Communications Inbox: How to Start a Solo Practice; When to Communicate During a Crisis

shutterstock_52853291-questionsWithout any encouragement in recent weeks I’ve gotten some questions via email from some people who’ve become regular readers of this blog (Thanks!).   The questions have ranged from how to start a solo practice, to how to structure a business plan.

With that in mind, and with the permission of the questioners, I thought I’d pick two of those questions and respond to them on this blog. Should you have a question you may want to see addressed in this space, just let me know. From time to time, I will feature them here.

Question #1: I’m presently working in the corporate department of a large firm.  I have no agency experience.  What steps should I take if I want to start my own solo practice?

– Nathan B.

Response:  Nathan, this is one of the more common questions I get from people in the PR field, mostly due to the fact that my business has been established for 15 years and I have a monthly column in PRSA’s Tactics called State of Independence.

The main thing I’d tell you to do is to create a thorough and detailed business plan. There are many books on the subject, and many good articles to be found online. It’s not as important that you follow any one structure over another. What’s important is that you find one that suits you, and that it is exhaustive in its detail.

Chances are you will encounter several points in the process of creating a business plan where you don’t have the answers. Take that as a sign you need to do more homework, or in some cases, get more experience. If you have agency experience, the transition to starting your own solo practice will be a little easier because you should be already familiar with the business development and administrative processes that work behind the scenes to create a structure for effective client service.

But until you’ve actually started your business, it’s very difficult to imagine the difference between self-employment and working for someone else in an agency or another kind of organization.  The process for creating a sound business plan is probably one of the most significant steps you can take to determine if starting an independent practice is right for you.

Question #2: There have been times when smaller crises have occurred within my organization and my supervisor was reluctant to communicate. His position was to wait to see how people would react before communicating. Is that the best approach? 

– Jennifer K.

Response: No. Usually, when you wait for the worst, you increase the chances that the worst will happen because you’re surrendering control to others and circumstance.  In any crisis, the first and most important thing to do is gain a clear and accurate assessment of the damage and potential damage to the organization’s reputation.


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That means doing your own internal reporting and identifying potential vulnerabilities, not only to the organization’s reputation, but to the organization itself.  Waiting to do this or to plan a crisis response can lead to operational problems that can hinder the organization’s ability to function at its best.

Once you have an idea of how big the crisis is or what could happen in a worst-case scenario, the next step is to prepare. Draft strategy documents, identify crisis team members, and begin to draft the full suite of documents and materials you may need should the crisis unfold.  Make sure your channels are in place for communicating to all important stakeholders. This includes conventional means and digital.

This kind of preparation is invaluable even when organizational leadership is reluctant at the moment to communicate on the issue.  No one will complain if you are prepared when the time comes to mobilize and communicate.

Strategically, the reason it’s best not to wait is that when you do, you give others a chance to shape the story for you, and the way they shape it may not be in your best interest. It may be inaccurate, irresponsible, or it may be agenda-driven, such as when a competitor spreads rumors or gossip.

If you have a question you’d like to see featured here, please let us know.

Wish You Were Here: The Media Panel Luncheon in 3 Minutes

lets-talk-about-youIf you’re on any of the lists I’m on, chances are you get an invitation every couple of months to some public relations event where the featured speaker is actually a panel of reporters and editors. The premise of the event is usually for the public relations professionals in the room to get some tough love from journalists so they can do better at their jobs.

This idea has tremendous potential, but in the time I’ve spent in both the news and public relations business, I can’t remember anyone hosting an event where a group of journalists sat in the audience so that a panel of public relations pros could bash them, but that’s beside the point.

Rather, the focus here is on the public relations industry’s tradition of hosting these kinds of events and how unfortunately predictable they can be. I had written about the “dreaded media luncheon” years ago and continue to contend that PR people endure this sort of thing mostly because they want to ingratiate themselves with the journalists in the room.  My main reason for believing this is if you are already in PR, you have countless opportunities in your day to talk to reporters and learn first-hand what reporters want and need from us.

If you’ve never been to one of these events, here’s what to expect:

  • The majority in the audience will be public relations pros with five years’ experience or less, with most having never stepped foot in an actual news room, and not that many who actually consume substantive news content for pleasure. Many in the audience typically view the media panel at the front of the room as a curiosity.
  • Some PR professionals only attend to use the post-remarks period to walk up to individual reporters to pitch stories or commence relationships to serve as the foundation for pitching future stories. These attendees often don’t listen to a word during the formal discussion.  You can spot them with their heads pointed down toward their smart phones.
  • The reporters who participate usually do so because they really want to impart words of wisdom on the PR profession, or they may just be flattered for the invitation to speak, or they know their news organizations could downsize any day and this is a good way to network if a quick transition into public relations is necessary.

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Once the discussion starts, you may well hear journalists say:

  • “You people in public relations don’t know our beats, our deadlines and you don’t even read our content or study our work before you email, text, tweet, and on rare occasions call.”
  • “We really don’t need you for story ideas, we just need the subject matter experts you provide.”
  • “Don’t call me in the morning, evening on weekends, or during the work day when I am on deadline.”
  • “That said, you need to make sure you’re there when I call in the morning, evening, on weekends or during the work day.”
  • “Make sure your press releases are newsworthy, have reliable information, and are accurate.”

Do the journalists have a point? In a sense they do, but in a larger sense, there is much about public relations they don’t understand and that can make some of what they say sound very one-dimensional and sometimes misguided.

Reporters are too often right when it’s obvious to them some PR person doesn’t even know what the reporter covers. This has as much to do with the PR industry’s pattern of assigning recent college graduates to media relations duties with little training.

But the one thing many of these reporters underestimate is how much they rely already on public relations professionals, not only as direct sources for information, but even indirectly in story formation. The casual conversations we have with reporters, our pitches, and many of the things we do behind the scenes on our end (i.e. spokesperson training and coaching) usually work to give the reporter a better product in ways they don’t even see.

I would never discourage anyone from attending a media panel luncheon, but if you go, take what you hear with a grain of salt.

The one thing too many public relations practitioners check at the door is the understanding that if reporters base their perceptions of PR only on their interactions with us, they’re not getting the full story.  We can’t lose sight that many journalists assume public relations exists to serve the media and nothing more. This means some media panelists likely only know a fraction of what we do and how our profession functions.

The trick is to listen to everything that’s said with a critical ear and not to accept everything discussed on face value.

If you’d like to discuss this, just let me know.

Reputation Savers: 8 Incredibly Simple Questions to Answer Before Every Communication

think-before-you-clickIt doesn’t matter whether it’s a multi-million-dollar communications campaign or a single tweet, a professional communicator should know the answers to these 8 questions before touching that keyboard, mouse or computer screen:

#1. Why are we doing this?

If you don’t know why you are communicating, there is a good chance you will miss the mark in any number of ways. Know why you are communicating. Know what in the world can be made better through your communication and how that communication will make a difference. Otherwise, you’re probably talking to yourself.

#2. What are we trying to achieve?

What are the specific goals and objectives of the communication? For any communication to be effective, it must have an objective. All communication is designed to inform or educate, entertain, or persuade. But it should go deeper than that. You should know specifically why you are trying to connect with someone, and why that targeted audience matters.

 #3. Who are we trying to reach?

In the communications business, we often call them our targeted audiences or stakeholders. They are the people with whom we are trying to reach, connect with, educate or inform, entertain or persuade. All real communication is two-way, and as such, knowing as much as we can about who we are trying to reach and why is critical.

#4. What do we want them to do or think?

Whether the goal is to educate, inform or persuade, we should have a clear vision of how we want the targeted audience to react to the communication. Knowing this from the outset helps shape the message and helps determine the best way to time and deliver that message. Without a clear idea of the desired effect of communication it will fall flat.

#5.  Is it right or responsible that we are doing this?


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Ethics. Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing it the right way? Do we have the appropriate credibility on the issue? These are just a few of the sub-questions that only we can answer before communicating. Since each case can be so unique, the key is to have a guiding set of values, principles and a code of ethics, not to mention a set of best practices. Not having any one of these things can lead to crises of credibility and not only a failure of the communications effort, but ultimately damage to your reputation and that of the organization.

#6. Is the information we receive accurate?

In today’s digital environment, it’s extremely common for many to receive un-vetted information and to share it without verification or to comment on it as though it’s fact. Very often, this information is inaccurate, misleading or wrong. It’s the equivalent of spreading rumors and gossip. Accepting the premise on face value of the information we receive is quite often the first major step towards disaster. Even if it’s “just” a social media share or post, make sure that the information or claims you are required to address are accurate and credible before you base any of your own presumptions and communication on it.  In other words, check it out before accepting it as fact.

#7. Is the information we are sending accurate?

Honesty isn’t just telling the truth. To borrow from a common term used in courtrooms, it’s “telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” More to the point, it’s assumed that in any human interaction you have a good faith obligation to be honest. This is often based on the accuracy of the information you share. When you engage in partial truths or untruths, you lay an unstable foundation and risk alienation of those most important to you. This is not to say anyone has an obligation to share proprietary or confidential information, or that others have a right to know everything about a particular person or organization. Without question, everyone should expect a certain right to privacy. This must be balanced against the need for accountability. When organizations communicate, accuracy goes beyond literal meanings and into intentions, which should be forthright.

#8.  Is this the right time?

“Timing is everything,” we all know, right? But when it comes to communications that’s an understatement. You can say all the right things to all the right people, but poor timing can create perceptions of insincerity or even callousness.  For example, you may have a great idea to boost employee morale after a round of layoffs, but the day after the downsizing is not the right time to announce much of anything.  That’s a mourning period, believe it or not, and no time to have a pep rally.

Or, let’s say a beloved celebrity died last night.  It’s probably not a good idea to flood your Twitter feed with gratuitous “tributes” that come off as thinly veiled marketing tactics.  Choose your timing carefully.

Anyone can think through these 8 questions in a very short span before engaging in every communications activity, from a simple social media post to the process to plan and implement a major communication initiative.

If you would like to receive future newsletters, articles and updates from O’Brien Communications, or  go over some questions of your own one-on-one, please let me know.


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.