How you say it is just as important as what you say. The good news: reaching your target audience used to be a lot more difficult before the days of social media and online news. The bad news: getting attention used to be a lot easier.
If you long for the good old days of reading the morning paper over a cup of coffee and coming home to the evening news, still wondering what happened in the world today, I have bad news. Now we have RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Flipboard, Google News, Yahoo News, and every blog and media site out there, not to mention thousands of cable TV channels all bombarding your audience with information. I found out about the Japan tsunami before I turned on a computer or a TV because #Japan was trending on Twitter.
Breaking through this clutter of messages and channels is PR’s job. The how involves a great many tactics that I won’t get into here. However, it starts with two must-haves. First, you must have a unique point of view that is anchored in something more authoritative than your own whims. Then you have to tell it in a way that is compelling.
A unique point of view. Your point of view is not about your product. It should lead back to your product or service, but it has to be about something bigger and more meaningful to your audience than you. This viewpoint must be relevant enough to be part of your industry’s conversations, yet differentiated enough to emerge into full view. It’s not enough to have a compelling point of view though. Just thinking something will only get your friends and family to listen (maybe). It must be rooted in authority – third party research, proprietary data, or unique expertise.
Telling it well. How you communicate your point of view is just as important as the viewpoint itself. For example, NPR aired a piece recently that looked at the issue of humor in politics. It cited an example in which President Obama, who you’d think would get attention for virtually anything he says, has been talking about how his views on immigration differ from Republicans’ for quite some time. However, what broke through was this quote:
“They said we needed to triple border control,” said Obama. “Well now they’re gonna say we need to quadruple the border patrol. Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they’ll want alligators in the moat!”
The alligator joke was the tipping point that finally drove full-blown media coverage. And in a less high profile example, Larry Greenemeier, technology editor for Scientific American, tweeted this press release headline:
It usually begins with the written word though – a press release, blog post, Web copy, you name it. I don’t want you to change your company culture to get headlines. You must be yourself. Authenticity is the secret handshake for entrance into social circles. But make sure that you are unique and authoritative. Above all, if you’re not a natural comedian, make sure you’re something other than “best in breed,” “next generation” or “leading edge.” If you need help, check out Samantha McGarry’s (@samanthamcgarry) post on words we recommend retiring.
As part of an industry that counts written and verbal communications as an art, I think about concise, clear and compelling communications often. Back in 1995, I was taking a required English literature course at Syracuse University. In the first class, the professor looked up from his yellowed and tattered teaching notes that clung together with the help of scotch tape, and said, “Women use more punctuation in their writing because they cannot express themselves as well as men.”
I dropped the class. However, annoyingly, his words creep back to me every time I am motivated to employ a smiley face in an email or social media update to better convey my meaning. I regularly make resolutions to eliminate emoticons and extraneous exclamation marks from my communications, yet find myself reaching for them nonetheless.
What should we do? As in most things, I think a careful balance is in order. Yes, emoticons can become a crutch, but only if we let them. A smiley face is often warranted in an age of rampant sarcasm that isn’t clear in written communications. However, maybe we just need to try harder.
Leslie Lee wrote a great piece, “Punctuation, Social Media, and Evolving Rules of Communication,” that examined this issue and how Twitter could actually make us better writers. I believe it can. Personally, I love Creative Nonfiction’s #cnftweet contest that seeks tiny truths in 120 characters each day (check out @cnfonline for details). It’s a great way to force the creative process – in brief.
So if we find ourselves slipping away from the lovely art of crafting brief yet compelling communications in favor of silly faces, perhaps we should pause and think twice. I am first in line. And if that doesn’t work, I will happily give up the smiley face in favor of the snark (also known as the “Percontation Point” and the “Irony Mark”), which is a lost punctuation mark that conveys sarcasm.
BuzzFeed has a handy link to 14 Punctuation Marks That You Never Knew Existed. I am committed to finding the right words to convey my meaning, and will think again each time I type a smiley face in place of words. But I won’t object to bringing these cool punctuation marks into common usage either.
A few months ago I wrote a post about the 33 Signs You Work in PR. Thinking more seriously about the traits that make PR people successful, and setting aside the requisite multitasking, to-do-list-junkie characteristics, two come to the forefront: confidence and empathy.
A venture capitalist I know once jokingly said that, “It’s more important to be convincing than right.” Unfortunately, this is true in many circumstances in life and at work. Think of it this way—if you see a woman in a dress so low-cut that it requires fashion tape, and so short that you’re nervous for her every time she leans forward, coupled with stiletto heels that have a 99 percent chance of causing an ankle break—you will think one of two things. If she’s moving about the room as if she wears that every day, you will perhaps think, “Good for her if she can pull that off.” On the other hand, if she is hunched over, crossing her arms to cover the low neckline and wobbling on her heels, you will probably think, “That woman has no business wearing that ridiculous outfit.” The difference is the woman’s confidence, whether the attire was the right choice or not. Or as Coco Channel put it, “Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.”
So what does confidence give you in PR? Mark Ragan did a video interview with The New York Times’ David Pogue about good and bad PR pitches. In it, Pogue recounted a pitch that stood out (and he responded to) because it lacked the desperation that can seep into pitches under high pressure. Pogue noted that the PR person was simply offering up his best pitch for consideration.
The pitch went like this, “My client has a laptop that you can drop from six feet to concrete, you can run it through the dishwasher, and you can bake it in the oven at 400 degrees and it comes out smiling. Would you be interested?”
Confidence breeds a slew of qualities that are critical to PR:
Good first impressions. We have 30 seconds on the phone, or two sentences in a written pitch to get a reporter interested. Confidence oozes from verbal and written words alike, and works best when combined with creativity and research. Likewise, the PR business is made and broken by relationships with our clients.
Thick skin. Knowing when to take something to heart and when to let it go is essential for sanity in the PR world. We sit in the middle of two constituents whose goals are not always aligned: the media and our clients. Finding the common ground that creates successful outcomes for both requires an ability to handle discord well.
Authenticity. As I wrote in The Art of Pitching the Media, if you’re not yourself, you lose. Confidence provides the foundation for a comfort level with who you are, and makes it possible to use your own assets to fuel success.
Courage. In a desire to be liked and maintain agreeable client relationships, it can be easier to say yes than to have the courage to say no when you know a proposed strategy won’t work, and to stand behind recommendations in the face of tough scrutiny. Courage provides the power to stand by our strategies when we know they will produce the best results.
Honesty. Finally, a lack of confidence has a bad habit of leading to dishonesty. As all PR people know, the defining tenet of crisis communications is to tell it all, truthfully, and tell it now. Confidence enables PR people to practice this in smaller ways every day—by owning their mistakes so they can move on before they balloon into something much larger.
In his novel, By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham writes of his main character: “You are guilty not of the epic transgressions but the tiny crimes. You have failed in the most base and human of ways—you have not imagined the lives of others.”
Why do PR people need to imagine the lives of others? Our careers will be short-lived if we don’t. Success in media relations is contingent on a compelling story, delivered in the right way. The delivery must be informed by imagining what it would be like to be the reporters on the receiving end. What do they write about? Which angles have they covered in the past? How is mine different? What are their days like? Is it best to reach them in the morning or afternoon?
In the PR agency world, it’s the same with clients. Doing good work is table stakes. If we don’t do good work, we should be fired. However, when good work is not coupled with good people skills, agency-client relationships often fail. It is the agency team’s job to imagine what it is like to be each client. What pressures do they face internally, from the board, from competitors, others? What else do they have going on? Is PR central to their role or tangential? And how can we adjust our procedures to map them to each client?
However, I believe that confidence and empathy cannot exist in silos—they work best in combination. Without empathy, confidence often leaps toward cockiness. And without confidence, empathy wants to slide into meekness.
However, unless you are a member of the very small Apple/Google/Facebook/Amazon club, the big-bang product launch as marker for future success is quickly being written into the history books. Often, the product launch in and of itself it not news. What comes afterward is the fuel that drives user interest, and therefore media interest. The launch is simply the first step in a long journey to broad adoption that rarely, if ever, happens on launch day.
Consider Pinterest. Unless you’ve been living on a remote island without access to the Internet, you have heard of it. In fact, it’s been the predominant topic in my Twitter stream for the past two weeks. But did you know that Pinterest launched in closed beta in March 2010? And that it had one piece of media coverage (in the Gather Celebs News Channel), for the entire year? It was the same story for most of 2011 as well.
Then, in August, Harry McCracken at Time Magazine named Pinterest as one of the “50 Best Websites of 2011.” That same month, Pinterest’s iPhone app launched. These two events seem to have kicked off a mild media interest in Pinterest – a Google news search turned up roughly 40 articles between July and November 2011.
In December 2011, more than a year and a half after its initial launch, Pinterest found its watershed moment. Still an invitation-only site, Pinterest was the lucky beneficiary of a report from Hitwise. The VentureBeat story on this news noted that, “…Pinterest saw 31,788,893 total visits in November, according to Hitwise data shared with VentureBeat. Better still, that figure puts the site ahead of Google+ (31,748,905) and Tumblr (25,716,031) in terms of total web visitors.” Also in December, Pinterest won the “New Startup of 2011” Crunchie award.
What happened next? In January 2012 Pinterest catapulted into the minds of consumers everywhere, seemingly overnight, with 2,200 Google news results in that month, and so far in February, they are at 2,260 (as of 2/11 at 8:55 a.m.).
The interesting thing about Pinterest is that it does not appear to be trying to get media attention. Could they have received more media coverage in 2010 and 2011 prior to December? Absolutely! Perhaps their watershed moment could have come more quickly, but we will never know. The point is that the watershed was NOT the product launch. Far from it.
A successful product launch is merely the first step in a long journey to broad adoption. You might get great media coverage on your launch, and you might not. The odds are more likely that your product launch will not be a major news maker. Instead, you must use it as a launching pad for a lot of hard work that creates regular awareness, both on the product side and the communications side. So what comes after the launch?
Making the product better. It must be addictive. Media coverage and social chatter alone can only bring people to your offering. You must give them a reason to come back, and a reason to share it.
Points of interest. Tell your audience what is interesting. Do you have some interesting data coming out of your offering? Do you have some interesting users? Humanize the story and show why it’s different and interesting.
Third-party validation. Other leaders must validate what you are doing. It’s not enough that you think it’s cool – Pinterest’s inclusion in the January Facebook app announcement is a great example of how to let someone else (someone with authority) say you are cool.
Demonstrate traction. This is the hardest piece, of course. To demonstrate traction, you must have traction. Hitting 100k visitors is not interesting; 1 million is getting boring for the press, too. So what to do? Create a benchmark in your space. You might not be the next Pinterest, but you might be the leader in your space with the most traffic, users, etc. Numbers only mean something when you can provide a point of reference, so do the work for the press and show them why your numbers matter.
Now, you just have to keep beating the drum until you reach the watershed moment.
Last month, I contributed an article to PR News titled, “How PR Can Feed the Data Journalism Pipeline,” which is an important topic that can lead to huge PR success. Following are a few key takeaways from the piece (click on the link above to read it in its entirety):
Data journalism from a PR perspective is mining a company’s proprietary data, or conducting third party research, to illuminate a unique insight into its market. It has the potential to fuel the entire PR pipeline. However, not every piece of data is going to catapult a company to “The Today Show” or USA Today. The keys to success lie in the data itself and the creative presentation of that data. A successful data journalism initiative hinges on the following:
Valid data. The data must come from a company’s proprietary data set, or from a respected third party data provider.
Unique insight. If it’s already been done, your data may fall flat.
Broad implications. If you want to broaden your story to the business and or consumer press, think about what data points will resonate. USA Today will not care about the percentage of server failures last year. They will care about how many people lost access to their mobile devices.
Repeatable model. To sustain interest, your data must be repeatable and show change over time.
Some examples of InkHouse client campaigns that have worked well include and have garnered broad coverage in outlets ranging from TechCrunch, to “The Today Show,” Huffington Post, and USA Today (just to name a few!):