How to create a world-class case study program



“I wish more of our customers would agree to do case studies.”

I hear these words a lot. From PR pros like me looking for a great pitching angle. From marketers looking for another tool in one of the most credible toolbelts available to them. And from salespeople seeking success stories that can nudge prospects into clients.

No wonder, given that educational content can increase purchasing intent by an incredible 131 per cent.

I’ve managed case study programs for several large organizations, and helped generate my fair share of case studies for many others. What I’ve learned over the years is this: structure and a clear end goal that's shared by key stakeholders are crucial to success.

It all comes down to answering two key questions: first, how can my organization generate more case studies? And second, how can I make the most of a case study opportunity, once a customer agrees?

How to create more case studies

Let’s get a few things out of the way. Some companies will never agree to case studies, and will put that language in their contracts. Others, not wanting to be perceived as endorsing a product or sharing a perceived competitive advantage, will also decline. Nothing to be done there.

Instead, let’s focus on companies that have no inherent barriers. This doesn’t mean they will agree, only that’s an option that can be discussed. Let’s also assume that your agreements include language around participating in case studies (if they don’t, they should). Finally, you have a project or product that has been in place for an amount of time that allows for both parties to see measurable results and declare the effort a success – the bare minimum for any case study. You’re dying to share the story as loudly and widely as possible.

Now you’re ready to begin. Here's how to do it.

Don’t blow the ask

You don’t get jobs by telling employers what you want from them. You get jobs by telling people what you can do for them.

The default reaction from most customers will be somewhere between “I’m not sure” and “probably not.”

The same rule applies to case studies. I can tell you that the default reaction from most customers being asked to participate in a case study lies somewhere between “I'm not sure” and “probably not”. For them, it adds another to-do to an already long task list. It means setting aside time, corralling people and committing to shepherding copy around the organization. Who needs that headache? And where's their value in this?

So, don’t make it about you, make it about them. What are their marketing goals? What stories do they want to tell their clients?  Is there an executive looking to make a name for him/herself in the industry? Get that information, and make sure what you create tells those stories. Show them what you’ve generated for other customers using their case studies, and get their mouths watering at the opportunity.

Bottom line: It’s not about “we want a case study.” It’s about “you have a great story, let us tell it for you.”

Provide clarity and assurance

Spell out in detail what the customer is really signing up for. Show them your vision of the finished product and exactly what you want to do with it. That will avoid nasty surprises down the road.

Make clear to them that you’re committed to doing all the heavy lifting from writing to managing timelines, minimizing their investment and making it all a pain-free experience.

Get clear buy-in as well. The project lead may be into it, but that doesn't necessarily mean his colleagues are. Make sure he/she has at very least notified their marketing or PR teams. In fact, it’s best to make a separate outreach to them regardless to make sure they understand the ask and are truly on board. I’ve seen many case studies get derailed by people not following proper internal procedures.

Winging it = failure

I worked with a global company with operations in Canada that turned 10 or so case studies a year into nearly 100. They did it by putting a clear process in place around case studies. I could spend a whole post on this, but highlights include:

  • Identifying one point person tasked with quality and quantity of case studies
  • Keeping sales involved in the process, but never as the leads. Case studies help sales, but they’re first and foremost communications tools
  • Using a strong writing and editing team (more on that below)
  • Making sure marketing, communications and legal get to weigh in at the appropriate times
  • Leaving ample time for delivery, knowing customers usually miss deadlines and almost never share your urgency

How to make the most of your case studies



Think big, even if the goal is small

So, you’ve got them hooked, but they’ve only agreed to the bare minimum. A few paragraphs, or a couple of quotes. That’s great, but whoever does the customer interview should approach the engagement like they’re preparing to write a white paper.

Dive deep and get all the data, proof points, anecdotes and achievements that you can. Sure, you may not be able to use them now, but they may come in handy later. Or, as I’ve seen, customers begin to get more open and willing to do more once they see the process isn’t what they feared. Use your and their time wisely, and with an eye to future possibilities.

Use an experienced (and preferably outside) writer

You have a new intern who is eager to try writing, and seems enthusiastic. Plus, she has time. Win-win, right? Wrong.

Make sure whoever writes it has experience and knows how to handle a customer interview.


As I’ve mentioned, case studies are among the most valuable pieces of content you have. Make sure whoever writes it has experience and knows how to handle an interview. Just because a company is fine with a case study doesn’t mean the project lead on the other end of the phone is eager to talk. They may be reluctant, nervous, busy, or simply not a great conversationalist. You need someone who knows how to overcome that, and still walk away with a great story. And nothing kills enthusiasm faster than someone getting a draft to review that misses the mark.

And remember that even the best internal writers may be too immersed in your culture to be objective. Consider looking outside your walls for help.

Be open to options

Case studies come in many different forms. From videos to in-depth articles to something as simple as a standalone quote. Many companies I’ve worked with have a preferred format or template. Just don’t make it an either/or scenario. Anything a customer is willing to share on the record will prove valuable in some way. 

Remember to actually use what you create

Often, case studies get done and posted on a website and sent to salespeople. And that’s it.

That's weak. Instead, milk them for all they're worth. Check with your PR teams – can they use the story to generate media coverage? Can the story be shared on social channels and blogs and, if so, how? Should there be a mini-release strategy to maximize the story, and is the customer willing to come on board and amplify those efforts even further?

The bottom line is this: The need for case studies is one of the few certainties in a constantly evolving content marketing landscape. Creating or refining your process now will pay big dividends for years to come.





Run your company’s blog? Here are five easy ways to do it better.

The job of professional communicator includes wearing many hats. One day, we’re creatives, brainstorming ways to bring a message to market in a unique way. Next, we’re firefighters, trying to contain an issue before it grows into something more. We also consult with top executives, maintain relationships with influencers, read everything that affects our industry, manage teams…. I can go on.

So, it’s understandable that when it comes time to write a blog post or any other piece of content, we want to just get it done.  It’s yet another item on our to-do list, and one that’s sometimes given a lower priority.

We constantly tell our executives to prep and practice when it comes to media interviews or speeches, to take the time and get it right. Perhaps it’s time to take our own advice. Content is one of the few direct lines to your audience. Treating it as an afterthought or always doing a rush job only adds to the low-quality content pollution we see everywhere today – endless articles that read like corporate-speak, interesting to few people outside the walls of the author’s office or organization.

So while your time probably isn’t going to get any less precious any time soon, here are a few things you can do today to develop better content:

Use Your News Addiction to Your Advantage

Rule number one of dating (aside from minty-fresh breath!): don’t drone on about yourself. Good content is no different. Not every post has to be about your product, your news, your community activity. Instead, turn the tables. As PR professionals, we often assume everyone else is as plugged into news and trends as we are. We forget that we *have* to, and that others simply don’t have the time.

Make a habit of saving everything interesting thing you read – news, industry blogs, articles from PR industry trades, anything. Then write up a reaction or assessment in a way that’s relevant to your organization, or do a round-up of interesting news. If citing other blogs, give them the heads up so they are more likely to share your piece when it goes live.

Mine Your Co-Workers

We all likely share big employee moments – the annual retreat or holiday party. But you spend so much time with your co-workers, so take advantage of that. Hobbies, sports, volunteer activity, travel, career stories – all those things can be mined to create short, personalized pieces of content that put a more human face on the company and shine a spotlight on culture. The best part is you can do this anytime. Get the information, and store it up for when news is slow.

Get an Outside Perspective

The fact that you’re writing content in the first place probably means you don’t have budget for outside resources. And that’s fine – but mixing in even the occasional post from a writer who doesn’t drink the Kool Aid every day can pay dividends. It doesn’t have to mean paying a content provider, either. Consider approaching people who are active in your industry to provide a guest blog.

We’re often too close to the products or services we talk about day in and day out, so briefing someone to handle a post tied to a product launch or upgrade will be worth the investment. Provided they are interesting, those sorts of posts tend to be promoted and read widely. That means you will also want to make sure your content tells a story in a way that works for the biggest possible audience.

Stop Watching, Start Participating

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard clients say, “that’s interesting, but we can’t talk about that.” Usually, we hear this comment regarding topics seen to have even the faintest whiff of controversy. Yes, there are things you definitely don’t want to talk about.  But an increasing number of brands are becoming unafraid to take a stance and engage. Blog posts that feel timely and plugged in to issues of the day are simply going to be more appealing. 

Look at ways of tying in what you do or what your brand stands for into current events, and craft content that speaks to that. Start with what’s natural to you as a company, and go from there. Your organization has smart people with insights to share – so share them!

Look to Your Greatest Hits

Remember those posts that were well-received? Great engagement and feedback, lots of shares? They’re not gone forever. If the posts have become stale, bring them back by doing an update or follow-up. Or, do a “part two,” taking a new perspective months or years after the original was first posted. Bottom line – take full advantage of your best material.

Any other tips? Things that work for you? Let us know.


Four accepted pieces of PR wisdom that aren’t very wise

Whether it’s counting chickens before they’re hatched or having a cake and eating it too, we’re regularly bombarded by (often clichéd) little pieces of life advice. PR is no different. The industry is full of accepted wisdom that everyone understands to be true. Problem is, the industry is evolving at lightning speed. What made sense years ago may not today. And frankly, some pieces of advice have never been all that great to begin with.

Here are four things commonly heard in the business of communications, but which need a serious rethink.

1. It’s all about the relationships

Media and influencer relationships are important, no doubt. Problem is, we put way too much stock into them. I was recently part of an agency selection process where the client probed very deep into our personal relationships with journalists. We literally had to list who we knew personally and how we knew them. Clearly, they believed that was the secret sauce. And I fear that’s the result of years of PR professionals thumping their chests over who they know the best, and using that as a key measure of their worth.

A relationship with a journalist or anyone who commands an audience online is valuable in three ways: it keeps you up to date on what topics they are interested in, it ensures you’ll get a fair hearing and good feedback wen you call them, and it can provide a great source of industry intel. What it’s not is a free pass to coverage or great publicity. Even the best relationship can’t overcome a terrible story idea or awful product. And I’ve seen complete strangers call media cold and sell a story.

Bottom line: If you’re not interesting, you’ll lose every time, relationships or not.

2. You gotta work the phones!

I’m old enough to remember when newsrooms were bustling places, and every industry had its own dedicated beat reporter. Back then, there were also simply more outlets to consider. And even if reporter A passed, you could always try one or two of their colleagues with at least somewhat similar interests. 

Today, you’re likely dealing with a very busy and time-pressed individual who is doing it all. And I guarantee you that constantly calling them over and over in the belief that only the most aggressive and persistent voice will win them over won't do you or the client you represent any favours. And shame on you if you’re demanding that your team’s junior members, with little experience, do this for you! If no one is biting, start by looking at what you’re selling, not how loudly you’re shouting about it. Spend time to really nail your story, and if you know in your heart that it’s a longshot, think carefully before reaching out. Sometimes it’s best to live to fight another day.

3. It pays to stay on message

Again, there is some truth here. The whole point of even doing this job, whether it’s through blog content, partnering with influencers or placing a byline article, is to get a message out to a specific audience. But there’s conveying a message, and staying on message. The first is critical, the second is a problem. That’s because staying on message can be understood as repeating yourself over and over in an interview,  or producing content that reads like an instruction manual simply because “that’s how we say it.”

Take message guidance for what it is. Guidance.

4. Top-tier/second-tier outlets

I recently read a  post from another PR pro on tips for how to get more coverage. Among the tips was the advice that when things aren’t happening, you should stop trying to focus so much on “top tier” outlets and look instead at more “second tier” niche publications. That kind of thinking should have no place in modern-day PR. 

The only tier that matters is the audience you’re trying to reach. I’m not saying I don’t get the thinking here, or that I’ve never been guilty of this. Of course, we all strive for the big headline in the biggest outlet because that’s what gets noticed, and what organizations love. The problem is when clients who don’t have a product or service that warrants that kind of attention start demanding it, or when PR pros promise it. 

Before you set your sights on the Wall Street Journal, ask yourself: is this where my audience is, or am I trying to get coverage in the Journal as a vanity move for my client or leadership team? Great coverage is great coverage, and part of how that greatness is defined is by the audience it reaches.

Agree? Disagree? Have any nuggets of wisdom you’d like to eradicate? Share them below.

Ten things you can do this Summer to re-energize your PR machine

If there’s one thing all PR pros know, it’s the futility of “planning your day.” All it takes is one phone call or email to shatter your lovingly prepared to-do lists into a million pieces.

The good news (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, at least) is the arrival of Summer – a perfect time to tackle the things we’ve all been meaning to do, but for which there hasn’t always been time.

Now I know Summer does not necessarily mean things slow down. In fact, vacationing team members have a way of increasing workloads for those still stuck in the office. And for some industries, Summer is what Christmas is for retailers.

But for many of us, things gear down in July and August, which usually means September will bring with it a rude awakening. That’s exactly why you should use the next eight weeks to do a tune-up on your PR machine so that you’re ready for when the busy season returns. Here’s how:

1. Schedule those face-to-faces

Maybe it’s the reporter you haven’t met, or someone who has been identified as a potential influencer. Or, maybe it’s that elusive executive. Regardless, even with vacations, Summer is a great time to actually meet and talk with someone. Do it now before family, work and business travel obligations once again wall them off from you.

2. Clean up your contact list

People move around, and things can get out of date fast. We’ve all been there: you turn to your trusted contact list, only to find out it’s no longer accurate. No more excuses; now’s the time to whip it back into shape.

3. Get some blog posts under your belt

Even people who love writing under pressure know it’s no fun squeezing out a post an hour before deadline while juggling five other things. Create a few “timeless topic” pieces and store them so that you can publish them when they’re needed the most.

4. Conduct a competitive analysis

We’re all drowning in data, so you should know quite well how you and your team are performing on metrics, whether it’s articles, CTRs, engagement or message pull-through. But many are less sure how their competitors are doing. Now’s the time to take a cold, hard look in the mirror and compare yourself – do an audit, talk to colleagues in sales and marketing and see how they view the world. Bottom line: learn not just where you stand, but also how you stack up against the rest of your industry.

5. Revisit that crisis plan

You know that crisis playbook that’s laying around somewhere, right? The one overseen by your long-departed predecessor, with the outdated contact information and messages? Yeah, that one. Now’s the time to update it – before the next crisis hits.

6. Take a vacation from your routine

With non-stop busy-ness comes a “just get it done mentality”. That usually means no one, least of all you, is in the mood for experimenting with new tactics, or digging deep to find new sources of stories or content. Summer is a great time to stretch your legs a little. Read up on best practices, talk to your peers, learn what people like you in other industries are doing. Or connect with colleagues in the organization you never normally see – mine them for ideas, and ideally, experiment with something new before Summer is over.

7. Review your vendor list

PR pros get their fair share of cold emails from people looking to offer their services, everything from monitoring technology to photographers. If you use vendors, take an honest inventory of where you’re weak or where there are gaps, and then go back into your inbox and follow up with some of them. There’s no shortage of talent out there, and you shouldn’t settle for second-best in anything.

8. Test-drive an agency

If you're a startup you’re lucky enough to work in a business that doesn’t require 30-page RFPs and a mountain of procurement rules, and you’re strapped this Summer, then why not acquaint yourself with a new agency? I’ll happily be self-serving here and say that smaller agencies are far more likely and able to accommodate a small project on short notice, especially in Summer. Doing so will help you get a sense of what’s available to you when bigger projects comes down the pipe later in the year.

9. Award submissions

Winning awards? Yay! Filling out submissions? Nope! Summer is not award season by any means, but you may have sense by now of what project or campaign you’re considering submitting later. So, go find a patio somewhere and do the heavy lifting now, and then circulate copy for early approval. You will thank yourself in a big way months from now.

10. Take a break

Finally, don’t be that person who accumulates loads of vacation time. This job can be tough. Use that time. Believe me, your colleagues, clients, friends, family and dog will all thank you.

Any other ideas for things to tackle this Summer? Let’s hear them!

What Saturday Night Live can teach you about managing a PR crisis


A Forbes contributor recently published a list of the biggest PR crises of 2017. Among the no-brainer inclusions was the Pepsi ad, which is interesting, because there’s a video out there that should be mandatory viewing for every PR professional.

That would be the SNL parody of that same Pepsi ad.

It’s a must-see not just because it’s hilarious, but because, like all good comedy, it hides important truths within the laughs.

Quick synopsis: The skit imagines the ad’s director about to start shooting on what, in his mind, is the biggest and best day of his career. Excited, he hops on a call with his sister and shares the details of the commercial. We can’t hear her response, but his face says it all. She’s reacting the way most of us would  - and ultimately did. He goes into a panic as he looks around and suddenly sees what’s really happening: imminent disaster.

Simply put, she burst his bubble.

You’re in a bubble, like it or not

Most corporate or “in-house” PR professionals work in a bubble. It’s almost unavoidable. They spend every day inside a rah-rah culture (that they often help create). Their organizations are full of people with competing roles, priorities, agendas, viewpoints and personalities. What binds them together is a shared desire for the organization to do well, but also to keep their jobs secure and career plans on track.

It’s not a bad thing. It’s just life. But once inside a bubble, it’s hard to be objective about things. It’s also harder to speak up in a way that could single you out.

Then along comes a troublesome issue, and it passes through the bubble with grave consequences. Or a full-blown crisis hits, demanding a speedy response, firm and bold decisions, and very often a need to speak uncomfortable truths or admit wrongs. But the problem with being in a bubble limits your ability to think objectively and can lead you to overlook the obvious.

As SNL notes, bubble thinking played a role in the Pepsi ad. But have a look at the other PR blunders on the Forbes list. From the outside looking in, their solutions seem too obvious – just apologize, fix, delete, admit. These are sophisticated organizations, home to endless pools of talent, but I’m convinced they were too deep in the bubble to do what needed to be done.

What you need to do

The lesson is clear. You need to inoculate yourself against bubble thinking so that when issues or crises hit, they can be addressed properly, objectively and with speed. Here’s how:

  • Forget the words “it’s just…”. I can’t tell you how many times in my career someone called me to flag a potential issue, but worked extra hard to downplay it. “It’s just someone venting on Facebook” or “It’s just an isolated incident” or some such thing. One sure sign of bubble thinking: overestimating anything good, downplaying anything bad. Give every issue close attention, no matter how small it may seem.
  • Go outside. Talk to your agency, if you have one. Or contact one if you don’t. If an agency is not a viable option, call a friend or colleague you trust. No matter how you do it, get an independent temperature check. People with nothing at stake will give you the real goods.


  • Trust your gut. You have your job for reason – you know this stuff. Listen to what your inner voice is telling you, even when everyone else feels otherwise, and speak up! It could make you a hero.

Do you have a bubble story to share? Or your own tips for dealing with bubble thinking? Share them below!

Is your startup looking for PR? Here’s what you really need to know

I attended a fantastic session at The Accelerator Centre in Waterloo this week. The panel, made up of Sarah Efron, Jessica Galang, Terry Pender, and Nadia Matos, provided startups with the basics of dealing with media and what it takes to pique their interest.

What struck me as I listened is that the panel could have easily convened at a gathering of Fortune 500 CEOs, and their advice would have been just as appropriate.

That’s because, like fitness, accounting or car repair, PR is a discipline that works when done properly, fails when it’s done poorly. Simple as that. PR trades in stories, and the size of the company telling that story is often irrelevant. There are plenty of solo entrepreneurs getting press, and just as many big corporations trying in vain to get noticed.

Why? Because one has an interesting story and tells it the right way while the other doesn’t.

Where startups differ from their bigger counterparts is that the latter usually have their stories figured out and, of course, time and people to focus on it.

Not to worry, though – you can get there too, and it will be time well spent. Here are some questions any company,  especially a startup, should be asking themselves before reaching out to media or before looking for outside PR support.

Is this the right time?

Everyone has a dream. I want to finish an Ironman. My neighbour wants to try stand-up comedy. And I’m guessing you want to launch a killer product and make tons of money for investors. Problem is, so does every single company reaching out to media.

At Provident, we often tell startups, you get one chance to launch. If your product is not totally 100% ready, if you don’t have alignment on your senior team on how to position and market it, and if it’s not actually available right now, then wait. You’re not ready. Note this is different than investor relations, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Do I know my story inside and out?

A story can be many things, but I can almost guarantee it’s not your product or service in isolation. The story is what has created the need for the product or service in the first place, and why you are positioned to make a tangible change in the face of that need. The more people affected by your product, and the more unique it is, the better. Focus on those two things. If you have competitors, study how they talk. Then make sure you’re different.

Remember, your elevator pitch is as important to media as it is to a potential investor or customer.

Can I prove it?

Your story is nothing more than a claim without data to back it up. Beef up your pitch with facts and figures – sales numbers, industry studies, related survey results – anything that shows you’re not just talk.

Is it boring?

As a former reporter, I can confirm that people in the media are human too. They listen to pitches all day long, and they’re looking for something that is interesting. Interesting translates into a good story, and a good story gets clicks. Droning on, talking jargon, or trying to impress with your Steve Jobs-like cockiness isn’t going to do it. Worse, you’ve now marked yourself as someone to avoid in the future.

Practice making your story an actual narrative. Every narrative at its heart has a compelling hero/underdog facing a challenge and putting it right. It elicits empathy and excitement. Yes, sometimes it can be about the founder(s), but tread carefully – he or she must have a unique personal story or a long list of achievements to make that an option.  

Am I the right person to tell it?

It’s true, media tend to gravitate to the founder or the CEO. But if they’re the kind of person who can’t hold an engaging conversation, or wants to avoid media interviews, then it’s ok to tap someone else. Anyone who is senior will do – just make sure they exude confidence, know the story and can think on their feet.

PR is one of the most cost-effective and potentially life-changing strategies a company can utilize. But before diving in, remember there’s no rush. Do some research, ask a lot of questions, and talk to people in the industry. That way you’ll minimize hiccups and maximize ROI. And that’s music to any startup’s ears.



PR pros: here are 4 types of difficult spokespeople, and how to make them better

I wish I could just do this interview myself.”

Be honest: how many times have you uttered those words as a spokesperson does pretty much everything *except* what they’re supposed to?

Some executives are the LeBron James of media interviews (sorry, Raptors fans!). They were born to do it, and they work hard to train. They know the task at hand, do the prep, effortlessly handle tough questions, then smile when it’s done and ask for feedback. Nothing but net.

Others, not so much. Here are four types of spokespeople who can be challenging to manage (and do damage as a result) as well as a few tips on how to get them into game shape and get the sort of media coverage you’re after.

The Cowboy or Cowgirl

You certainly can’t accuse the Cowboy/Cowgirl of being checked out. They’re the ones eager for the next media interview, and challenging you about why they can’t get the kind of coverage Ms. Competitor is getting. When they do get an interview, they’re ready to go. Like, right now. Prep? It’s for suckers. Media are easy.  They’ve *GOT* this. Sometimes, they do. But just as often, their interviews go into the weeds or worse, into risky and inaccurate territory.

It can be hard to tamp down that kind of overconfidence. One way to help moderate some of the exuberance is to give positive critique: take the best of what they did before, remind them of it, and urge them to go for a repeat win. Alternatively, you can point to someone else (a competitor, someone they look up to), highlight what they did or didn’t do well, and then show them how to replicate the success or avoid the disaster. It’s all about showing what they’re good at already, and how to make it great. Gently stressing the importance of prep and training is also very helpful here.

The Avoider

On paper, Avoiders are just fine with media interviews. Until an opportunity for one comes up, that is. Suddenly a mix of travel, sales calls, vacation, dying phone batteries and natural disasters comes up, and they just can’t make this one work. But maybe next time? They always know someone else who is better suited to do it in their place, or worse, they may decide that postponing is a better strategy because, well, it just is.

Simply put, they don’t like doing interviews but won’t admit it.

Dealing with them is all about advance prep work. Identify well in advance (and ideally in the presence of their boss) the key media, audiences and topics that they – and only they – will speak to, because they’re the only ones qualified to do it. Show where other interviews can be parceled off to others, and where they can’t. Warn them when a media interview could be impending – it’s difficult to outright decline a hypothetical. Then, work with someone else to confirm their calendar and book it. Just don’t position anything a question along the way!

The Technician

A Technician can be an Avoider or a Cowgirl, but what sets them apart is that they can never go deep enough into the weeds. Technicians  complain that the reporter they spoke to doesn’t “get it,” or that he or she had to do too much explaining. They feast on jargon. They may diligently prep, show enthusiasm for the opportunity, and profess an understanding for what must be done. But as soon as the interview starts, they throw it all away and bury the reporter in overwrought, lengthy answers riddled with arcane language and acronyms.

To win here, play to their ego. Explain at the outset that the reporter needs their help and guidance, and work on those snappy quotes or talking points that get it done quickly. Or, consider setting up an on background interview when they and your spokesperson have time. Get the inevitable technical sermon out of their system ahead of time, so that they when the reporter is on deadline, things go much more smoothly.

The Panicker

When the Panicker gets an interview request, they usually start with 50 or so questions, after which they book several prep meetings and request multi-volume briefing binders. They’re the ones who often try to memorize messages like a movie script and curse themselves for missing even a single word. And no matter how they performed, they *know* they did a bad job answering that one question. They will also hate the resulting article, even when everyone else is happy.

Let’s face it. You never want a Panicker facing a tough interview. So, in the same way someone scared of flying might conquer their fear by getting on a short flight, start them easy. Again, look for an information interview or meet-and-greet to start, or an opportunity that’s more transactional. And although it requires a commitment, using prep time to run mock interviews can also help a great deal. Panickers often possess expert-level knowledge and have a deep concern for accuracy. That makes them excellent spokespeople, provided you can get them past their initial fears.

Are there other types I’ve missed? Have any advice of your own for how to handle the non-gifted spokesperson? Let’s hear them!


Four signs you’re drinking too much of your company’s Kool Aid, and how to stop

Stop me if this sounds familiar. A product lead takes you through a very optimistic presentation or an executive goes off on a rant about how no one outside the company walls gets it. All you can think to yourself is “wow, they’re really drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Kool-Aid drinkers are people who have lost perspective. They’re hype-believers who fail to see what is so glaringly obvious to you: that the product or service they want to promote isn’t all that different from the competition, falls short of customer expectations, or only matters to a very small group of people.

There are two types of drinkers, in my experience. The first type starts chugging the minute they walk in the door. They’re excited and they can’t help it. It’s embedded in their DNA. The second type is more gradual – afflicting people who once carried a healthy skepticism, but have worked too long in an environment where incremental change is revolutionary, and “me too” feels ground-breaking.  

Like bad driving, a loss of perspective is a trait we tend to easily spot in others, but rarely in ourselves. And that’s dangerous, because as we know, the best communicators are the ones who view things objectively – sometimes skeptically – and speak truth to power.

I’ve sipped from time to time, I’ll admit. And I bet you have too. In fact, you may be drinking the Kool Aid right now without even realizing it. Here are warning signs to watch for, what to do about them.

1.      Everyone around me is doing it wrong!

You’re a PR leader inside a big company. Pitches keep falling flat. Blog posts aren’t resonating. And your first reaction is that the team isn’t positioning/pitching/understanding it properly. Now failure *could* mean that there actually is a disconnect. But if you’re pointing the finger at your people too much, and asking why they didn’t cover all the minute details, or didn’t put every last fact in the media pitch, then it’s time to check your expectations. A cold hard look at what you’re promoting is a good idea here, because you may be drinking Kool Aid. Consider changing course.

2.      All I get is pushback!

Hey, it could be that you have an agency that’s not being bold or creative with their thinking, or a team member that always has a reason to not do something. Or, maybe all the resistance, reluctance and rolling eyes should be telling you something else. That they’re right, and you’re not. Consider getting someone from outside your team or department to take a look at the challenge you’re facing. A trusted second opinion can save you work, and even embarrassment!

3.      But I’m in total agreement with my marketing and product teams!

Going to work each day is so much easier when everyone can simply high-five each other. Being on the same page is wonderful. And hey, it can happen. But I’d wager that any communications professional who nods their heads in agreement with every idea or opinion born elsewhere in the company is either not doing their job correctly, or drinking away. If all you’re getting is violent agreement with your viewpoint, it may be time for an outside perspective. Or learn to say no. Too many nodding heads likely played some role in bringing Pepsi’s infamous Jenner ad to life. Note that in the SNL parody, the director bails… after getting a second opinion.

4.      I love all these other ideas, but let’s focus on this instead

I live in the world. I know sometimes you have to roll a big boulder up a steep hill because it just must be done. But if you’re annoyed because all the people around you keep wanting to go in different directions, and never focus on that thing you keep coming back to, then ask yourself if you really have to be doing that thing. It may be that your idea is tone-deaf, and your team is concerned you’re not open to the feedback. This actually could be hinting at a broader culture problem. It might be time to sit down with the group, and have a frank and direct discussion about how you exchange ideas with each other.

And finally...

Remember, always trust your instincts. That little voice saying “uh-oh” when you’re being briefed on something shouldn’t be ignored. When something sounds irrelevant, unoriginal or boring when you’re being told to promote it, it probably is! Speak up.

You may not always get your way, but losing the odd battle is better than always pouring yourself another glass of Kool Aid. It can sometimes be tough to recover a healthy perspective once you’ve lost it, so it’s worth fighting for it!






The one question you can’t forget to ask when searching for a PR agency

Sometimes you read something and all you can think is “couldn’t have said it better myself.” That’s how I felt reading  Roy Osing’s fantastic column  yesterday in the Globe and Mail on the need for leaders to get way deeper into the trenches with their teams, and to never delegate truly strategic work.

Osing writes: “Strategic actions require the fingerprints of a leader who is a master at do-it-yourself.”

It wasn’t about the PR industry, but it easily could’ve been.

Sound familiar?

One question clients always ask their prospective PR agencies (and behind closed doors, agencies ask of themselves) is who the “lead” will be on the team. It can be difficult to answer.

Do they mean the “day to day” lead? That’s the person best defined as the throat to choke. They put in the hours, they are on speed dial, and on the “to” line of every email.

Or, do they mean the other kind of lead? Call them what you will, be it strategic oversight, senior counsel, senior lead. It’s the person who a) is the most experienced and who b) will typically be seen most often during the initial sale and onboarding, or at major milestones. Otherwise, they’re the name on the "cc" line.

It works... in theory

On the surface, it may seem like clients and agencies like this arrangement, mostly due to budget. Clients worry that too much senior leader time will run up billables (although let me be clear: if your agency sends you surprise bills, you should switch your agency). For agencies, spreading senior talent across as many clients as possible is ideal.

The result is that senior leaders can’t dive into execution, and the barriers to changing that are put in place early by both sides. Over time, the risk is that everyone comes to believe the leader shouldn’t execute, and that more junior people will carry the load. And that’s where breakdowns can begin.

There are lot of good reasons to senior leaders to stay above the fray. Juniors learn from mistakes. No one wants to work for a micro-manager. And how do you build capacity when a handful of people are doing all the problem solving? But there can be too much of good thing.

That’s why small agencies see their own size not as a disadvantage, but as a winning edge. Senior people see things through from start to finish. And when they can’t handle it all, they seek out fellow experts to get it done. It’s fast, it’s efficient. And it’s what I’ve come to embrace.

The takeaway

So, as part of your agency search ask yourself this question: how important are senior counsel and real industry knowledge to the successful execution of your mandate? If it the answer is “very,” then be prepared to ask some tough but necessary follow-up questions.



Leaders: when others go bland, go bold!

Years ago, I heard a piece of acting advice that has stuck with me ever since: the rule of thumb when performing for TV – where the shots are wider screens smaller – is to exaggerate the emotions. Big facial features. Loud laughing or sobbing. Basically, anything that would look absurd at a dinner party. The idea is that anything less pointed will simply get missed by the viewer.

It’s why non-actors who appear on screen can seem so wooden: they’re just acting normal in an environment that’s unforgiving of normal behaviour.

Now, I’m not an actor, so I can’t speak to whether it’s sound advice or not. But it occasionally does come to mind in my work as a communications expert.

We’ve all been there: we come up with a fantastic quote, a talk track or message that resonates with the brand AND that speaks to an issue that actually matters to people. It’s a chance to step up, stand out and be heard. We pull together the first draft. It’s proud, bold and ready for the stage.

That’s about when the slow process of watering down begins. A comment here, a strikeout there, a meeting with nervous looks and comments, and more adjustments. Next thing you know, you’re left with something that’s a masterpiece of committee thinking. It’s nice. Informative, even. And a far cry from the bold, original thinking that that originally gave birth to it.

It’s what sports coaches call trying really hard not to lose, as opposed to trying to win.

I get that companies and executives can only go so far. No one wants to risk offense, or to over-promise.  After all, it can go sideways, fast. I’ll also admit that I’ve done my share of watering down in my day. But just look at which CEOs Fortune 500 leaders look up to. Many say things that raise eyebrows, or speak very directly, or sound unlike what we envision a corporate executive to be. No damage done, apparently!

Watering down, on the other hand, can harm your brand – especially in a crisis. One of the big errors of the whole United Airlines debacle was a misplaced attempt to use watered down language when something much more authentic, emotive and direct was called for. Sometimes you just have to be bold and direct to make an impact, and to live up to the situation or issue you’re facing.

It’s not about being provocative just to get attention, or ratcheting up the intensity to 10. Just make a commitment to be a bit more forthright, to speak a bit more clearly, to be bolder wherever and however you can. If you feel that nagging voice saying “this is boring” then, likely, is.

So instead, try taking it up, not down, a notch. You may make the kind of impression you’re aiming for.