibility requirements as a small business and has maintained certified status as a DOBE® from the United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN®).

According to the U.S. Census, there are an estimated 57 million people with disabilities in the U.S. Around 15% of those who are working are self-employed.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for many disability-owned small businesses throughout Pennsylvania,” said Tim O’Brien, founder and principal at O’Brien Communications. “But most importantly, it recognizes the value that people with disabilities bring as small business owners.”

About USBLN’s Program

The USBLN Disability Supplier Diversity Program® (DSDP) manages supplier diversity programs that include businesses that are 51% or more owned, operated, controlled and managed by individual(s) with disabilities. Since its launch in January 2010, the USBLN® DSDP has been advancing economic opportunities for entrepreneurs with disabilities including service disabled veteran-owned firms.

USBLN is the nation’s leading third-party certifier of disability-owned business enterprises (DOBE®s). The DSDP serves in an advocacy and certification role, linking DOBE®s to information, resources and contract opportunities with corporations, government and other purchasing organizations.

About O’Brien Communications

Founded by Tim O’Brien in 2001, Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications builds its client service with a focus on: Corporate Communications & Strategic Planning; Marketing Communications; Public Relations & Media Relations; Content Development & Professional Writing; and Crisis & Issues Management.  Clients have ranged from Fortune 500 corporations to nonprofits and emerging start-ups.

In addition to his service to clients and his community, Tim O’Brien, who uses a cane due to a mobility disability, has advocated for increased use of people-first language in business communications.

6 Smart Ways to Read an Annual Report

Annual Reports, Public Relations, PittsburghChances are you have a 401(k) or retirement account, and when the mail comes, you may get an annual report once in a while. It may be from a fund, or the annual report may be from a company.

Or, as a professional, you may have reason to do some research on a company, which may involve reading everything you can about that company including the annual report.

For some, this is intimidating at worst, boring at best. Books full of business-speak, jargon, legalese and financial data aren’t most peoples’ idea of must-reads for the beach.  It’s with this in mind that it may be a good idea to find the simplest and easiest way to get the information you need out of an annual report without falling to sleep.

Keep in mind, the purpose here is not to make you a better investor or financial expert, but simply to help you get the most out of your reading of an annual report. Here are six ways:

Know the major sections of an annual report.

They are usually:

  • Letter to Shareholders – Letter from senior leadership.
  • Operations or Business Review – Summary of company performance in narrative form.
  • Financial Review – A high-level view of the numbers at fiscal year-end.
  • Management’s Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) – This is a detailed narrative breakdown of all the major developments and events .
  • The Financials – Everything from the balance sheet to the income statement.

Go to School on the Letter to Shareholders.

Depending on the company and the format, the letter should appear in the first few pages of the annual report.  This is typically where you get the most concise reporting of the company’s performance during the previous year, along with context and how that performance sets the company up for the coming year.

When people invest in a company, they invest in leadership, and that’s what makes this element of the annual report so critical.

The letter to shareholders is also where certain notable accomplishments may be featured, along with leadership’s vision for the future. The best thing about the letter is that it’s likely to be the most candid and direct assessment of company performance, written in everyday language.

The Letter to Shareholders usually provides a good starting point so that you are armed with questions as you find even more detail, and hopefully the answers you need, in the Operations Review and the Management’s Discussion and Analysis sections.

Dig in to the numbers.

Even if you are not financially inclined, once you have a good handle on what the company does, how it is performing, and what internal and external factors are influencing that performance, you can study the numbers more effectively.  In fact, you may find yourself actually “reading the numbers,” or in other words, detecting a story pattern as you study those numbers.  In a good annual report, those numbers will reinforce and complement the narrative you’ve just read.

The place to begin is the balance sheet. This is where you can get a quick picture of where the company stood at the end of its fiscal year.

The balance sheet features the company’s assets or all of the property it owns, and the company’s liabilities. These represent the company’s debt or what it owes.

As with any business, it’s always good to own more than you owe, but the difference between the two is called “shareholders’ equity.” When a company in total owns a lot more than it owes, it has more shareholders’ equity.  Wall Street and investors like this.

This is where you can begin to conduct your own analysis. Has a company increased or decreased its shareholders’ equity from the previous year to this one?  If it’s increased, find out why.  If it’s decreased, find out why. The answers should be in the narrative of the annual report.

Other questions that can be answered by the balance sheet: Has the company’s total debt increased or decreased? You want debt to decrease, or you want a good reason for why debt has increased, such as borrowing to grow in promising markets.

I would recommend having a glossary of terms with you as you analyze these numbers and their associated descriptions so that you can best apply context to all of the very precise language and numbers in the financials.

Learn about EPS.

Then there is “earnings per share” (EPS).  This is commonly used as a barometer for performance and it figures prominently in reporting from publicly traded firms.  There are many formulas for what investors think constitutes good EPS for a particular company, and since I’m not a Wall Street wizard, I will leave that to them.  But the main thing to know for our purposes here is what EPS is and why it’s important.

EPS represents the net income per share of common stock. This measure is used to indicate how much individual shares are impacted by corporate performance. There are many reasons EPS can fluctuate, from a company taking material charges for accounting purposes, rising costs, costs associated with acquisitions for growth, increased competition, and reduced market share. On the flip side, EPS can rise as profits increase and growth is sustained.

Zero in on Net Sales.

“Net sales” is the number that shows you if revenues have gone up or down since the last reporting period.  Naturally, you want this number to rise year over year, but we know this is not always the case. By the time you get to this information, chances are you should have a good idea why this number is higher or lower. If not, that’s a question to jot in your notebook and further investigate.

Don’t forget the footnotes.

While no one can be expected to understand every piece of technical, financial or legal data contained in an annual report, it can pay to carefully review the footnotes in the annual report.  This is where important elaboration can help you make sense of some of what you’ve read.

Obviously, these were just a few of the things on which to focus when you read an annual report. Since annual reports can vary in style and content, you may find that certain things like marketing, geographic growth, or even executive compensation, are more prominent in one annual report when compared to another.

But the key is to know that every annual report has a story to tell, often an interesting one, and it’s not that difficult to read.

Why Do They Keep Picking on the Good Old Press Release?

What did he ever do? He ain’t hurt nobody.

public relations, pittsburghYou have to feel bad for the good old press release. Here he was, minding his own business, spreading news about new products, acquisitions and new hires, and then out of nowhere a steady stream of people, relatively new to and not completely familiar with public relations, started to attack him.

Let me explain. This is usually how the attacks on the news release typically come about.

Someone who bills himself as a digital marketing guru graduates from college and spends a year or two working for someone else. Before long, he sets out on his own and starts his own digital marketing business.  He quickly learns that “digital marketing” is a limited niche and since there is enough cross-over with PR, and in order to grow his business, he must establish himself as a public relations expert, too.

By this point, he’s learned about the effective use of keywords, and to how to generate traffic with social media and blogs.

On the subject of PR, he is a bit more foggy. To him, PR is publicity, and publicity is part of marketing. PR is simply press releases on wire services. When he realizes there has to be something more, he decides to go beyond press releases, and that’s when he assumes he’s inventing something new.

Of course, that’s not all digital experts. Some know that the field of PR is quite practiced in strategies and tactics that go beyond issuance of press releases. But still, to differentiate and market their own services, some digital gurus feel the need to create the perception that what they’re selling is something no one has ever seen before.

So, in order to do that, they must tear down the profession’s symbols and proven practices and solutions.  This all falls under the iconoclastic banner: “This is not your father’s PR, anymore.”

That’s why our little friend the press release is such a frequent target of these digital bullies. Ironically, the solutions digital experts usually offer are in fact things that have been PR staples for more than a few decades. Things like calling reporters, sending them customized pitches, building personal relationships and finding creative ways to get attention through events or mailers.

The one thing that has changed is we can do everything we’ve been doing and more with new digital tools.

While I have to admit it’s rather silly to engage in a debate over the merits of the press release, our old buddy deserves more respect than he’s been getting of late. With this in mind, I’d like to debunk a few myths that have some PR pretenders have spun to try to create a niche for themselves:

Myth #1 – Press releases are only for major news media.

Myth debunked: Press releases are master documents distributed publicly to media, analysts, regulators and others to notify them of some event of development they should know about. The news media is an audience, but it is not always the only audience. They are written in journalistic style for ease-of-use by reporters.  Good ones are credible, timely and relevant.

Myth #2 – Press releases aren’t for building relationships.

Myth debunked: As source documents, press releases are effective at helping to build relationships because they provide, in one place, all of the key details of a particular development. This is a solid document on which to base further discussions, follow-up, meetings and interviews.  Press releases are effective tools for triggering new relationship-building processes or re-igniting old ones.

Myth #3 – No one wants to read news releases. They are boring.

Myth debunked: Because press releases are usually written in journalistic style and most often tied to some new development, they must meet the “newsworthiness” test.  For the same reason that readers read news, viewers watch news and website visitors click on articles, a news release should be and often is timely, relevant and newsworthy.  Not all are designed for the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Every news release has its own audience and its own purpose.  Keep in mind, just about every (non-crime or disaster) news story you see, at some point, was derived at least in part from a news release.

Myth #4 – Press releases are the only PR tactic companies use to draw media attention.

Myth debunked: Even a PR intern knows that public relations involves more than news releases to attract media attention.  As mentioned, we meet with reporters formally and informally, we have events, press conferences, briefings and tours.  We line up spokespersons for interviews, not to mention providing video, product samples and test drives.  We have done and will do whatever it takes to help connect reporters to the information and experiences they need to do their jobs better.

Myth #5 – Press releases are mutually exclusive from other PR tactics.


Learn more about O’Brien Communications “Just a Press Release” service!

Myth debunked: When we do all of the other non-press release activities, we often include press releases as part of the information package. Sometimes, when it makes sense, we don’t.  Often as not, we don’t rely on the press release to do all of the heavy lifting.

Myth #6 – News releases are only about the issuer.

Myth debunked: When digital marketers attack the press release, they usually point to the self-promotional tone of some releases.  Some may be quite self-promotional, but good ones are not.  A good press release centers on relevant information while issued by a credible source. So, for example, if a company involved in conserving part of the Alaskan wilderness issues a news release on that topic, chances are, the news release will be more about the problems being addressed and how they are being addressed.  The company serves as a credible source. The news release is not all about the company, but the company is part of the story.

Myth #7 – PR people never call reporters or send customized correspondence.

Myth debunked: Yes, I think we’ve covered this, but it’s worth specifically saying, most everyone who handles publicity in PR has made his or her share of calls to reporters and are quite good at it.

Myth #8 – Press releases are not timed right.

Myth debunked: This gets at the notion that the media only finds out about news from PR people after the fact.  The truth is, unless you’re talking about a publicly traded firm that must adhere to strict Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) disclosure regulations, PR people have long used ample flexibility in reaching out to reporters prior to the official announcement of everything from a new product to a major acquisition.  The common terms for this are “embargo,” “exclusive,” and just plain outreach to give reporters a heads up.

Moral of the Story

The next time someone tells you all of the proven PR rules and proven PR practices, such as press releases, no longer apply, consider the source.   And consider the possibility that you are talking to someone light on public relations experience and with little historical PR knowledge.  Buyer beware.

The Most Embarrassingly Common Problem We Find When We Do Employee Research

Workplace Communications, PittsburghOver the years when we’ve handled workplace communications issues, we have done research. Sometimes it’s been qualitative.   Think employee focus groups.  Other times it’s been quantitative. Think employee surveys.

When we do employee research, the purpose for each project may change but one thing almost never does. There is usually a credibility and trust gap between hourly or line employees and their immediate supervisors or front-line managers.

The workplace could be a manufacturing plant or it could be an office. Regardless, when front-line managers speak to their people, they are all too often not believed or trusted.


While every workplace has its own communications issues and characteristics, generally speaking, front-line managers can get caught in the middle. They don’t have the power or authority to make policy decisions, but still they are charged with enforcing them.  This means they can’t make spot changes based on the direct feedback they may get from subordinates.

This can be frustrating for line employees.

Further compounding the issue is how front-line managers are assigned and judged. Many front-line managers are promoted from within. This means some may still feel and act like line employees, neglecting their management responsibilities.  While others may allow a taste of power to change the way they interact with their subordinates.  This can lead to or exacerbate an “us” versus “them” mentality within the workforce.

Whether they are really effective as front-line managers or not, most know that some of their managers don’t want problems bubbling up in the organization. So, the course of action for many front-line managers is to keep things quiet.

Front-line managers tend to have a choice. They can manage so as not to get on the wrong side of their superiors, or they can manage to make themselves look good to their bosses. Either way, this often means that grievances, complaints or even suggestions and good ideas can come to a halt when originating at the very front lines of the organization.

Usually, once we detect a pattern like this, we set about creating an internal communications program that helps to bridge the divide between senior management and the entire organization. One important thing is to do is find ways to bolster the credibility of those front-line managers.  After all, they are the voice and face of the company to your line employees.

Some ways to do this are:

  • Empower front-line managers to make more policy decisions within their work groups.
  • Encourage and incentivize them to share complaints, suggestions and ideas that they receive from their people upward in the organization, and recognize those contributions.
  • Respect the valuable role front-line managers play as both managers of their people and as advocates for their people.

In the end, you will be helping to forge a stronger bond between front-line managers and the people they manage.

Let us know if you would like to talk about workplace communications.

How to Answer the Media Question: “Do you have anything to add?”

Public Relations, PittsburghSo, you’ve just finished a grueling media interview. Some of the questions were easy, some were tough, really tough.  Like the one about expectations for the next fiscal year, and whether rising costs will affect customer service.

But you were ready, and overall, you feel you handled the interview well. The reporter across from you seems to feel the same way.

“Thank you for your time,” she says. Then she asks, “Do you have anything to add?”

This is a fork-in-the-road question for a lot of people. You wonder:

  • “Shouldn’t I just be glad the interview is over and say nothing?”
  • “If I do add anything, will that open the door to a new line of questions for which I’m not prepared?”
  • “Should I try to clarify a point or two that I might not have nailed?”

The answer to each of these questions is, “no,” “possibly,” and “no.”

When a reporter asks that question at the end, the interview is not yet over. You still have an opportunity to deliver your message.

To the second question, yes, your instincts aren’t betraying you. When a reporter asks this question at the end of an interview, she knows that whatever you say could open the door to some additional areas she may not have considered.

And to the third question, the reason you don’t want to spend your final remarks clarifying previous points is that you already know that those weren’t your best moments during the interview. When you revisit them, you’re just re-starting at a low point and could make it worse.  Your attempts at clarification could come across as defensive, flagging the earlier comments for more attention when the reporter begins to write the story.

Reporters typically ask if you have anything to add at the end of an interview to leave no stone unturned, while affording the interviewee (you) the courtesy of getting everything you want on the record. Remember, everything is on the record, including your chit chat as you escort the reporter and her crew to the elevator.

The best way to answer the question is to revisit your key messages. Recap your messages in a narrative form. Tell your story one more time in a way that suits you. Don’t worry about being redundant. Just quickly recap your story and then stop.

If there are some issues that may need clarification, you can incorporate those into your closing comments, but be sure to do that in a positive way, and not in a way that could create the impression you’re looking for a do-over.

Be strong, confident and to-the-point. Think of this question as an opportunity to make your closing arguments to a jury in a court room. Speak to the reader or viewer of the final piece, and not to the journalist herself.  And then close on a decisive end note.

If you’d like to discuss media relations or any communications topic, please feel free to get in touch.