Today's post comes from ROAM Communications network partner, Rory J. O'Connor, Chief Storyteller at San Francisco-based Morcopy Communications. He is an award-winning former journalist and long-time senior PR executive, who provides executive communications consulting and writing services to corporate clients.
There's hardly a corporate communications program that doesn't include a "thought leadership" component, whether the goal is to increase the visibility of a key executive, position a brand to stand apart from its competitors, or influence the direction of an industry or public issue.
Unfortunately, few of those programs succeed as well in practice as they do on paper. What often gets in the way of success is fear of risk.
Being a true thought leader is inherently risky. It requires an individual or a brand to be bold, to take a stand on something important, or point with confidence to a vision of the future. But taking a stand means choosing sides, and predicting the future means you might be wrong. The stronger the stand, the more risk there is of opposition; the bolder the vision, the greater the risk it won't come to pass.
The temptation is to back away from that risk -- but that also saps a thought leadership campaign of vitality and effectiveness. You wind up with speeches that don't excite audiences, op-eds that don't entice editors, and blog posts that don't ignite conversations.
Don't run away from those risks: Embrace them instead, and then build your campaign around these five key principles:
Finally, even if you follow these principles, a thought leadership campaign rarely succeeds overnight. It takes time to earn a following and respect with a target audience. One of the most successful thought leadership campaigns of my career, which a colleague and I developed for a major global technology brand, developed quite gradually over 18 months. We were fortunate to have a CEO who both embraced the risk and was willing to invest the right level of time and resources. Setting expectations at the outset will help ensure the campaign has the opportunity to deliver its full value.
From the early days of PR, agencies, independents and clients alike have been searching for ways to demonstrate the true impact of their actions. This request has become even more in demand as companies are relying more heavily on metrics to drive decisions across the business. This is logical and responsible.
But what if metrics for a particular department or activity are hard to come by?
There have been a variety of approaches to creating PR-related metrics: impressions, mentions, features, tone, share of voice, web traffic, conversions, etc. Each of these metrics have their pros and cons. For example:
Before a new engagement with an agency or freelancer or, at the end of the year, as you begin planning for the next year’s PR program, clearly discuss with the PR team and your company’s leadership which metrics are important to your company and why. This can help keep everyone on the same page as well as guide discussions around what campaigns make sense to execute upon and which won’t help the team achieve its goals.
The terms "soft launch" and "hard launch" have started to make their ways back into start-up vocabulary, particularly as they pertain to PR strategy, recently.
For those that aren't familiar, a "soft launch" is when a product is made available with little to no fanfare, while a "hard launch" is when the company pulls out all of the stops to make sure everyone knows a new product has come to market. A soft launch allows the company to get feedback on the new feature or product as well as get an understanding of organic growth without putting a lot of marketing dollars behind the endeavor. With a soft launch, the company isn't trying to get much public attention or press coverage in this scenario so expectations tend to be lower. On the other hand, a hard launch usually is set in place for larger announcements and requires more marketing dollars and a stronger coordination between product, marketing and PR.
While these two types of launches mostly exist for companies from a product and marketing perspective, PR is an entirely different beast. From a PR perspective, a launch is a launch, whether it is "soft" or "hard." Once any information is publicly available, it is no longer considered news to most reporters. You can't ask a reporter to accept an embargo for information that can be found in an app store, on LinkedIn, social media channels or anywhere on the interwebs.
PR can be incredibly important to the launching of a company or product. But it shouldn't be the one and only lever pulled for launch. And your launch timing and strategy should rarely hinge on PR. Rather, companies need to look at their business objectives to determine how a launch should work for them: Are you simply looking for user growth? Are you concerned about scalability? Is your product or feature truly revolutionary?
Depending on your answers to these and other questions, your launch approach will be very different and sometimes PR may just not be the answer. And that's okay.
Words you thought you'd never hear from a PR professional: Sometimes PR isn't the answer. But it's true.
Executed properly, a communications program can serve as a catalyst for a variety of business objectives. But it should not stand alone or be a company's only avenue to success. There are too many startups that hire PR firms too quickly, way before they truly need the on-going assistance. Sadly, many hire big agencies with big budget requirements simply because they think that will prove to reporters and potential investors that they’ve hit the big time. Instead, they are draining their cash.
Whether a company is consumer-facing or focused on business-to-business transactions, its success revolves around its customers. Without customers, you have no company. Throughout your company’s history and particularly early on, you need to devote your attention to the product and your customer base. The PR will come over time.
PR is a complementary component of any successful marketing and customer acquisition campaign. It should not be a stand alone program on which you spend all of your effort or budget, especially if you are early on in your founding. Your key objective should be acquiring customers.
For example, if you haven’t officially launched your company -- that means your website and social media channels aren’t live or if they are, they don’t share any details of what you are doing and who is involved -- it might be beneficial to have a short-term PR program to help make the announcement. But you should not be spending your entire marketing or customer acquisition budget on an on-going PR engagement -- at least not yet.
Have conversations with various agencies and freelancers about short-term campaigns early on so you understand what they need to be successful on your behalf. Identify company and product milestones that you believe are critical for external parties to hear about. Really look at whether that list warrants full-time PR support or if small engagements will suffice.
Sometimes PR just isn’t the answer.
It may only be early November and your company may still be in the thick of finishing out the quarter -- and the year -- strong. But in reality, with Thanksgiving and the winter holidays quickly approaching, there are really only 5 weeks left in 2016.
We'll pause for a minute to let that sink in.
In addition to completing your 2016 objectives and programs, it's time to start the 2017 planning process. This can be challenging for the communications team if the business hasn't yet started the planning process. BUT IT CAN BE DONE!
Here are a few ways to get started on the 2017 communications planning process:
In case you were living under a rock yesterday, you probably already know about the Apple event that happened yesterday in San Francisco. A new iPhone and Apple Watch were announced along with AirPods and a new mobile OS and a few other things. But unlike Apple events from years' past, there were no surprises. At all.
In fact, Mashable published a piece this morning about this exact concern: if Apple can't keep secrets, who can?
So many PR programs still rely heavily on pre-briefings, embargoes and keeping the details of the announcement under wraps until the very last minute, when the press release and blog posts go live along with a flood of press stories all publishing at the exact same time. While this tactic should remain in your PR tool belt, it shouldn't necessarily be the only way you approach garnering coverage around a company announcement or product launch.
We live in a "24/7 breaking news-wins and 'normal' business hours don't apply" world where you can keep very few things a secret for long, particularly if it is connected a well-known brand or public company. We need to rethink how we launch products and share news with reporters and the rest of the world.
Launch events, press releases, blog posts, social media, pre-briefings and embargoes still have their place. But we need to find additional avenues. And many of those approaches will be unique to your company, the industry in which you are a part of, your target audiences and the media that play in your world.
Let's start thinking outside the box.
Guarantees certainly have their place. They provide customers with a sense of comfort around their purchases and choice of vendor. Broken printers get replaced or repaired. Buggy software is updated. Cancelled flights are reimbursed or rescheduled.
But guarantees don’t make sense in PR.
In fact, red flags wave, alarms blare and lights flash when I hear about agencies and PR professionals that guarantee press coverage. That's not PR. That's advertising.
It is important for all players to come into the PR game understanding the difference. PR is also known as earned media. Details, interviews and assets are given to a reporter who then writes and publishes the story from their own point of view in order to share the information they find most relevant to their particular audience. You don’t get to review the article in its entirety prior to publication (although you should most certainly confirm all stats and quotes being used). You don’t get to rewrite their article or headline. If you want to write or edit a piece, you can always author and place a contributed article or advertorial. Those are other complementary channels to consider for your communications program. But that’s another topic for another day.
Even the most well known household brands with the most earth-shattering news could very well get cut out of a news cycle. No one can predict a natural disaster or a political situation that could dominate days of press coverage even though it doesn’t directly touch your industry. In addition, a competitor could steal your thunder by hosting an impromptu press event or a reporter could have sources that leak your news in advance and you need to put your reactive program into effect.
Completing due diligence and creating backup scenarios for your product launch or company announcement can actually only get you so far. You may know when certain industry events are scheduled and when a competitor or a larger brand in your industry may make some news but that doesn’t always give a clear picture of what could end up happening on launch day. There is also the possibility that your target reporters are out of town, on maternity, sick, bogged down with other priorities from their editors or, in some cases, they may just not find the announcement worth covering.
Around all company and product communications, leadership and PR should have a clear communications pathway. PR should provide leadership a clear set of expectations for launch -- messages, strategy, targets, reactions from any pre-briefings/exclusives, etc. -- and keep leadership updated as the program progresses and they receive feedback from reporters.
But know that there are no guarantees in PR.
Game Changer. Disruptor. Synergy. Leverage. Enable. Utilize.
They are all buzzwords.
As media critic Steve Buttry recently said, "Buzzwords have always been a part of the public conversation. Every cliche started as something clever."
We all are guilty of using them in one capacity or another. But to really standout from the crowd, we need to make a more concerted effort to NOT use them unless we absolutely need to. And most of the time, if we take the time to think things through, we don't actually need to use them to convey what we mean.
Many of us just shrug off the jargon but it can cause credibility issues. Employees could start playing Buzzword Bingo during meetings. Reporters could read your press release, roll their eyes and ignore every press release issued moving forward -- or possibly write a snarky article or Tweet. Worst of all, potential customers and partners could read your announcement or website and not understand what you do and choose to go with a competitor.
You can find article after article focused on the "worst business buzzwords" or "lamest industry jargon." Wikipedia even has a page dedicated to buzzwords. Use these resources to make sure and strike these terms from your marketing collateral, blog posts, press releases and company talking points. Otherwise, you and your executives might be the next victim of the eye roll, a game of buzzword bingo or, even worse, ignored pitches from reporters and lost prospects.
Whether you are building out a new communications program from scratch or looking to make some adjustments to your existing one, the question usually comes up: should we hire someone in-house, rely on agency support or look for a contractor?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The answer depends on a variety of factors.
There are many other questions beyond what is included above that you should consider and you look into building or expanding a communications program and team. But know that it may take some time and a few tweaks or errors along the way to truly understand what is needed in your particular scenario.
It is also important to know that hiring a big agency doesn't mean you've "made it." Sometimes you just need a short-term consultant to help you get through a few milestones and then you scale back until you have the user base and product roadmap that requires revisiting the hiring of a full-time PR professional in-house or an ongoing relationship with an agency.
There are other times where you've attempted to manage the PR program on your own for too long, your roadmap is full of launches and potential news and you are missing out on critical opportunities. Then it is time to relinquish control and bring someone in to head your communications efforts internally or hire an agency.
Every company is unique. There is no set roadmap for when PR should enter your company's plans. Only you and your team will know when it is time. But you should know what questions to ask when it is time.
There are so many misconceptions around PR.
PR also doesn't mean you just throw together a press release, distribute it across a newswire and expect coverage to appear. With the myriad of communications channels available today (Facebook, Medium, Twitter, etc), the press release is far from the only checkbox you need to complete for a success PR campaign. And sometimes, depending on your business objectives, it isn't even a channel you should use at all.
Whether a long-term, on-going communications campaign or a quick product launch, it is critical to have your communications team work closely with the appropriate stakeholders to understand what the business is trying to achieve with this particular program. That way, they are creating the most efficient and effective communications strategy to meet those objectives.
And that may mean no press release.
Welcome to ROAMings, a compilation of thoughts and musings about the PR and media industries. This is an opportunity to discuss the “here and now” of the industry, interesting events or case studies, pivotal moments that affect how we approach PR, etc. It isn’t about brand loyalties or preferences -- and we will not be publishing self-promotional materials or talk about our clients in this setting -- but how those brands, individuals and events are leveraging (or in some cases abandoning) PR.