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2015’s Biggest PR Hits And Misses

Whoever said you that you can’t take brand equity to the bank never dealt with a knife to their reputation — a hemorrhage that would put them squarely in the public eye and expose them to the harsh judgment of the folks that count the most. Looking back over 2015, some notable stories stood out for being classic PR blunders, but there do exist a few situations that give us hope that doing right by doing good is still possible.

The year began badly for Halifax’s Dalhousie University when some dentistry students posted degrading comments about their female colleagues on Facebook. Later, a medical student facing expulsion told his psychiatrist about a plan to stab an associate dean and her daughter and shoot up to 20 people. And, as if things couldn’t get worse, a student about to start medical school was charged with murdering another student.

From a PR lens, one crisis was easily preventable because fostering a paternalistic culture in 2015 should have been detected and corrected before it was exposed on social media. Dalhousie came under harsh criticism on a number of levels, from failing to protect the physical and psychological well-being of their community, to paying more than $300,000 for outside communications counsel. Ironically, it’s been reported that student applications are at the same level as last year, but I question how they are doing on endowments.Jared Fogle

Subway’s longtime pitchman, Jared Fogle, was a striking example of what can go wrong when your brand is tied to a single individual. It wasn’t all that long ago that Lance Armstrong demonstrated how fast adulation can unravel. It’s a lesson marketers should have learned from.

Fogle’s weight-loss story made him a celebrity and Subway a lot of dough. But their relationship came crashing down after Fogle’s home was raided by the FBI looking for links to child pornography. Social media was quick to judge him with followers on Twitter practically begging for a response from Subway. When none was forthcoming, they formed their own opinions.

Part of my training as a PR professional is to gauge how an initiative can hurt as much as help. This negative thinking has been a valuable strategic imperative.

Subway eventually severed ties to Jared Fogle who was sentenced to many years behind bars. The lesson here is to be clear on your position of zero tolerance, understanding that customers are families who will make their decisions with their wallets. If Subway can retake ownership of their brand and define what they stand for, they should be able to repair the damage and move on.

As the owner of a Volkswagen, the company’s scheme to fool regulators and consumers hit particularly close to home.

The Volkswagen debacle is among the year’s worst corporate blunders, and no air bag on earth will cushion the blow to Volkswagen’s trustworthiness. When you mess up, you need to fess up and show how you are going to clean it up. VW never got the memo.

At the time the story broke, the company stayed silent. Despite the legal implications, I would have advised their CEO to display greater empathy to help soften the dents to their reputation. VW is not nearly as communicative or contrite as they need to be and it will hurt them. While other car manufacturers have climbed out of the abyss before, the road ahead for VW looks pretty bumpy.

Charlie Sheen’s disclosure that he is HIV positive reopened the conversation on HIV/AIDS and depending on you look at it, could provide Sheen a noble way to rehabilitate his bad-boy image.

While treatment of HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically, stigma and discrimination are still entrenched which might explain why he kept it a secret. Social media commentators were quick to say that the only upside of the announcement is to generate sympathy for Sheen, but I am optimistic. If Sheen can use his celebrity as a teaching moment he has the potential to shine a powerful spotlight on the burden of this disease — if that’s the case, he will be doing a great service to society.

You couldn’t buy a better story than that of our young, attractive #CDNFirstFamily.

It’s Canada’s version of Camelot or Trudeau: The Next Generation, and it’s a warm, engaging and human story that many are happy to soak up. And what is PR if not the building and nurturing of deep, trusted relationships between an organization and its diverse publics?

The Liberal government has hit all the high notes in terms of trying to regain public trust by positioning their leader as approachable, transparent and authentic. Justin Trudeau’s proclivity for taking selfies and posing for glam shots in Vogue seem to be working out just fine — no damage control needed.

What this revitalized image of our national government means in a practical sense here at home or on the world stage remains to be seen, but we can end the year knowing that at least the PMO knows a thing or two about good PR.

Carol Levine, APR, FCPRS, is CEO and Co-Founder of energi PR, a national public relations agency. She is Immediate Past Chair of the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms, the industry association that represents Canada’s leading PR agencies.

 

What It Takes

Written by Marlo Taylor, partner and general manager, energi PR

Dear aspiring PR practitioner,

Today, I received your application to be an intern at our firm. It was thorough and everything was spelled correctly. You are obviously bright and accomplished. It seems you have worked hard and done well. And your resume went straight over to the pile of folks I will likely never call. Harsh? Perhaps. But in an industry as ultra-competitive as ours, it’s a tough reality. Most resumes don’t get past my inbox.

intern

But what is it that differentiates one resume from another? How do we decide who to see? Who to hire? The most honest answer I can give you, other than a basic understanding of the role, is that I want to know that you want this job. I want to see that when you were learning about PR you were also looking for ways to try out that learning. I want to see that you volunteered to manage the media for a local fundraiser or found ways to publicize a friend’s play or spent time drafting brochures for a small charity. You would really stand out to me if you could provide a few well-articulated examples of attempts you made that didn’t work out as well – and what it taught you about succeeding as a communications professional. Be creative. Look around. Dig deep and figure out where there is a need and go answer it.

In my opinion, passion trumps skill every time. As senior PR people, we can – and are happy to – teach you the technical side of the business, but being hungry to learn and grow can only come from you.

We all hear the same song: jobs require experience but how can I get experience without a job? Frankly, I call BS on that one. There is no end of organizations that are starved for volunteer communications support. If you really want to be a PR practitioner, you will find those opportunities and turn them into the experience you need to set yourself apart.

What I’ve learned after 15 years in the industry is that success comes to those who work hard and have that fire in their bellies. I’ve also learned that sometimes the greatest success and learning comes when you’re prepared to jump into the deep end of the ocean, even if you don’t feel 100 per cent prepared, just because there is the inspiring and amazing chance that you will learn – and become – something new.  Often, it’s the first of many rungs on an exciting and highly gratifying ladder.

So, go for it. Seek those opportunities and eat up the lessons they throw at you. And, I look forward to seeing your resume in my inbox next time around.

Sincerely,

MT

 

 

 

What I’m taking with me

By Marieve Murphy, intern, energi PR.

It feels like just last week I was walking into the energi PR office, eager and a little nervous about my first day. Now, three months later, I’m wrapping up my internship and taking a moment to reflect on my time here.  No two days have been the same; it’s been an exciting journey with challenges and successes along the way.  I’ve been constantly amazed at how adaptable my colleagues are; observing how they handle numerous situations and approach their day to day workload has taught me so much about the industry. In my time here I know I’ve learnt things that can’t be taught in a classroom or studied in a textbook. There really is no replacement for hands-on experience, and I’d like to share what I’m taking away from my time at energi.

  1. It’s All in the Details: A lot goes on in the office on any given day, and some days it feels like my inbox is overflowing! But one of the most valuable things I learned is that the details really do matter. Taking the time to personalize an e-mail, or making a quick thank you call to someone who went out of their way for you can make all the difference.

 

  1. The Art of Prioritizing: It really amazes me how calm, cool and collected my colleagues remain even when work piles up quickly. I quickly learned that prioritizing your workload is not only effective, but it can seriously reduce stress. It may seem simple, but writing a prioritized list of your tasks and checking them off one by one brings a surprising amount of satisfaction.

 

  1. Asking for Help: For some reason, asking for help in the workplace can be seen as a sign of weakness, but asking for help doesn’t mean you aren’t capable. I’ve learned that having a second pair of eyes or ears is invaluable. Most of our best or most innovative ideas have been a result of brainstorming as a whole team.

 

  1. Celebrating your successes: It’s been pretty cool to be a part of a team that takes the time to celebrate each other’s successes, and it’s taught me that recognizing each other and even your own achievements is important! It’s motivating for the whole team and I really think it paves the way for future successes.

 

Lastly, the friendships that I’ve made in my time here are the most important take away. I couldn’t have imagined a more welcoming, supportive and fun group of colleagues to work with.  Along the way they offered a lot of guidance, some great advice and a ton of laughs.  As I’m leaving I want to say a big THANK YOU to everyone at energi for all that you’ve taught me in the past three months! I’m leaving with new skills, great friendships and fond memories. Thank you!

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Marieve Murphy

Marieve Murphy

Investing in the Future of PR: Here’s why you should care about the students of today

Written by Lauren Wasley, Creative Media & PR Strategist, energi PR.

I get it, working in PR is busy.  But we’re not the only ones juggling packed schedules. Between working, household errands and family obligations, maintaining a semblance of a social life can be a challenge. Now, on top of this, we’re often asked to meet with, and/or mentor, students and young professionals. It might seem like an unnecessary addition to an already full agenda, but I disagree. Here’s why:

1 – Pay it forward: Yes, I am referring to the movie with Helen Hunt and that little boy from the Sixth Sense. If you make the time, and we can all make time, to help, it’s likely that you’ll encourage the same giving behaviour in the person you’re meeting. So when they’re in your shoes, they’ll look back and listen to that little angel on their shoulder telling them to do a good thing.

2 – You were once them: Kinda like invasion of the body-snatchers, but not really. There was a time when you were fresh out of school, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (I still don’t get that reference) and you needed advice on how to get started in your career. If you were fortunate, a kind soul took pity on you and taught you the ropes and, if not, well then you know how hard it can be.

3 – You never know where they’ll go: PR is a small industry and if you switch Kevin Bacon for yourself in the Six Degrees of Separation game, you’ll likely connect to everyone. That fresh-faced practitioner could end up working with your newest client and it would probably help to be on their good side. Also yet another helpful reminder as to why you should never burn a bridge.

So next time you get an email or LinkedIn message from a student asking to meet for coffee, say yes.  Volunteering your time is a great way to give back and if it leads to a new friendship or business connection that’s just an added bonus.

A business spin on inflated balls

deflated_balls

My first admission is that I know very little about football. Yes, my hubby was a Montreal Alouettes season ticket holder and yes, I did dress head to toe in orange at a Tennessee VOLS game to tailgate and moonshine. I also, most recently, coughed up cash to buy a signed Anthony Calvillo football for charity.

All that aside, what I do know is that having balls is considered to be a desirable attribute and synonymous with having guts, being bold and taking no prisoners. This past week sports, mainstream news reporters and late night talk show hosts had a field day with the language and innuendo about inflated and deflated balls and it got me thinking about what it means to have balls in business.

I found more questions than answers.

Does having balls mean being confident, professional, innovative and a risk taker? Or, is it being haughty, self-absorbed, arrogant or dismissive? Is the reference gender specific meaning that smart, accomplished, strong and assertive women can’t have balls? Can we turn the tables to suggest that the ambivalent, weak or needy of the male species can be lacking in the balls department?

As a business woman I am not alone in decrying the double standard which to this day describes strong women as aggressive, and strong men as assertive. Has this changed dramatically over the past twenty years or so? I would say not so much. Girls are socialized to do a sweet pirouette, even when they are the 7th ranked female tennis player in the world. Can you imagine a man being asked to do the same thing? Not a chance! Not men who hit balls across a net for a living.

In business we all experience the joys of being inflated through our successes or once in a while feeling the funk of having our wings clipped. After 35 years in business I know that it’s never just about winning the pitch or the money that may come along with it. Having balls in business is all about standing up for what you believe in, having conviction, being the best you can be and being proud of what you do and with whom you are associated. And for those times when we get kicked you know where, our language may sound like “sour grapes” but it’s not. It’s the echo of having developed perfectly inflated and professional balls.

 

How tilting your pelvis can help your business

Written by Marlo Taylor, partner and general manager, energi PR.

Four or five months ago, I joined a new gym. It really is a wonderful place featuring two brilliant trainers. Let’s call them Brian and Francis, which makes sense, given that their names are Brian and Francis.

Brian and Francis are everything you’d hope for in a trainer: knowledgeable, kind, challenging. But they share a knack for summarily ruining every exercise I used to enjoy from single leg dead lifts to planks. The problem? The pelvic tilt.

It would seem that my pelvis is a lazy little rascal (seriously, who would have thought I’d ever type that sentence?). It would rather hang out and wait for my work out to be over than hold itself tilted and tight in proper form. Every single time it seems Brian or Francis have to remind me to pause and reset my pesky pelvis. The challenge is that it makes every exercise exponentially harder. Harder in a “I @#$^! hate this” sort of way.

Recently, as I was hip bridging my way through my warm up with the requisite pausing and resetting, I realized I was stronger. The movement was more fluid and I could tackle even the most challenging parts of my work out with greater ease. Could that tiny, consistent really account for the dawning of this new workout day?

As I was sharing this aha moment with Francis, it struck me that businesses could learn from this simple approach.

The business of public relations is made up of a number of tasks that, over time, risk being done somewhat by rote. Press releases, media monitoring and outreach, even writing and planning have the potential to become stale. There is a tendency to succumb to what is known, comfortable, and, often, even tried and true. This is where businesses can stagnate. Where they stop pushing to bigger and better things. Where creativity dies.

So, with my tilted pelvis a-blazing, I challenged my team to start 2015 with a commitment to that moment of extra thoughtfulness and purposeful movement in mind. It adds nothing to someone’s work load to pause, and think: Do I have everything I need to perform this task to the best of my ability? Is there anything else I can add to this process? Is there any change I should make before proceeding?

This pause also reinforces to young, dynamic and keen team members, that their thoughts and ideas are important. It opens doors to their input in strategic decisions and encourages them to suggest ways in which we can all do – and think – better. Small, incremental improvements mean we finish the task stronger and better than we were before. It might seem harder at first (see aforementioned dead lifts and planks) but the aha moment isn’t far away.

As we all know, businesses and clients thrive when we apply the best of what we know to each task and situation. But that is true even when the conversations are harder. Even when we’re tired and “good enough” might meet the expectation. Even when our clients are happy (isn’t that a kicker?). Even then there is room to ask ourselves: Do I have everything I need to perform this task? Is there anything else I can add to this process? Is there any change I should make before proceeding?

Sometimes, improving efficiency and effectiveness is complicated. And, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, you just need to reset, take a breath, and expect the best of your team and their ability to think and perform. So tilt away and if you ever run into Brian and Francis remember to say thanks.

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Marlo Taylor

Marlo Taylor

New Year, New De-Stressed You.

Post written by Lauren Wasley, Creative Media & PR Strategist, energi PR.

Many of us make New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps in hope that the combined unity and benchmark of a new calendar year will help them stick. Unfortunately it’s a sad reality that most of these plans begin fizzling out come March (just look at gyms for an easy example).

If you work in public relations, chances are you’re familiar with stress. Last year, the industry ranked sixth in the annual CareerCast.com list of most stressful jobs alongside positions in the military, firefighters and airline pilots. Unfortunately for PR practitioners, this doesn’t come as a surprise, as public relations has been a fixture on these delightful lists.

Knowing that your mental health is just as important as your physical health, I wanted to share some tried and true tips for managing your stress levels in the office.

  1. Get up every hour: Whether it is to stretch or take a quick walk, a break from the screen can do wonders.
  2. Cut back on the coffee: I know it’s hard, but you won’t miss the jitters, believe me. If you suffer from anxiety, you know that it’s recommended to cut down the caffeine and there are many tasty and healthier alternatives from herbal teas to even decaf coffee if you can’t forgo the flavour.
  3. Stay hydrated: Coffee doesn’t count, so make a trip to office water cooler or kitchen (because I’ve not seen a cooler since the mid-2000s). Not only will it get you moving and away from your desk, it will prevent you from overeating and make your insides happy.
  4. Make friends: Work can be stressful and nothing beats having a support system when times get tough. Even if you’re not the most social person outside of work, having someone to vent to or bounce ideas off is invaluable. So consider eating in the lunchroom instead of your desk for once.
  5. Work-life balance: Try not to get in the habit of spending all your evenings at the office. Unless you’re on a hard deadline, leave at a reasonable time, or bring your work home. That way at least you can work in sweats on the couch, while watching the Kardashians… or, CBC. Definitely CBC.

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Lauren Wasley

Lauren Wasley

Skills: We’ve all got some, but which ones do you need to sharpen for 2015?

Written by Lauren Wasley, Creative Media & PR Strategist at energi PR.

Many careers paths are chosen because they provide areas where our natural skills or interests can best be realized.  If, like me, you have a knack for creative writing, a passion for presenting and a short attention span, you might end up in public relations.

As an industry, a lot has changed in the seven or so years I’ve been practicing. Surprisingly, I started at the end of the fax machine era. Coverage came in each morning, hard copies were even kept in binders and we used rulers and calculators to measure the public relations value of each clip.

These past few years it seems there is a new tool, trend, app or offering emerging every few months. Keeping track of these developments alongside the movements of Canadian editors and freelance writers is a full-time job. So, as you can imagine, staying at the top of your game is a skill in itself.

Based on the evolution of the industry, I predict the following four areas will become more critical for public relations practitioners in 2015:

  1. Crisis Communications: 2014 was a tough year for the airline industry with several globally-documented crashes. Although rare, these tragic incidents are a reminder that crisis can hit at the most unexpected times. Whether it’s an accident, financial loss or scandal, it is important not only to react quickly to a crisis, but to speak and act appropriately. Local news can become global in an instant and if an issue is not handled correctly, it can quickly spin out of control.
  2. Measurement: Although Media Relations Points (MRP) is the industry standard in Canada, many agencies have clients around the world. As global integration becomes more commonplace, different practices are often employed to develop a level of consistency and allow for countrywide comparisons. Exploring best practices that all teams can understand and use will be key.
  3. Socially Savvy: Most of us can handle content development for social media, but as further emphasis is put on these channels a deeper understanding is required. From both an analytics and advertising perspective.
  4. Paid Content: Although editorial content is still our bread and butter, as newspapers shrink due to cuts in advertising revenue, organic stories are not always an option. To maintain coverage and exposure, agencies need to seek out sponsorships, partnerships and paid content opportunities, like mattes and ANRs, for their clients.

One of the most exciting aspects of our industry is that it is in constant motion. We need to think of change as a positive evolution. The more we know, the better we can do our jobs and that’s a plus for everyone.

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Lauren Wasley

Lauren Wasley

The Way We Were…and Should be Again

By Esther Buchsbaum,  co-founder, energi PR 

I was recently inspired by a colleague’s blog on his family business and the true meaning of “work ethic” and “customer service”.  It gave me a warm and welcoming feeling like the kind I get when I walk into my local bakery or grocery store or butcher.  There’s something inherently comforting knowing that I am being valued and appreciated and that the standard of product and service I will be receiving will be impeccable.  It makes me want to come back – again and again.

I am very loyal.  I had the same hairdresser for 30 years, I travel out of my way to visit the “cheese guy”  who I trust implicitly to design my après dinner delights, and I bow to my favourite sushi chef who I allow to tell me what I want for dinner as opposed to the other way around.  Why would I want to look elsewhere?

That doesn’t seem to be the case so much these days.  It’s all about the quick hit, short term gain, instant gratification; people don’t seem to want to take the time, nor expend the energy, they want it all and they want it now.  Well, relationships, the foundation upon which a solid public relations practice is built, cannot be forced nor can they be rushed.  Corporations who get “it” enjoy longevity, stability and brand loyalty through the generations.  And when they screw up, cause people inevitably do, then I have no problem giving them the benefit of the doubt and cutting them slack. Cause that’s what friends do.

Why PR still struggles with ROI

*Originally published in Marketing Magazine

Close to 20 years ago at a Spring Conference of Counsellors Academy (Public Relations Society of America), I heard a startling presentation from the then chairman of one of the big five American accounting firms. For PR to be successful, to be allocated sufficient budgets and earn corporate trust, “buy in” must come from the top.

In the same breath he warned that management consultants may represent our industry’s greatest threat. What did he mean by this? Simply stated, short of being proficient at doing media relations or event planning, management consultants bring the kind of talent that resonates with the C-suite. They are analytical, strategic, have great written and verbal communications skills, understand business dynamics and market forces, are highly productive and organized AND they know and can explain numbers. What’s more, they are comfortable responding to tough questions about profitability and can do so with really nice charts.

Were we all now going to hire MBAs? At the time that thought was quite appealing and the buzz among my PR agency colleagues was that if we didn’t get the ROI thing down pat, we’d soon end up pitching against consulting firms Mercer and McKinsey.

The industry hasn’t seen this prediction come to pass. It may be because we don’t offer the salaries commanded by management consultants or because promotion and publicity are still a big part of what agencies do. While Canada’s PR industry can be held up as a model for its Media Rating Points system, I’d say that we haven’t made nearly enough progress in quantifying ROI.

Why is measuring ROI for public relations such a challenge? To begin with, I believe that PR is so diverse in what it comprises that a campaign or strategy would have to be fractured into all of its parts if only to begin to probe each element, let alone dissect them into something that could be evaluated. PR initiatives are also not generally undertaken in a vacuum, so how do we carve out the impact of the PR and attach a number to it? Another obstacle I’ve experienced is the difficulty in getting sales data from clients as well as details on other marketing programs that may be running concurrently. Company structure may be another impediment when the sales and marketing departments are separate.

I agree with Ford Kanzler, principal of Marketing/PR Savvy in Redwood, California whose approach to the ROI question with prospects is to point out successful brands and the correlation to PR. Al and Laura Ries did a good job of this in their book The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. The problem, though, is that public relations has not become any easier to understand, explain or sell, therefore it has not become easier to measure its value. Or maybe we should reverse that statement.

The greatest challenge will be to convince those who question public relations in the first place. I am not sure that we can or whether we would even want to try and convince these folks. I maintain that unlike other forms of marketing that can be seen, touched and better controlled, for some, public relations is difficult to digest conceptually.

Businesses that have experienced the outcome of a well structured and executed executive reputation or crisis communications plan, whose brands have become household names after a clever social media campaign, those that have harnessed patient and physician support for an advocacy program or driven patients to an information website, recognize the value of their investment. This is where the opportunity lies.

Having a successful ROI discussion with clients and prospects lies in the hands of the PR industry and we should employ the same rigorous processes to get to a meaningful answer. We know what clients want; we need to find a way to give it to them. If we’re not sure – then let’s find out how best to do so. As the excellent storytellers we are, we need to author the story that speaks to outcomes in a way that our readers can learn. But we may need to illustrate our story with some colourful charts.

This column is the first in a two-part series. Up next: What’s out there, what to measure and how.