BLOGS: Wag The Dog

Friday, October 31, 2008, 11:42 AM

Let your friends do the talking

We are firm believers in the idea that third party advocates can help an organization influence public opinion, particularly when that organization is under public scrutiny. America's auto makers appear to be believers, too.

On Wednesday, six governors released a joint letter calling on the U.S. Treasury Department and Federal Reserve to expedite aid to the U.S. auto industry. The governors hail from Michigan, Kentucky, Delaware, North Dakota, Ohio, and New York.

After September's $700 billion rescue package, securing government aid will not be an easy task. But by aligning itself with six governors representing 45 million Americans, the auto makers lent credence to the notion that the nation's economic well-being is tied to that of the industry. Whether one agrees or not, the industry's argument is stronger today because of the influential company it keeps.

Recruiting credible, outsides voices to your side is a valuable exercise for an array of industries: pharmaceuticals, hospitals, non-profits, developers, the list goes on. Ask yourself: In our next public relations challenge, whose voice can we depend on?

(Photo credit: Reuters, Rebecca Cook)

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008, 12:14 PM

Newspapers decline, but don't cancel your subscription just yet

Nationwide newspaper circulation dropped a sharp 4.6% for the six months ending in September. This is the latest drop in a long and troublesome trend for newspapers as consumers migrate to electronic media (web, television, radio) for their news. Among the declines, The Atlanta Journal Constitution dropped 13.6%, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland dropped 7.8%, and The (Baltimore) Sun dropped 5.9%.

Conventional wisdom is that organizations must turn away from newspapers and embrace blogging, tweeting, plurking and other forms of new media. There is a considerable amount of truth to this. However, consider three caveats:

First, smaller market newspapers are increasing in circulation. For instance, circulation is up for The Wisconsin State Journal, The Macomb Daily of Mount Clemens, Mich., Florida's The Daily Sun of The Villages, The Times of Trenton, and The Citizen Tribune of Tennessee. Many consumers are dropping large, daily newspapers in exchange for smaller publications whose community-based coverage is more relevant to their daily lives.

Second, much of the news you see on TV and the web and hear on radio originated in your newspaper. As we have said before, walk in to your local radio or television station in the morning and you will see reporters and producers hunched over the local paper deciding what to cover that day.

Third, large segments of our population still rely on newspapers. Click here for a breakdown of where consumers go for their news, based on age, income, and other factors. Then ask yourself: where does my target audience get its news?

Let's be clear: the consumer migration from newspapers to new media sources is irreversible. Organizations must learn how to communicate with an increasingly wired audience. However, a smart organization also appreciates where its target audience gets its news today. Wherever your audience goes, so must your communications plan - even if it leads to the local paper.

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Monday, October 27, 2008, 9:33 AM

Lessons from the Bachmann controversy

Republicans don't often take political advice from democrats (and vice versa) but the controversy surrounding U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) reminds me of some good advice former Clinton advisor Lanny Davis once gave: "Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself." This is sound advice for Rep. Bachmann or anyone else who commits a verbal gaffe in front of the press.

Here's the story: Rep. Bachmann stated on MSNBC's "Hardball" that she feared presidential candidate Barack Obama had "anti-American views." She also called for an investigation into whether other members of Congress harbor anti-American views. Granted, Hardball host Chris Matthews nudged her toward this conclusion, but the damage was ultimately self-inflicted.

The backlash in the press was immediate. Examples can be found here, here, and here. Since her remarks, Bachmann's opponent in this year's election has raised $1.3 million, and polling shows her reliably republican seat is up for grabs.

Ten days after her appearance on Hardball, The Politico quoted unnamed sources stating that Bachmann would release an advertisement apologizing for her remarks. Her campaign released the ad the next day, but it included no apology. Instead, Bachman stated in the ad that she "may not always get her words right," a vague nod to the Hardball controversy.

We will find out on Election Day how much this controversy mattered in the eyes of voters. Until then, several lessons emerge for communications managers and executives who commit verbal gaffes with the press, starting with Mr. Davis' advice:

1. Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself: Rep. Bachmann waited ten days to decisively address the controversy, leaving her critics an enormous opportunity to define her on their own terms. Had she clarified or retracted her comments within 24 hours of the controversy, she could have redefined an ugly situation and spared herself days of negative national media coverage. Additionally, the Politico's quoting of unnamed sources created expectations for an apology that never materialized. Again, had the campaign responded forcefully in the first 24 hours, mixed messaging from unknown sources would never have taken place.

2. Never let a journalist put words in your mouth: Rep. Bachmann acknowledged in this video that she essentially surrendered the terms of the interview to the reporter, who was the first to introduce the term "anti-American" in to the discussion. It's quite possible that phrase never would have crossed her lips if Matthews hadn't introduced it first. This is a vital lesson for anyone who speaks regularly with the press. We alone are responsible for our comments. Develop your own message and stick to it. Never recycle the reporter's language. If you do, the consequences can be severe. Just ask Rep. Bachmann.

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Friday, October 17, 2008, 4:50 PM

New energy faces old PR problem

Remember when renewable energy could do no wrong in the eyes of the press and the public? Cherish those days, because they are gone.

It's not that the public opposes the use of renewable energies. Polls show clean energy is here to stay. Rather, the debate has shifted to how the production and delivery of clean energy impacts our neighborhoods and our environment. As a result, new energy faces an old public relations problem: NIMBY - or the "not in my backyard" problem. Here are some examples:

In California, environmentalists halted a plan to carry more solar energy to San Diego because, according to the environmentalists, San Diego Gas & Electric's plan would have run a 150-mile transmission line through a state park.

In Wisconsin, residents of Racine voiced opposition to a new ethanol distillery because it would disturb the views from the local golf course.

In the Southwest desert, residents are fighting the proliferation of industrial solar fields for a variety of reasons, ranging from wildlife protection to the preservation of scenic vistas.

Renewable energy companies can no longer rely solely on the virtues of their product for public support. They must demonstrate appreciation for local sentiment and the footprint left in those communities by the production and delivery of their product.

Many forward-thinking energy companies initiate a dialogue with local communities early on, whether by establishing community advisory panels, launching a public education campaign with local school systems, or by proactively engaging government and community leaders on the company's priorities. These efforts may not generate universal support, but can help mitigate concerns and identify shared goals between the company and the community.

(Photo credit: AP via ABC News)

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008, 4:01 PM

Study: companies aren't communicating with employees

American workers say their employers are not adequately communicating with them about the current economic crisis and how it impacts their employment, according to a new report. In fact, more than half of those surveyed say that their company's management had not communicated with them at all about the health of economy and its implications for their business.

As we have said before, internal communications bring great value to an organization, particularly during challenging times. Done right, they demonstrate leadership, eliminate rumor and confusion in the workplace, and boost workforce morale. Communicating with a workforce can also improve external communications, because a well-informed workforce can more effectively represents its employer at home and in the community.

Forward-thinking organizations should ask themselves: when did we last communicate with our employees? Did we discuss the current economic climate and its implications for our business? Who is responsible for keeping our workforce informed and engaged in the success of our organization? The answer should say a lot about your communications strategy.

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Ten rules for communicating in a crisis

The line of organizations delivering bad news recently has been a long one. The ripple effect from the financial market crisis continues to spread, affecting non-profits, real estate, hospitals, energy companies, governments, and much more. Having spent many years starting at the tip of the media's spear, we are often asked for our time-tested rules for communicating in a crisis. We have outlined them below for your consideration.

1. Tell the truth.
Warren Buffet said it best: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” The press and the public have an uncanny ability to uncover the truth in a crisis, so it better come from you. Deliberately spreading false information is the easiest way to damage—perhaps permanently—your company’s reputation with the press and the public.

2. Don’t just respond to crises—plan for them.
Forward-thinking companies identify their vulnerabilities ahead of time, anticipate challenges to their reputation, and plan accordingly. A strategic crisis planning exercise—one that identifies stakeholders, designates messengers, and outlines tactics in advance of a crisis—can be the single-most effective means for mitigating a crisis.

3. Define your audience.
Ask yourself whose opinion truly matters in a given crisis. Perhaps opinion leaders at major news organizations are your target audience. Maybe it's your customers. In other instances, it may be shareholders or small-town community leaders. Identify the audience that matters to you, and develop your communications plans around them.

4. Sharpen your message.
Few things are as ineffective as a rambling spokesperson or a long-winded press release. Before communicating publicly, develop a simple yet compelling message that speaks directly to your target audience and repeat it relentlessly.

5. Make news on your terms.
Far too many organizations go silent when a crisis hits. Doing so virtually guarantees your reputation will be defined by critics. When a crisis emerges that will test your reputation, respond quickly and decisively on your own terms.

6. Be sympathetic.
Organizations that appear poised and concerned about the public welfare generally succeed; those that appear impatient or indifferent to the concerns of the public generally do not.

7. Mind your own ranks.
Internal communications can be the difference when communicating in a crisis. Your employees represent your company at home and in the community. Keeping them informed during challenging times demonstrates leadership, maintains morale, and eliminates confusion and uncertainty.

8. Bring in reinforcements.
Getting beat up in the press? Help your cause by recruiting reputable, outside voices to defend your company. A public statement from a respected elected official, statesman, community leader, or even a local celebrity can help isolate your critics.

9. Don’t take it personally.
Reporters aren’t paid to give you good press or to be your friend. They are paid to ask tough questions and to be fair in their coverage. If you think a reporter’s coverage has been inaccurate or unfair, let that media outlet know. But don’t lose your composure - especially in public - just because they ask hard questions and report hard facts.

10. Know your ground rules.
Always assume your conversations with a reporter are on-the-record—whether in your office or by happenstance in public. There is a time and place for off-the-record discussions, but make sure you and the reporter are clear about what is fit for print.

Some of these rules may sound like common sense. Indeed, they are. But news of the past few months demonstrates that even the most accomplished executives can lose sight of common sense in the fog of crisis. The question is where your reputation will stand when the fog finally clears.

If you have questions about communicating in this challening economic environment, give us a call or send us an e-mail.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008, 3:40 PM

Lesson from the "bailout" -- define or be defined

In the coming weeks, we will explore how the current economic climate and sweeping government intervention poses new public relations challenges for organizations of all stripes -including financial institutions. Until then, let's explore what communications professionals can learn from the tumultuous debate in Congress over the "bailout" package.

Proponents of the financial rescue package lost the race for public opinion at the starting gate. As the term “Wall Street bailout” coursed through the public dialogue, the plan’s proponents (republicans and democrats) offered little pushback. Outraged citizens posted videos on that garnered nearly 500,000 views each, yet congressional leaders had no marketing plan of their own. Only after the House of Representatives rejected the initial plan were supporters more aggressive in defining the debate on terms that resonate on Main Street - such as "investment," "buy-in," and "rescue." Once the revised package was finally approved by Congress, advocates were evoking compelling, real-life stories about small business owners on "Main Street" as the true beneficiaries of the rescue package.

The race to define is not limited to politics. Many companies resort to opaque statements or no statements at all when they fall under public scrutiny. Doing so virtually guarantees that the debate will be defined by one's critics. The sheer volume of media sources available today - in print, over the airwaves, online, or simple community relations - creates an information vacuum. The question is not whether the vacuum will be filled; the question is who will fill it first.

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Friday, October 3, 2008, 3:33 PM

Guerrilla Marketing

Watch the video below from The Wall Street Journal about companies using innovative marketing and public relations tactics with great success. Notice you don't hear the word "journalist" once. A variety of companies demonstrate that sometimes guerrilla marketing - or low-cost, high-creativity marketing tactics - can have more influence over your target audience than a standard ad buy or newspaper article. (To watch the video, click the arrow button on the bottom left of the image below.)

Just remember that communications activities are no substitute for a communications strategy. Take the time to determine whether guerilla marketing can truly help you define your organization's reputation. If the answer is yes, think about how it fits into your larger communications strategy. Have questions? Give us a call or send us an email.


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