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.

PR Planning: What are Your Key Stories?

Public Relations, PittsburghNot long after I started working in a large PR firm, I had become a specialist in writing crisis communications plans. As part of that strategic planning process, we work through all of the things that could go wrong and put in place systems and processes designed to help organizations best plan for and respond to the full range of crises in the hope of averting or minimizing the impact.

Soon enough, I began to think about one of the worst crises that could happen to me on a personal level – that would be to get “downsized.”

So, I went about creating a crisis communications plan for myself and young family. The plan, based on what I had seen others go through, was to have in place a mechanism to never be unemployed.  Or more to the point, I wanted to have a system in place for being a self-employed communications consultant from day one, even if the decision to be self-employed was not entirely my own.

Fortunately, I was promoted and achieved PR career success from that point on, but the seeds of the idea of running my own public relations firm took root. Eventually, I was able to voluntarily and with purpose, start O’Brien Communications as a corporate communications consultancy. My crisis communications plan had evolved into a business plan, which became a course of action.

That’s my PR firm’s story. It’s key to me and anyone who wants to know how serious I am about serving clients.

I told you this because I wanted to practice what I’m about to preach.

Stories are more powerful and effective than simple key messages. Yes, any time we formulate a public relations program, we should create key messages and build our communications around our key messages. That, in fact, is where our stories should be rooted.

But it’s through the telling of stories where we connect with people. It’s where our audiences find common ground and common understanding.  It’s where they identify ways to relate to us and subsequently believe us.

For this reason, I’d advise that in planning your next public relations program, don’t just come up with a list of key messages designed to fit within the 40-second sound bite format of most TV news operations. Go one step further, and attach a story to each key message so that when given the chance, you can breathe life into those key messages and make the strongest connections possible.

The Personal Touch May be Making a Comeback in PR

Coffee - Face to FaceI had a conversation with a recent graduate I know who is working on a project that involves no small amout of public relations, marketing and promotional work. As you might expect, he gained a lot of traction from the start using social media sites that included Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

It was amazing to see how creative he was at leveraging the power of the many apps he used, much of which was done on nothing more than his smart phone.

He built a quick following for the project, and then things sort of froze. He had all of these people commenting digitally to him, giving him valuable feedback.  His brand was getting out there, but something was missing. The connection wasn’t complete. In spite of the presence of an ecommerce platform, sales weren’t being made.

Then he started getting out in the community, himself, and meeting people face-to-face. He went to events.  He networked.  He scheduled one-on-one meetings, not only with prospective customers, but also with vendors, suppliers, allied professionals and, for lack of a better term, influencers.

Things changed … for the better.

He recounted all of this to me, and with a look of amazement, he told me of the “importance of meetings” as though the power of face-to-face was something new, saying it was something he had not fully appreciated.

The PR lesson: Don’t underestimate the power of face-to-face communication. It appears to be making a comeback.

Beware of “Digital PR” Specialists when You Really Need PR Help

First rule of business For the past 20 or so years, I’ve used the Internet extensively in my work. For the past 10 years or so, social media has become integral to what I do for clients and in my profession. If you count the hours I spend on these platforms, you’d think I should have earned expert status by now, but I don’t go there.

When a client has a complex social media or digital issue, I can honestly say that I know what I don’t know. That means that I know when to bring in a strategic partner to complement my core competencies.  Yes, I can pretty quickly assess a situation, including the full range of digital ones, to determine the impact or potential impact on a client.  That tells me enough to know when I can handle it, and when it may make more sense to bring in someone better trained to address that part of the situation.

For this reason, O’Brien Communications stays true to its focus as a corporate communications firm, which is to say, if you can imagine having a senior level communications pro with a particular skillset at your disposal, that’s me. And when you need design, research, SEO and other types of service, I can form a team pretty quickly.

This all brings me to a relatively new communications animal that all too often doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know. I’m talking about the “digital PR” pro.

I’m not talking about the pro with a true public relations background and has developed a strong digital PR capability. I’m talking about the ad writer or content creator who has an advertising or SEO background who now says he or she can do PR.

The operative word is “digital.” It’s quite likely that when you meet with someone who calls himself or herself a digital PR pro, the focus and true area of strength is digital.  That individual will likely give you great advice on search engine optimization (SEO), key words, which tools to use to measure and institute a comprehensive online program, and how to assess and maximize your online budget.

Second rule of businessWhat you won’t always get is good advice on the larger PR strategies and tactics that you may require, even if they do involve digital. Case in point, news releases.

Today, digital distribution of news releases is the norm. A well-rounded PR pro will tell you that news releases serve multiple purposes, from adhering to disclosure requirements from the Securities Exchange Commission, to providing a communications messaging platform for other communications initiatives.  While every news release should be newsworthy, the process for creating each news release usually aids everything from internal communications to analyst outreach.  In other words, a good PR pro knows that news releases serve multiple internal and external purposes, and that not every news release is designed to appeal to a national consumer audience on the front page of USA Today or land a spot on Good Morning America.

All too often, however, digital PR pros are likely to shun news releases when they are not capable of seeing beyond the limited consumer newsworthiness of those releases. They see development of a news release as an either-or, mutually exclusive decision, preferring instead to recommend blog posts and Facebook posts.   In some circumstances, that ignores the larger process at work.

When you meet someone who self-describes as a digital PR specialist, do not accept on face value that this individual is capable of helping you in a crisis, in an issues management situation, or in many other more routine communications scenarios.

Ironically, a digital pro is probably most dangerous in an area where he or she actually has a track record of some success, like publicity. It’s not uncommon for someone who is a whiz at Twitter and Facebook to rack up a media placement or two.  It’s quite common for digital PR pros to think, based on some success, they know more than they do and that PR is easier than it looks.  This can lead to mistakes of overconfidence rooted in lack of more full PR experience.

Here is a short list of areas where digital PR pros are not likely to be a good fit and why:

Public Relations – A digital pro is likely to see PR only as publicity or media relations under the marketing umbrella.  This can be a mistake.  Individuals who do this often believe that the attention that comes with publicity is a cure-all to business problems which perhaps cannot or should not be addressed through PR.  This can break the bank in terms of time and money without ever making a dent in the problem.

Crisis Communications – We see it every day.  A tweet or Facebook post gets taken out of context (or perhaps not), and backlash ensues.  An organization finds itself at the center of a minor or major controversy.  So, the organization turns to the digital pro to fix it, since that is where the problem started.  It should come as no surprise that the digital pro is likely to try to recommend more digital tactics to fix the problem, either through hasty online apologies, explanations, or other communications that only dig a deeper digital hole.  An experienced crisis communicator is likely to come in and force everyone to take a step back and breathe before taking any further actions.

Corporate Communications – In corporate communications, we cover everything from earnings disclosures and annual reports, to speechwriting for CEOs and executive visibility.  All of this tends to be very strategic and should be in line with the organization’s larger business strategies that may include marketing but are not driven by marketing.

This is where the digital PR pro can be a fish out of water. If he or she sees PR primarily as marketing, just about everything within the corporate communications discipline is foreign.  So, instead of doing what more experienced pros do (defer to someone with specialized capabilities), they all too often try to do it themselves, and can end up providing some very misguided marketing advice masquerading as corporate communications.  Make sure you get corporate communications counsel from someone who’s been in the board room on similar issues.

Probably the best advice is simply to read the bio of the person who represents himself or herself as a digital PR pro. Look to see if they are accredited or certified by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). Find out if prior to this job he or she had any broad public relations experience or training beyond digital.

A red flag to watch for centers on whether the digital pro has come up through the ranks in digital design or advertising with no PR training. Just because someone once wrote content for Web sites does not mean that person understands how to create and implement the kind of comprehensive PR program you need.

If you’d like to talk about this, please feel free to get in touch.

CEOs: Get Political at Your Own Risk

Note Taking at EventA recent article in the Los Angeles Times featured the results of a Weber Shandwick study on the impact CEOs may have on their companies’ performance when they take public positions on political or controversial issues. The headline didn’t say it all, but it was pretty accurate: “CEOs are getting more political, but consumers aren’t buying it.”

Before getting into detail on the article and the study, it’s worth noting that no matter what a CEO does in terms of communication, there has to be a good business reason for doing it. Otherwise, the entire proposition is based on ego and not the principles of good business. It is also important to know that “doing the right thing” is never mutually exclusive from doing business the right way.

When an organization meshes social responsibility with other business initiatives, we call it corporate social responsibility. When marketing is driven by the same motivations, we sometimes call it cause-marketing.  But when a CEO builds a communications program around his or her own positions on issues, it can get personal and now emerges as “CEO activism.”

The Weber Shandwick Takeaways

Here’s what Weber Shandwick found:

  • 36% of consumers polled said they felt media attention was the primary reason some CEOs take public positions on political or social issues. According to the LA Times piece, the three most recognized CEOs who do this were Starbucks’s Howard Schultz, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and’s Marc Benioff.
  • 21% of those surveyed felt CEOs took public stands to build their own reputations.
  • 14% of the people questioned thought CEOs actually took public positions did so to “do what is right for society.”
  • 40% of survey participants said they were more inclined to buy something from a company if they agreed with the CEO’s views.
  • 45% of those questioned responded that they are less likely to make purchases from CEOs if they disagree with the sentiments.

The Weber Shandwick study polled 1,027 adults.

Lessons for Other CEOs and Companies

The questions a CEO of any company needs to ask when considering taking a public position on a political or controversial issue are:

  • What is the risk to sales?
  • What is the risk to existing and potential customer relationships?
  • Will not weighing in on the issue cost my business?
  • Is my position on the issue in sync with those of my customers, clients and other important stakeholders?
  • Do I and my organization have credibility on the issue? Or, put more bluntly, is this any of my business?
  • What do I have to gain?
  • What do I have to lose?
  • And perhaps, most importantly, is my position really the only way to go, or is it just one side of an issue … just my opinion?

The last question gets to the core of it. Controversies and political issues by nature can be polarizing. When a CEO takes a strong position on an issue, it can be assumed to alienate up to half or more of a company’s employees, customers, vendors and other stakeholders.

How Should a CEO Use the “Bully Pulpit?”

Then there is the issue of the “bully pulpit.” This goes beyond simply trying to appeal to employees or risk alienating them.  President Theodore Roosevelt used the term to describe how he used his position of power as president to push his agenda.

Power comes in three parts: compensatory, conditioning, and condign. A CEO has all three at his disposal.  He can incentivize and reward those who agree with him through compensation.  He can condition those who work for him through a range of persuasive techniques. And he can punish those who disagree with him.  Employees at every level know this.

So the ultimate question becomes: Is advocating a particular position on an issue a wise use of a CEO’s leadership capital?

The question is inherently situation-specific, but there is no doubt that once a CEO does decide to venture into CEO activist waters, there is risk, and all too often there is no turning back.

If you have a specific question on this or would like to discuss, please feel free to get in touch.