Eat’n Park “Christmas Star” Creator Reflects on Iconic Commercial

Craig Otto remembers a veteran commercial music composer watching the final product of Craig’s first television commercial and telling him to pack it up and take a serious look at working in children’s television.

“’You’ll never be able to top this,’ he told me,” said Craig of the spot that earned such high praise.  The year was 1982, and the ad in question was the now iconic Eat‘n Park  “Christmas Star” commercial.

“That assignment was one in a million.  It was the best creative assignment I ever got,” Craig said recently of the familiar animated, 30-second commercial where a Christmas star struggles to make it to the top of the tree.  But with a little help from the tree itself, the star is able to shine brightly sending holiday greetings to the region the restaurant chain calls home.

For a little perspective, at the time this commercial was created, viewers watched on television sets that relied on heavy tubes to serve as screens.  Thirty-three years later, new generations of Pittsburghers may see the commercial for the very first time on smart phones, flat screen televisions, or even on their Apple Watches.

This all serves to prove that regardless of changes to technology and the emergence of new delivery systems, timeless messaging that touches the heart endures.

Eat’n Park tells the story of the commercial on its own blog this way:

“It all started in early 1982. Eat’n Park was just beginning to blossom into the family restaurant chain that you’re now familiar with, and the company was prospering. Our CEO at the time, Jim Broadhurst (who recently retired), wanted to create a holiday card on video to thank the city of Pittsburgh for their support of Eat’n Park.

So, Jim charged Ketchum, our ad agency at the time, with creating a message that would ‘last for 20 years.’ Easy, right? Craig Otto, then a young Art Director, and Cathy Bowen, a fledgling Copy Writer at the time, lead the project. The pair worked for 3 weeks to generate over 30 ideas, none of which were met with approval. Eventually, they hit upon the idea of an animated commercial, but they still weren’t sure where they were going with it.

One Sunday shortly thereafter, Craig decided to come into the office. He sketched out a star, a traditional holiday image, and then stopped. ‘How does the star get to the top of the tree?’ He played around with a few ideas until deciding that, of course, the star would need some help from the tree itself. In a fateful coincidence, Cathy had also decided to come in to the office that Sunday. So, while Craig worked out the illustrations, Cathy devised a simple, yet perfect sentiment to wrap up the commercial.”

From a communications standpoint, animation seemed to work best.  If it had featured actors and scenes that reflected the period when the commercial was produced, due to changes in fashion and production values, the ad would have quickly become dated.  But animation or not, no ad stands the test of time like this unless there is something more.

Craig Otto Photo

Craig Otto presently serves as on the team at Elliance, a Pittsburgh-based digital marketing agency.

“It’s about giving and receiving,” said Craig.  “For Pittsburghers, it’s a holiday tradition.  It’s such a big part of the regional culture.  Pittsburghers have just taken ownership of it and truly made it a part of their own holiday tradition.”

As evidence of this, in 2012, on the 30th anniversary of the commercial, Light-up Night organizers and Lightwave International, a company based in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania, created the commercial in laser show format.

And local personality “Pittsburgh Dad,” paid his own tribute to the Eat’n Park advertising tradition.

“I’m not sure how many brands could have sustained this kind of tradition for so long,” Craig said.  “The genuine connection that exists between Eat’n Park the local community reinforces everything that the commercial was about. “

He said that he still sees young children, born decades after the commercial first aired, respond favorably to the ad.

“I’m still amazed and humbled by how this commercial touches people of all ages.”

Why the Boss Should (Re-start that) Blog and the Best Way to Do It: Request Your Blog Planning Checklist

Blog photo with penRemember when you thought it would be a great idea if the boss would start a blog?  The first five posts were a breeze.  You planned it out, made sure the content synced up with some initiatives at the company, and everyone loved it.

Then everyone got busy.  You ran out of things to say.  The boss didn’t get back right away with approvals on new drafts.  Blog traffic slowed down.

Talk to anyone who has tried to coordinate a corporate blog for a CEO and the story you just heard is very common, and understandable.

Still, lack of organizational focus and discipline (and time, resources and attention), cannot take away from the fact that the blog is still a powerful means to deliver key messages to important people at critical times.

But no CEO blog can fulfill its potential if it is updated irregularly. Blogs need consistent freshening to generate regular traffic.  Consider these stats collected by ActiveBlogs:

  • “81 percent of companies consider their blogs useful, important or critical (Source: Hubspot)
  • 33 percent of companies use blogs. (Source: InsideView)
  • 37 percent of marketers say blogs are the most valuable type of content marketing. (Source: ContentPlus)
  • Companies that blog have 97 percent more inbound “links.” (Source: Hubstpot)”

Still, the stats do not illustrate why corporate blogs can be effective.

I could list the reasons, but consider the story of fictional Dan, the CEO of a start-up with a lot of upside.  He wants his company to grow.  Eventually, he wants to sell the company to a major buyer and take care of his initial investors, his employees, his management team and his family.

He needs a place to tell his story.  He needs a place to keep people in the loop and current.  Blog Planner Request ButtonHe doesn’t have time to personally engage in any more meetings.  Even though he likes to write his own stuff on occasion, and perhaps dabble in social media, it just isn’t realistic to expect him to dedicate the time it takes to produce a steady stream of content without help.

So, his communications team decides he needs a blog that will serve as the hub for all of his communications.  And he’ll get the support he needs.

Once a month, they nail down a plan for a series of regularly scheduled blog posts.  They meet with Dan to go over what will be worth talking about in the next month and what needs to be discussed.

They use the content development process as their focal point, because they know it can be leveraged to feed a more full schedule of social media posts, possibly an online video or two, and maybe even some press announcements and media outreach.

Not a bad use of Dan’s time and a great way to keep the communications program on track for the betterment of the company.

All of a sudden, the blog starts to take on the role of time-saver, not time-waster – a focal point, rather than unnecessary distraction.  It becomes the heart of the larger communications program that targets everyone from staff members, to investors, customers, vendors and the community.

The point is, if the CEO has something to say, a corporate blog is a great hub for saying it.  And because it’s digital, you’re just a few clicks away from giving it social media amplification.  In the end, you can leverage the blog development process to create the full range of communications and create a system to sustain it over time.

If you’re thinking of starting, or re-starting a corporate blog, I’d be glad to send you a checklist to serve as an agenda for that monthly planning meeting.  Just click here or get in touch using the contact information on this site and let me know you want the “Blog Planning Checklist.”  When you request your checklist, we’ll also want to add you to our eNews list to keep you up to date.  If you don’t want to receive updates, no problem.  You will be given the option to “opt out.”

President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving

Lincoln ReducedThe following post originally ran on November 20, 2012 on PR, Pure & Simple:

It was just a few years ago that I learned the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it today, at least the one where the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions aren’t playing football, is actually rooted in a decision by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. That’s when the holiday became an annual tradition.

Here’s the story.

Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. It is a uniquely American holiday. Back in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”  While not a religious holiday, per se, it had significant spiritual significance at the time, and served as the kickoff to the holiday season that went through Christmas to the New Year.

As our history books tell us, the first Thanksgiving, was held by the Pilgrims to celebrate their first harvest in their new land in 1621.

However, during the Civil War, the president read a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, which called for a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated the last Thursday in November of 1863. As a result, he decided to make her proposition an annual tradition throughout the country.

The rationale behind the holiday was to start to help create a sense of unity.   In his proclamation of the event, President Lincoln pointed out the things for which Americans had to be thankful to God, including “fruitful fields,” the continued peace with foreign nations, and the continued preservation of the union.

Some historians have said that with the nation so divided at the time, as was pointed out by the president in his proclamation, it appeared the intent was to create a vision for a unified nation, living in peace, sharing the same values of God, family and country.

To Mr. Lincoln, the thought of giving thanks would have been an incomplete one if not to join together in appreciation for “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

In that proclamation, Mr. Lincoln touched on many of the issues the country faced in its war between the states, including the effect it was having on families. He extended his particular sympathies to the widows and orphans created by the war.

To add context to this, it’s important to note that one week before the first national Thanksgiving holiday, the president traveled north of Washington, D.C., to deliver his remarks at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg. This was the site of the bloodiest battle of the war and was devastating to both sides. Both armies suffered a total of over 50,000 casualties. As Mr. Lincoln delivered his remarks five months into the aftermath of the three-day battle, some of the dead still were not buried.

To read his Gettysburg Address, and then to read his proclamation of the first Thanksgiving holiday, you can get a more complete sense of the mood of the country, and perhaps get a glimpse of Mr. Lincoln’s frame of mind at that time. While these were extremely powerful leadership documents, there is a high degree of introspection and sentimentality contained in both.

I found them both to be worthwhile in my own reflection of what I happen to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving holiday. As I read these words from Mr. Lincoln, however, I realize not much tends to change. I too, am thankful for my faith, family and a wonderful country to call home. And that’s just for starters. Wishing you much for which to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

A Ghostwriting Process that Works for Everyone

Media RelationsOne of the most common myths around the practice of ghostwriting is that they aren’t the speaker’s words.  When done right, nothing could be further from the truth.

The key to effective ghostwriting is to capture the essence, the tone, and most importantly the message the speaker wants to deliver and needs to deliver, and to create and execute a process for doing so without placing undue demands on the speaker’s time and attention.

Still, while many leaders in government, business and nonprofits rely on ghostwriters to put their visions into words, in the end, both the thoughts and the words are those of the leaders. The key is to establish a ghostwriting process that is customized to the individual and his or her comfort zone.

There is no one right way to do it, but there is a set of steps that should be followed to give the ghostwriting process the structure it needs to succeed. For simplicity, I will use the term “chief” to describe the leader who will give the speech or whose byline will be used, though I understand that titles will change.

The Planning MeetingOftentimes, the chief insists on participating in this meeting, but there are times when he or she attends by proxy. In other words, the chief has a meeting with a senior staffer who then represents the CEO in the planning meeting with the ghostwriter.  This person provides the writer with all of the initial background, guidance and internal contact and resource information needed to get started on research and writing.  Sometimes, the writer plays the role of reporter, asking questions and posing scenarios to get the chief’s perspectives, personal anecdotes and insights.

This meeting is also the time to identify third-party trade organizations, subject-matter experts and others who can provide background and data to be used in the final product.

Learning the Chief’s Style – Thanks to YouTube, I’ve been able to watch executives I’ve never met deliver speeches in a variety of forums. So when a couple of execs have called on me to write for them, if I have been able to study their styles without having to actually sit in the audience and watch. Needless to say, when it comes to style, video accelerates the learning curve immensely. But so do audio recordings, previous written materials, and when possible and as appropriate the chance to  sit in on group meetings to watch the chief speak.

Once the writer learns the chief’s speaking or writing style, and knows what the written document is supposed to achieve, the developmental work can begin.

Creating the Voice of the Piece – The piece should start to come together in outline form and perhaps as an abstract. While some clients don’t want to review a first draft until it is complete, I’ve had one client ask to see the text for the first 3-4 minutes of a 20-minute speech before I went any further, just to see the direction and tone.  No matter what the approach, it is important as early as possible to confirm that the style and approach is what the chief wants.

Still, there are times when we don’t have all of the information we need when we need it. That shouldn’t prevent the writer from fleshing out the document in as much detail as possible, while bookmarking those sections that require more information.

The Review Process  – The review process is the most important part of the ghostwriting process. This is where the writer hands the draft off to the chief, who puts a personal stamp on the work and takes ownership.  He or she makes edits and provides feedback for revisions.  The review and approval process gives the final work its unique distinctive voice, customized and personalized to the person who will deliver the message.

Political Campaign Season Provides Lessons in “Optics”

Vote ImagesThis week brings another election day to my community, providing an annual reminder for me of the great democracy in which we live, and why I am glad I don’t work in politics. I’ve got many good reasons for not getting involved in politics, but  that doesn’t stop me from paying close attention to political campaigns from the largest national elections to the smallest campaigns for school board.

In the PR business, there is a lot to be learned just by watching political campaigns. While we can learn new things, perhaps even more often, we can learn what not to do.  Case in point: optics.

How many times have you seen a news story or a photo of a political speech, and behind the politician is a group of people representing a cross-section of demographics most affected by the topic of the speech?  That’s optics.

Or when you see a political rally and there are signs everywhere, the crowd seems to cheer on cue, and the cameras seem focused on the first ten rows that are filled. But what you can’t see is that the rest of the arena is empty, and when the cameras aren’t rolling, the cheering crowd is allowed to “stand down” and quietly go back to their smart phones.  Every now and then, the cameras pan to the empty seats. That qualifies as “bad optics.” And a bad set of optics can kill a candidacy.

No one provides a better example of this than one-time presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

When he was running against then Vice President George Bush, Sr., in 1988, he participated in a photo op where he was required to don a military helmet and ride in a tank. Something about the image of Mr. Dukakis in that helmet was largely regarded as less than presidential.  Late-night comedians had a field day, comparing this very serious candidate to cartoon character Snoopy in his Red Baron outfit.  The imagery, or optics of that moment was effectively used by the Bush campaign in an ad to raise doubts about Dukakis’s mettle as a Commander in Chief.

Those optics, along with a poor debate showing and some other factors helped set the stage for Mr. Dukakis to lose the race.

The moral for those of us in PR is that optics matter. The takeaway for us is to think about how things will look, or should look when we plan press events, arrange for video or photo shoots, and create publications and other deliverables.

I remember one veteran political consultant describing optics this way: “If we’re announcing a bridge repair bill, we do it next to a bridge that needs to be fixed,” he said, “rather than doing it in an office or a conference room, removed from the community and the voters.”

It’s not just about the words, or even just the photos. It’s about what all of it combined is saying. What is the message that is being delivered intentionally or unintentionally?

The goal then is to make sure that to the extent we can plan for it, to make sure that everything in the foreground, background and side-to-side – and even the sound of the event – reinforces the messages we want to deliver.

As we continue to get bombarded with political news coverage, ads and other material, try paying attention to the optics the campaigns are trying to create. See what you think works, and what does not and why. Then think about how those lessons can be used in your own communications efforts.

10 Things to Know about Doing PR in Pittsburgh

From its own special language, Pittsburghese, to an exceptional pride in its sports teams and a yellow ”terrible” towel, Pittsburgh is unique.  With this in mind, doing PR in Pittsburgh carries with it some very region-specific challenges and characteristics.  Here are ten:

  1. Unless it’s Steelers-related, never plan an event on Steelers’ game day. I’ve been told that the best time to do your grocery shopping in Pittsburgh and avoid the crowds is when the Steelers are playing. If you want to verify, just ask all of the people who’ve done this – both of them.
  2. If you live in Pittsburgh and you meet someone from Pittsburgh, chances are you know someone who knows that person. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon has nothing on three-degrees of Pittsburgh.
  3. When planning an outdoor event have a tent. It rains here. A lot.
  4. Business news matters most when it involves jobs. Ever since the decline of Big Steel in the region nothing matters in business news more to Pittsburghers than new jobs, saved jobs and lost jobs.
  5. Nothing newsworthy happens after 6 p.m. That’s when the next day’s news deadlines hit. Unless it’s a shooting, a car accident, a fire, a broken water main, or a shouting match at a school board meeting.
  6. Pittsburgh media are more likely to travel 39 miles to Portersville than 39 miles to Steubenville for a story. State lines are an issue sometimes. This has more to do with “media market” boundaries than distance.
  7. If you want to be interviewed for a “people-on-the-street” interview, go to Market Square. That seems to be the place where TV crews have questions for you.
  8. IMG_20150605_053144_933-1Pittsburghers don’t just embrace you, they take pride in ownership.  Just ask Primanti’s or A.J. Burnett.
  9. As a writer, it’s important to know that even beyond Pittsburghese, our formal names aren’t pronounced always the same as other places.  North Versailles is pronounced (Ver-sales) not the way the French originally intended (Vair-sai).  And it can be important to know that one person’s Washington’s Landing is another person’s Herr’s Island.
  10. Steelers’ players are “news” 24/7, 365. That also applies to Pittsburgh Penguin Sydney Crosby, Pittsburgh Pirate Andrew McCutchen, and an increasing number of Penguins, Pirates and former Steelers’ players, too.

To Get People to Know, they Must Care. To Get them to Care, We Must Educate

Audience and LightsNot long ago, O’Brien Communications began to provide assistance to a nonprofit organization centered on marking a major anniversary of a historical event.  To avoid creating any confusion on the PR issues at play, for now I won’t name the project or get into its specifics.

It’s more important to explore the situation and the process because the communications challenges this nonprofit faces are some of the most common challenges most organizations face. If you are involved with any communications initiative, there is a very good chance you will face some of the same challenges.

More specifically in this case, the general public’s knowledge of the historical event is extremely low. Because of that, any effort to generate awareness around the anniversary will require enough knowledge of the history for the people to want to know more and then remember.

For this reason, we must keep top of mind when planning any communications initiative, if people don’t know, they won’t care. To get them to care, we must educate.

A Little Background

Let’s look at the situation. The communications program will mark the 100th anniversary of an event that took place overseas.  The anniversary will be commemorated here and elsewhere.  This means that the public will participate in activities and events that are remote to them in both time and distance.

In a digital era where last week’s news is a distant memory and last year’s news is now considered historical record, looking back and caring about events that happened 100 years ago is an increasingly difficult challenge.

Still, those who are already familiar with this history can at times have trouble understanding why others don’t seem to care or want to pay attention.

That’s where a step-by-step communications strategy comes in.

Before you can expect someone to care, he or she must have some working knowledge. The catch is that to gain the knowledge, they must care enough or have enough incentive to want to know, to want to ask questions, to want to learn.  This is critical because it shapes the educational process that ultimately is the foundation for all communications activities.

Step One – Educate

The first step is to educate, and that means reaching out to those with at least a casual knowledge of and interest in the history. They are your base.  Create events, communications programs and channels to engage them, to expose them to new information presented in an interesting and compelling way.  This means making many of the lessons of history relevant and by telling them in story form.  People love stories.

Step Two – Conduct outreach

Once you’ve begun to connect with your most qualified audience, the next step is to conduct outreach to stakeholders that may demonstrate a natural interest in the subject matter, if not the actual history. Again, use events, programs and channels to engage.  Oftentimes, these are the same channels you’ve used to start your program, only modified and customized to appeal to a broader audience.

Step Three – Don’t get caught in the weeds

The term is synonymous with not letting smaller details, interpretation of them or even disputes among experts over the details of the history to detract from the current efforts to conduct positive outreach, education and engagement among the uninformed.  The solution here is to build outreach efforts on those facts and details on which most everyone can agree, or those details that are commonly accepted as fact.

Step Four – Get out there

Once you have the foundation in place, you can expand on your initial communications, and work to keep the momentum going with smaller events and activities that build to larger commemorative events around the time of the anniversary. Tap into current-day interest in trends, culture, current events and even entertainment.

In our case we’re going to do all of the above, and seek a good balance between entertainment, education and social elements. The mix is important because too much of one approach does not serve the larger goal of tastefully and respectfully marking a very important anniversary.  Tied to this, the purpose of celebrating the anniversary in the first place is to ensure that a significant period in history is not lost on current and future generations.

If you’re planning a communications program where the subject matter is dry – technical, historical, etc. – your challenges will be very similar. You will need to find a way to get people to care enough to want to know more, and only then can you realistically seek their engagement.

It all starts with your base, and with education.

Do Tweets Deserve the Credibility they Get?

shutterstock_191728364You know what they say: ‘Life imitates Twitter.’ Well, actually, “they” don’t really say that. I just said it, which kind of ties to a tweet I posted last week that gained a little traction.

Every day, I tweet a PR “Tip of the Day,” and one of last week’s postings was, “’Tweets’ are hearsay, don’t comment on them unless facts are independently verified.”

This was in the spirit of the long-standing, common sense PR position that we should never comment on hearsay, but rather only comment when we have verified the information at hand and its source is known. Increasingly, social media users and reporters alike will expect a brand, an organization or its PR representatives to comment on tweets and social media posts.

Ironically, last week’s PR Tip generated a response enthusiastic enough to warrant a little more attention. The issue at the center of all this was my contention is that far too much credibility is assigned to tweets on face value.

Before getting into the theory of it all, let’s break it down. Anyone can tweet.  Twitter users are not required to reveal their true identities. That should undermine the social media channel’s credibility quite a bit, but often it does not.

Second, there are techniques that tech-savvy social media gurus can use to multiply the impact of tweets. One user can trigger thousands of tweets advancing a particular point of view, opinion, claim or allegation, deceptively giving the impression that the sentiments across all of these tweets is shared by thousands of individuals. That possibility is lost or overlooked by the public, and quite often by reporters who may base coverage on social media content.  Often, an assumption is made that even a handful of tweets automatically reflect general public opinion.

In conventional media coverage of tweets, the burden is sometimes placed on PR professionals to respond to social media activity.

Traditionally, journalists have considered it their primary mission in reporting news to center on facts, not opinion or conjecture. That, we learned in J-school, was the domain of the opinion page editors and the commentators at our news operations.

But when social media came along, the temptation was simply too great for TV, radio and print/online execs to look for “synergies.” This term can mean many things, but in this context it represents a convergence where the interactive nature of social media is leveraged to create news content and more directly build audience at the same time.

By engaging the audience with content based on social media, and then using social media to solicit more feedback, the media organization can create a cycle where this dynamic process builds momentum and can potentially take on a life of its own, adding a viral element.

What has come out of this is that news organizations now sometimes report Twitter reaction to other events or their own stories, creating completely new stories unto themselves based on tweets. In the process, the facts of the stories can become secondary. Instead, Twitter “backlash” or “social media outrage” defines and shapes the story.

This marks a significant shift in focus. The “fact” that people are posting opinions and conjecture about the story becomes all the justification needed to run with a story. Thanks to social media, and oftentimes Twitter specifically, opinion, rumor, speculation and conjecture drive a given story.

Narrow Demographics

The very demographics of social media are much more narrow than most believe. When traditional media tells us that thousands of Twitter users are offended by a new toy on store shelves for the holidays, or that there is Twitter controversy over a TV commercial, do we know who exactly is offended and how much of a cross-section of society feels the same way?

According to the Pew Research Center, about 23 percent of adult Internet users count themselves as Twitter users, at least occasionally. “Twitter is particularly popular among those under 50 and the college-educated,” observed Pew.

The largest percentage of adult Twitter users are between 18 and 20 years old at 37 percent; most have a college degree; and 41 percent earn $50,000 or less per year. Most Twitter users live in cities and suburbs, a combined total of 48 percent, while rural users total 17 percent. Ethnically, Pew reported that adult Twitter demographics are almost evenly distributed.

It would take a much more comprehensive data dive to more fully make sense of these numbers, but what we can conclude is that news stories centered Twitter activity:

  • Do not provide a solid representation of adults aged 30 and over;
  • Do not provide an accurate representation of people who live outside of cities and suburbs;
  • Do not provide an adequate representation of individuals who earn $50,000 or more per year.

What Twitter does provide, it seems, is a representative depiction of attitudes among 20-somethings who live in urban areas and make less than $50,000 per year. That is only a sliver of demographics that comprise society and cannot be assumed to represent public sentiment in general.

If the narrow demographics of social media users are important to you, then social media trends should be.  Still, it is safe to assume that these narrow demographics aren’t enough to accurately make conclusions on how the majority of people feel.

OBC Twitter TweetWhat this means to reporters and for those of us in the business of PR is that as long as verified facts are the basis of our own credibility, and as long as credibility matters, it’s in everyone’s best interest to put tweets and other social media posts into the proper context and perspective. Understand the context and know that Twitter users are a narrow group. Speak to the facts. Do not speculate and do not validate speculation or rumor presented on face value.

When the Gatekeepers Lock the Gate: Sponsored content could be an option

Locked GateThere is not one good PR person in the business who has picked up the phone and pitched a pretty good story to a reporter or editor and hasn’t had it shot down. It happens all the time for any number of reasons.

Perhaps the story doesn’t fit the news organization’s formula or format for news. Maybe the story has been done recently. And then there are times when editors and reporters decide that the subject matter is a bit too complex or just not interesting enough for their readers or viewers.

For these reasons and many more, communicators run into the buzz saw that is media relations.

So, what to do when the gatekeepers of the news room “lock the gate?”

There are many options while staying within the realm of media relations. You could re-think your approach. Maybe target a different beat in the news room, or rethink the way the story is presented. All worthy considerations under the right circumstances.

But then there are times when it’s worth considering stepping outside the boundaries of traditional media relations and considering a different approach, one where you can still reach out to the same readers with much greater control and predictability – sponsored content.

Why sponsored content?

Sponsored content is otherwise known as “native advertising,” and it used to be commonly dubbed “advertorials.” The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) says that sponsored content or native advertising consists of “paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels they belong.”

In other words, you’re creating an ad that looks, reads and feels like the publication’s or Web site’s own editorial content.

Of course there are ethical stipulations so that the reader is not fooled into presuming that your ad is in fact content produced by the editors of the media channel that publishes it. Most notably, your content will be labeled (usually tastefully) something like, “Paid Content,” “Sponsored Content,” or simply “Advertisement.”

A Construction and Siting Scenario

Let’s say project planners want to work to build awareness of and create transparency around siting for a construction and development project in a rural area.

The complexity and sensitivity of the issues involved require more than periodic dissemination of news releases announcing the project’s plans. Regulators are involved. Maybe there is a public hearing process as well. So, an ambitious media relations outreach program is conducted. As part of this program, the planners develop traditional opinion page submissions. Some make it to print, others do not.

It becomes clear that this approach may not be enough to ensure that the community is getting all of the information it needs. Still, it is unrealistic to expect the editors to devote the kind of editorial space required to truly do justice to the broad and comprehensive subject matter associated any single construction project.

A supplemental strategy of using sponsored content may be an option.

Using such a strategy, planners can decide when and where certain content appears. Each article can more deeply explore particular issues, such as the potential economic or infrastructure impact of the project, and what’s being done to protect the community and the environment.

The complexity of these topics cannot easily be covered in a billboard or 30-second commercial. Advertorials developed around each important issue can make a difference.

A consistent format that is unique to the project can then be developed so that it complements the editorial content of regional and local newspapers, without creating confusion over the source of the content, which is clearly marked.

In the end, the community has a chance to more fully hear the story on what the project means to them, and the project planners are better able to keep their commitment to openness and transparency.

If your organization is faced with the challenge of communicating comprehensive and complex information and may need to supplement or extend its traditional media relations efforts, an appropriate sponsored content strategy could be a way to go.

If this is something you’re thinking about, please feel free to get in touch. We might be able to help you get your plans on track.

3 Questions to Ask Before Apologizing

IMG_20150923_134511_554-1On Wednesday, Volkswagen announced that its CEO Dr. Martin Winterkorn has resigned. This came days after it was revealed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had discovered that the German automaker appears to have installed software in vehicles enabling them to fool emissions tests.

Winterkorn had admitted as much in a lengthy apology he gave earlier in the week. According to reports, the company had installed software in some vehicles that only activate specific emission control functions when the car senses it is getting an emissions test. It appears that the emission control functions were not used during normal operation of the vehicle.

The story came to light when the EPA ordered the carmaker to recall almost 500,000 cars that were said to have utilized the technology. Subsequently, Volkswagen will discontinue sales of its cars equipped with four-cylinder turbo diesel engines in the United States.

Because the use of this technology could have violated the U.S. Federal Clean Act, the company could be penalized “up to $37,500, or more than $18 billion,” reported the Wall Street Journal.

This was the context for Winterkorn’s apology, which didn’t appear to be enough to stave off calls for his removal:

“I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public. We will cooperate fully with the responsible agencies, with transparency and urgency, to clearly, openly, and completely establish all of the facts of this case. Volkswagen has ordered an external investigation of this matter.

We do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or of the law.

The trust of our customers and the public is and continues to be our most important asset.

We at Volkswagen will do everything that must be done in order to re-establish the trust that so many people have placed in us, and we will do everything necessary in order to reverse the damage this has caused. This matter has first priority for me, personally, and for our entire Board of Management.”

Obviously, there are many factors beyond mere words that will drive events at Volkswagen in the coming weeks, months and years.   But for our purposes here, we can learn from the company’s seeming need to issue an apology so early in the process. With this in mind, if your organization is ever in a situation where an apology is under consideration, it is recommended that you ask yourself three questions.

1. What corrective actions are being taken?

In Volkswagen’s case, it will have a new CEO, and it is recalling a large number of vehicles. It is stopping the sales of certain vehicles in the U.S. And the company is cooperating with investigators.  On Friday, the company designated Matthias Müller, who was head of Porche, as the company’s new CEO.  These corrective actions are likely to help the company deal with a terrible situation going forward.

But the company cannot change the past. If the company has done what it’s accused of doing here it would have required time, money, people and resources. The one thing the company cannot correct is the record.

2. Will the apology be believed?

Because the company is being judged on a pattern of behavior in this case, and not just an isolated instance or an unexpected mistake, the very credibility of the company and its leadership is at stake. This raises questions about how the organization thinks, the way it operates, its core values and reputation. When that happens, the company’s institutional brand is in a precarious position, and an apology can only accomplish so much.

Aside from the serious legal and financial ramifications, this adds up to a crisis of credibility where the company is perceived to have intentionally violated a sacred trust between it and its stakeholders.

This is not to say the company should not apologize, but the worst thing any company can do is to build an apology around empty words and promises.

3. Is now the time to apologize?

Ultimately, timing is everything. If your organization gets out ahead and announces a series of corrective actions and apologizes, that apology is more likely to have some credibility. Or if the company waits until all of the dust settles and lays out a concrete plan of action that ensures that such malfeasance never occurs again, the accompanying apology may mean more.

But if your organization is exposed by a third party for doing something, or not doing something, and the facts are only now coming to light, the timing may not be good.

Certainly it is a time to communicate, to be transparent, and to let your stakeholders know you are committed to turning things around. But it could be best to apologize after you have a clear sense of the operating landscape and the impact of events on the company, its stakeholders and its ability to operate going forward.

Apologies in themselves almost never make a dent in a reputational crisis. They must be accompanied by corrective actions, a spirit of meaningful intent, and they must be delivered at the right time. In doing so, you can take the first step towards rebuilding any trust that may have been lost.