Expertise.com Ranks O’Brien Communications One of the Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, PA, January 11, 2017Expertise.com has ranked O’Brien Communications one of the “Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh,” in its most recent rankings. According to the national web site, it reviewed 88 firms from throughout the Pittsburgh region and selected the top 14 for its rankings.

Expertise.com bases its selections on a survey of the field to “find every business that provides service in the city, and to filter out any that fail to meet our definition of an expert.” After that, the site uses software to grade each business on 25 variables across five criteria that include: reputation, credibility, experience, availability, and professionalism.

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; Communications Coaching, and Crisis & Issues Management. Clients have ranged from Fortune 500 corporations to nonprofits and emerging start-ups. For more information, call 412.854.8845 or email timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

It’s Thanksgiving! Time (again) to tell your family what you do in public relations

take-pr-off-the-menu

It’s that time of year when you get together with your family and catch up. You can smell the turkey cooking in the oven, the fireplace is roaring, and the football games are on the television.

Everyone’s doing their best to avoid those taboo dinner table topics (some more successful than others), and somewhere between that second helping of green bean casserole and the pumpkin pie, someone asks you once again, “So, tell me, what do you actually do in PR?”

We’ve all been there. Our families often hear us use words like “public relations,” “marketing,” “communications,” or other terms like “social media,” “digital,” and “integrated.”  They want to show an interest.  Maybe more accurately, they want to be interested.  Your mother may even produce the business card you gave her two employers ago to show you she’s always thinking of you.

Now it’s your turn. What do you say this time? How can you make it clear once and for all what you actually do for a living?

If such a question causes frustration for you, let’s take a step back and consider the questions that are really being asked. When a dear loved one asks you what you do, they don’t usually want to know what you really do in terms of tasks.  Here’s what they are really asking:

  • Are you happy in your work? Is it rewarding?
  • Is the stress of work having an effect on you?
  • Do you have time to enjoy life?
  • Is there a future at your current employer or in your field?
  • Is there a chance you could be laid off?

Then, of course, there may be a small bit of curiosity about how public relations people “get away” with making large sums for “typing on a computer.”

So here’s my recommendation.

So, when you get the inevitable question, don’t plunge into a description of tasks you do at work. Don’t use jargon like “digital content” or “market share.”  Don’t drop the names of famous people or well-known brands and companies you may cross paths with through your work.  All of that is a big turnoff and likely to get people to turn the sound down in their minds when your lips are moving.

Instead, try to package your response to answer the questions they are really asking. Let me offer a hypothetical example for your Thanksgiving “elevator speech” that (I’d like to think is true) may address the questions behind the Thanksgiving question, “What do you do in PR?”

“I love my work. Every day I’m always doing something new and meeting new people.  I like the people I work with.  I work with the media, and develop my skills with technology and writing talents.  It’s very rewarding.

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I work hard but have great friends and coworkers. We do things away from work together. I’m taking an art class just for fun, and I joined a gym to stay healthy and fresh.  I feel really great and have learned how to balance work and life.

My field is very exciting. Whether it’s with my current employer or somewhere else, I hear about opportunities all of the time.  Of course, you get out of it what you put into it, but I’m seeing progress.”

OK, I know. Some or all of that may not be true for you. But the point here is at the very least to know the questions behind the question and to answer those questions honestly and sincerely.

Also, I realize that this still does not get at how the field of PR works. Trust me.  I’m a veteran of many Thanksgivings.

Unless you want to clear the dinner table so you can conduct an impromptu Powerpoint presentation on the history of PR, starting with Edward Bernays, I’ve got another idea. When someone asks you, “What is PR?,” just say, “Pass the stuffing, please.”  Works every time.

As always, if you’d like to talk PR with someone who knows how it works, please let me know. I’d be happy to talk turkey.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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

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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.

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.

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.