Reverse Spin: When PR Steers Ethical Practices

Amid the news of RBC swapping a handful of its Canadian IT staff for foreign workers, I zeroed in on a post about the bank trying to use crafty “PR-speak” to recover.  The challenge is, few are buying it. Quotes from one of the soon-to-be-replaced employees and resulting news stories had carried the story too far by the time RBC’s CEO spoke of the bank’s “very high priority on Canadian jobs” a couple of days later.

SpinningEdReality is a company’s brand is determined by what others say about it, not the image it attempts to create for itself.  The most brilliant communication is futile when the message is not reflected in the company’s actions.

What may come as a surprise to some is corporate communicators know you’re only as a good as the organization you represent. Simply “spinning” with minimal action to support your message is exhausting and soul-sucking.

Fortunately, those in corporate communication roles have a wide-angle view across the organization to foresee issues and a trained sixth sense to identify and appeal to their stakeholders’ self-interests. This often presents a huge opportunity for communicators to build a business case and steer the company to the “ethical right.”

One way is focusing on this “brand” ideal that marketers and communicators strive to nurture and sustain and how it actually translates into the tangible “goodwill” line in a merger or acquisition. Another way is to re-frame the scenario to highlight long-term threats, as Toby Heaps, CEO and Publisher, Corporate Knights did in a CBC interview when he cited the economic drain of chronic unemployment.

Many astute communicators and PR professionals serve as the company’s conscience by using these and other angles to push for ethical actions based on good business sense, which resonates with decision-makers. In doing so, they also strengthen the corporate message and its impact.

I’ve seen this approach used to persuade decision-makers to take ethical steps, such as restoring socially conscious programs, firing dishonest vendors and treating exiting employees as fairly as possible. Mark Schumann, a former IABC Chair, once referred to this role as being the “organization’s conscience and protector of the corporate soul.” When performed effectively, it’s likely averted many so-called “PR disasters.”

Unfortunately, this approach often fails in the first attempt or the PR team is alerted too late. Still, I suspect there are communicators, possibly in a bank somewhere, who continue to tenaciously pursue ethical practices that really “walk the talk.”

Although it’s usually below the radar, this too is PR and the polar opposite of soulless spinning.

What do you think? Have you seen evidence of this in your work?

Why Reactive Letters to the Editor Often Get Derailed

Among life’s certainties, negative news follows closely on the heels of death and taxes.  This certainty keeps communicators on their toes, as they strive to continuously mitigate the risks for their organization or at least hope to net out with a balance toward the positive.

But what about stinging, factually erroneous coverage that comes out of the blue? This is particularly disheartening for obscure organizations or sectors that rarely hit the news media radar. I’d suggest it’s also an opportune time for these types of organizations to “step into” an existing news cycle, with potentially a receptive platform to tell their story.

The caveat is not all scenarios warrant a response or are likely to create a beneficial result; so carefully assess your options. (Our IABC chapter faced such a decision a few years ago and decided not to respond. We noted the negativity centered on subjective opinions and we believed most readers would dismiss it because the writer was known for consistent bitterness.)

When a response is the best action, a seasoned tactic is a Letter to the Editor.  I’ve seen and written such responses that made it to print with positive outcomes. Essentially, you need to straddle three hurdles to keep the letter on track:

1. Keep it positive & objective – What I’ve found works is to position it as providing helpful and factual information to augment the offending article (i.e., delicately sprinkle the commentary with sugar). Even if the writer is blatantly wrong or overtly malicious (sometimes due to a hidden agenda), it’s probably not safe to publicly tell them so.

2. Keep it short – A Google search reveals recommended word counts for a letter to the editor range from 150 to 300 words, with the average about 200 – 250 words.

3. Keep it prompt – Strike while the interest is there by sending the letter as soon as possible, ideally within two days of the article’s appearance or less.

To communicators, this is rote knowledge but best practices run amuck when the CEO/President/Executive Director weighs in. Although most leaders accept their association with each message their organization issues, it can hit hard when their name is clearly printed out. And here’s how their response often plays out against these best practices…

1. Positive? – “We must correct them.” – It’s hard for a leader not to be ignited when their organization is unfairly beaten up. They may react by peppering your copy with emotions and possibly direct accusations.

2. Short? – “We need to explain things to them so they get it right this time.” – And so the flood gates open with exhaustive detail as they attempt to edit your copy to cover every angle.  Given their passion for the topic, they might find it tough to imagine the letter being rejected due to length. You can gently suggest it may survive but the paper’s editor may cut it down by amputating key sections to leave diluted messages or fragments with skewed meanings, possibly pulled out of context. (Of course, the mere mention of this possibility may re-start issue one, with a few more heated phrases.)

3. Timely? – “I need to run it by the executive just to be sure…” – This means navigating tight schedules to cycle the letter (and edits) through several hands. By the time the letter is perfect, the story may be history (or these days, the paper may have closed).

Alternatively, the leader may get cold feet after looking at the edited letter (which is now long and maybe slightly explosive) — and simply cancel it. I’m not sure how many of these letters are abandoned midway but I’d suggest the number is high.

Surely writing one of these letters challenges the greatest rapport and trust between an executive and their chief communicator or agency. But without a response, the fallout may unfold with the initial inaccuracies fueling more rumors, more negative coverage and a damaged reputation, leading to sales declines, market price drops, disenchanted employees…. With so much at stake, what can we do to keep these letters on track and with them, an organization’s reputation?  I welcome comments and ideas ….

Six Reasons I Find Blogger Outreach Refreshing

A colleague recently suggested outreaching to media and bloggers has become one and the same, but I disagree. After years in the world of media relations, I’ve found blogger outreach opens new doors, creates opportunities and brings pleasant surprises. As I increasingly apply blogger outreach as a tactic, here’s what I’ve learned about the bloggers I’ve encountered:

  1. Bloggers command a personal approach and return the favor. Word is out that starting an email with Dear Blogger (instead of their name) is one of the best ways to burn a relationship at the get go. Similarly, a blogger wants a personalized pitch tailored to their interest, needs and format. In return, they don’t call you a “handler” and may even name you in their post. Being mentioned is not something I want but I met one blogger who did this as a part of her editorial style and I had to work with it. (Ideally you should pitch personalized opportunities to a traditional reporter but many tolerated generic titles and news releases for years.) 
  2. Bloggers don’t always take the liner path. You may pitch via email but bloggers respond on Twitter, LinkedIn or another social channel  but often not email. For this reason and to build a relationship before making the “ask,” I try to connect with bloggers and other influencers when I start work in their niche, by following them on Twitter, posting meaningful comments on their blogs or connecting on LinkedIn. 
  3. Bloggers are positive and passionate about their topic. Not that I haven’t met pumped traditional journalists but let’s face it, most reporters are assigned a beat or role but bloggers usually create their niche and embrace it.
  4. Bloggers are objective but many are also notably humane and striving for a greater ideal. They seek content with substance but rarely at someone’s expense. In reviewing products, some bloggers will hold the review rather than trash an item that proves disappointing.  This shouldn’t discredit covered products but rather raise a red flag on those omitted. In pitching a story on workplace tragedies, I found some print reporters wanted access to next of kin within days of losing loved ones; bloggers were content to profile older accidents with fresh insights on lessons learned that could prevent future tragedies. (I’m not suggesting all reporters are out for blood but we tell clients “nothing is off the record” for a good reason.)
  5. Bloggers like fun and rise to the occasion when given the opportunity to engage with a new curve. In pitching a book, I offered one copy to the blogger and one as a giveaway to their readers by whatever route they chose.  One launched a contest to draw a winner from readers who tweeted the book’s hashtag. When offered a sample of a pet food not yet available in her state, a pet blogger offered to spark interest by running a contest instead. Traditional reporters can be fun but their creativity is often restricted by the medium, as well as their publisher and other watchdogs.
  6. Bloggers do recurring coverage within a short time span. After reviewing a pet food, one blogger referenced the food in later posts on travels with her dog. Bloggers embraced my book pitch by running preview posts or contest follow-ups with additional excerpts and references.

On the flip side, as bloggers own their time and often blog as a sideline. They may feel less pressure to quickly turnaround a post, if at all. Although reporters do drop stories,  you generally sense an article will run once a reporter has clocked significant time and seems content with the way it’s evolving.

I still have a high regard and good rapport with traditional journalists but find these subtleties inviting.

I’m still learning about social media and how to best work with bloggers and other influencers but this is what I’ve found so far.  Are my experiences unique or “one offs”? Did I miss any other key differences? Please tell me.

Education Boosted By Integrated Campaign

I hope the 2011 Effie Worldwide Awards, which close this week, honor a campaign that matches or exceeds last year’s Grand Effie winner: the Detroit Public Schools’ (DPS), which epitomizes what I think of as integrity2impact.

When you work in communications, which not everyone ‘gets,’ it’s gratifying to hear of a program that exceeds objectives and links to cost savings or profits. Even better, if it shifts perceptions to the positive, like this school board’s “I’m In” campaign did.

This initiative was prompted by a $305 million deficit and school closures, driven by declining enrollment due to lack of public confidence. Years ago, I served as a communications officer for a large Canadian school board that faced similar issues. We offered a wealth of positives but I suspect like many school boards had to counter the fallacy that government-run or public sector programs are inferior to privately run initiatives.

Like the board I worked for, DPS honestly had many successes, but they were likely eclipsed by urban school crises, from virus outbreaks to fatal fights on school turf.

Leo Burnett and the board countered this with an integrated paid and earned media campaign that used appreciative inquiry, guerrilla-like tactics and the classic bandwagon principle. They created 172 blue doors to represent its 172 schools and the great opportunities behind them and placed them at community events and a downtown plaza. Each door showcased a school’s benefit to local neighbourhoods. Teachers, students, parents and celebrities used each door as a platform to showcase a school’s benefit to local neighbourhoods. Residents were encouraged to show their commitment with “I’m In” yard signs among other tactics. The impact? Enrolment rose by 6,500 and $49 million in funding was raised. [To read about this in more detail, see HBR’s article on it.]

With the explosion of social media tools and steady growth of cause marketing, I think other public sector organizations could potentially adapt this approach and take it even further.