You Want to Know How to Create a Powerful Key Message? Try this.


In my media training work, I once worked with a colleague who liked to handle the portion of the workshop on key messaging. That segment included classroom lecture followed by an independent exercise.

She would “click” to the Powerpoint slide that featured this question:

“What is the meaning of life?”

Then she would ask the group to spend a few minutes writing their own individual and personal answers to the question. She’d remind them, “There are no wrong answers. Please take a few minutes to think about this and after a break we’ll discuss your answers.”

Most of the time the break would start quietly as people would contemplate their answers. Sometimes a few stand up and get a cup of coffee or just stretch their legs, and they would talk to each other informally about the question, seemingly as a way to prep themselves for open discussion of such a personal topic.

After I saw my colleague do this in a few sessions, I learned to expect the same group behaviors every time.

When the break was over, group discussion would follow a round-robin format with volunteers reading from their notes. One might start with, “To me, the meaning of life is golf and sleeping in on Saturdays,” which  would predictably get a few laughs from the group.


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But pretty quickly, the tone would get serious, and some very simple and short concepts that had almost universal appeal and understanding would emerge:

“My family.”




Consistently, it didn’t take many words or much time for people to answer the question, and very rarely was there any confusion or self-doubt. Almost to a participant, there was tremendous conviction behind the words or sentences.

At the end of the exercise, my colleague would tell the group that what they just did was come up with their own key messages. Then she would tell them what makes for a powerful key message.

If I may paraphrase my colleague, she would tell the group that good key messages are simple, clear and direct. They represent universal qualities that targeted audiences readily understand and appreciate.

She is no longer with us, but if my colleague were here, I know she’d add that a good key message is credible and believable because it isn’t just a set of words, at its core it’s honesty.

Let me know if you’d like to talk about key messaging.

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

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

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

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

– Nathan B.

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

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

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

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

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

– Jennifer K.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1. Why are we doing this?

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

#2. What are we trying to achieve?

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

 #3. Who are we trying to reach?

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

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

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

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


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

#6. Is the information we receive accurate?

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

#7. Is the information we are sending accurate?

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

#8.  Is this the right time?

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

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

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

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


Every Press Conference Disaster Has a Point of No Return

preventing-a-pr-disasterAnyone who has run public relations for an organization will tell you that there is always a point of no return for any press conference disaster. Usually it happens sometime in advance of the actual day of the press conference.  That point of no return is what immediately comes to mind when you are five minutes from the start and in front of you is a room full of empty seats.

Call it a flashback if you will, but you stand there and your mind replays the moment of clarity when you were given every possible warning that this just wasn’t going to work out.

Perhaps the most common example goes something like this. You’re going about the business of providing excellent public relations support for your organization, and you are called into a management meeting.

Your boss tells you that you’re going to organize a press conference – not asks you if a press conference is the right approach, but more like, “We’ve got this new thing and we’re having a press conference.  It’s going to be on this day, because that’s when I get back from the West Coast.  Go over the details with Pete here, I’ve got another meeting to attend.”

Yes, the good old point of no return. Your press conference disaster awaits.  Had the head honcho asked you for your opinion before making his decision you might have gone over some of these questions:

  • Is the subject of this news conference newsworthy outside of our organization?
  • What makes it new, interesting, relevant and timely?
  • Is this a broadcast story? Meaning, is it visual, is it something the general broadcast audience cares about? Or is it more of a business story? (Read: We can do this just as well by phone.)
  • Can we get the same results without a press conference?
  • Does this story absolutely require that a reporter sacrifice a half-day or more just to attend the press conference, and then the rest of the day to write the story?

Of course, there are many other questions to cover, but they all point to the fundamental issue of whether a press conference is warranted.


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The challenge for most public relations chiefs is not to appear as a naysayer when the organization wants to have a news conference. Usually, when the organization gets behind a media relations initiative, that’s inspiration in itself.  But this kind of enthusiasm needs to be managed, to be sure.

The right balance involves not automatically rejecting the idea of a press conference, while trying to engage in a dialogue on whether the PR tactic is the most effective approach.

Two of the more common myths around press conferences is that they in-and-of-themselves generate news. They don’t.  Or that the media prefers to get its information in large-group settings.  Usually they don’t.

Here are some realities the organization needs to understand about the media:

  • Newsrooms are shrinking. That means there are fewer and fewer reporters to go around. Most news organizations require journalists to work on two or more stories per day, which means losing just one reporter to attend a press conference will likely going to drain the newsroom of a valuable resource. Unless you’re coming out with the next iteration of the iPhone, don’t assume the media will make that reporter available.
  • That said, technology does help lean newsroom staffs to gather news more productively. They can conduct interviews by phone, by email, and by video conference. For live press conferences they may prefer to listen from their desks via dial-in access. If you have a press event planned, don’t forget to provide live remote access, which can include audio and video.
  • Still, the optics of empty seats are never good. The best way to assure attendance at your news conference is to consider the following:
    • What visuals can we provide? Do we have any products to show or demonstrate? Can we go on location with the story? Will the background provide a visual to help tell the story?
    • Can we get all of our expert resources in one place at one time?
    • Would it make sense to have the press conference in a location where the media is already on hand like an industry event or trade show?

When There’s Still Time to Change Plans


Click on graphic to enlarge.

If, by chance, you have not yet reached that point of no return, here are some other questions to consider going over with top decision-makers:

  • Is the news we’re announcing something already likely to generate a good deal of media interest without a news conference? If so, the chances of media attendance go up significantly.
  • Logistically, will we have trouble responding to reporters on a one-on-one basis? This suggests demand is inherent and attendance is likely.
  • How accessible are our subject matter experts or spokespersons? The unusual nature of having all SMEs together could be a draw, but it’s important to be realistic about whether this is newsworthy.

If the answers to these questions suggest that having a press conference is not required and there could be a better way, keep these alternatives at the ready:

  • Of course, the standard tools of the media relations trade are press releases and telephone interviews. This is assumed, but usually only a starting point.
  • Depending on the nature of the news, you can offer “test-drives” of the new product, technology or service. Some journalists actually prefer immersive reporting.
  • Consider informal media briefings or site tours, which can be one-on-one or with small groups. Instead of a formal press conference, your spokesperson could meets in a round-table format with selected reporters.

Regardless of whether the decision to have a press conference is within or beyond your control, the one thing you can do is manage expectations. From the very beginning, take care not to over-promise or guarantee media attendance or outcomes.  Keep the focus on your process for giving the organization its best chance at coverage.   And then make it clear that you and your team are doing everything possible to assure the most positive outcome.

If you have any questions about media relations, or any additional thoughts to add, let me know.

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.

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.