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Does emotion have a place in PR?

This post was first published in InDaily on 9 March 2016

Where does emotion feature in a corporate crisis?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself recently, following Unley Council’s parking fees stoush with the Transport Department and reactions to food writer John Lethlean’s Hill of Grace review.

Emotion: photo thanks to http://gratisography.com/PR lore would have us ‘keep calm and carry on’ but sometimes emotion is appropriate and valuable. After all, it’s real.

Unley Mayor Lachlan Clyne and Transport Minister Stephen Mullighan were at forceful odds with each other on air 891 Adelaide’s Breakfast on Monday. They recounted quite different stories about the council’s move to charge parking fees near a tram stop. Mayor Clyne sounded outraged and exasperated. He spoke loudly. There was no doubting the frustration in his voice. He and the Minister regularly spoke over the top of each other (so much so, that 891’s Ali Clarke later remarked “I feel like it feels to be a kid watching Mum and Dad fight”).

This was quite a contrast to the mild voices we’re used to. Our media is usually filled with spokespeople who speak in controlled, measured key phrases. It seems nothing can rattle them. They don’t raise their voices and they certainly don’t sound like they’re about to slam doors or tear up their briefing papers.

So, are loud voices a bad thing? Not necessarily.

Does emotion have a place in PR and issues management? Sometimes.

Emotion and passion can convey a point of view more swiftly and unequivocally than any thrice-drafted key message. Loud voices certainly make us sit up and pay attention, provided they don’t become the white noise of a Jerry Springer Show.

Emotion and passion can also garner respect.

In responding to Lethlean’s nil-star review, the restaurant Hill of Grace had many options available to it. One can imagine that emotions ran high behind-the-scenes – but how to respond publicly? Adelaide Oval Stadium Management Authority CEO Andrew Daniels sounded calm but forthright in interviews I heard. There was no quivering anger – and indeed in this case, how would that fly? It can be a fruitless exercise to become emotional over a review, casting you as thin-skinned and immature (ping Lawrence Mooney).

What the two stories have in common is this: the staff.

In both cases, the employees involved may have been hurt, confused, shocked and angry.

Mayor Clyne was essentially defending Unley Council staff, the processes they use and their capabilities. Minister Mullighan was likewise defending the capabilities and professionalism of the people working in his department.

Andrew Daniels was speaking on behalf of restaurant staff that I imagine were quite wounded and shell-shocked by a review that couldn’t even give them half a star for showing up.

In PR, your audiences are many.

They are not always the public, your customers or rate payers. They are not always the media.

Often, the employees are the most important audience. They listen to everything you say, they trust that you will fly the flag for them, and the tone set and messages shared by a spokesperson can dictate their next steps. Let them down, and they let you know it – by grumbling around the watercooler, contradicting your statements in public, even eventual resignation.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve sends a candid message during media interviews – and makes a clear statement to those tuned in via the staff kitchen.

 

 

 

Michelle Prak

michelle@prakky.com.au

PR consultant, President PRIA SA

PR consultant or in-house PR manager? A look at the pros and cons

Public relations professionals work in all sorts of environments and working arrangements, and that includes external ‘consultants for hire’ or in-house, long term employees. There are pros and cons to each approach and this is a topic often discussed during university PR studies to help students ponder their future direction. I’ve worked in both roles and as a current PR consultant with her own business, I’ll try not to be biased when sharing the following lists …

Reasons for hiring a PR consultant

An external consultant can provide you with:

  1. Unbiased advice and a different perspective because they will not necessarily adhere to in-house loyalties or cliques. An external consultant may not feel the same pressure to follow management direction, rather, they will feel compelled to provide a recommendation for the best possible course of action; an alternative point of view; and to play the ‘devil’s advocate’ role so valuable to PR.
  2. Creativity and lateral thinking, particularly if they work for clients from a variety of sectors who demand different approaches, varying content styles and adaptability to different audiences. This type of PR consultant isn’t easily stuck in a rut, and the ideas they bring to one client may spark something wonderful (not duplicated) for you.
  3. Economic benefits – rather than having a fulltime person on your books every day of the week, it may be beneficial to have an external consultant charging only for those hours you require PR support. This can be particularly important to organisations, particularly in the government sector, which are conscious of how many FTEs they have on their books.
  4. A speciality. Organisations often hire a PR consultant because there are some corporate communications skills lacking in-house. For example, you may require an events specialist to launch a new product or open a new premises; you may require a crisis communications specialist quite unexpectedly. You may seek a PR consultant who’s known for having great contacts in a particular trade industry or media networks.

Reasons for hiring an in-house PR manager

An internal public relations manager can provide you with:

  1. Dedicated, educated views of your business held over the long term – they know you inside out. It’s a capacity to maintain a single devotion to your niche and your objectives rather than having their attention sought by diverse clients. (This may also be a con, as they can become too entrenched in ‘one way of thinking’).
  2. An ability to forge good, close relationships with management and other employees, enabling the development of more effective and perhaps accurate PR programs. There’s nothing like being in the staff kitchen together complaining about the dirty dishwasher.
  3. A (largely) unfiltered knowledge of what is happening within an organisation – as opposed to an external PR consultant who needs to rely on being kept up-to-date and briefed third hand. Not impossible, but potentially more tricky.
  4. Perhaps greater availability than a consultant – if they’re sitting a few feet away from you, that’s just the way it is. (Note – this doesn’t mean they’ll be more responsive or effective; a PR consultant on a paid retainer has great incentive to be prompt and to get results!)

Ultimately, external and internal PR professionals often rely on each other. Organisations can (and do) employ both.  In fact, I’ve often been hired by the internal communications manager.

Internal PR professionals may seek a consultant to:

  1. Help with a large workload for a short period of time, for example during the launch of a new campaign or while they themselves are on rec leave.
  2. Provide specialty advice, for example advice on the development and promotion of a new smartphone app.
  3. Help them influence management where they have not succeeded.
  4. Deliver a suite of writing materials such as an annual report or new brochures.

10727231_1662539820656246_2079600260_nRecommended further reading
Craig Pearce has penned an excellent piece on the PRIA blog which delves more into the commonalities that exist between working in-house and in a PR agency.

 

 

Avoid advertising blahblah: the real meaning of Christmas?

Ah, Christmas messages – dontcha love ‘em?

What do you say to your clients, your staff and other stakeholders during the festive season? Do you stick with the traditional Merry Christmas and Happy New Year? If so, you’re not alone!

MerryChristmasLightsIt has struck me that this standard message is regurgitated by a lot of organisations in their marketing and advertising material and it’s a wasted opportunity. (I may also be guilty of this).

I watched some regional SA television recently – during a Christmas trip – and saw a swathe of festive commercial messages from local retailers. Each one had the chance to share one image and have their Christmas message read on air for about 10 seconds each.

Every message was the same – bar the name!

“The team from THIS COMPANY wishes all its customers a very Merry Christmas and a happy and safe New Year”.

It was tiresome to hear five of those messages in a row. After hearing 10, I was embarrassed for them all. Advertising is an important communication channel that enables you to craft your own message, be creative, stand out, and say something interesting to customers. If you have parted with some hard-earned cash for your 10 second message, why not say something more meaningful?

How about these variations for the fictional Company:

Merry Christmas from The Company. We’re looking forward to 2016 when we launch This New Product Which We have Exclusive Rights To.

Thank you for a great 2015! This year The Company served more than 5,000 meals and we’re looking forward to opening our doors again on January 4. Happy New Year!

Season’s Greetings from The Company, which won This Award and This Award in 2015 and would like to thank its loyal customers for their ongoing support.

Merry Christmas from Al, Val and Sal, the family behind The Company who have been delivering Your Favourite Service in This Town since 1967 and will open a new store in June.

It’s Christmas and we’re exhausted! What a huge year at The Company where we expanded our Great Product Division. For now, we’re going fishing. See you when we re-open on January 11.

Look for every opportunity to wedge in a piece of news / a key message you’d like to share / something personal about your company / reminders about why customers should choose you over your competitors.

Don’t fall back on clichés or safe phrases which you think your audience wants to hear. It becomes a massive wall of blaaaaah.

Of course, good media and advertising companies should help their clients toward this. If you’re in media sales, it’s part of your expertise to educate clients and think of more competitive ways for them to reach their audiences and gain attention. Not every business person has the time or the nouse to devise a unique Christmas message; they need all the input they can get.

 

As for me? This blog has been quieter this year as I’ve embarked on a PR consultancy again. I became President of the SA chapter of PRIA, and took on PR lecture and tutor work at the University of South Australia. Over the 2016 summer I plan to post a little more regularly. Thanks for sticking with this blog, which began in 2009. Enjoy your January – and if the New Year motivates you to look at your PR program please message me [michelle @prakky.com.au] for a chat.

 

5 reasons why awards are important in PR

PR consultants often encourage their clients to enter awards.

Why is this?

Awards are a valuable recognition of your abilities and achievements – but also a great promotional tool. Award programs may:

  1. Provide case studies and inspiring stories to others
  2. Act as a testimonial or endorsement piece for re-use in your marketing channels
  3. Position you as a leader and contributor within your industry
  4. Set you apart from your competitors
  5. Attract media coverage – before and after your win, and into future years if you are chosen as a spokesperson for those awards (quotes from previous winners can be quite useful for media and website testimonials)

Ironically, in the PR industry itself it is can be difficult to enter awards.

Public relations work is usually behind-the-scenes. The nature of the work means PR practitioners are most focused on putting their clients onto the awards dais (or in front of the TV camera or radio mic) rather than pushing their own barrows.

In some instances, clients do not want their PR efforts to be widely shared – this is particularly the case for crisis and issues management.  It is a rare organisation that is willing to rehash its crisis, sharing the story behind what went wrong and the tactics used to right the ship.

Occasionally, some clients will even request a PR consultant sign a confidentiality agreement. They may not want their logos on your website or to be mentioned in your enewsletters and so on; they certainly don’t want to be included in detailed awards submissions.

PRIA Golden Target AwardsThis makes it all the more remarkable, to me, that we do have PR industry awards in Australia and they continue to receive excellent entries. The Public Relations Institute of Australia’s PRIA Golden Target Awards were established in 1976 and are still going strong. They require not only the detailed input of the applicants, but buy-in and support of clients or employers.

If you’re working in the communications industry, I’d encourage you to be a PRIA member and enter the awards next year. Remember all those reasons you try to convince your clients of the value of awards? It’s time to remind yourself.

Unexpected PR questions

I was part of a ‘speed networking’ event recently, acting as the more experienced, (cough, older) PR practitioner to speak to new, emerging (and younger) practitioners about PR.

It’s always refreshing to chat with people who are eager to hear more about your craft. And while there are many standard questions revolving around how to pitch to journalists and the best way to write a media release, some questions are more rare, insightful and surprising.

Here’s a sample of some of those questions – and my answers – from that speed networking night.

Have you ever refused to work with a (potential) client?
Yes. You would think this might not happen to a consultant eager to grow a big stable of work – but I have definitely chosen not to work with some organisations. Reasons for refusal – for any consultant – include not being ‘ethically aligned’ with that organisation (eg you may not want to work with the gambling industry or a cigarette company), through to a personality clash. That last reason is tricky. You can ‘get a vibe’ from somebody you meet which may lead you think you wouldn’t enjoy working with them and often your gut instinct is right. However, I’ve also learned over time, that people I don’t connect with immediately can go on to become some of my favourite people – it just takes time to get to know each other. It’s a balancing act and having the ability to trust your inner voice is something that’s worth developing and not ignoring.

Photo by Ly Tran, NEPG member.
Photo by Ly Tran, NEPG member.

Have you ever experienced sexual discrimination?
This was a *huge* question. I have worked in some great organisations for some warm and supportive employers who I have remained friends with and I am not aware that I was overlooked for any roles on the basis of my gender. I’ve also worked everywhere from a supermarket (during high school), a political office, government departments, a PR agency and more in between.

However I’ve often found myself in workplaces where gender slurs and jokes based on stereotypes have grown to an uncomfortable level and I’ve had to make it clear that *enough is enough*. I’ve also consciously worked hard not to be the female in the room who takes the handwritten notes or who pours the water while male colleagues sit around – there’s just something about that which grinds my personal gears, and over 20 years of work it can be a gender stereotype which a room full of people lapses into. That’s changed over time.

Happily, during my career I’ve had many female managers who have been wonderful mentors and keen to encourage me to apply for promotions and new roles. Does this mean I’ve avoided the “men appointing men in their likeness” spiral? Perhaps. Overall, my career has been a positive experience.

How do you help clients experiencing a crisis?
First, you need to calm them down. When your company is experiencing an issue and media is knocking on the door, it’s not a pleasant process. Clients need empathy, reassurance and then your PR plan needs to kick into action.

It’s important to have an issues and crisis plan in place already and for your PR manager to be advised of crises asap. My role has been made more difficult on some occasions, when clients have communicated with journos at length, but only brought me into the conversation when things reached crisis point. There’s nothing more awkward (well, maybe a handful of things) as having to call a journo to apologise for your client; to try to backtrack and clean things up. Can you imagine the media’s attitude when I call and have to say “I’m the PR consultant and I’m here to help …”?

More about this event …
This event mentioned at the beginning of this post was devised and managed by the New and Emerging Practitioner Group (NEPG) of the Public Relations Institute here in South Australia. If you’d like to know more about NEPG, check out the NEPG Facebook group. The PRIA national website is here and houses a wealth of PR information including details on membership and the make-up of the current South Australian Council of which I am President.

You can leave your (black) hat on

A public relations practitioner is often the doomsayer in the room.

It’s not because we’re naturally morose or negative people.

(In fact, we’re naturally positive people who believe that our clients deserve attention and that we’ll produce stellar communication strategies. Someone has to believe.)

We’re doomsayers because we are tasked with building and protecting reputation – and that often means forecasting what might possibly tarnish that reputation. We’re also tasked with staying abreast of any issues which may affect clients and managing any crises.

Black hatMy default position is to be optimistic, to encourage client ideas, to have solutions on-hand, and to embark on a positive PR strategy which I can be confident about. But at the same time, I know it would be remiss of me not to don my Black Hat (thank you Edward de Bono’s six hats) and caution clients about possible outcomes.

What does this mean in practice?

The most experienced PR professionals will do the following (especially when they are full-time and in-house):

  • During strategy meetings, ask “what if this goes wrong?” This question can be applied to everything from the appointment of a new celebrity ambassador, to a new brand name, a partnership with another organisation, a change in suppliers, a promotional launch in a public place and more. So much more!
  • Undertake continual environmental scanning and advise the client of issues in their sector (and how to manage them)
  • Devise a crisis communications plan (including a list of potential scenarios and how these will be managed)
  • Check, double-check and triple-check that any of your PR events have a safety plan, appropriate government permissions, a fall-back if the weather turns bad. And so much more!
  • Maintain good relationships with other managers particularly in Risk Management, Human Resources and any legislative management roles. A PR professional will want to ensure these other professionals are ticking all the boxes and, together, helping to manage an ethical organisation which can be proud of its reputation.

The irony is, that while PR professionals work hard to avoid issues and crises, if they do occur they can be quite exciting and rewarding to manage. But that’s a story for another day …

 

 

A snapshot of public relations

What is public relations?

Public relations text bookMost businesses are familiar with the concept of advertising and marketing – but public relations can be misunderstood.

As a business, you know you need to let your customers (or stakeholders) know what you have to offer.

So you might advertise to let customers know about your products, your prices, and where to buy.

Sounds straightforward enough. So where does PR come in?

When you’re making your products, you might need to:

  • Gain permission from legislators
  • Inform the local community that you’re setting up shop
  • Attract and keep employees
  • Stay in touch with your suppliers
  • Give back to the community through a philanthropic program
  • Contribute to your industry through support, commentary and lobbying
  • Handle a company crisis
  • Listen to what the community is saying and understand what your future customer might want, the sentiment towards your product, and any issues that are brewing

PR can also supplement your advertising and marketing campaigns.

Do you have a big advertising spend coming up? Maybe that new product you’re launching is worthy of a news story. Maybe the public would like to hear about how you came up with it, how it will improve their lives, where the components were sourced and so on. There are a range of PR tactics to help with that.

Do you have a public education campaign happening? Are you taking out advertising to give notice about an upcoming event or to  warn the public about something? Again, PR can help you reach out to the people you’re trying to talk to, using language that is clear to them, in media they frequent.

Public relations helps with all of the above, and more.

 

The symbiotic relationship: PR practitioners and journalists

I’ve worked in PR for many years and I am not surprised by research which demonstrates the extent of newsrooms’ reliance on media releases [as summarised in this post by Steven Raeburn].

A good media release can contain most of the information that a news article requires, especially if it is a straightforward public announcement. I have trained as a journalist and of course I would prefer that all media releases are fact-checked and any resulting article offers an alternative point of view. At the same time, I understand that newsrooms are shrinking and, where a reliable source of media releases emerges from a trusted, reputable organisation, some media outlets will use media releases verbatim.

NewspaperI know that many PR practitioners carry out work which is immensely useful to journalists. This includes:

  • Rewriting poorly-written media releases which their clients have been poised to distribute
  • Advising clients that their media release is, in fact, not news or worth sending to the media
  • Advising clients that what they are saying is misleading and should not be shared in a media release (yes, it happens)
  • Helping journalists source spokespeople or ‘talent’ when they are approached to do so (and believe me, some of these can be very last-minute and quite obscure requests. Eg, “do you know of a 32 year old woman living in regional Australia who has started her own IT company?” )
  • Helping journalists dissect research, trends or statistics (often under tight deadlines)
  • Building a story idea with a journalist

Twenty years in the industry means that I can’t agree with Raeburn that “philosophically and morally” news and public relations “seem diametrically opposed”.

Professional PR practitioners are ethical, in fact our industry encourages us to be the conscience of our organisations.

This is something that is not well known (and I can hear laughter from newsrooms now) but look at any university’s PR curriculum, or the papers produced by PR professional associations around the world, and you will see ethics forms a fundamental subject of importance.

PR practitioners are in a unique position to not only be able to help their employers or clients communicate, but to question employers’ practices. “What would this look like if it was on the front page?” has morphed into “This is the not the right thing to do … this company needs to change its practices and I can help you map out the steps to get there”.

We advise clients on being honest and upfront as soon as possible when “things go wrong”. We advise clients to apologise and be accessible. But our recommendations aren’t always accepted and our advice is sometimes ignored in favour of advice from legal and political advisors – or even quashed by a nervous management.

Not all PR advisors have high ethical standards or professional pride – and in this, the PR industry isn’t alone. But by and large, long time PR practitioners can work with journalists in a symbiotic relationship, to ultimately produce stories they can be proud of and that the public needs to read.

 

My 2 essential public speaking tips

When it comes to public speaking, I’ve progressed from ‘terrified’ to ‘comfortable’.

Many years of public engagements have assured me that I won’t collapse in front of an audience and I’ve grown to enjoy presenting.

Prakky presentingThere’s a lot of shared wisdom about what makes a good public presentation but today I’m focusing on one aspect that fascinates me  …

The beginning and the end

Whenever I counsel somebody about public speaking, I have some simple advice to share. For friends and family, including my sons, I urge them to have:

1) a strong opening and
2) a strong finish.

That means a confident hello and introduction, and a clear, definitive ‘thank you’ at the end.

Sounds easy enough, right? However too often, I’ve been in the audience while a speaker opens with a nervous joke about the technology they’re using, points out a mistake that the MC made in the introduction, or forgets to thank the audience for being there. It’s as uncomfortable as wearing itchy socks.

A welcome smile and a simple, warm thank you goes a long way. (But hey, if you’re an expert speaker and you can open with a compelling conundrum, or a sure-fire joke, go for it).

Also, too often, I’ve seen a speaker finish with a whimper.

If you aren’t prepared for your conclusion, your presentation can taper off with a lame shrug, a giggle, or a “So ..that’s all.”

Most often this happens with inexperienced speakers but it can also happen during group speaking sessions or a team introductory session. This leaves an awful last impression, yet can be so easily avoided with eye contact and a clear “thank you”.

Lead your audience firmly through the wrap-up. (Occasionally you might have an MC who is good at that task and if there is a session host, make sure you are both aware of your roles). This is important because an audience likes to know what to do next.

For example, if you are going to have a question session next, you might say “Thank you so much for listening, now, I would welcome any questions.”

If there is no question time, you can give a lengthier thank you “Thank you so much for your time today; I did appreciate the opportunity to be here. And remember my [key point]. My contact details are on the screen if you would like to stay in touch. Thank you”.

The more experienced, confident presenters might get away with a simple pause – followed by an emphatic ‘thank you’, perhaps a bow, or catching a bouquet thrown from the crowd, as has (not) happened to me many times.

Now … I must thank you for reading. I hope you found these two tips useful.

(And as always, I welcome your comments below).

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