Swim or Sink

When it comes to public relations, a lot of companies have good intentions.  They say they are going to put out two or three positive message press releases each month.  Everything starts out great, but they get busy and deadlines start to slip.  Three releases a month becomes one, or even none. The slip isn’t planned, but it also isn’t punished.

It’s a lot like exercising.  Some people love exercising and working out.  They plan their schedules around their work out times.  I’m not one of those people that love working out, but I do swim laps three days each week.  I’m not fast, but I’m consistent.  For the last four years I have swam the exact same distance, the exact same way.  I swim one mile non-stop, which is 33 laps there-and-back (66 lengths).   While that distance may seem impressive to some, it’s really not significant to a lot of swimmers.   A swim team, for example, does several miles in a daily practice.

Unless I’m travelling for more than a couple days (which is rare), there are zero exceptions to my three times per week rule. Why?  Because the first time I make an excuse like it’s too cold, or it’s raining or I have somewhere else I’d rather be, I’ll use an excuse every time I don’t feel like swimming—which is pretty much every day.

This past December I swam on a Thursday night around 7:30pm.  I swim outside (I live in Arizona) and even though the pool is heated it can still get cold, especially after the sun goes down.  The temperature was in the 40s and there was a fog as heat came off the pool into the air. I often use the swim time to think about my day or come up with ideas for my client.

But on this day, as I was counting down the laps until I could go home, I began wonder how many miles I’ve swum.  Based on 3 days per week for at least 50 weeks each year, that’s an estimated 150 miles each year.

I’m not saying that to brag—like I said, I’m not fast and to other swimmers a mile isn’t impressive.  I know that.  But I couldn’t help feeling proud of the cumulative total.  I also couldn’t help but to recognize that my swimming approach mirrored my PR approach.  A consistent and steady effort can lead to big results over time.

One mile isn’t going to get you in shape, just as one press release isn’t going to earn you a reputation as a go-to expert resource to a reporter.  Only as those miles, or press releases, add up will they pay off. And they only add up if you don’t take days off.

Companies Shouldn’t Be Rewarded For Purposely Offending People

Companies Shouldn’t Be Rewarded For Purposely Offending People

One of my favorite quotes is “the only bad press is an obit.”  Not surprisingly it’s credited to Dennis Rodman.  I do think there’s some public relations validity to the statement depending on your goals.  But I’m disgusted by the fact that some companies purposely and strategically are trying to offend people to use that bad press as a way to grow their brand or create buzz.

On the day I write this, a certain clothing company ( I don’t want to write by name in fear that it provides them free buzz) successfully pulled a stunt that resulted in countless news stories and was a social media trending story.  They decided to sell a Kent State University throwback sweatshirt with red splatters that appear to be fake blood.  They soon claimed that they didn’t intend for it to be interpreted to May 4, 1970 when four college kids were killed by national guardsmen while protesting the Vietnam War and stopped selling the sweatshirt.


As a graduate of Kent State, I concede that I may be more annoyed by this than most.  I was born after the shootings occurred, but I walked by the May 4th Memorial daily on the way to class.  I was a student during the 25th anniversary events.

This isn’t the first time that the COMPANY has created a controversy about itself. Rather, it appears that they made a calculated decision to purposely offend people to generate buzz.  They likely did the math and figured Kent State was a safe controversy, as that generation of Americans that vividly remember the events at Kent State likely don’t shop for clothes at their stores which are geared towards younger audiences.

Can you imagine if they pulled the same stunt using more recent school shooting tragedy?  Like a Virginia Tech sweatshirt, or one from a high school like Chardon High School or even Columbine?  If they had, it would have upset their current customers, resulting in lost revenue—hence why they’re unlikely to make that “mistake”.

Which brings be back to the Dennis Rodman quote.  For many, there’s still validity to the statement.  Just ask Paris Hilton or the Kardashians.  Sadly, their bad press directly promotes their success- or at least their fame which earns them more money.  Personally, I find them revolting and I do my best to ignore them.  Still I don’t blame them for purposely trying to offend me or others just to help themselves make more money.

What bothers me is that we seem to be entering a time where companies are making strategic decisions knowing that they will offend people just to create buzz.  I hope just that their “success” doesn’t encourage other companies to try similar stunts.

When should you respond to online comments or negative posts?

Air Force Blog Assessment Chart

There are a lot of trolls out there.  Trolls are people that anonymously post incendiary comments to online articles and blogs just for the sake of picking a fight.  Mixed in with these agitators are real people who are frustrated and genuinely upset with the company that deserve a response.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when you should respond to a comment, or when to simply to ignore it and not take the bait.

One way to decide is to do what the Air Force does.   And no, I’m not suggesting adoption of a scorched Earth policy. 

Several years ago, the Air Force created a Blog Assessment chart for its spokespeople advising when and how to respond, or ignore, to blogs and comments. The image (shown here) is still an excellent flow chart that works today for blogs and social media.

In addition to this flow chart, there are lots of online guides of how to respond to comments or complaints via social media.  The most important thing you need to remember is that your job is to promote your organization in a positive light. You’re there to defuse a negative situation, not to make it worse your actions (or lack of actions).  Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Don’t delete negative comments.  All it does is make people angrier—the person who posted the comment and the people who noticed what the poster said.
  • Ignore the Instigators.  If the comment is clearly an attack solely designed to pick a fight, ignore it.  Readers will see past the bully and will appreciate that you’re focused on responding to legitimate comments.  The bullies will get bored and look for someone else willing to engage in a back-and-forth war of words.
  • Block When Warranted. If someone posts racist, derogatory or pornographic comments about your company or staff, that commenter should be blocked so that they can’t comment on future posts.
  • Keep Calm.  Any response you give will be read not only by the poster, but by other readers/followers including potentially the media. You want to always appear positive, helpful, and level headed in any response.
  • Respond Quickly.  The faster your response, the more people believe that you genuinely want to do what’s right to fix any concerns. We’re talking within an hour when possible, not days.  The longer it takes you to respond the less engaged and interested you seem.
  • Respond to Negative Comments So That Everyone Can See that You Responded.  Within public view, acknowledge the comment and then try to take conversations off-line.  A simple message such as “Thanks for bringing this to our attention.  Would you email me directly so that I can learn more?”  After you resolve the problem off-line, return to public view and say something like “Thanks for connecting with me off-line.  Hopefully we were successful in resolving your concerns.”
  • Acknowledge Positive Comments So That Everyone Can See You Responded.  A simple thank you for a compliment or stating that you’ll pass the comment on to co-workers goes a long way towards encouraging more positive comments to be posted.
  • Save a Copy.  Occasionally social media discussions become part of legal disagreements.  If you think a legal issue or accusation may arise, alert your legal counsel immediately and take a screen shot and save a copy of incendiary remarks before they can delete or modify their posts or comments.  If the incident becomes a legal matter, you may want to have a paper trail before it’s lost from view.

Think of it this way.  If someone called your office to complain, you’d try to fix their problem.  When someone posts their problem online, you still need to fix the problem.  Only now there’s lots of people watching to see how you fix it.  Approach the solution in a way that makes you look genuine and honest, and it’ll win you more customers and support.

How to get media coverage at an industry trade show and other conference and exhibitor tips


It’s amazing how many companies fail to properly take full advantage of media opportunities that trade shows and conferences provide.

National or industry trade shows create an excellent opportunity to meet with key industry reporters since most national industry publications send reporters or editors to bigger conferences.  Since the reporters are spread out across the nation, you’ll likely never have another opportunity to meet many of these reporters/editors outside of a conference setting.  A short face-to-face meeting, even if it doesn’t result in an immediate story, will make all future story pitches significantly easier.

But here’s the catch— reporters don’t roam the show floor deciding what booth to stop at and interview the company.  Reporters start scheduling all their appointments 30-60 days before the conference even begins.  By the time the show begins, they are completely booked up.  At big shows, reporters schedule 15 minutes blocks– even scheduling bathroom breaks.  At the biggest shows, they even coordinate times and aisles so that they don’t have to walk from one side of the exhibit hall to the other constantly.

Here’s the key—as an exhibitor you need to ask your conference sales rep for the attending media list.  You also need to ask for last year’s attendee list since some media formally sign-up late even though they know they are attending.

Two months before the conference, send an email to all the attending reporters (even last year’s attendees) requesting to schedule a short demo or conversation at your booth with the company owner.  You’ll likely also need to call each reporter several times over a couple weeks to schedule.  If a reporter from the previous year’s attendee list says they aren’t attending this year, ask who from their publication will be attending.  That said, a lot of reporters attend the same conferences year-after-year.

You also need to ask if there’s a press room at the trade show.  The press room usually isn’t publicized or open to the public, as it’s a refuge for media only.  That said, you can leave press releases in the press room.  You may also be able to schedule a press conference or demo in the press room.

If you have a new product or next version upcoming, you should also consider launching at the trade show.  You can put out press releases prior to the event, or even do some paid advertising at the show or send postcards to conference attendees to promote the launch.  The trade show gives you an opportunity to create some extra buzz.  Plus it gives media an excuse to consider meeting with you at the conference or include you in planned show stories.

Don’t forget, use your social media to promote your booth before and during the event—and always include your booth number so people can find you.

You should approach local trade shows, like those hosted by a local Chamber of Commerce, very differently.  These shows are great for generating leads and building your brand, but there aren’t a lot of media opportunities at a local community trade show outside of the media that you can and should do every day.

General tips for Exhibiting:

Once you are exhibiting, here are some tips.  Stand in front of the table, not behind it.  As people walk buy make eye contact and say hello.  Strike up a conversation when possible, but your goal should be lots of short conversations.

As you collect cards, write an “A, B or C” on the back once the person walks away.  An “A” is for a hot lead, “B” for warm, and “C” is for an unlikely client.  For “A’s” and “B’s” write a reminder of the conversation.  Did you talk about sports, a specific business problem they are facing, etc.

Within 24-48 hours, send a personalized email thanking them for stopping by your booth.  Your “C” cards can get a generic email and include a request that if they have friends or know of anyone that needs your service, to please refer you.

For “A’s” and “B’s” send a slightly more personalized email mentioning the discussion you had (the note you left on the card will remind you of the conversation).   For “A’s” ask for a follow-up conversation by phone or in person to continue the conversation.

If you’re exhibiting at a trade show, you better get all you can out of it!

How to keep year-after-year events interesting

In preparing for my  wedding anniversary this month, one of my  tasks was to pick out a card at the store.  Staring at the shelves there were lots of card options, yet many of them seemed familiar.  I found myself trying to make sure that I didn’t purchase a card that I had already given her previously.

From a work perspective, it’s similar to pitching an event to media on an annual basis.  It’s okay to do the same successful media event year-after-year, just like it is okay to give an anniversary card to your spouse every year.   You simply don’t want to always give the exact same card.

Let me share an example.  Years ago I was the Public Information Officer for an ambulance service provider.  Every year in May, the industry celebrates national EMS Week where Paramedics and EMTs are acknowledged and thanked by the company and the public.

We were able to receive excellent media coverage by hosting an event where reporters and videographers got to drive an ambulance on a closed course.  We had a bunch of drills like serpentine through cones, tire spotting, etc. for them to complete.   During the driving demonstrations, we had the opportunity to talk about our amazing employees and to explain the extensive training each EMT driver completed before they were allowed to drive the ambulance on real roads and in emergency situations.

The media loved it, and several stations did stories.  Some did multiple segments throughout the morning newscasts live.  All the coverage talked about thanking employees during EMS Week and that driving an ambulance is harder than it appears and requires a lot of training.

The next year we wanted to offer ambulance driving event again, but we were worried about doing the exact same story.  So we made a minor change.  This time instead of media driving the ambulances, we invited Mayors and elected officials.  We even had an informal contest between some of the municipalities.  The elected officials loved it.  Media loved it too, as the elected officials driving gave them excellent visuals and each interviewed politician thanked our crews on camera for all that we do for their local community and its residents.

The third year we came up with yet another variation, inviting sports team mascots to drive the ambulances.  Media enjoyed this too, even though most mascots literally couldn’t fit behind the wheel. Instead we had to make up an obstacle course and different types of games for them to do and interact.  Reporters loved it—especially as the mascots wrapped up the reporter in gauze and other medical supplies on camera as part of their reporting.

My point is that it’s okay to do the same basic thing every year when it’s a crowd pleaser that gets the desired result.  The key is making a slight tweak to the annual plan to keep it fresh and fun.  It’s the thought that counts.

Confessions of a Cleveland sports fan and how it relates to your business.

I’m proud to call Arizona my home since 2000, but I grew up in Cleveland.  DO NOT insert your own joke here.  Cleveland constantly seems to be the punchline of every national joke.  We even mocked ourselves.  I remember billboards paid for by the City’s daily newspaper saying “New York is the Big Apple but Cleveland’s the Plum.”

Clevelanders are especially hard on themselves as it relates to sports teams.  Collectively, sports memories are described by phrases such as “The Shot,” “The Fumble,” and “The Drive.” I still haven’t forgiven Jose Mesa for costing Cleveland the World Series in 1997 and have trouble saying LeBum’s name– even though I took my talents to the Valley of the Sun before he left town.Fictional movies only expand the mocking.  I was in a theater the opening night of the baseball comedy “Major League” 25 years ago.  I still remember cheering with the crowd during the opening credits as pictures of Cleveland landmarks and decaying buildings flashed on the screen, yet we knew that outside Northeast Ohio no one else was cheering with us, only laughing at us.  Amazingly, the movie mocking still continues to this day.  Most recently with Kevin Costner’s “Draft Day” movie that recently came out about a failing Browns football team.

Today, even though I left Cleveland nearly 20 years ago, it continues in my own house.   With the encouragement of my wife, my nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son get huge joy out of mocking me about anything revolving around Cleveland sports.  This includes the recently firings of both the Browns’ and Cavs coaches.  It also includes my family flashing the Manziel money sign with their hands after he was drafted. It’s been a rough year.

Here’s the thing…. I love it.  I love defending my home town.  I love when I’m playing basketball with my kindergartener if he decides to pretend he’s LeBum James and the Heat I’ll start playing tighter defense and won’t even let him get a shot off towards the hoop– and he knows it.

They constantly tell me to get over it.  But that would kill the fun.   I’ll root for Cleveland sports teams until the day I die.  It’s a loyalty thing, part of my life-story.  And yes, my loyalty isn’t limited to Cleveland sports.  Over the years I’ve become a “homer” with my adopted hometown of Phoenix sports teams too.  I confidently and unapologetically root for both my Cleveland and Arizona teams fully since they are in different divisions (AFC/NFC, AL/NL and East/West).  The only conflict will occur when they play each other in the World Series, Super Bowl or NBA Finals. Gee do I hope I have that dilemma soon!

But in truth, here’s the rub.  As Cleveland fans, we need to accept at least a portion of the responsibility for this perception.  If we didn’t repeatedly self-describe our sports failures as “The Shot,” “The Fumble,” and “The Drive” then outsiders wouldn’t either.  Yes, we’d still have lost, but it likely wouldn’t define Cleveland as it does today.

It’s no different as it applies to your business (see, I know you were wondering how I was going to turn this into an appropriate PR/business blog).  As leaders, we need to recognize how a seemingly benign negative perception can take root—growing beyond control if repeated internally and externally enough.   Stop repeating a negative, alter it. Create the narrative you want or else accept how others define and view the company in the long term.

Let me give an example.  If a company is perceived over a period of time as having rude and poorly trained employees, it’s extremely hard to change that perception even after you fix the problem.  Change the perception quickly before it defines you.  Share some human interest focused news stories showing how caring your co-workers go above and beyond for the community.  Create a news story around an upcoming training session or highlight employees that receive special certifications that give you an advantage over your competition.

As the spokesperson for your organization, it’s your job to not only talk, but to listen about what’s being said about the company.  A great way to start listening is to read the comments on news websites, on social media, in blog comments or even what you overhear at events or parties.

Don’t allow negative perceptions to be reinforced over time.  Instead, quickly make a perceived negative your positive reality.

Are you a Newbie? Take advantage!

If you’re new to your role as a spokesperson or in leading public relations efforts for your organization, you’ve got a great opportunity. You get to “be dumb” to the very people that you’ll need to succeed in your role.  So are you taking full advantage?

Here are some examples of what you can do as a “newbie” that veteran PR pros cannot.

If your new job includes pitching stories to TV news departments, you need to understand how TV news departments operate.   Ask the station if you can hang out with them for a morning to learn how things work behind the scenes.

Spend a couple hours sitting with the assignment desk and see how many calls come in from PR folk trying to get their stories covered. See all the emails they skim through and the social media posts and tweets that they constantly monitor.  Listen to the scanners in the background and the back-and-forth among the newsroom staff.  I guarantee you that the respect you have for the assignment desk staff will increase, but you’ll also learn how to better share your story ideas and get covered.

You also should ask to sit in on the “morning meeting” where the decision makers assign the reporters and photographers to events in their daybook (calendar of potential stories).  Listen to how they decide which story is most important that they need to cover.  Understand why other stories get ignored or left off the list because the station simply didn’t have enough cameras to cover every worthy story.

In one morning you’ll learn more about how to get your story on TV than anything else you could do.  It will also make the newsroom more reception to your future pitches.  Not only because you now understand what they need, but because the assignment desk staff can put your face and personality with the voice over the phone or words in an email.  It’s the ultimate tie-breaker when it’s your story versus another and it’s a toss-up over which to attend.

The idea also works for radio or print publications.

The next “newbie” opportunity you have is to talk to other peers and pros.   When I first began as a PIO for an ambulance service, I reached out to several area municipality and fire department PIOs and asked if I could meet with them.  I got some great insight and advice to help me in my new job.

And while you’re at it, are there any other industry peers you need an excuse to call and invite for coffee?

Here’s the part that will surprise you more than anything.  If you’re willing to admit that you’re new to your job and ask someone else for help, they will quickly and gladly agree.  People love talking about themselves and explaining what they do.  So ask them to talk about themselves and explain what they do.  Ask if they have any advice for you in your new job and ask them what they would do in your position.  You won’t sound like a lightweight, you’ll sound like an up-and-comer.

Passion Creates a Better Story

During High School and college I worked at several radio stations and was lucky enough to interview several famous musicians.  One was the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel.  He shared some advice that some 20+ years later still resonated with me.  He said, “Figure out what you’re good at, and do that.  Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.”

Over the years, my memory of that interview is triggered by something I see or hear.  It’s happened a few times this week so I thought I’d write about it.

The first triggers stemmed from LinkedIn and Facebook posts.   I saw a few different photos and memes on the importance of passion.  For example, one said “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress.  Working hard for something we love is called passion.”

I also received a phone call from a peer that I highly respect seeking some advice.  About a year ago he quit his job after feeling burnt out.  He launched a new career and business, which is doing well.  But he admitted he was considering returning to his former career because he missed the passion he used to have for his work.

It got me thinking.  Being good at something isn’t the same as being passionate about it.

After that long lead-in, here’s my point.  Don’t waste your time.  Figure out a way to combine your personal passion with what you’re good at doing.

Here’s an example.  A financial advisor I know (no, not my wife) had a passion to ensure that his personal investments were not “terror infested.”  Unfortunately, no mutual fund existed that screened out U.S. companies operating in terror nations like Iran, Syria and North Korea.  So he created the nation’s only mutual fund developed to ensure all investments are terror free.  The fund screens the S&P 500 for companies operating in terror nations and replaces them with companies who have decided not to operate in rogue states.  He combined his talent with his passion.   It’s not easy, but it’s fulfilling and personally rewarding.

Our role as public relations professionals is to recognize the passion within ourselves, our organization and within our peers.   Then, we need to tell that story.  These human interest based stories will create memorable images that will create positive public awareness for your company.

Because passion is more memorable, and more contagious, than talent.

So to update Billy Joel’s quote, “Figure out what you’re good at and passionate about, and do that.  Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.”

Why PR Pros should love Valentine’s Day

Some of my favorite media stunts relate to Valentine’s Day.  I’ll share examples in a moment, but first let’s examine the anatomy of how to construct a holiday focused media event.

They key is blending two unique components, or visuals, into the same story.

Part one is to identify the unique visuals for your organization that when someone sees it, they immediately think of you. An easy example for a transportation related company is its fleet of vehicles.   When you see a FedEx truck, you know what they do without having to think about it.  As it relates to a service business, when you see someone wearing scrubs and a stethoscope you immediately think of healthcare professionals.

Visuals for an ambulance service would be the ambulance itself, and a crew in uniform.

Part two is to list the visuals that are universally synonymous with set events or holidays. For example, a Christmas tree for Christmas or carved pumpkins for Halloween.  Visuals for Valentine’s Day could be anything with a heart or romance related.

Now the hard part– create a media event combines your work related visual and the holiday visual in the same screen shot/story.  Let me share a few examples.

Example #1:  Learn Hands-Only CPR Today, Save Mouth-to-Mouth for Valentine’s Day.

This headline/teaser was used for one of my favorite media stunts.   We had a paramedic in uniform standing in front of an ambulance, with a mannequin on a gurney in front of him so that we could teach how to do hands-only CPR.  Surround the mannequin with lots of Valentine’s Day items like candy hearts, balloons, etc.   By combining the ambulance service’s visuals with Valentine’s Day visuals and adding some puns, we made an every day story that media would normally ignore worth covering.

In addition to inviting media for the training, we created our own social media videos.  I had one out-of-state operation send me video clips which I directed remotely and I edited them into the following YouTube video.

On this story, the local PIO gave me one of the greatest compliments I can recall.  After sending out her media advisory for the event that included my recommended headline, one of the assignment desk editors responded telling her that the headline was in the running for their internal collection of best press advisory subject lines/headlines of the year.

Example #2:  A Special Valentine’s Day Date.

One of my all-time favorite media stories was for an ambulance service that used its vehicle to transport a husband that lived in one nursing home to a special lunch with his wife that lived in another nursing home.  You can watch that story here. 

While it’s a great story that viewers loved, the true business benefit came from the process.  In searching for a patient we increased the company’s awareness within care facilities to increase transport requests.

By offering the transport to a care facility, the administrator asked facility nurses and case managers if they knew of any transport candidates.  The same nurses and case managers that choose which ambulance provider to call for scheduled transports.   Even when they couldn’t find a candidate, they appreciated the thought and remembered who offered.  The best case scenario was actually when a facility said they couldn’t identify a patient.  This allowed us to start the process anew with another facility, getting us noticed by even more nurses and case managers.

Once the story ran, we then sent a link of the story to the care facility, resulting in numerous facility staff compliments and their thanks.

When planning your event, don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.  Simple and punny often get the best results.  The best part is that once you find a formula that works for holidays, you can repeat the event year after year.

Let your news story live and breathe

It’s not my intent to get all DORKestra on you, but when I was younger I was a DJ and was obsessed with music.  Not surprisingly, I also used to love rock and roll movies.

You may remember the movie “Eddie and the Cruisers.”  It’s less likely that you remember its follow-up, “Eddie and the Cruisers II.”  There’s a scene from that movie that really resonated with me as it has a very important lesson that relates very well to public relations.  In the scene, that can be viewed here, one character explains that a fancy guitar riff was so dazzling that it wasn’t memorable.  In contrast, “letting the music live and breathe” makes it last.

As the spokesperson for your company, you might not think this lesson applies to you, but you’re wrong. Too often we overwhelm reporters and the community with unnecessary information to the point where they don’t hear us at all.  Try telling one story at a time.

The natural inclination when putting together a press release or sharing a story is to include everything. Don’t.  The more you try to say in a story, the less your audience will hear or remember.  You need the key message to be concise, and simple to understand.

Think of it this way.  A TV news story on your event is going to be 45 seconds long no matter what. Do you want to try and jam 3 different messages into that 45 seconds, or are you going to have a better, more memorable story if the entire 45 seconds are on one specific topic or subject?

The same rule applies for a print story.  Reporters normally want into a story knowing how much space on the page, or what word count they want to fill.  If you clutter a story with interesting but unnecessary angles or facts, you’re wasting your space that otherwise could have been focused on your core point.

The more you try to say, the less your audience will hear. Keep the message simple to digest, and easy to remember.

And to help drive home my point, I’m making this my shortest PR Medic column to date.