media

Top 4 PR mistakes for leaders to avoid

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When it comes to effective public relations, there is a lot for a leader to take in. He or she has to be knowledgeable, clear, concise and confident. In addition, different rules of engagement apply depending on whether you're announcing good news, sharing your expertise or defending your brand for a crisis.

At Provident, we have used our expertise to coach companies, CEOs and other C-level leaders on how to connect with the media effectively. It isn't something mastered in a single sitting, and takes constant practice. With that in mind, we wanted to share some of the most common errors we see, and how to sidestep them.

Inaccessibility: It's easy for leaders who don't have a ton of experience in this area to think that their organization's media relations department should handle most interactions with journalists. We've seen leaders eager for profile in the media, but not willing to be the face of their company in a story. If you're interested in protecting and enhancing the brand and reputation of your company, that walled-off approach can actually hurt instead of helping.

For instance, when a reporter approaches you with interest in your recently launched product, the biggest mistake you can make is to respond with a simple statement or some press release links. The reporter will likely think you to be opaque, and you will miss an excellent opportunity to shape the public narrative about your company. And in crisis, especially when a company's core values and consumer promises are under attack, leaders have to be visible. Resorting solely to using spokespeople and statements can erode credibility and be perceived as minimizing the issue. In short, it can exacerbate damage to your brand.

Like it or not, if you lead an organization, you have to have to speak with the media, and it's important that you be good at it.

Lack of preparation: Congratulations, you've made the decision to engage with reporters! With that out of the way, it’s key that you begin preparing and practising, so that you’re ready for when the opportunity (or crisis!) arrives.

In good-news stories, a lack of preparation can be as wasteful as deciding not to talk to the media at all. For example, we've seen instances when a leader is convinced that they know their business backwards and forwards, and that media prep isn't a productive use of time. The leader does the media interview, only to be surprised when they receive minimal coverage in the resulting article. Often, jargon and technical language are to blame. Framing your story in plain language is a key objective of preparation, and should never be ignored. Your brand will thank you for it! For more on how untrained spokespeople can ruin even the best laid PR plans, check out this post.

In a crisis, a lack of prep can be lethal for your reputation. Aside from having a crisis management process which lets you round up key facts and decision makers inside your company quickly, you have to prepare for the questions you will likely face from the media and other stakeholders. Your answers have to be straightforward, factual and rooted firmly in fact. Avoid "freestyling" and speculative answers, unless you're looking to extend the negative news cycle and pour gasoline on the reputation fire. And if you've never faced a crisis before, here's what to do when your media line starts ringing.

Key messages only: You've practiced. You've got your key messages down pat. Now all that stands in the way of success is making sure that journalists report them. Surely, the best way to do that is by repeating them during the interview, over and over again, and regardless of what you're being asked. Right? Well, not exactly.

Because religiously sticking to key messages is sometimes seen as a security blanket for less-than-confident spokespeople, the "key messages only" or "block and bridge" approach is still alive and well today. At Provident, we counsel our clients that if you're looking for a quick way to damage your media relationships and hurt your credibility, this is the single best way to go. Check out this post for more on this subject.

If, on the other hand, you want to elevate your brand and establish yourself and your company as industry thought leaders, you need to think in storylines and narratives, rather than rigid key messages. And in a crisis, empathy and factual clarity almost always works much better than stonewalling the media with your "lines."

Not understanding the media: Last but not least, executive PR failures can often be traced back to a basic misunderstanding of the media and their audiences. If you want to see PR success, you need to think like a reporter, not an advertiser. That means you shouldn't give the reporter your blog copy, ads and fact sheet and expect a glowing front-page story about how amazing you are.

Instead, provide the reporter with something truly new, differentiated and innovative, and which gives their audience value. Invest a little time in researching the reporters with whom you plan to speak, and ensure they have at least a passing interest in your company or your industry. With a little bit of good timing, you will get interest, coverage and the licence to start establishing you and your company as experts in your field.

Engaging with the media is a crucial role for the leadership of any organization. To work well, it requires strategic planning, narrative preparation and strong execution. If you're interested in an unbiased expert opinion about your story, just drop us a line at wojtek@providentcomms.com!

Why PR is a must-have for startups

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Startups face a wide range of challenges and competing priorities. Between sourcing new business, maintaining relationships with your existing clients and refining your product or service, there is a lot going on. Marketing can sometimes take a back seat.

However, we believe firmly that the one thing startups shouldn’t forget about is public relations. Good PR does much more than just build some buzz and grow basic awareness. Here are three key reasons why telling your story effectively to the outside world is a must for young companies.

1. Seeking Financing

Finding financing and investors is critical to taking many startups to the next level. Over time, having a visible profile in the media can play a massive part in the success of your fundraising efforts. The reason is simple: many investors of all sizes and across all sectors look to the media as a key source of information. The more high-quality blog and media coverage your company receives, the more these investors will be looking at you.

As well, one of the best ways to show off the credibility of your business to potential investors is sharing links to positive media coverage highlighting your brand and product or service. This is especially crucial when making cold pitches, as the success rate can skyrocket when you have third-party coverage backing up your pitch.

2. Thought Leadership

Taking steps to establish yourself as a thought leader is a sound strategy for founders, and should be part of any startup PR plan. You launched your company because you’ve got deep expertise in a particular field, or a unique perspective about your industry. You should share it! This can work especially well if your company is in an industry that does not already have a ton of established experts writing white papers and regularly providing commentary. By sharing your knowledge, you and your company can gain exposure to new potential partners, new talent, and even new relationships with reporters.

In addition to speaking with media directly, a great way of doing this is by creating relevant and engaging online content, such as blogging or video. You can maximize exposure by sharing your storytelling through both your personal channels and your company’s, sharing your posts with the reporters who cover your sector, or spending a little money on promotion. This lets your leaders increase their own profile, while putting the company brand in front of a targeted audience.

3. Strategic Partnerships

Partnering with other companies in your industry makes sense for a variety of reasons. You may be looking to co-develop a product with someone who has capabilities you don't. Or, you may be thinking longer term, about one day selling your company. It might feel strange to be thinking about your company’s eventual sale right at the beginning, but many of your potential investors will be thinking this way as they consider whether to fund your business. That means you have to think about it too. Your PR plan can be critical to attracting the attention of major players in your industry, either for partnership or potential exit.

We see this every day in the telecom and finance sectors, with the next great company being purchased by a larger incumbents. Quality exposure matters, especially in sectors where there are many similarly oriented startups in a race to be first in a particular niche. To get on the radar of the large player who might one day partner with you or buy your startup, you have to successfully target both mass market press and trade publications in your PR strategy.

PR is a critical tool for a startup to employ in establishing its brand and credibility with investors, partners and a variety of other stakeholders. It takes hard work and expertise. In recognition of this, we have developed a specialized offering specifically for startups. Check out Provident Ignite, or drop us a line at wojtek@providentcomms.com

 

 

How communicators can stay ahead in the chaos of an M&A transaction

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Mergers and acquisitions are high-stakes stuff: for the buyer, its competitive position, the ultimate success of its strategy and the trajectory of its stock price are on the table. For the seller, there are often worries about what will happen to company culture, brand, and job security.

At the same time, with teams of lawyers, bankers and other advisors involved, a deal can feel like the proverbial kitchen with too many cooks. For communicators, the challenge is acute, as each of those groups has an opinion about how the story, rationale and messaging of the transaction should be conveyed to various stakeholders, including employees, investors and media.

Each of the aforementioned chefs is coming from the right place, and chances are they recognize that both early and ongoing communications are critical to a deal's ultimate success or failure. After all, if the transaction isn’t embraced by employees on both sides, or if investors feel the story isn’t clear enough to support it, even the best can falter.

From my M&A experience in the North American financial services industry, there are a number of effective ways to ensure communications considerations stay front and center in a deal scenario.

Get a seat at the decision-making table ... before it’s even set. Depending on your company’s way of doing things, you may be brought into a deal with just a few weeks before the public announcement. If that’s the case, you’ll be playing catch-up with the other people involved, and you’ll constantly be reacting to developments, rather than steering them proactively.

Before a deal ever gets announced, make sure your department is on the same page as your corporate development, strategy and investor relations (IR) teams. Set up a meeting yourself, or get the head of your department to do it, if you’re in a more junior role. Ensure that you and your partners understand the value each brings in helping the transaction land successfully. And, more selfishly, get them to understand the role your function can play in telling a deal’s story internally and externally.

When this is done well, your corporate development and IR partners will advocate for you in front of your company's senior leaders, which will ensure you're brought in earlier in future deals.

The ideal end-state here is that you’re signing a non-disclosure agreement about a deal at the same time as your investor relations colleagues, so that you can work as a synchronized team, instead of at cross purposes. Speaking of which…

Make best friends with your IR group, if you haven’t already. They are a font of context, information and financial knowledge that communications teams leverage all too rarely. And because most IR teams report to the Chief Financial Officer, odds are that they will have the most current information about a deal and its status earlier than you will.

Whenever possible, I try to invite myself to review sessions of the IR materials being created (the investor deck, the analyst conference call script, et cetera). This not only keeps me up to date, but also ensures I’m aware of the challenges and questions my colleagues in IR are grappling with.

It’s important to remember that while both you and your IR colleagues are working on communicating the deal, you are doing so with very different audiences. For example, for a communications team, it may seem natural to point out to the media that the deal you’re announcing is your company’s largest acquisition to date. But for your IR colleagues, you could be creating a major headache, as emphasizing the deal’s size may be creating the perception that your company just paid a very full price. That might not be something IR wants to communicate to investors at all.

That’s why having a healthy and established relationship with IR before a deal lands in your lap is so critical. That way, you understand each other and what you’re focused on accomplishing from the start.

Get the first drafts of everything done as soon as possible. I remember working on a multibillion dollar acquisition where I locked myself and two other colleagues in a conference room for three hours, and we wrote the first draft of the announcement press release. While the financial terms and closing timeline continued to evolve until the day before announcement, the core story didn’t mutate too significantly from that first draft.

If you do a good job capturing the deal’s narrative, my rough estimate is that 75%-80% of your first-draft announcement is likely to survive to the finish line. There will be lots of specific word-choice edits and legal vetting of all documents, but once senior leaders agree on the bulk of the deal's strategic narrative, its essence tends to stay relatively constant.

Getting the early press release down on paper also lets you turn attention to the other, equally important items on the deal’s to-do list: employee communications, the media list and spokesperson selection, among others.

Lastly, don’t lose sight of your long-term goals and your role. Fundamentally, deal communications are no different from anything else you’re tasked with communicating: you have to be engaging, compelling, emotive and innovative in the channels you use. As always, it’s important to truly understand your audiences. Typically, those include your company’s employees, the target company’s employees and the media. You might also be tasked with aspects of government and regulatory communications, in addition to customer communications.

How will you address these groups so that they easily and clearly get answers to their most pressing questions, and also understand the strategy behind the transaction? What role will your leaders play in conveying that information, internally and externally? And what happens post-announcement?

In a deal, it’s easy to get swept up in the immediate excitement of the transaction. But keeping a broader, longer-term view goes a long way to assure ultimate success. Think about how the news you’re announcing could be woven into your existing communications strategy, for example. Is there an opportunity to showcase the transaction and its early performance at town halls, or at your annual meeting? What about a blog post on your company’s intranet? A real-time Q&A with senior leaders? Announcement day is just the beginning!

I hope you enjoyed the post, and if so, that you’ll take a moment to like, share or leave a comment below!

 

Broken news: how untrained spokespeople can wreck even the best PR campaigns

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You’ve done it: you have finally hit the “send” button, and the announcement you have been working on for weeks is finally out. It’s newsworthy, it’s fresh and you know you’ll get interview requests from the media. It will be great for your company’s brand and reputation, it could force your competitors to scramble, and you and the rest of the communications team will look like superstars.

Sure enough, the media calls start pouring in. You line up your spokespeople, equipping them with shiny copies of the storyline and messaging. Now, all that’s left is for them to deliver, and for reporters to write the story accurately. Nothing can go wrong.

But when you check your phone for the latest headlines, you start noticing your story isn’t being told well at all. Big, obvious messages are being missed. Your spokespeople aren’t being quoted very much, and when they are, the comments are basic, bland or boring.

Then, your phone starts ringing. Your boss calls, then your business partner. They have one question for you: what happened?

If that sounds familiar, there’s a good chance that the one gap in your PR strategy is that your spokesperson hasn’t been trained on how to give media interviews, or could use a significant refresher. Asking someone untrained to be your spokesperson on a big announcement is like asking an amateur driver to drive in a Formula 1 race: the car might be an elegant thing of engineering beauty, but the driver is as likely to forget to switch gears as he or she is to crash into a wall.

Here are just a few ways untrained spokespeople can unwittingly sabotage your PR plans:

They ad lib

One of the most common spokesperson missteps is adding superfluous commentary that is irrelevant to the narrative, announcement or news you’re discussing. I’m not talking about a personalized turn of phrase, or an interesting data point to bolster the story. Rather, I’m referring to spokespeople who like to hypothesize about what the announcement might mean to the industry, who get facts wrong because they didn't prepare, or who exaggerate the importance of the news.

For example, you’ve just announced that you will use chatbots to deliver customer service. It's a good-news story, and a nice bit of innovation for your company. However, your spokesperson will sound rather tone deaf if he or she calls the announcement “a revolutionary technology which will cement our place as an industry leader.” Chatbots are no longer revolutionary, nor are you an industry leader if you’re launching them just now.

Reporters know this, and your spokesperson won’t get quoted in the story as a result. What’s more, the time spent self-congratulating takes away from delivering the messages that actually matter to your audiences: it will now take less time to address common customer service issues (consumer message) and chatbots are very cost effective (investor message).

It’s important to show, rather than tell. Instead of simply saying chatbots are amazing, imagine your spokesperson says “An average customer currently spends 20 minutes dealing with us on the phone to resolve an issue. Our chatbot lets you skip the wait time for the most common problems, so the resolution time gets cut in about half.” Much better, right?

"A trained, polished and effective spokesperson realizes that they and their brand come out ahead when they focus on providing value to the audience."

They don’t understand their role in the story

An effective spokesperson tells a compelling story in a way which is appropriate for the audience he or she is facing. They should not be doing the interview to build their own profile – that’s typically a happy by-product which accumulates over time. They’re also not there to ignore the reporter’s questions and hammer away at a scripted set of key messages they've decided is the most important.

A trained, polished and effective spokesperson realizes that they and their brand come out ahead when they focus on providing value to the audience. That’s what the reporter covering your announcement is most often focused on, and your spokesperson should be focused on it too. Their job is to inform, contextualize and, if the subject matter permits it, entertain.

If the spokesperson doesn't do this, the storyline will not land, they will rarely be quoted, and the reporter who just interviewed them might reconsider covering your news at all.

They have poor delivery

I'll keep this point short because it's an obvious one, especially in broadcast media interviews. If you're not good on camera, you shouldn't be on camera. With that said, spokespeople who don't know how to tell a story using short, simple and quotable sentences can also be a major problem in print interviews. Long-winded answers containing unnecessarily complex vocabulary choices don't do anyone any favours. The reporter tunes out, the message gets lost, and the audience doesn’t get to hear a good story.

"Having a group of polished, prepared and knowledgeable storytellers at your disposal can differentiate you from your competition."

How training can help

Practice really does make perfect when it comes to media interviews. Regular training and refresher sessions using either your in-house team or an external expert can be a big help in addressing and avoiding the above-mentioned pitfalls.

Company spokespeople are eager to conduct dry runs of crisis scenarios to ensure they're prepared for a misstep or emergency. That's a best practice, and absolutely worthwhile. However, fewer are willing to invest time to practice good-news media interviews, or to refine how they present information to journalists more generally. I’ve never understood this dichotomy. After all, one would hope that the average company conducts a far greater number of positive interviews regarding its products, services and expertise. You should be at least as prepared for good-news interviews as you are for the bad!

Simply put, companies are leaving significant value on the table by neglecting to train their day-to-day spokespeople. Having a group of polished, prepared and knowledgeable storytellers at your disposal can differentiate you from your competition and meaningfully elevate your brand. After all, if reporters see your spokespeople as more interesting, entertaining or informative than the competition, you can bet your media relations phone line will be ringing with greater frequency.

I hope you enjoyed the post, and if so, that you’ll take a moment to like, share or leave a comment below!

Busting a PR myth: why "sticking to your key messages" will NOT get you great results

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For many years, one of the big mantras in PR has been that you should keep hammering away at the key messages you’re trying to get across in a media interview, no matter what.

Is the reporter asking you a completely unrelated question? Doesn’t matter – repeat your key message. Do they want to speak to you about an issue or topic your key messages don't even cover? Doesn’t matter – repeat your key message. Is the interview a fairly relaxed conversation about your company’s strategy, rather than a reputation-destroying crisis? One size fits all – just repeat your key message.

If you do this enough, this line of PR thinking goes, your points will stick and the reporter will repeat them. The industry even gave this approach a name of its very own: “block (the reporter's actual question) and bridge (to your key message).”

Great - except it rarely works!

Don't get me wrong: without a doubt, messaging is extremely important to PR success. Your spokesperson or leader should know the story they want to tell, how to tell it, and why. However, that's very different from the "block and bridge" definition of a key message: a narrowly worded statement, aimed exclusively at promoting the speaker's self-interest and often repeated ad nauseam.

Leaders are counselled to “block and bridge” when they speak with reporters because of the illusion of control it creates. After all, if every single one of your answers contains the same one or two points you’re trying to convey, the reporter is bound to use them somehow. You're also creating a simple script for your spokespeople to follow, which makes missteps less likely. Nothing bad can happen if you only talk about how great you are or how well your company is doing, right?

This logic might make sense at first blush, but I have seen it in action both as areporter and during my communications career, and the results just don't bear it out. Here are a few of the reasons why this approach doesn't work most of the time:

It erodes trust and insults the reporter

Imagine a reporter asks you about the economy's impact on your business, and you answer by saying, “That’s a good question, but the real point here is how well equipped we are to continue to deliver sustainable earnings growth.” Block! Bridge! Key message! Great!

Of course, what's really happening is you are openly showing that you don’t understand or care about what the reporter is trying to do and why you’ve been given the opportunity in the first place. You’re also implying you think you can defeat the reporter’s professional-grade spin detector through brute force alone. You can bet the reporter knows this, and it can cost you media opportunities further down the road as a result, in addition to destroying any trust that already exists between you.

media-planning

Years ago, while working as a journalist, I called a soft drink company for a story about the industry. I wanted to speak to someone in marketing about the sales decline in one product category. The company could have offered up someone who was willing to acknowledge that the market had changed, and who could talk about what the company was doing about it.

Instead, I was treated to a “block and bridge” interview about how everything was completely, unequivocally great. Rather than a conversation, the exchange felt as though the spokesperson was reading a set of two or three key messages to me, over and over again, regardless of what I was asking. It was a frustrating waste of time. I never used any of the comments, and didn't bother calling the company for future industry coverage.

It hurts your brand and authenticity

Even if you succeed at jamming your key message in the reporter’s face enough to get them to print some version of it, there is a good chance your quote will be highly incongruous with the rest of the story, or taken out of context altogether. I've also seen many instances where interview subjects were perplexed as to why a journalist paraphrased what they said, parked it at the bottom of the story, or did not quote them at all.

Quite often, repetitive, lazy and blatantly self-promotional "block and bridge" key messages are to blame. I recall reporter colleagues often complaining of being "key messaged to death," which was synonymous with a wasted interview.

There’s a significant knock-on effect here, because you also have the audience to consider. The customers, prospects, investors and other stakeholders who read, watch or hear your interview could see you as absent, inauthentic, unrealistic or thoughtless. This can have long-lasting, negative ramifications for your brand and your stock price.

It wrongly assumes all media requests the same

To be fair, “block and bridge” can work when you’re facing a legitimate crisis, with little available information early on, as well as a rapidly evolving storyline. For example, if an equipment failure at your company causes a power outage, you will only be able to tell the media that you’re investigating, at least until you have more information, no matter how many questions they ask you. The same is true when you’re trying to protect your reputation in a news cycle during which rumour and inaccuracy has entered the coverage. When you're trying to set the record straight, factual repetition can be key.

However, in the vast majority of media opportunities, adopting the “block and bridge” strategy comes across as needlessly wary, cautious and even paranoid.

For example, if a new competitor to your business emerges and a reporter comes calling, you shouldn't assume they are "out to get you." In fact, it's great that you've been given a chance to insert yourself into the story! This could be a great opportunity to talk about what sets you apart, how your leaders have shaped the industry thus far and how you will innovate to continue to stay ahead.

There is a better way!

Experienced and confident leaders know when to ignore the "block and bridge" counsel. And savvy communications advisers who truly understand the media very rarely invoke it.

Good spokespeople and their advisors know the story they want to tell and, importantly, how to tell it authentically, transparently and in a compelling way. Again, it's important to know and understand your messaging, rather than to drill home a set of rigid "block and bridge" key messages.

I firmly believe that PR success for companies hinges on healthy, respectful, give-and-take relationships with reporters and editors. That means an open and mutual understanding of each other’s goals, and of what makes a good story.

"Block and bridge" tactics almost never have a place in this sort of world view. When a good storytelling relationship exists between a company and a media outlet, there is no room or need for repetitive stonewalling with irrelevant key messages as a means of hammering home a point.

That doesn't mean that leaders and companies should abandon any hope of telling a strong, positive story about their businesses. Quite the opposite - narrative arcs in which adversity is overcome can be truly compelling, especially if they're anchored around human, multi-dimensional characters. Are you telling a good story? That should be the focus.

In addition, when you build trust with a reporter, over time, they will become more willing to listen to the story you’re trying to pitch, just as you will become more interested in listening to their queries when they come calling. And they'll also be more receptive to hearing your side when crisis hits.

So, as you get ready to act on your next media opportunity, think about more than just your company’s key messages. In fact, begin long before then: connect with the reporters and bloggers who cover your company and see what they find interesting about you, and how you can help each other.

I hope you enjoyed the post and if so, that you’ll take the time to like, share and comment!

Starting up: Provident Communications Inc.

Today is a big day for me. My hope is that it will also turn out to be a big day for leaders and companies who want to become better at telling their stories and building valuable, meaningful and lasting connections with their audiences.

I’ve made the difficult decision to leave my role as Vice President of CEO Communications at Manulife Financial Corp., a leading global financial services company. I’m parting ways with what has been an exciting and rewarding career as a corporate communications leader to launch a new business, Provident Communications Inc.

The definition of “provident” is being prepared for the future, and having foresight, imagination and good judgment. I think that sums up, in very broad strokes, what a client-focused, innovative and agile communications firm like Provident can offer.

I am also humbled and excited that Manulife has agreed to become a Provident client. I’m grateful to everyone at Manulife for this generous and significant opportunity, and am delighted we will be able to continue to work together.

Provident will officially open for business next Monday, June 20, but the website is live now, at www.providentcomms.com.

Let me provide some context about how I got to today.

As part of my roles at Manulife, RBC and TD, and earlier, during my journalism career, I had the good fortune to meet various leaders at some of the world’s biggest brands, as well as some truly exciting startups. Our conversations revolved around everything from organizational trust to the need to drive higher employee engagement through communications and executive thought leadership. I learned a lot, much of which I applied to my work.

At the same time, I also heard the same persistent needs: almost universally, these leaders are eager for big ideas and stellar execution in storytelling, both in terms of content and channel. Not surprisingly, many of them seek fresh communications strategies anchored by innovative thought, insight and sound counsel.

They want advisors who take the time to learn and understand their businesses before offering input. They want trusted communications partners who develop bold and original approaches to building employee engagement and public profile alike. They want calm, seasoned issues-management expertise when crisis hits.

And among startups, many face their own unique communications hurdles, from pitching investors to shaping their brand and scaling awareness of new products.

That’s where Provident comes in.

Provident will solve these challenges with expert and innovative advice, flawless and agile execution and best-in-class service. My track record is built on both global daily business journalism and bluechip corporate communications leadership, and my firm will be bringing all of that to bear for our clients.

I look forward to working with many of you soon.