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How a Personal Touch in Communications Failed Big Time

Milkman - personal touch in PR/Communication- Storytelling

I have this theory that as our world increasingly tilts toward the digital side, the human touch, the personal touch, becomes more valuable.

It’s only a matter of time before a newly minted Stanford MBA makes the rounds on Sand Hill Road trying to raise venture capital for the radical idea of bringing back the “milkman” for home delivery of dairy products.

With this as the backdrop, I can understand the resurrection of the handwritten note as a means to communicate the personal touch. After all, how can a person who takes the time to write a note the old-fashioned way go wrong?

Actually, it can go very wrong if the context is wrong (I might have just invented a new version of the double negative).

For Exhibit A, I give you Alex Rodriguez, #PRfail.

A-Rod Letter personal touch in PR/Communication- Storytelling

The PR agency and attorneys engaged by Alex the past year have advocated relentless aggression. But it’s clear that Alex’s newly PR agency believes in the adage, “You can catch more fly balls with honey than with vinegar.” As part of the latest rehabilitation process, they counseled Master Rodriguez to apologize.

Makes sense.

History shows Americans are a forgiving lot.

Unfortunately, a basic fall-on-your-sword apology wasn’t good enough for this PR brain trust. I can envision the dialogue in the room going something like this:

PR Guy 1: I don’t think a standard apology will change public perception.

PR Guy 2: What do you mean?

PR Guy 1: No one is going to believe a news release in which Alex apologizes to the world — least of all the journalists who write the story.

PR Guy 2: What if we put him on ESPN?

PR Guy 1: We lose control of the narrative.

PR Guy 2: I’ve got it. We do the video interview ourselves and post it on YouTube.

PR Guy 1: Too staged. People will see through it.

PR Guy 2: This is tougher than the Leona Helmsley assignment.

PR Guy 1: We need the unexpected. Something that sends a clear message that Alex means it this time.

PR Guy 2: I’m blanking.

PR Guy 1: What’s the one thing Alex could do that screams sincerity?

PR Guy 2: Still blanking.

PR Guy 1: I’m talking old school.

PR Guy 2: Huh?

PR Guy 1: We have Alex handwrite the apology note.

PR Guy 2: Love it.

PR Guy 1: Puts us in total control of the narrative. Plus, we really do have Alex write it. I mean it. He writes the letter himself. No calligraphers. It brings an emotive dimension to the apology. Humanizes Alex.

PR Guy 2: Would Alex also come up with the actual words?

PR Guy 1: Are you crazy. That’s why we’ve got copywriters and that dude with a Ph.D. in neurological science.

PR Guy 2: I’m on it.

What was Team Rodriguez thinking? Just because the person handwrites the apology increases the believability quotient?

Needless to say, the national media crucified Alex.

This isn’t about digital or paper.

It’s not about being a hipster or an oldster.

It’s about the person uttering the words, “I’m sorry.”

Note: For more on the topic, check out “Will I’m Sorry Have a Role in the Lance Armstrong Narrative?

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What the Hell Does the PR Guy Know About Journalism (Take II)?

Apparently, the five posts on our journalistic brothers last March didn’t deliver enough to data answer this question.

In an attempt to tilt the scale in my favor, I’ve curated another round of posts scrutinizing the world of journalism with the caveat that some stones have been left unturned.

Clues Reveal How Mr. Bezos Will Guide The Washington Post

Washington Post: Bezo courts Washington Post editors, reporters

I don’t know what The Washington Post will look like in 2018, but I guarantee it will be in a business or two (or three) that no one could have predicted today.

Few people think that Bezos will defend the purity of journalism; his stewardship of Amazon offers clues that he’s comfortable wading into the gray area in exchange for revenue. The Amazon Vine program serves as a good Exhibit A.

Old-school Mentality Continues to Handicap Newspapers

When The Sunday Times broke the “Rowling admits Harry Potter should have ended up with Ron Weasley’s chick” story, traffic to should have skyrocketed.

Not so fast.

The suits refused to budge on the paywall, sending potential readers into the arms of BuzzFeed, The Verge and the like.

The Wall Street Journal Further Blends Native Advertising with Journalism

Publications are inventing native advertising as they go along.

Combined with the fact that every publication must answer the question, “How far do we go in deceiving readers to maximize revenue and still retain trust?” and you’ve got the makings for decisions that can stray from the journalistic code of ethics.

Like blending sponsored content with editorial in search results. Plugging [cybersecurity] into the Journal’s search function still brings up the Deloitte-sponsored content high on Page 1:

WSJ search results for cybersecurity

Fortune Journalist Cuts to the Core of Storytelling in Business

The Stanford Business School interview of Fortune’s Patricia Sellers has become a standard part of our storytelling workshops.

Her line, “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested” creates a conundrum for PR. Do you try to convince senior execs to share their tales of woe or accept that certain opportunities are off limits?

Actually, there’s a third option.

Ten Unfiltered Takes on “Tech Journalism is Broken”

Motoring away from the beaten path of Nieman Lab and Poynter, I came across a lively discussion on tech journalism on Hacker News.

For those who prefer the Cliff Notes version –

  • Journalists don’t enjoy being ruled by the SEO gods.
    • Journalists don’t enjoy PR foisting lame news releases on them as fodder for stories.
    • Journalists do enjoy the process of “discovery” in writing a story with original insight.

In wrapping this series, a couple folks have asked me if there’s danger in “biting the hand that feeds me and the Agency.”

I prefer to think of these posts as “observing the hand.”

If you want to continue the dialogue, by all means take a minute to weigh in.

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Digital Content Gives PR a Way To Declare Victory

Digital content now claims victory in the ring

Thanks to the Internet and the fact that virtually everyone conducts some form of online due diligence before making a purchase, the value of storytelling stands at an all-time high.

I think this point gets lost among many jumping on the storytelling bandwagon.

With content serving as the basis for online search, storytelling has gone from a “nice to have” to a differentiator and even a game changer. Beyond the sheer revenue opportunity, the ability to measure digital content also gives PR a way to declare victory for a given campaign, a far cry from the leap-of-faith dot-connecting that ties media coverage to business objectives.

Out of all of the communication disciplines, PR has always been the one steeped in content. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. In this world, long-form storytelling outperforms a clever tag line. It’s our time as long as we deliver on the promise of storytelling.

To borrow from Shakespeare, “Aye, there’s the rub.”

While PR talks a good game, the profession is still in the early days of coming up the storytelling curve.

Here’s what I mean, looking at two questions that cut to the core of the matter:

  • Does the content deliver the “frame” that today’s journalists need to write a story?
  • Does the content resonate with the target audience when reaching out to customers/prospects directly?

If you gathered all of the content generated by the PR function this year, I suspect not even 10 percent of the deliverables would earn a “yes” to one of these questions.

Too often, we’re still writing to please the wrong audience – the people who approve the information before it moves to the outside world. Many of these client contacts still judge the worthiness of content based on key messages. Yet, in today’s world, no journalist or prospect or customer is going to devote precious time to consuming a company’s pristine messages.

With that said, it’s equally true that PR needs to evolve its expertise in what constitutes storytelling in business communications.

It’s not easy.

Patricia Sellers, the journalist at Fortune who started the “Most Powerful Women in Business” franchise, discussed storytelling in an interview with the Stanford Business School earlier in the year.

She closes with the comment, “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested.”

Given that companies hire PR firms to position them in a successful public light – and in some cases to spackle over failures – this would seem to make PR-driven communications the opposite of storytelling.

But here’s a different interpretation. It’s actually the contrast that underpins storytelling and resonates with people. In contrasting companies, people, products or even statistics, the greater the gap between the reference points, the greater the drama. That’s why Ms. Sellers loves failure. Few contrasting points generate more of a gap and ultimately drama than the difference between failure and success (life and death?).

In the spirit of simplifying, the differences between “what was” and “what is” can bring out storytelling fodder with the requisite texture, anecdotes, etc.

The point is, PR can still create storytelling that causes the target audience to stop without tapping the heartache of failure. And the digital dimension means we can measure the work at much greater depth than “gross impressions.”

I just can’t guarantee it will win Ms. Sellers over.


“Take Flight in Public Relations” Event on November 5 at San Jose State

If Gordon Gekko were a PR pro, he would have said, “Change is good.”

And would relish today’s world where companies of all shapes and sizes jar the status quo on a daily basis.

Forget change. Industries are being blown up right before our eyes.

More than just driving demand for PR, this dynamic is redefining PR. As a result, there’s never been a better time to pursue a career in the profession.

That’s the backdrop for the Council of PR Firms to hold an event called “Take Flight in PR” open to all students in Northern California.

The more college students who understand the mix of creativity, intellect and problem-solving that goes into a PR career, the greater the pool of talent for the profession.

But like the old Rolling Stone Magazine campaign, there’s a gap between perception and reality.

Illustrating this point, I asked some of our professionals who are early in their careers to share how their work in PR today compares with their perceptions leading into and through college.

I also asked our illustrious panel to create some type of visual that depicted each of them. As you’ll see in the video below, they decided to poke a little fun at the profession.

Back to their perceptions of PR before and after college, I stressed unfiltered viewpoints. There would be no second drafts.

Lauren Ho (University of California, San Diego)
I’ll be completely honest. I had little to no idea what PR was as a freshman in college.
Being young and naïve,  PR as an industry conjured up two different images for me. The first image was of Samantha Jones from “Sex and the City” – a powerful woman who attended glitzy parties and frequented every trendy restaurant and club that New York had to offer. The second image I had was someone wearing horn-rimmed glasses, who specialized in spinning stories and twisting the truth.
Now that I have a little over a year of PR experience under my belt, I feel like I have a more realistic idea of what it’s all about.  When people ask me what I do, this is what I tell them. It’s not about networking at star-studded events – it’s about building authentic relationships. It’s not about spinning stories – it’s about finding the humanness in them.


Jacqueline Meyler (University of Alberta and Humber College)

My passion revolves around the performing arts, and during my undergrad I worked as an usher at my city’s performing arts venue. I always saw reporters come in to cover the ballets, symphonies and musicals. If I couldn’t be a prima ballerina or in the cast of Cats, I would still find a way to be “a part of it.” I remember asking the ballet’s PR rep, “How do I get your job?” and she said, “Do communications.” To be honest, I didn’t even know that degree existed. When I thought about it, it seemed glamorous – talk in front of cameras, be on TV, organize elegant galas, meet really neat people and be the “face” of your organization. Essentially, a performer.

After finishing a post-graduate program in public relations and now doing an internship at The Hoffman Agency, I realize there is a lot more depth to PR than what I originally thought. There is a lot more writing and a lot more background research required. There are still cameras around, but they focus on your client.  Instead of taking in all the glory yourself, you help your client to bask in the glory you created for them – the perfectly pitched stories that captivate the reporters’ minds enough that they are willing to pass the story on to their readers. And as for the “neat” people, they turn into your colleagues.


Haley Campbell (University of San Francisco and Westminster College)

I’m very new to PR, and I’ve come here in a bit of a serpentine fashion after completing unrelated (or not directly related) graduate degrees and a career in teaching. As a college student I understood PR people to be fast-talking and intense, attending high-society parties and putting out fires for their high-profile clients. It was just this summer – after having spent the past couple years really digging deep into my own psyche and exploring professional opportunities that highlighted writing and collaborating – that I was directed toward PR. I’m not particularly outgoing, and I’m more deliberate than fast-talking, but as I learn more about what the profession entails – writing, deep-thinking, anticipating problems, collaboration, creativity, emphasis on detail and organization, communication – I really believe that it is the right direction for me.


Michelle Favalora (UCLA)

When I first started college, I assumed that public relations professionals sought to improve the reputations of their rowdy, rebellious clients. Picture this – a mass of journalists vying viciously for face time with your client while you watch your client like a hawk to ensure everyone is sticking to the messaging.

While PR is certainly entrenched in the relationship between journalists and your client, it’s less about forcing your client to say the right things and more about splitting open the impenetrable web that is a journalists’ curiosity. You will have smart, capable clients that oftentimes shine brilliantly in front of media. As a PR pro, you must research journalists to find creative ways to capture their attention. PR pros relentlessly seek innovative strategies to push past the noise and achieve a journalists’ consideration on behalf of their client.


Tiger Cui (Beijing Foreign Studies University and Stanford University)

Before college, I saw PR as an advertisement, a one-sided promotion, and not always persuasive or conversational.

Now PR has become an illustrator for more interesting people, interesting companies, interesting organizations and other entities – or, if they have not found how to become an interesting topic for the rest of the world, PR will find a way to do so. However, PR professionals do best in illustrating the stories – showing, not telling, just like how musicians play their instruments. PR is an instrument; players use their instruments to illustrate the music with unstoppable creativity, but as PR pros, we remind ourselves that the scores in the music come from the composers. We do it best, when we illustrate the best scores with persistent talent, exceptional understanding and accurate execution.


Erin Hartwig (Santa Clara University)

With limited exposure to the PR profession and no formal “mass communications” training, I had a very narrow perception of PR when I started college. I understood PR to be three things: press releases, crisis communications and political campaigns. To me, these areas consisted of well-crafted, direct corporate statements which painted the company or individual in question in the most flattering light possible. While PR is multi-faceted, I used to only be able to identify the media relations sub-set.

Despite graduating with a degree in marketing, six months in to my PR profession, I would tell you that public relations is a multi-faceted, strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their greater public. But that’s too textbook. To put it simply, we avoid the corporate, mundane “speak” and create anecdotal, engaging and real stories for our clients.  As PR pros we create great content for our clients to help tell their compelling stories.

Note: Click here for Erin’s infographic on keys to a successful PR internship

Each person has his or her own unique story.

And each story in some way brings out the aforementioned gap between perception and reality.

That’s what the Council of PR Firms wants to change through the “Take Flight in PR” series.

If you know a student who might be interested, please point him or her to this post and the event information.

Look forward to seeing you on November 5.


Tips for Landing Your Executive’s POV in Mainstream Media (via ProfNet)

We are huge fans of the ProfNet service from PR Newswire. By sending daily alerts on media stories in motion, ProfNet eliminates much of the guesswork in pitching a client source to a journalist.

Two variables go a long way toward determining whether your ProfNet effort produces a thought leadership win.

The first can be characterized in one word –


The ability to respond with greyhound-like quickness takes on even more importance when the target happens to be a mainstream media property like the Associated Press:

Mendoza ProfNet

I’m sure a good 20 or so pitches peppered the journalist within the first hour of the ProfNet landing on subscribers’ doorsteps. By the second hour,  50+ pitches likely crushed her inbox.

Keep in mind that Mendoza is on the hunt for third-party sources that will work with her story – not necessarily the best sources. Once she’s secured enough sources to complete her story, she stops reading.

To twist a Woody line, 50 percent of ProfNet success is simply being first in line (or close to it).

As for the other 50 percent, call it “compelling relevance.”

It’s not enough to just be relevant. Your pitch needs to lead the journalist to conclude that your spokesperson knows the topic, can offer fresh takes from an industry perspective and talks like a human being. If he/she can also offer a privileged window into the topic, all the better.

Mendoza’s AP story on cyberattacks hit the wire last Tuesday (June 4).

Mendoza Huffington Post

I’ve captured the names of the third parties who ended up offering commentary in the story:

  • Paul Rosenzweig, former Department of Homeland Security and now with Red Branch Consulting
  • Eric Schmidt from Google
  • Richard Bejtlich from Mandiant
  • Marc Maiffret from BeyondTrust
  • Tim Junio from Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation
  • James Barnett, former chief of public safety and homeland security for the FCC

The perspectives from Schmidt and Barnett came from previous stories, but there’s logic in assuming the other four sources came from the ProfNet inquiry.

The attribution for each of the four shows how credentials played into “compelling relevance.”

And I’ll bet that each of the four pitches got out the door within the 60-minute window discussed earlier.

We need a phrase that describes what’s between real time and an hour.

Any takers?

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