Choose your words wisely; Cloning your best customers is a great way to generate new ones

Whose words are you using to promote and market your company?  When I start working with a new client, I always suggest we do a simple “core message” review before creating and implementing a long-term public relations plan. This review is really a message audit. It doesn’t need to be expensive, and it doesn’t need to be a long drawn-out process that creates a huge report that no one reads.

What your goal should be is to simply confirm that you’re saying the right things to achieve your desired results- increase awareness or sales. Otherwise, you’re spending a lot of energy spinning your wheels without getting anywhere.

Identifying the right core message

First, I ask company employees:  What are the top five reasons for why they believe their company is the best?

Second, I ask the company’s current and best customers for their top five reasons why they love the company.

The top five reasons that the staff provides, and what customers give are never the same. Two, maybe even three answers may overlap, but there’s always several that are different.

Here’s the key takeaway: It’s easier for a company to become what everyone already thinks they are in a positive way, than to try and convince people that already like them to think something else.

It’s their words, not yours

If you want to clone your best customers, use the words your best customers already use. Incorporate these them into your website, collateral materials, potential client and partner conversations, and media relations efforts.

Word changes, big and small

Some of the language updates might be easy to implement. For example, if you describe yourself as “warm” but your clients call you “friendly”, use their word instead of your own. The word obviously resonates better with your best customers, so it would be foolish not to repeat it.

Other changes might be more of a major shift. For example, a common attribute I hear companies say about themselves is customer service. But clients rarely list customer service as a reason they like a company. In fact, in all the surveys I’ve done I don’t recall ever seeing customers list the phrase “customer service” as a reason they like a company. That’s not to say customer service isn’t important; rather, it’s expected.

Think of a restaurant like a Jason’s Deli or Panera. When you go in, you expect your food within 10 minutes, that there will be clean tables, that they’ll bring your food out to you, and that they will clean up after you. That’s an expectation of good customer service. If any of those expectations aren’t met, people get upset.

The phrase customer service has become so overused and broad, that it’s almost universally ignored. Why waste your words on a phrase that won’t get you results? Instead, give specific examples of what makes your customer service truly noteworthy. Those examples will likely come from the customer survey results.

What to say to future customers

After you update your message, there’s a third survey that you should consider. Ask your potential customers what they know about your company, and what they look for when deciding whom to call. You shouldn’t change your language for this audience. Instead, change how you educate and talk to them based on their feedback. This is a lesson for another column.

In short, stop telling your potential customers what you think makes you the best and instead tell them why you actually are the best.

Would you rather see a story about your company in USA Today or the local church bulletin?

Would you rather see a story about your company in USA Today or the local church bulletin?

In most cases, if you said USA Today, you’d be wrong.  Think about it… do you truly read through every page of USA Today every day?  Probably not one person reading this column actually does.  You probably don’t even do that for your local Daily newspaper!

Now answer this. Do you look at every page of your church bulletin when it arrives?   A decent percentage of people probably say yes. 

I know you’re not actually reading it word-for-word, but you are looking through each page skimming the headlines and looking at the pictures to decide if there’s anything you want to actually read.

The reason is actually pretty simple.  You chose to be part of this community.  It’s also likely you have friends or family who are members, and that you’d recognize other church members.

When you see someone you recognize in a photo, you read the caption and possibly even the full story to see why they are included.  Same if the header has information you need or is of interest to you.  More people in your community are likely to read and remember a story about your service in the church bulletin than people in that same community that read USA Today.

The same concept applies to free community papers—the ones that get left on doorsteps or are mailed to your home.  People flip through these small, locally focused papers to see if they recognize their neighbors or if local shops or schools are mentioned.

Here’s the key point of which too many spokespeople and public relations people fail to take advantage… it’s a lot easier to get a positive in a church bulletin or community paper than it is to get a positive story the big daily newspaper.  These small papers often only have one or two people on their editorial staff.  Unlike a big paper reporter receiving 200 story ideas by email each day, the local community papers need to delete most stories ideas because they’re only looking for very localized community stories.

A community paper only considers a story if the business is literally, physically located in their distribution area or the company is doing something targeted specifically to residents in that target area.

Can you repeat an event you already have planned in another neighborhood and easily recreate it or submit a picture in front of numerous different local landmarks to make sure each community paper gets a local pictures to personalize your story so that they care?

An easy way to do this would be to take multiple pictures from different locations when you make a donation or offer a community training event.   If you’re providing tips to school kids, take photos in front of different schools and send the right picture to the appropriate community newspaper.  Even if you never enter the school, it’ll still make the story more locally newsworthy.

When you send photos, make sure to say where the photo was taken so that the local paper is forced to acknowledge that the photo is local/personalized for them.  Don’t expect them to recognize every photo/building.  If you take this extra step to personalize the visuals, you’ll absolutely get more coverage for your agency.

If you can’t physically do an event in a paper’s distribution area, there’s another way to increase the changes you’ll receive a story.  Quote or include a photo of an employee that lives in that area.  When sending the story to the paper, include an editor’s note stating which employee lives in their area, and include the zip code in which they live.  Doing this makes a story local… even if the actual event occurs 20 miles away.

Church bulletins might prove harder to get a story included than the community papers, but if you’re creative you can find an excuse or two each year to get included.  For example, if you offer a free CPR or AED training at the church, you’re likely to get a great PR or photo opportunity.  Same if you do a touch-a-truck tour of the ambulance for the kids.  Try to assign crew members or a spokesperson that’s already a member of that church.

The New York Jets have a “bridge” to sell you, and your spokespeople should be buying

Jets card of bridge messages side 1
Jets card of bridge messages side 2

Do you know how to pivot, or bridge a difficult or unflattering question from a reporter into an answer that puts your agency in a more positive light?

The NFL’s New York Jets recently gave their players a laminated card which phrases they could use to spin their answers.  New York Daily News reporter Manish Mehta took photos of one of the cards and tweeted it out.

Granted, it’s the Jets.  So they have been mocked mercilessly and it is embarrassing to the organization that the card has been seen by reporters and the public. But that doesn’t mean the idea of helping players bridge tough questions into positive answers is wrong.

Here are some of the “bridge” suggestions of how to transition from a difficult question to a more positive message:

  • Let me just add that…
  • That reminds me…
  • Let me answer you by saying…
  • Another thing to remember is…
  • If you look at it closely you’ll find…
  • The real issue here is…
  • That’s not my area of expertise, but I think your audience would be interested to know that…

Putting a positive spin on an embarrassing or negative story is part of the job as a spokesman, but it doesn’t stop there.  The reality is that every employee is a spokesman or public ambassador of the company.  The key is knowing what you want to say BEFORE the reporter even asks the question.

Let’s say that a company vehicle with your logo gets in a bad crash and media start asking questions.  An immediate response might be:  We’re investigating the cause of today’s crash involving one of our vehicles, but it’s important to note that our company has 50 vehicles on the road travelling more than 700,000 miles a year.  All drivers have passed a background and driving record checks, and have completed company driver training before receiving driving status to operate our vehicles. Once the investigation is complete, we’ll review the findings to ensure we’re doing everything possible to protect and care for our patients and the public.

In this simple deflection I provided lots of new facts and figures that could be included in a story.   If all I did was say the company was investigating, or acknowledge that the company driver caused the crash, the only thing the reporter can say is negative because they have nothing else to consider reporting or sharing within their story.

Sharing a silver lining in a negative story is completely appropriate, but let me be clear.  A spokesman should NEVER lie to a reporter.  Lie once and get caught, and you’ll never be trusted again.  There’s an adage that “crow taste better warm than cold.”  If your company or an individual employees makes a mistake, acknowledge it.

Think of it this way.  Fire fighters run into the fire, not away from it.  Your strategy should be the same for negative stories.  Put out the kitchen fire before it becomes a house fire.  I used to joke that when I served as the spokesman for an ambulance company, I hadn’t realized I was signing up to be a fire fighter because I’d spend most of my day putting out fires.  The faster you acknowledge and respond to a story that may be negative the better.  In acknowledging the mistake, explain what changes you’re making to help make sure similar mistakes don’t occur again in the future.

Pivoting to a positive response increases the options for the reporter to write a positive, or at least less negative, story.  More company spokespeople should memorize and carry a card like the Jets.

Looking for practical ways to practice?  Have a friend or co-worker start by giving you an obscure company fact or even a completely unrelated physical item—like aluminum siding.  Then, have the person ask you a question. The question doesn’t even need to be serious.  It can even by “why did the chicken cross the road.”  Your task is to logically, and conversationally transition the question of why the chicken crossed the road to an answer about aluminum siding.

Initially, it’s going to be difficult to make the transition feel natural and less obvious.  But after a little practice after you get comfortable using a bridge statement, it’ll become easy.  You just need to have the right players in position, practice and execute the game plan.  Just like the Jets.

p.s.:  For the record, no I’m not Jets fan.  Go Cleveland Browns (hometown)! Go Arizona Cardinals (home for the last 13 years)!

Timing is everything: A reporter’s deadline is more important than your own convenience

When you were a teenager, how did you ask your parents to agree to something they just as easily could have refused? You waited to ask for the right time, and asked in a manner that was more likely to get you the answer you desired.

It’s the same when asking a reporter to write a positive story about your company.

The first step is to understand a reporter’s deadlines, and respect them.  Once you understand their needs, you can time your strategy to increase your odds of success.

Deadlines and what they mean
Every media outlet is unique, but generally, here’s some sample timelines and daily deadlines for different types of media.

  • Television timelines: If a TV station has their newscast at 5pm, that means a reporter has to record, edit and hand in their story before the newscast begins.  If your media event is at 3 p.m., it means that it is likely to end closer to 3:30. The reporter will need to drive back to the station, edit the piece and turn it in.You’re cutting the timeline pretty close.  Instead, if you have the media event in the morning or at least before 2 p.m., you would have a better chance of getting coverage.Another consideration for TV is when the daily “morning meeting” occurs.  This is when the news department leader and the assignment team dole out the day’s assignments to reporters and photographers.  Many stations hold this meeting at 8:30 in the morning—after the morning newscasts are done but right before the next shift of reporters comes on for the day.During this meeting, they schedule out all the “pre-pitched” stories for the day.  So, if you send them a media advisory after that meeting has started, you will have little chance of getting a camera sent to your event that day. All the cameras have already been assigned to other events.
  • Radio timelines: Most stations run news during the early morning and late afternoon hours, when people drive to and from work.  There are also often short news updates at the start of the hour, as well as 30 minutes of the hour. If you call the station during these hours, you’re unlikely to talk to someone in the News Department.  Instead, midday is a better time to call to offer your story.
  • Community and weekly newspaper timelines: You should ask each paper for their editorial deadlines, but generally if a paper comes out on a Friday, their deadline for the print edition is often Tuesday or Wednesday.  If you pitch a story on Monday or early on Tuesday, you have a better shot to make that week’s edition.  If you pitch them on Wednesday afternoon, the earliest would be 10 days away — which for many stories would make them no longer newsworthy or timely.
  • Daily newspaper timelines: By 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., reporters are often hard at work writing their stories to submit to their editors, who then return the stories to reporters asking for additional edits or information.  If the reporter then asks you a follow-up question or a new query, help the reporter in a way that improves the chances the story will be covered in the way you want.

Help the reporter cover your story
The rule also applies to when you’re reacting to a reporter’s inquiry. Often, a reporter may ask a detailed or unexpected question in which you need to research the answer, or run your proposed answer through management. That can take time. Reporters understand that you don’t have every answer off the top of your head. But that doesn’t change their deadlines.

Whenever a reporter calls, before hanging up ask them when is the latest time you can call them back.  They’ll respect you for asking.  Sometimes you’ll be surprised to learn that they don’t even need the answer that day — giving you extra time to prepare your response. The key is that you must respond before that time.  Otherwise, you’ll look bad and untrustworthy in their eyes.

Avoid making more work for the reporter
Here’s another tip that’s important.  If the deadline is approaching but you won’t have an answer in time, call the reporter, apologize and admit you won’t have an answer by their deadline. The earlier you alert the reporter that you won’t make the deadline, the more he/she will respect you. It provides an opportunity for the reporter to locate an expert somewhere else, or write the story in a way where the missing fact can be avoided.

If you wait until the last minute, you’re putting the reporter in a bad spot. They may have to go back and edit a story they already wrote, or look for another source on short notice.

A reporter’s deadline is more important than your convenience.  Respecting those deadlines is a sign of respect to the reporter, and ultimately you’ll receive better, more positive coverage.

Elevator speeches: Like a good pick-up line, introductions should be memorable

How do you introduce yourself?   Are you creating the intended impression that elicits the desired action?  If not, perhaps you are not selling yourself – or your agency – as well as you could be.

Think of it like a single guy/gal trying to get a date.   There are a lot of different kinds of pick-up lines that can be successful.  There are even more that are crash and burns.  They key is finding the approach that works best for your personality and find the right match.

Your professional introduction, commonly called an elevator speech, is a lot like delivering a pick-up line.

An elevator speech is a concise, 30-second summary where you quickly introduce yourself with the goal of being memorable.  The reference to an elevator relates to the idea that you only have the amount of time it takes to ride an elevator.  You want to quickly leave an impression and create a desired reaction.

If you don’t know where to begin when crafting an effective elevator speech, you’re not alone.  Most people don’t have a pre-conceived, practiced introduction.  Frankly, it’s often obvious they don’t when they introduce themselves.

An example of a bad introduction is something like:  Hi my name is Josh and I’m a realtor.  If that’s the first thing people hear, unless you’re at that very moment in need of a realtor, you’ve already tuned that person out.

In comparison, the handful of people who give a good introduction really stand out.

You should have two primary goals for your elevator speech.

1)      Paint an interesting, mental/visual picture of what it is you do.

2)      Create a call to action.

Even better, if you let your personal passion come through, your introduction will succeed.

I often get complimented on my elevator speech, so let’s use it as an example.

Have you ever heard of the ten to one rule?  (pause- look for head nods or hands)  The ten to one rule is that it takes 10 good things to be said about your company to equal one bad.  And since it’s only a matter of time until a negative story is going to be said about your company—legitimate or false—it’s essential to build up your good will bank to protect your image and reputation.  I believe in this philosophy so strongly, that I named my public relations company 10 to 1 Public Relations.  I have some simple, yet very effective tricks to help companies tell their story to media reporters and potential customers to help them build their business.

For me, this has been a very successful conversation starter.  I begin by asking a question to engage my audience, then they immediately hear my passion in building a positive image for my clients.  I also make it easy to receive the intended follow-up question— which is often a variation of:  what simple, yet very effective tricks do I use to help my clients build their business?

This allows me to then turn it back around to their business and share some examples of what I would do to help them.

Here’s some tips to building your own introduction.

1)       Hook them.  Start with a rhetorical question or a one sentence story that explains why you’re passionate.  Here are a couple examples:  Have you or someone you love ever needed an ambulance?  Well when I was eight-years-old, an ambulance came to my house to help my mom and I immediately knew that one day, I was going to be a Paramedic so that I could help people too.

Or let’s say you’re a financial advisor, a good opening sentence might be:  I’ve been helping clients with their investments for XX years.  But a few years ago I attended a conference that had a real effect on me…

2)      Explain your approach/what makes you unique from your competitors.  It’s okay to have 2 or 3 unique examples, but only share one—using the example most appropriate to the person/people whom you’re talking.

3)      Create a call to action.  Ask them a follow-up question or make it easy to get them to ask you a question or to share their own related experience to build a connection.

You’ll also want 2 or 3 variations of your elevator pitch- adaptable depending to whom you’re talking.  However many variations you have though, the base of your introduction should be consistent.  The more you practice and tell it the easier and more natural sounding your elevator speech will become.

If you still need help, feel free to email me your draft.  I’m always good for an opinion!

Raising your Company’s reputation, one employee at a time

Your organization has a hundred employees and you get 10 co-workers to volunteer for a day building a house for Habitat for Humanity. Do you consider that a success? Optimists would say absolutely yes; pessimists instead would point out the remaining 90% of employees who didn’t participate.

Does that mean 90% of your employees are heartless community haters? Of course not! In fact, many of those employees in the 90% group likely volunteer outside of work sponsored events. They may volunteer through their church, a local pet rescue organization or as a mentor or Big Brother or Sister to at-risk kids.

Wherever they donate their time, it’s obviously personally important, often passionately, to them.

The better question is — how can your company receive credit for the personal volunteer efforts of your co-workers while they receive the recognition of performing good deeds? Once you figure out this riddle, you’ll accomplish several things.

  • Your employees will be happier as you recognize and appreciate what the good they do outside of work hours.
  • Potential employees will like seeing the commitment and encouragement to be community involved.
  • Potential customers and decision makers in the community will credit the company for supporting and encouraging the personal efforts of your employees.
  • You’ll have a lot of no-cost media opportunities to promote and brand your organization through the amazing people who work for the company.

The best part is that you don’t need a lot of money to succeed (I’ll share some ideas how to stretch your budget later in this column). First and foremost is a decision to spend the time and energy to learn what your co-workers are already doing in the community.

Start with a simple survey to all of your employees asking:

  • To what organizations do co-workers volunteer their personal time?
  • Do they serve on any non-profit boards and what volunteer titles they hold (Board Member, Chairman, etc.)?
  • Do they volunteer anywhere (little league coach, religious school teacher, food kitchen, etc.)?
  • Where have they volunteered in the last 12 months — even if just once?
  • To which charities do they donate their own money (church, pet rescues, cancer society, etc.)?
  • How many volunteer hours do they perform each month?

I promise you’ll be amazed to learn all that your co-workers do in the community.

Now compile the collected information into the following lists.

  • All the organizations mentioned
  • All of the boards/community groups of which your employees serve
  • A total of all the volunteer hours for the entire year (if individual surveys say they volunteered 10 hours a month, multiple by 12 to show a total year average)
  • A total dollar amount of personally donated dollars by employees

Draw a line under each list and add company coordinated or sponsored organizations, donated cash plus in-kind dollars and any in-kind donated hours (free standby’s, etc.).

Now you’ve got an impressive list to promote! All you need to do is qualify the stats. Instead of saying “COMPANY donates more than X dollars to the community,” now you simply say “COMPANY and it’s employees donate more than X dollars to the community.”

Don’t hide the origin of the full list — highlight it. Take credit for hiring amazing people who not only do a great job for the company, but for the community as well!

Place the list on your company website and marketing materials. Even include the list in proposal bids to retain or expand service. This strategy is especially effective for companies that are unable to donate a lot of time or money as an organization in the community.

Over the years, I’ve helped many companies create philanthropic donation programs to help build their community image. The key is to start with a budget number and create a donation strategy that fits your marketing goals.

Let’s say you have $20,000 total to donate. Are you better off donating the entire amount to one organization or giving $500 to 40 different organizations? The answer may depend on the community image you wish to create.

Are you trying to make a significant impact on solving a single problem? For example, if making sure every kid has a bike helmet to prevent head injuries is your focus, you can buy a lot of helmets with $20,000.

You can then spend the rest of the year passing them out at events, schools, etc., while collecting media attention along the way. Your organization can OWN this issue.

Or does your company gain more by having 40 community organizations send you “thank you” letters? You can distribute 40 press releases or hold 40 events where you hand over check you write so that local leaders view your agency as a true community partner and supporter.

Here’s another strategy — I once put together a successful program where each employee could choose where to designate a $50 donation from 25 to 50 pre-approved charities. The program was extremely popular with employees, led to great media coverage and ultimately only cost the company about $5000 — less than they expected.

My point is that it’s not about the amount spent, but about the impression created. Yes, it feels good to be involved in your community. It feels even better to get credit as a company for that involvement, all while creating a positive image and reputation for your agency or company.

Does your company use another strategy? Share it in comments so we all can learn from your example!

When you need PR ideas, turn to your co-workers

When I was a Public Information Officer for a private ambulance provider, I used to speak to new employee orientation classes. Of the 30 minutes I was allotted, the first 25 minutes were spent explaining my role, process and policies related to why employees can’t talk to media, etc.

But for me, the last five minutes were the most important. It’s when I asked the group what public relations and community involvement programs they liked that a previous employer did or what ideas they might have that their new employer should consider.

Most suggestions were ideas we were already doing or had considered, but decided not to pursue for cost or other reasons. Once in a while, an idea can become a real gem — if you’re willing to hear the suggestion and open to considering ways to implement it.

My favorite example is one I originally rejected. Toby was new to our marketing team and one of his personal passion projects was about the Safe Baby Haven law. Safe Baby Haven laws exist in many states across the country. A new mother can drop off her newborn child (72-hours or younger) to any hospital or fire station and absolve herself of any future responsibility for the child, no questions asked. The idea is to make sure that the newborn isn’t abandoned in a dumpster.

Toby was part of a volunteer group in the state that was promoting the law and trying to educate the public. He suggested that we place large Safe Baby Haven logos on the sides of all our ambulances and make the ambulances drop-off locations.

I’ve always been wary of putting too many logos and decals on an ambulance — we aren’t stock cars and the more logos added the fewer people see — but that’s a column for another day. Initially, I thanked Toby for the idea but mentally rejected it.

To Toby’s credit, he kept asking so I took another look at the law in Arizona. It stated that in addition to hospitals and fire stations being official drop-off locations, the law said that the baby could be handed to any uniformed Paramedic or EMT and the crew must accept the infant, no questions asked.

I was still against the idea of putting “drop off location” logos on the ambulances, but since the law already said we played a role, why not make sure everyone knew it? Working with Toby, we partnered with the Safe Baby Coalition, who had already secured a proclamation from the Governor declaring Safe Baby Haven Day.

We held a press conference at one of our facilities with numerous ambulances behind us as the backdrop to announce that the public should view all of our ambulances as Safe Baby Haven “locations” when the newborn is handed to an uniformed Paramedic or EMT.

You caught that last part, right?  It was already the law! We weren’t really announcing anything new!

And, now, for your moment of serendipity: During the press conference, where there was a full set of television cameras, reporters’ cell phones began ringing. It turned out that a baby was found in a dumpster — at the same time of our press event.

All of a sudden, our low level “C” story became the day’s lead story. Every mention of the baby in the dumpster included how preventable it could have been had the child been handed to an ambulance crew. We had 43 news mentions within 24 hours.

Example of TV Coverage:

Within a few days, fire chief’s in other major cities announced that they were making their ambulances drop-off locations too.

These turn of events, which stemmed from an idea that was initially rejected, happened because of a quick question thrown out at the end of an employee orientation speech.

How to solve the ‘impossible’ problems; Chipping away at the small issues will make solving the big ones easier

Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by impossible problems or lost causes. Over the last 20 years, I’ve developed a theory on how best to tackle such issues.

First, you need to view the impossible-to-solve problem as a giant cube stuck in the middle of a long trail, with your desired result at the end of the path. Pushing or pulling the cube is a waste of time, because it’s simply too big and heavy.

But, if you start methodically chipping away at the cube’s corners, you can slowly turn that cube into a giant sphere. Chip away enough and that sphere will start rolling after a good push. Eventually the now-rolling sphere will build momentum and hit something along the trail, causing the once immovable cube to break into pieces. And, poof! The once-daunting problem is no more.

The biggest mistake companies and agencies make is failing to chip away at the corners of a big, long-term problem. Instead, they take one big whack to try and solve a problem in one week and then give up, or they simply refuse to try at all as the problem looks too daunting. As a result, the problem remains unchanged, serving as an anchor stopping you from achieving your long-term goals.

To solve big problems, start by grabbing hold of the low hanging fruit. Here’s an example. Let’s say an Emergency Department in a city with multiple hospitals has a particularly bad reputation among patients and first responders. Because of this, ambulance crews choose to take their patients to other nearby facilities when given the option.

That reputation, earned or not, is costing the hospital a lot of money because of fewer admissions. Hospital administrators notice this kind of thing, especially new administrators as they are brought in to a facility to fix problems. So the new hospital administrator meets with the local agency Chiefs and says on a Monday that starting Tuesday, all the problems that occurred in the past will be fixed.

Will the ambulances all of a sudden start coming back on Tuesday? Of course not.

The ambulance crews want to see and experience the change before they’ll believe what the facility says. But it’s a catch-22 since the crews no longer stop by the facility and they’re unlikely to see if the changes promised have actually occurred.

The Emergency Department has to take numerous steps to win back first responders. The first question is to identify changes that first responders are most likely to notice and appreciate.

Is there a comfortable area for ambulance crews to do their paperwork? Are crews fed by the hospital, given snacks or cafeteria discounts? Do facility staff treat crews as peers rather than as a FedEx Delivery person? How quick and easy is the transition from medic to nurse allowing the crew to get back in service?

If the Emergency Department puts actions behind their words, and demonstrate changes that first responders can see, in time the ambulance crews will not only come back but would likely choose that facility over others.

The same principle works in reverse. Why should a community or care facility support an ambulance provider and their crews that operate with arrogance?  You don’t win community support by showing up at occasional council meetings.

The key is tackling the obstacle slowly and methodically, chipping away at the problem. To do that, you need to know the real problem. In most cases, it’s multiple problems that all fit under one broad umbrella that is called reputation.

Here are some suggestions on how to start solving impossible problems:

  • Start by making a list of the perceived problems. The more problems on your list, the more things you can solve… and in time show that you resolved.
  • After making your list, put the problems that are easiest (and cheapest) to solve at the top of your list. Those are the problems that you start chipping away at first.
  • Keep working the easiest to solve problem on your list, which will keep getting shorter as you cross items off. You’ll likely be surprised to find that the next problem on your list is easier to solve than if you had tried to solve that problem first.
  • Celebrate each solved problem internally among your staff, and find a way to announce change publicly. For example, in the Emergency Department example, if the Hospital sets aside space for ambulance crews, they should try to make a news story out of it by hosting a ribbon cutting where providers are invited, etc. They don’t need to say WHY they created the special area or point out the problem to those who didn’t already know about it. They just should announce the area and highlight the partnerships and how much respect they have for the ambulance crews, hence why they found the space.

It’s also worth noting that you’ll likely find that many of the biggest problems are perception oriented, rather than service oriented. Writing a check alone won’t solve all problems. That’s where a good, long-term public relations plan is essential. Public Relations isn’t just about reporters, it’s also about communicating with your customers, peers and your own employees and co-workers.

One of the best ways to help people to change their mindset is to change what they see every day. For example, when it comes to management showing its own employees that they care, the first step to getting employees to notice the efforts is to put a new color of paint on station walls or by rearranging/adding new furniture. Now that you have their physical attention, they’ll be more receptive to what you say and how you act. Maybe I’ll expand on this concept in a future column.

To recap, don’t give up on immovable problems. Ignoring problems only make them harder and more expensive (in cash and time) to overcome. By chipping away at the easy to solve problems and complaints, you’ll help change the reputation and help you achieve your goals.

Media relations: Why you should never burn your bridges

It’s okay to admit it: If you work in EMS, you’re likely inbred.

This realization hit me at a State ambulance association conference a few weeks ago where I was leading a session on how ambulance providers should use the media to make their agency stronger. As soon as I arrived, I saw former colleagues now working for different agencies. Some left on good terms; others, well, let’s say not so much.

It made me respect some people more than I did before. I felt sorry for others as they had to move and uproot their family to find another job in the profession. Yet, after it all, the same people were still in the room as before, just wearing a different logo on their shirt.

It reminded me of the importance of not burning bridges. I can personally vouch for the benefits of not burning bridges. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to return to an employer a few years after leaving. Believe me, I was more surprised than anyone when I was asked, and am still grateful.

The trick to not burning bridges is really pretty simple. First, don’t slam a former employer on the way out the door, even if you have an opportunity or even a reason to do so. Second, keep in touch with the former coworkers you liked and respected while working there. If asked for advice, provide your honest opinion to help that friend succeed.

As it relates to burning bridges, it’s the same with reporters.

How many times has a coworker come to you after a story has run, demanding that you need to call the reporter or the editor and complain because they were misquoted, or they didn’t like something that was, or wasn’t mentioned in an article.  Should you call to vent your anger or to complain?

How would it make you feel if a reporter called your boss to say that you were bad at your job because your press release had typos? It’s the same thing as if you had complained about a reporter and make them look bad to their boss. All you’re doing is burning a bridge to someone you desperately might need on your side down the road.

Are there times when you need to call and ask for corrections? Absolutely. But those times are rare, so don’t waste them on minor items that really don’t matter. Also, try to be professional about it, not whiney. Most reporters really don’t have agendas. They just want to tell the story as simply as possible so they can move on to their next story. If you tell them of a substantive change, they want to correct it.

Let me throw out another idea. When was the last time you called or emailed a reporter to tell them you liked a story they wrote? It doesn’t even need to be about your agency. They don’t even need to respond. But there’s a good chance that they will remember that you complimented them without expecting anything directly in return.

You’ll remember it when they do the same to you. I still have the cards I received from a few reporters just days after serving as the spokesman through a line-of-duty death. It was the hardest week (professionally and emotionally) of my career, but two reporters took the time to send me notes thanking me for doing such a great job during the tragedy. They did it not because they expected something, but because they meant it.

That made it mean even more to me. And yes, over time they likely got a few extra exclusive stories as a result.

So, my fellow inbred siblings, I guess there are two lessons to this column and they both apply to your employer and the media. The first lesson is to not burn bridges. The second is to build those bridges stronger.

Talking to reporters: How to reach your true audience; Tips for getting the message out to the right people

It’s amazing how many PIOs and senior management have trouble answering this seemingly benign question, especially when the image and reputation of your agency hang in the balance.

The key is to quickly identify your TRUE audience. The “real” audience is ultimately who you want to understand and accept what you’re saying. The reporter isn’t your true audience; the reporter is just a filter to communicate to your true audience.

The trick is “seeing” your true audience when talking to the reporter. Confused? Let’s say a 25-year-old reporter asks you about health tips for seniors.

When answering the question, “see” your grandparents, not the 25-year-old reporter. The answer you give will come out differently, and when the reporter quotes you, the older readers will hear the answer in a way they understand that appeals to them.

It’s also worth noting that you may have more than one audience. Who do you believe are the true audiences in the following scenarios?

1. You’re hosting a media event where a patient wants to thank the paramedics, EMTs and firefighters that responded to their emergency. Your agency likely has several true audiences, all of which you can talk to at the media event.

If you’re an ambulance provider that contracts with a municipality, the fire department is clearly one of your audiences. Holding the event without first asking and inviting the fire department to co-host and participate would likely create a major headache for your agency and would hurt your relationship.

Local elected officials and regulators are another set of audiences, and so are your employees. It’s rare for EMS to be recognized, so coordinating an event like this is generally viewed as a compliment and acknowledgement to all EMTs and paramedics, not just the crew who literally cared for the patient.

2. Your agency is teaching CPR to a classroom full of 8th graders.  Is your audience truly the students themselves? Is it the teachers at the school? Sometimes they are.  However, other times you perform the training because you were asked to do so by a local regulator or decision maker in the system.   For the training itself, you will talk directly to the students and teachers.  You also need to make sure your other TRUE audience knows what you did.

Identifying the true audience is even more important during a crisis or negative story. What if your agency had a poor response time that resulted in a bad outcome?  Your true audience is your regulators and elected officials, along with people in the general public that might fear you’ll have similar response time issues should they have an emergency.   Envision these key audiences, and talk to them, not the reporter.

The reporter might not like it, but they can only quote what you actually say, they can’t control how your true audience interprets your answer.

Here’s a final trick that will help.  Whenever possible, “view” someone you know when answering the question.  It’s a lot easier to talk to someone you know, than a stranger. You’ll come across more friendly and you’ll talk at the level your true audience expects.