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.

The Night a Future Star Brought Down the House in South Park

Cowboy HatIt was a Friday night a good number of years ago. My wife and I went to one of the free concerts as part of the South Park Summer Concert Series. We joined my brother-in-law and sister-in-law that night.

The weather was nice, the crowd was decent in terms of size. We had brought our coolers, and sat in our lawn chairs enjoying the summer night.

I forget who the opening act was, but it was great background music for our conversation. That’s usually how we feel, particularly if we don’t know the headline act. We sit far enough back to talk and hear each other.

So, after the opening act finished, there was a longer-than-usual break between bands.

A relatively unknown country artist was supposed to come next. My wife and I like country music, and we had heard of this guy but not much.

A county parks staffer walked up to the mic and told the crowd that the next act was in transit. He had trouble with flights, and if my memory serves me, we were told he wasn’t even on the ground in Pittsburgh yet.  But we were assured, he is on his way and he will perform as soon as he gets here.

With that, close to half the crowd packed up and quietly made their way to their cars.

It was around 8 p.m. on a nice summer night, so we stayed. We were having enough of a good time that we didn’t really notice how much time had passed, but after a few updates from a conscientious county parks employee on the stage, the main event arrived in a couple of those buses performers use.

Not long after that, the country singer took the stage to sound check. After about as genuine an apology and explanation as you would expect from a young country singer, he tested all the equipment as he normally would do in rehearsal right in front of his audience.  Still, he didn’t waste any time.

Soon, he started singing, and playing, and talking, and then rocking the place. Throughout it all, he kept reminding the people who stuck around, he was going to give them more than they bargained for.

Since admission was free, that part was a low bar, but that didn’t matter to him. He played fast songs that got people dancing. He played ballads.  He mixed it up and kept it up, and just kept playing.  Clearly he was determined to make it up to his audience.

He played at least one encore, but I want to say two. And before he left the stage he made everyone of  us feel we just saw one of the best country concerts we may ever have seen, free or not.

Normally, these events wrap up around 9:30 p.m., but as we made our way back to our car near midnight, we couldn’t stop talking about how great a performer this guy was, and what a nice guy he seemed to be.  And we were definitely glad we stuck around to see his show.

The singer was Kenny Chesney. Kenny comes to Pittsburgh this weekend.  Let’s hope it’s another great day for him and for Pittsburgh.

The PR lesson: Always do more. People won’t forget.

Make Sure Your Communications Program Isn’t Flying Blind

O’Brien Communications now has a YouTube channel.  This is part of our effort to broaden our platform for communication and to leverage video as it gains traction with the continued explosion of mobile.

The video below, at just over one minute in length, is one of the first we’ve produced for YouTube.  In this installment, we cover the basics of a communications health check-up, or communications audit.  It will help make sure you’re communications program is not flying blind.

Check out this and other videos like it on our YouTube channel.  And if you have any questions about this, or ideas for future topics, just let us know!


When a Crisis Hits You Can’t Rely on a Template


As with any professional discipline, the way crisis communications is practiced can follow different approaches, or different schools of thought. This is particularly the case when it comes to crisis communications planning.

Just recently, I told a group of college students an old story for me of how I once had to rewrite a crisis communications plan where there was so much tutorial information up front that its Table of Contents appeared on page 36!

As a point of reference, imagine if the emergency manual at a power plant was equally packed with background information, so that when an accident occurs, the emergency responders would have to plow through 36 pages of background before they could even tell what was in the plan.

This is rare, of course, but it was a sign of things to come.

This old crisis communications plan had something in common with so many others, though, which was that it was also dense with volumes of hypothetical press releases and statements. There was a template news release in the event of workplace violence, another one in the event of a flood impacting operations, and another in the event of a product recall.

That’s a school of thought that persists.

For some organizations such template documents give them a sense of comfort that they feel they have thoroughly anticipated every possibility and are prepared. This can be a false sense of security, to be sure. Yes, the effort to think through and develop all of this content is often distracting and wasteful of time, money and resources. But perhaps worst of all, organizations can tend to feel so burdened by the crisis communications planning process that managers look for every excuse not to participate, which can have a direct impact on the organization’s readiness when a crisis hits.

The truth is, you cannot anticipate every possible crisis situation in advance to the point where you can write a passable first draft of a news release. Once the crisis happens, there are usually so many distinguishing factors tied to time, place and the people affected, among other things, that you have to start all over. If the template release is helpful at all, it may be in the first five minutes of the crisis, and after that, the many hours spent on developing, editing and approving it are quickly devalued.

What then matters is that a solid communicator be in the loop directing that part of the crisis response process. That there is a team involved in information-gathering and strategic planning and response. That a reliable spokesperson has been designated to assure the organization speaks with one voice.  And that an organizational commitment is made to responsible communication and accountability.

Just as with anything done right, it just can’t be handled with a template. Rather, the sense of security has to come from knowing there is a quick-start process in place, that the organization is practiced in it, that it’s tied to the way the organization already works and makes decisions, and that good people are involved in the crisis plan’s implementation.

Hollywood’s Dangerous Assumptions about People with Disabilities

You could say I have a certain empathy for people with disabilities. That’s why, based on some of the publicity surrounding the movie “You Before Me,” I think this is one I will not see.

The film centers on a young man who is a quadriplegic as the result of an accident, effectively ending life as he knew it. In his new life, he takes on a caregiver, and in true Hollywood style, they fall in love.

It’s not much of a spoiler when the trailer of the movie and all of its pre-publicity lead us to the ending. Apparently, the disabled young man has to decide if he will live for his love or commit suicide.  His newfound love has a decision to make.  She can convince him that life is worth living, or she can support his state of mind that life is not worth living due to his disability and help him end it all.  We can guess how it ends.

News reports are that that some of the able-bodied movie critics walked out of the screening crying, moved by the gloominess of it all.

That’s a summary of what I know based on the coverage and reviews I’ve seen, and for me that’s enough. Enough to determine that I don’t want to see this movie because I just don’t find the subject matter entertaining (even if it is billed a romantic comedy, which it is). But perhaps even more importantly, I don’t like the message it sends or the dangerous assumptions it makes.

At the core of this film is the question: Is life worth living if it is sometimes far less than perfect?

For most of us, there’s something inside that responds adamantly, “Yes!” It’s called our survival mechanism.  But some with disabilities may be on the fence.

I’d hate to think of what might happen if a few with disabilities watched a film like this, and in some way it helped them suppress their own survival instincts.

This is not to say that all entertainment should be hopelessly idealistic. But the coverage surrounding this film and others like it indicates that Hollywood is well along the path of embracing, if not pushing a worldview that undermines the very core of all of the systems, programs and support infrastructure that serves millions of people who have some sort of disability.

It tells them, their lives are not as valuable as others. That they and the world might be better off if they were not here. Perhaps more scarily, that those closest to them would be better of if they were not here.  That is some serious stuff. To be sure, it’s not entertaining. It’s not escapism, and it’s not hypothetical.

In the public relations profession, at some point we have to decide if we can support a message on a personal level, and if we cannot then we cannot do the PR project justice.

Often as not, our criteria is based on our own personal concerns and values. Will our work support delivery of a message that is beneficial to or harmful to society?  For this reason, not only could I not watch this movie, but I’d not take an assignment that would endorse the philosophical basis for a movie like this.

Instead, I prefer the uplifting statement made by the very real and not fictional Katie Breland on her wedding day. She is paralyzed, but she made a much different choice than the make-believe characters in a novel or a movie. Her story may bring a tear to your eye, but I can assure you it will be a happy one.

For more information on Katie Breland’s story, please visit this link at the Today Show.

For more information on Katie’s trainer, and other unprecedented work he has done, visit Barwis Methods.

CrowdParenting & Digital Shaming: Lessons for PR

teenager in hoodieIt’s no longer that unusual to see a parent, at wit’s end, turn to the Internet or social media to make a point to a child. The latest is a case where a Florida father put his son’s car for sale on Craigslist after the father discovered his son was missing work and smoking pot in the car.

While not completely unheard of, stories like this are still rare enough to garner national headlines and go viral on social media. The narrative here is pretty predictable.  Thousands of fellow parents cheer on the dad for “taking a stand.”

On the flip side, the son is likely to have his own interpretation of events, and so will the boy’s friends, his wider social circle and others in his world.

From a parenting point of view, it’s valid to wonder whether such an extreme measure will have the desired effect or if it will backfire. In today’s social media climate, it’s feasible for a teenager to find himself at the center of a storm like this and come out with more notoriety and respect among his peers (more emboldened, not less) than before.

At the same time, events like this can have a long-term effect on the father-son relationship.

It’s these considerations that provide communications lessons for those of us who make a living in the business of public relations.

Any experienced and even semi-reasonable manager knows that public shaming can bring with it serious consequences. It can have a lasting effect on the employee or employees directly involved.  It can send a message to other employees that could create barriers to relationship-building.  Should this management style become known outside of the workplace, customers, vendors and others could make value judgements that are not to the benefit of the company.  Not to mention exposure to possible litigation.

That’s why we rarely see an employee made a spectacle in so obvious a fashion. That’s not to say shaming doesn’t happen in less obvious ways.

Let’s go with the concept of crowdsourcing. In the workplace, crowdsourcing is often used to spread work and responsibility across a larger swath of the work force to accomplish a task. The concept may not be new, but the trendiness of the term suggests the increased popularity of tapping an undefined “crowd” instead of trusting the individual or smaller team trained and assigned the specific responsibility to tackle a particular kind of challenge.

To be sure, crowdsourcing can be used very effectively under the right circumstances. Thanks to newer technologies and management tools, the concept of “two heads are better than one” can be scaled in power and effectiveness to unprecedented levels.  But as with anything, crowdsourcing can be a crutch for some managers.

Imagine a military commander telling a Special Forces unit to stand down in preparation for a critical search and rescue operation while they all wait for the results of a crowdsourcing effort before making any decisions.

In other words, when some managers turn to “the crowd,” they risk disenfranchising the very specialists or experts they’ve originally tabbed to maintain ongoing responsibility for dealing with certain issues.

The lesson for internal communicators and PR pros is not to automatically assume that the current trend towards asking the crowd to solve certain problems will not have lingering effects.

Just like the father who uses the Internet to make a point, a manager who instinctively turns to the crowd is likely to have work to do in mending some very important one-on-one relationships.

How Not to be “That Guy” with your Twitter Profile

2 wormen looking at phoneThe topic came up recently among a bunch of professional communicators and PR people, many of whom get paid quite a bit to help clients establish their social media presence.

The issue at hand was social media profiles and how “that guy” describes himself. The discussion centered on how some men and women get so self-absorbed in their personal branding efforts that they create profile descriptors that are more likely to turn people away than make visitors actually want to connect.

So, if your goal is for people to like you enough to want to follow you and connect, maybe even engage, here are some words, terms and phrases to avoid:

  • “Visionary” (Let others call you this, it backfires when you use this word to describe yourself.)
  • “Prophet” (Unless there’s a couple of pages in the bible devoted to you, it might be best to find another word.)
  • “Activist for humanity” (Humanity says, “thanks, but we’re good.”)
  • “Success addict” (There’s a cure for that, it’s called failure.)
  • “Passionate influencer” (aka “Smotherer.”)
  • “Mentor” (Let the people you mentor call you by this title, then it’s believable.)
  • “Charismatic leader” (This is a term reserved for the likes of JFK, MLK [in a positive way] and cult leaders [in a negative way]. Which one describes you? I know, probably none, which is why it’s best to avoid this.)
  • “Dream maker” (Most self-help books continue to describe dreams as our own to make, and make come true. We kind of know you don’t have the inside track on this so it’s not worth saying.)
  • “Futurist” (Unless you actually wrote a book on the future, you’re just like the rest of us when it comes to the future.)
  • “Wealth whisperer” (Wealth wants you to speak up. It can’t hear you.)

Perhaps the best approach is to find a concise way to describe yourself to someone who either knows you already or will come to know you warts and all. Then when you develop your profile for Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, just be true to yourself and them.