Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ann Curry: How to recover from a public gaffe

I caught a Yahoo! News story today about NBC news' Ann Curry having given a commencement speech at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts last Saturday, in which she created a bit of a PR problem for herself.


As a respected journalist, Ann Curry's reputation takes a bigger hit over this kind of error than someone else's might; she's expected to do her research, and to get the facts right. That's why we listen to her.

But with that said, we all make mistakes; and the more public our profile, the higher the likelihood they'll come with public embarrassment. So, if you (or your client) is a public figure, what's the best strategy? Do you make excuses? Do you pretend it never happened?

In the social media age, neither of those is going to work.

As far as making excuses goes, they rarely get you any sympathy. It's entirely possible she had a researcher put notes together for her -- or even employed someone else to write the speech. But when you're invited to give a speech, the audience expects that you're providing your own insights in your own words. Laying the blame somewhere else won't cut it: the buck stops with you.

And as for pretending it never happened, you could, but you'd be the only one doing so. A quick Google News search on "Ann Curry Wheaton" this afternoon returned 435 news stories.

So, what do you do?

Own it.

When you make a mistake, admit it, apologize, take the hit you earned, and move on: just like Ann Curry did. As the Yahoo! article reported,

"For her part, Curry penned an open letter to the Wheaton community expressing that she was "mortified" by her mistake. She wrote, in part:

So it is with a heavy heart that I ask you to forgive me for mistakenly naming graduates of the other Wheaton College in my address.

I now know I should have named National Medal of Science winner Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, former New Jersey Governor and former EPA Director Christie Todd Whitman, literary agent Esther Newberg, Oscar-nominated actress Catherine Keener and Ken Babby, the youngest senior officer in the history of the Washington Post, among others. Thank goodness I got Leslie Stahl right.

I am mortified by my mistake, and can only hope the purity of my motive, to find a way to connect with the graduates and to encourage them to a life of service, will allow you to forgive me

Then, she used her Twitter account to proactively own up to her mistake (her tweet links to the news video above).

I don't know whether she addressed it on The Today Show this week (I couldn't find any video online), but I wouldn't be surprised if she did. (If you can answer this question, please do so in the comments!)

Now, to add embarrassment to embarrassment, a commenter on noted that Curry had misspelled Lesley Stahl's name in her apology... but still.

Curry's apology letter (sent on Monday) is humble and sincere and makes me, at least, feel badly for her. In this situation, I think that's the best she could have hoped for.

We all make mistakes; the rest of us should just be thankful ours don't become fodder for 435 news articles.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

How do you choose a social media consultant?

The Beast.

In my office at Red River College, we have one of those amazing do-everything-but-make-coffee photocopiers, which also act as scanners and fax machines.

These days, I'd wager the fax is just "might as well throw it in" functionality, since the machine already has a printer, a scanner, and broadband access for emailing the documents we scan. The fax is rarely used; the only action it usually gets is the occasional transmission of a hand-signed contract, and a smattering of junk faxes (for the young'uns, that's what we called "spam" in the olden days).

Though we get far fewer faxed sales pitches now than business faxes used to, I'm always amazed to see there's anyone still marketing anything by fax; today's technology allows us to create communications that are so much more compelling and persuasive, and can be so much better-targeted, without spending much (if any) more money.

I saw one such generic sales pitch fax this week. It looked like an unfolded print brochure, and was addressed by the sender's fax machine to my predecessor here in the PR program at Red River College, who retired a couple of years ago.

The sender?

A consultant offering a $1000 one-day course in Strategic Communications.

The first rule of strategic communications is that you build your program around what your target audiences want, what they like, what they respond to; that's what's most likely to motivate their buy-in. While I could be wrong, in 2010 I think you'd be hard-pressed to find the audience that wants, likes, and responds to generic black-and-white unsolicited faxes.

If that audience does exist, it's not hanging out at the receiving end of my office's fax machine.

This particular consultant has been offering short workshops and seminars on topics like strategic communications and media relations in major Canadian cities for years. His course outlines appear to reflect our changing times: nowadays, his "Strategic Communications" course includes "Using Social Media and other online technologies to spread your message."

I agree wholeheartedly that any good course in strategic communications in 2010 should examine social media and how they can be used to help organizations build and nurture relationships with their audiences. But I'd question whether a businessperson marketing strategic communications courses in 2010 by fax is the right person to teach it to you.

How could a consultant use social media to sell PR workshops?

Success using social media is rooted in engaging in conversation, providing something of value, and building community -- not the hard sell. To be successful using social media for PR purposes, you have to make people want to listen to you, so they'll hear what you have to say.
  • For starters, a PR counselor could use Twitter to share his/her insights on PR issues and provide links to content of interest to PR people... building a following that could become a target audience for his/her courses.
  • (S)he could use a Facebook group to build a community among people who've attended his/her courses in the past, to keep the in-class conversation going... providing a platform for discussion about PR topics and a networking opportunity for past clients, as well as another vehicle for reaching new ones.
  • (S)he might participate in PR discussions on LinkedIn, adding valuable perspectives that could lead other participants to view his/her profile and learn about his/her courses.
  • (S)he could write a blog providing his/her perspectives on PR issues in the news (using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and his/her website to publicize it), creating a valuable resource to both past clients (whose online referrals could help with marketing) and new audiences (s)he may not even be aware of.
While it's a start, having a website and placeholder accounts on social media sites does not make someone an expert in social media.

Do your research

Before you turn over any money to a consultant offering to teach you how to use social media, do a bit of investigating. Luckily for us, experience with social media is relatively easy to research: quick looks at Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and a Google search are all you'll likely need. Even if your consultant has participated actively in social media on behalf of clients (i.e., not under his/her own name), chances are slim (s)he isn't also using social media to market his/her own business, too. That's where (s)he will have learned the ropes.

While the fundamentals of strategic communication haven't changed, the communication environment has; you want a consultant who can help you leverage social media to their greatest potential in this new environment.

Understanding them starts with using them. So if your online search doesn't show your social media expert to be an active participant, I'd suggest you keep looking.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Manners 2.0

A tweet I saw a couple of days ago from Toronto PR pro Judy Gombita got me thinking about manners.This followed a couple of situations lately that underlined, for me, anyway, how Web 2.0 and mobile communications technologies are eroding our manners:
  • At lunch with someone who checks the BlackBerry multiple times over the course of our conversation, every time we meet.
  • During an awards dinner, as I watched people use iPhones and BlackBerrys rather than listening to the recognition of students who'd produced excellent work.
It seems people feel that because they can check online messages anywhere, they should.

But they shouldn't.

Of course, if you're with someone and you're expecting an urgent email, you can explain that you'll have to keep an eye out for it; people will understand that. But if it's just a question of "I wonder what's going on right now?," whether you intend it to be that way or not, it's an insult to whomever you're with.

What does this rant have to do with PR?

Everything, I think.

PR strategist, author and Help A Reporter Out founder Peter Shankman published a great blog post this week about our overall decline in manners, and called on us all to reverse it. Is this the kind of thing we need to be told? Well, it shouldn't be... but it seems to be. Being polite should be a no-brainer; it's nice to be polite. There's no valid argument to be made for being rude.

And, like many of the lessons your grandmother taught you, manners will help you in PR.

It's simple: public relations is about people, and how they feel. If people feel good when they interact with you (or your organization), they will want to interact with you (or your organization) again.

When you constantly check a mobile device during a conversation, or a presentation, or any event at which you're supposed to be paying attention to someone else, your subliminal message is "what you're saying is less important to me than what someone else might be saying online."

That may be true; but it's not going to make the person you're with feel very important to you, and they'll walk away from the exchange remembering that.

In PR, we build and nurture relationships. With people. Sure, we develop strategies and we use tools and technologies to help us do that, but at the root of effective public relations is the recognition that we have to make others feel good about us and our organizations, if we're going to build healthy relationships.

If you treat other people like they're unimportant, no news release or tweet or Facebook fan page or report or speech or white paper or any other public relations tool will win them over.

So be polite. Show respect. When people are talking, listen.

And say thank you.

Thank you!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Insights from Ketchum Chicago

Ketchum Chicago's Kyle Rosenbaum shares insights
with CreComm students.
Image courtesy Kenton Larsen.

Last week, Ketchum's Chicago office hosted 20 visiting Red River College Creative Communications students (and my colleague Kenton Larsen and me), and gave us a two-hour glimpse at life inside a major international PR agency.

Ketchum's Kyle Rosenbaum kicked off the session with a great overview of the firm's Corporate practice, Britta Olson and Danielle Spellman shared their insights on its Brand and Research practices, and Elizabeth Stanula talked about how a major PR firm goes about finding new business, before Masha Rykova gave our students an interesting look at life as a PR intern.

The first thing that struck me about these presentations -- aside from the generosity of both the agency and its people in taking the time to give them -- was how different the presenters' experience was from what our students will likely know if they stay here in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg doesn't have any large PR agencies. While there are smaller consultancies like Dooley Communications, not to mention my own, and PR capabilities within mid-sized marcomm and advertising agencies, like Changemakers, the major PR agency just doesn't exist here: there simply isn't enough business to sustain them. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver do have large PR agencies (again, often related to advertising agencies); I'd be interested in hearing how their business model resembles Ketchum's.

In Winnipeg, PR work is generally managed by an in-house department (or, in the case of smaller companies or non-profits, person), with freelance specialists brought in for specific expertise or added bench-strength as the need arises. Some major companies (including large PR agencies) headquartered in other cities use local PR consultants to manage specific projects on-the-ground here, but few Winnipeg businesses rely on a PR agency-of-record to manage their PR for them.

What does that mean for the young PR pro in Winnipeg, just graduating from college?

There are ample opportunities to develop and grow, but they're more likely to be limited to one niche. If you find work in a large corporate communications department, your portfolio will reflect primarily corporate work. In a non-profit, mostly publicity and development, and so on. The experience is great, but you do have to change jobs frequently -- or volunteer a lot -- to get as well-rounded an experience as you might be able to get in a large agency with a wide range of clients.

As our hosts at Ketchum discussed the typical career trajectory of a young PR pro in a major American city -- starting out in an agency to get lots of experience on a wide range of projects for a number of different clients, and then moving into a corporate position or out on their own from there -- I couldn't help but recognize what a great advantage the agency system is to young practitioners.

Here at Red River College, we send our students out on two short internships as part of their Creative Communications diploma requirements, because we recognize that on-the-job experience and feedback are an invaluable part of professional development. But to then be able to head out into a large agency like Ketchum, to work on a range of major national and international initiatives, learning hands-on from experts who've built careers in PR? You can't beat that.

Thank you, Ketchum

One by one, Kyle, Britta, Danielle, Elizabeth and Masha each gave us a different take on life in a major PR agency in a large city, and gave our students useful tips for their own careers in PR. (Use LinkedIn! Follow! Use Google Reader and Alerts! Network! Take advantage of any opportunity you can to get your foot in the door and build experience and credibility!)

They spoke to Ketchum's focus on helping young communicators build careers in the PR industry, and their actions supported their words. Each speaker provided his/her own contact information, with genuine offers to provide any further advice for students after they'd returned home. And I couldn't help but wonder how much billable time Ketchum PR had given up to host us last Thursday, between the time the speakers spent with us, the time they'd spent preparing ahead of time, and the time put in by Linda Gilbert, Ketchum's Midwest Region Office Services Manager, in coordinating the whole thing for us.

Of course I don't know the answer to that -- but I do know it was a great experience for our students. Thanks!

Monday, May 3, 2010

"Please provide your salary expectations."

First-time PR job applicants are often stymied when prospective employers ask: "what are your salary expectations?"

To the applicant, it seems like a cruel test: unless they know someone "on the inside" at the organization, how could they possibly know?

Advantage: psychics?

No. (Well, on second thought, it couldn't hurt!) When employers ask this question, they aren't expecting you to correctly guess what they're planning to offer you. They're wanting to know if you're reasonable, and if you're approaching the opportunity with the right mindset.

Additionally, there is a huge range of jobs in PR, and employers vary from the richest of muti-nationals and governments to the most modest of non-profits; from employers of hundreds of thousands to mom-and-pop shops. As a result, the level of responsibility for a "Director of Public Relations" in one organization can be far superior or inferior to its similarly-titled counterpart in another. The hiring employer may ask this question, in part, to get a better sense of the "stakes" involved in your previous experience, since they can't necessarily assume they know the meaning behind the title.

So... what should I say?

In asking your salary expectations in advance, the employer wants to know three things: a) how you value your own skills; b) how accurate a picture you have of the employer's situation (if you come to a non-profit demanding government-level bucks, you betray a lack of understanding of its business); and c) how reasonable you are with your own demands.

Here's a simple approach that has always worked for me:

  1. Do any research you can into the potential employer's business and/or industry, and see if you can find any benchmarks to help you make a reasonable request.
  2. Decide what salary you really do expect; there's nothing to be gained in lowballing the request if it's going to result in an offer you can't accept.
  3. Tell the employer that, given your education and experience, you'd expect something in the range of [provide a range based on #1 and #2], but that you understand there are numerous factors that go into compensation, from work-life balance, to benefits, to salary, to experiences, to opportunities to grow, so can be flexible on the salary. If you're applying to an organization with a good reputation, you can say so, adding that you appreciate its excellent reputation and know the compensation would be fair.

This approach shows that you've done your homework, that you have a realistic view of your own professional "worth," and that you'd be a reasonable employee... and puts the ball back in their court to make an offer.

Will I "guess" myself out of a job?

Not unless your salary expectations are wildly out of line with their business realities (e.g., asking a charity for the same salary a major corporation might be able to pay) or your own experience (e.g., demanding six figures for your first industry job).

As long as you're in the ballpark and you seem reasonable, they'll make the offer -- leaving you in the enviable position of deciding whether or not to take it.