issues management

The Evolution of PR in the Digital Era

Public relations flourished in an era when there were lots of local newspapers and three major TV networks. In the digital world, PR has evolved to take advantage of more news channels, more communications tools and more viewer interaction.

Public relations flourished in an era when there were lots of local newspapers and three major TV networks. In the digital world, PR has evolved to take advantage of more news channels, more communications tools and more viewer interaction.

Before the internet, public relations was all about outshining the other guy. In the digital world, corporations, nonprofits and public agencies must communicate in ways that build trust. You still want your organization to stand out from competitors. But how you do it and where you do it have changed markedly in the digital era.

Traditional media no longer owns the turf. People get news from a mix of disparate sources, many of which have a point of view or even an agenda. There isn’t a national fireplace around which a majority of Americans gather to hear the news from a handful of trusted broadcasters. A lot of people open up their morning newspaper, if they still subscribe to one, on their smartphones.

Once upon a time, consumers had confidence in what brand leaders said. Now, people want a more personalized relationship with the brands they buy. They want to make sure brands walk their talk.

Skepticism about claims runs deeper, causing consumers to give more credence to reviews than advertising. Events and contests, long a PR staple, stimulate consumer engagement, but don’t automatically build trust. 

The reality: A digital presence is mandatory to connect with consumers, clients and contributors. Websites, blogs/vlogs and social media platforms are gateways into a brand, a cause or an agency because they can tell a more extended and authentic story than a press release.

Organizations are smart to recognize that a sharp online presence can pay dividends in terms of increased transactions, richer interactions and bolstered loyalty. Websites can be layered tiers of useful and relevant information that invite exploration. Blogs or their video siblings can raise awareness through demonstrated thought leadership. Social media can provide a comfortable conduit for purposeful engagement. 

Digital PR is all about seizing the opportunities afforded by an interconnected world to inform, engage and convince.

Digital PR is all about seizing the opportunities afforded by an interconnected world to inform, engage and convince.

Stimulating digital media doesn’t just happen by accident. It requires skill, patience and a deep understanding of your consumers, clients or constituents. You need to anticipate what they want to know or would appreciate knowing, then provide it in an appealing, even entertaining way. In the digital world, you have a larger palette of communication colors and a virtually unlimited lens to project your information and messaging.

A critical difference between your grandfather’s PR and digital PR today is linkability. A press release, event or contest could build interest, but didn’t have much shelf life – in part because there was no internet to archive them and make it easy to retrieve them later. Digital content shines because it can be linked to other digital sites, especially a website, the mother earth of an online presence. And it never disappears, even if it falls to page three of a Google search.

A press release or press statement organically has limited reach. When first utilized, they went to legacy media that dominated the public’s attention. That’s less true today. Breaking news, other than car accidents and fires, is more likely now to burst into public view on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Savvy organizations need to use these channels to dispense their big news – or respond to news about them – in real time, a luxury digital media affords.

Press releases have limited emotional appeal. Video and photographic content, which flourishes on digital media, isn’t limited. It can touch hearts, create associations and lead to loyalty. Visual and audio content can strike familiar chords and become sticky in people’s brains.

Digital media’s greatest appeal is its interactive character. Viewers can respond instantly, thoughtfully and impactfully. You may not always like what they say, but the interaction gives you a chance to build a relationship, to seize an opportunity to turn a critic into an ambassador. That’s something the venerable press release never could do.

Of course, the press release has evolved into a digital tool. They can contain rich content and useful links. The internet and social media such as Twitter make it easier to distribute your news and messaging to key digital media targets. 

The digital world doesn’t spell the end of traditional PR principles. Story pitches still need a sharp hook. Pitches work best when tailored and aimed at the most appropriate news outlets. Customizing a story for a particular outlet remains a smart strategy. Fresh content, a unique angle and a human touch still get the attention of news people.

You don’t have to toss all you know about PR out the window. Just open the window and scan all the possibilities the digital world affords to tell your story and spread your message.

 

Writing to Match Skimmer Reading Habits

More people skim rather than read, so it makes sense to write for skim-readers, especially purposeful skim readers who are looking for the maximum information in the least amount of time.

More people skim rather than read, so it makes sense to write for skim-readers, especially purposeful skim readers who are looking for the maximum information in the least amount of time.

In a world of smash-and-grab reading, you cannot afford to dilly-dally in writing to the point. Assume your target audience are skimmers who hop from article to article, video to video and outlet to outlet looking for something that makes them stop – or at least pause.

This isn’t PR jingo. It’s reality. Consider Swarthmore College’s advice to its students about skimming:

“The first rule, in some ways the only rule, is skim, skim, skim. But skimming is not just reading in a hurry, or reading sloppily, or reading the last line and the first line. It's actually a disciplined activity in its own right. A good skimmer has a systematic technique for finding the most information in the least amount of time.”

If colleges are teaching people to skim, we should prepare to write for skimmers, especially disciplined skimmers.

William Comcowich, writing for ragan.com, suggests tactics to satisfy skimmers. Most are obvious ways to package your message in digestible bites – informative headlines, subheads, lists, short paragraphs, key details and visuals.

However, these tactics are mostly crutches for undisciplined or impatient skimmers, who are turned off by long sentences and words they don’t understand. There is another, higher-performing level of skimmers who should drive our writing styles. These are the skimmers that schools like Swarthmore are training.

The Tracks of Skim-Readers

• 55% of page views last less than 15 seconds
• Readers on average read 20% of text
• People don’t read left to right, but skim in an “F” pattern
• Only 10% to 20% of readers make it through an entire article
• A newsletter opened in email has 51 seconds to make an impression

High-performing skimmers seek “the most information in the least amount of time.” They are skimming to find information of interest, utility and value. You might call them purposeful skimmers.

Purposeful skimmers include that group of people we refer to as influential, which is a group PR professionals should court by writing in sync with how they skim-read.

With that lens, one of the most important elements of writing for skim-readers is to provide a concise description of your core point. This requires mastery of a subject by the writer. It means doing more than simply moving information on a conveyor belt of sentences. Writers must have a command of their topics so they can squeeze out what’s important or unique and summarize it in a few words.

The bottom-line message can be contained in a headline, opening paragraph or cutline to a compelling visual. The key is making it visually accessible for the skimmer.

Once you grab a skimmer’s attention, your secondary or supportive points need to be easily accessible, too. Bullet points, pull-outs and cleverly worded lists can be useful to sustain skimmer attention. Readable charts work as well.

When skimmers turn into readers or deep-dive researchers, you need additional layers of information to satisfy them, such as short paragraphs with links or expandable content that’s revealed at a reader’s click.

Word choices, brevity and show-me content convey mastery while offering valuable cues to skimmers. Fluff, wordiness and foggy explanations are turn-offs, probably for more than just skimmers.

The best advice: write for your audience. Increasingly, your audience is full of skimmers. They want premium content, but don’t want to go on a treasure hunt to find it. Make your written content fit the reading habits of skimmers, especially purposeful skimmers. Make your content discoverable.

You won’t be indulging your skim-readers; you will be meeting them at the edge of your content and inviting them in.

 

The Value of “Easy” as a Strategy

Marketing strategists and issue managers may enjoy greater success by making things easy for would-be consumers or advocates. Take the word of  Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist.

Marketing strategists and issue managers may enjoy greater success by making things easy for would-be consumers or advocates. Take the word of  Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist.

If you want people to do something, make it easy.

Sound advice from behavioral economist Richard Thaler, who won a Nobel Prize for “humanizing economics.” Thaler’s main thesis is that people don’t fit into classic economic models and often respond with emotion, not reason. One of the many human quirks Thaler identifies is an unwillingness to deal with complexity – or busy work.

In a 2009 column for The New York Times, Thaler wrote most people are willing to be organ donors, but don’t bother to fill out the forms. Donation rates would increase, he said, by simply forcing a choice or making the choice easy with a smartphone app.

Thaler said retirement savings rates would improve by making it easier for workers to save. To overcome the barrier of procrastination, he recommended creating retirement plans with automatic enrollment for workers, with an ability to opt-out. The Oregon legislature took Thaler’s advice and established OregonSaves, which is in its second year and already has 18,000 participating workers who save on average $103 per month.

Marketers and issue managers who want people to do something would be well advised to take Thaler’s observations to heart. The easier you make a customer journey or requested action, the more likely people will oblige.

The four Ps of marketing – product, price, place and promotion – form the basis for sound marketing strategies. However, customers may shy away from the product they want at a price they are willing to pay if the purchase is too messy or difficult. Long lines, indifferent service and clunky websites can discourage an otherwise eager consumer.

Richard Thaler was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics for his observations about human behavior that can be predictably irrational, especially when an action isn’t easy.

Richard Thaler was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics for his observations about human behavior that can be predictably irrational, especially when an action isn’t easy.

The same is true in the world of issues. You can explain until you are blue in the face that a construction project will ultimately be good for a neighborhood, but the short-term inconvenience may turn rational people into a community of discontent.

Buying a car has a well-earned reputation for being a disagreeable experience that takes too long and often feels manipulative and murky. Car dealers have responded by making it easier to find the car you want and buy it without wasting an entire weekend.

Politicians are constantly asking for campaign contributions, but many potential donors find it a hassle to drag out their checkbooks to write a $15 check. Campaigns now make it easier for donors to contribute online.

Retailers can simplify their customer journeys with self-checkout, free home delivery and easy-to-navigate online checkout. The issue manager on that contentious construction project can talk to neighbors, identify specific concerns and agree, for example, to limit construction hours and avoid truck traffic when children are going to and coming back from school.

Basing marketing strategy on price and value is smart. But it is smarter to recognize customers dislike a shopping hassle.

Developing solid content and persuasive arguments is essential to an effective issues campaign. But it is prudent to understand that people get confused or distracted with too much detail.

“Easy” should be a routine element of any strategy. Making something easy sells and convinces. Making something easy removes complications and excuses. Making something easy is a value many people can’t and won’t resist.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Don’t Be Put Off by the Term. Newsjacking Works.

Newsjacking is a way to ride the crest of breaking news or a popular event to tell your story and gain valuable exposure that would be virtually impossible any other way. And mostly for free.

Newsjacking is a way to ride the crest of breaking news or a popular event to tell your story and gain valuable exposure that would be virtually impossible any other way. And mostly for free.

“Newsjacking is the art and science of injecting your ideas into a breaking news story so you and your ideas get noticed.”

David Meerman Scott hijacked this term to describe a new type of media relations that hops aboard a trending story or topic instead of trying to launch a story from a cold start. Not everyone in the public relations world thinks newsjacking is a great term or idea.

“As a public relations executive with more than 20 years of experience and a track record for creatively connecting clients to top-tier media opportunities, I was initially amused by the mashup ‘newsjacking’ – but only for about 30 seconds,” writes Tracey Boudine, vice president of Wise Public Relations. “Who wants to position themselves as an expert on hijacking news?”

Seen as a form of hijacking, the concept isn’t all that attractive. But that’s not really Scott’s point. In explaining his view on newsjacking, Scott says:

“When there is news in your marketplace, reporters and analysts are looking for experts to comment on the story. Newsjacking gets you media attention. With little effort.

"As a story develops in real-time, buyers become interested in products and services based on what’s happening now. Newsjacking generates sales leads and adds new customers. For free.”

One of the most appealing elements of newsjacking is that anyone who is plugged in can do it. “Newsjacking is being used right now by nonprofits, political campaigns, business-to-business marketers and individuals,” Scott says.

Since a lot of newsjacking involves social media, the cost is minimal. The premium isn’t on how much money you have in the budget, but on how much imagination you have in the brain. “News gathering happens in real time, and it can encompass anyone who steps forward quickly with credible input,” Scott says.

Boudin takes issue with calling Oreo’s Super Bowl tweet about dunking in the dark an example of newsjacking. She says the trending tweet is better described as “real-time, social media marketing.” But that’s semantics. “News” isn’t restricted to what’s covered by newspapers or TV stations.

In an amusing recent segment, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon noted that more people now get their news from Facebook than any other source. Then he provided some Facebook “news” examples: “Nobody Knows When to Unfriend a Dead Co-Worker” and “Wall Post Discussion About Pumpkin Spice Latte Still Ends Up About Obama.”

Those are fake headlines, but you get the point. News is what people make it. Newsjacking is just a tactic to surf on whatever news wave is sweeping by your target audience.

Don’t crinkle your nose over the term newsjacking. The concept works. Here is a great example from my PR colleague, Dan Keeney:

The Society for Heart Attack Prevention & Eradication (SHAPE) was frustrated by the slow adoption rate of its techniques to identify people at risk of an imminent heart attack. In the hours after former President Bill Clinton’s heart attack scare, Keeney coined the term “The Clinton Syndrome” and used it as an example of how SHAPE’s assessment process works to save lives. Keeney’s rapid response earned quality media coverage in major print and electronic media across the nation, including a cover story in TIME magazine. The exposure SHAPE gained from Keeney’s newsjacking of the Clinton heart attack scare created grassroots pressure and eventually led the American Heart Association to adopt guidelines based on SHAPE’s recommendations.

If you haven’t added newsjacking to your media relations arsenal, you are missing opportunities that literally are at your fingertips.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Edit Your Work – and AutoCorrect's Work

AutoCorrect seems to be invested with an ability to anticipate what you mean, or perhaps don't mean.

AutoCorrect seems to be invested with an ability to anticipate what you mean, or perhaps don't mean.

Some of life's most embarrassing moments result from unnoticed text changes authored by a stealthy character called AutoCorrect.

When you are under pressure to pound out a message or a memo, AutoCorrect is there to bail you out – or throw you under the bus – by correcting your typos and words in progress.

In addition to catching the chronically misspelled word, AutoCorrect seems to be invested with an ability to anticipate what you mean, or perhaps don't mean.

Take the college kid responding to his mother's text message:

"How's school going?"
"Oh it's great. Just had the best weed of my life."
"I mean WEEK. Not weed. I swear."
"Sounds great, but don't tell your father."

AutoCorrect's uncanny ability to create far more cringeworthy bloopers should encourage people to pause before hitting the send button on an email, tweet, memo or message.

There is no substitute for carefully editing your own copy. And not that quick once-over just after you finish typing or thumbing. Take a deep breath, see if there is a message on your Starbucks cup and then take a fresher look at what you wrote. You may be surprised – or horrified.

Catching that flub – like AutoCorrect helpfully substituting the word "nipple" when you meant to type "dimple" – can save a lot of red-faced explanations and apologies.

While some AutoCorrect substitutions may provoke a smile, others may offend or leave the impression you are careless.

Editing is a painstaking chore. But everyone needs to do. Think of it as a treadmill to trim your words.

Without editing, you are only a hasty slip of the send button from something like this:

"I thought granny was going to be here by now."
"Grandma is in the grave."
"What? What happened?"
"Sorry, I meant she is in the garage."

Social Media Manager is Dead-End Job

With social media becoming an ever-increasing part of communications strategies, how can a position dedicated to managing social media be already on the way out?

The answer to that is easy and predictable. Social media never was — or should have been — an end in itself. It is just another tool, a cool one at that, in your integrated communications toolkit.

Social media is the perfect answer for some marketing and issue management needs and a non-starter for others. Just like TV ads, billboards and direct mail.

In the marketing PR world, the right answer isn't what service you sell; it is the tool or tools that get the job done.

Think of social media in the same light as websites. Not that long ago, websites were rarities as part of communications strategies. Now, it is rare to find a communications plan that doesn't call for a website. Social media is following a similar pattern. It is becoming a staple in most communications strategies. But it usually is just a part of the strategy.

Looking Like You Mean What You Say

How you appear may say more than all your words, so make sure you look like what you mean to say.If you have trouble being understood when you speak, it may not be what you say, but what you do.

Studies have shown audiences remember a lot more — a whole lot more — about how you look than what you say. For example, if you have wild hand gestures as you talk or speak with your arms folded, you will leave a lasting impression that may undermine or overshadow the meaning of your words.

Most people aren't born actors. But you have to perform to succeed in a speech, press conference or video. This takes coaching and practice. And discipline.

Neuroscience findings indicate people gesture without conscious thought, so it takes a studied effort to restrain distracting expressions or body movements.

People also give off nonverbal signals of their confidence levels, which can influence how your audience apprehends your words. If you look nervous or seem defensive, it may raise suspicion. If you unconsciously smirk while announcing layoffs, you may earn scorn for your lack of empathy.