Confessions of A Foreign PR Student

CocaCola_PotBy Carmen Ren

We all know that in order to communicate effectively, PR practitioners need to understand the public well. In the multi-cultural context, this can be several times more challenging. (To me, it is also fascinating!) The efforts to understand our stakeholders from a foreign culture go way beyond overcoming language issues.

As a PR student who came to the United States for the first time 14 months ago, I was daunted by the challenge of using English to listen, express, learn, think, and “try to be a New Yorker”. I was overwhelmed by obstacles on various levels –

  • Both verbal and written communications are basic and indispensable parts of PR practices. It was challenging for me to write in English and ensure its quality;
  • Public Relations practices (or simply communication) will not work without context. It was VERY challenging for me to catch up with the social and cultural context so that I could at least join the conversation without looking clueless. (e.g. I didn’t know what the terms Stop-and-Frisk, and Cyber Monday, among others, were.)
  • Public Relations governance (and again, communication as well) will not succeed without understanding and aligning different values of various constituents. As a foreigner, it is absolutely challenging for me to grasp the essence of American thinking and therefore make sense of their judgments and behaviors.

Understanding and aligning different values is the biggest obstacle, for me and, I believe, for most PR professionals who have the ambition to operate in a different culture.

Here is an anecdote: a friend from Philly once asked me when comparing Philly to New York City, “How do your Chinese friends conceive Philadelphia? Say, more left and more right?” I didn’t know how to answer, since I don’t usually use “left or right” to describe a city. In fact, the whole dimension of “left and right” does not exist in the way we view our cities. “The Philadelphia question” reminds me of how political culture is deeply rooted in an American mindset.

In contrast to the American politically-rooted mindset, in modern China, we are raised in a culture where civic engagement is not encouraged and political discussion is alien to the mass. The reasons for it are plenty and complex. To me, the most obvious ones are lack of incentives and empowerment — When you know what you say will not matter and will not change anything [1], why bother to devote your efforts? When schools don’t educate students to challenge the authority, and to think critically, how can they be equipped to participate in civic engagements?

In this specific case, what does this “weak muscle” of critical thinking in China mean to communicators or PR pros? To name some, will the public be more vulnerable to rumors and smear campaigns because they are not used to making efforts to find the truth? Will this further influence their information gathering habits and problem solving approaches regarding rumors, or even information at large?

These issues are critical for PR pros because they are a part of the “listening process (public audit)”. This “listening process” is labor-intensive and complex indeed, especially when the context of our stakeholders never stops changing. For a leader who has ambition to set foot in another country, this task cannot be accomplished by simply reading a few books about another country, at least not enough for PR pros. A good multicultural PR pro should be a lifelong “anthropologist”, who diligently listens, observes, and therefore is able to impersonate and communicate [2]. (Silver lining: we have big data to support the continuous listening process.)

I’d like to wrap it up with an analogy– Practicing PR in a foreign land is no less challenging than being in a relationship with a foreigner. First you should be able to communicate in his/her language. And then you make better sense by understanding his/her background and personal history in factual details. But not until you understand “the significant other” on a psychological and even metaphysical level, will you win his/her heart and soul– in PR, this translates to trust, intimacy and a sustainable relationship.

———

[1] Professor James E. Grunig developed a Situational Theory of Publics to explain and predict why some publics are active and others are passive. To explore this subject further, see http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/public-relations/s08-02-the-situational-theory-of-publ.html
[2] For more discussion about “generic principles and specific applications in public relations” (Falconi), see http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2013/04/generic-principles-and-specific-applications-in-public-relations/

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Tech PR in Asia: Myths and Misconceptions

As a tech PR agency - one with clients that sell chips and components to mobile and CE device vendors – we are often asked china-featabout getting media coverage Asia.

That’s because most of the related manufacturing is done in places like China, Korea and Taiwan.  Companies that are trying to sell their core technology into these markets want the media to highlight their products and news there, just like they do here in the U.S.

I find that there is much confusion on the topic.  So, I thought I would share the most common myths and misconceptions, and set the record straight.

The information is based on our years of experience implementing campaigns for clients in APAC.  The media and economic landscapes are constantly evolving; to help us stay on the cutting edge, we work with people that have native language skills and media knowledge; great resources like team member Carmen Ren, who is from Shenzhen, China.

Below, please see the most common myths, and our response:

It’s all kind of the same there, right?  You pay the reporter and you get coverage

It is not all the same, the rules can vary from country to country, and within each country, based on the type of news or event.  While payment is sometimes expected, it is important to understand the customs, so that you don’t offer money when it is not appropriate – or know when it is fair game.

You need to hire an agency in each country / major region

There is no question that it helps to have PR “feet on the ground” in each country – people who know the language, can help you translate materials, and are close with the media.  But this quickly can get prohibitively expensive, and beyond the means of a smaller company or startup.

Fortunately, it is possible to get coverage from afar, if you know the right approach – and who to approach.

The government controls the media in China, and other countries – you are wasting your time with PR

While there is no denying government influence over the media, censors will simply not care about most tech vendor news.  There is a rich collection of media in China and other countries, and a growing focus and interest on business and technology news.

You can get by with great U.S. PR results, and communicating in English

Yes, the Internet does make the world a smaller place when it comes to communications – and many do look to the U.S. and major media coverage here.  But you will get much better PR results in Asia if you take the time to approach the media there directly, in their language, rather than hoping that they will somehow find your news.

For further clarification, I asked Carmen Ren about this point. She said:

“It depends on English proficiency in that region. E.g., in Singapore you can reach out in English, as that is their official Language; while in Mainland China, Chinese still dominates business communications. Hong Kong lies in-between.

It is also affected by the freedom of media access. Mainland Chinese heavily depend on domestic websites and internet services as news sources, thanks to the media censorship. (Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are banned there).

It’s true that mainland Chinese can still access some foreign sites, but as they are so used to the “home-grown” media environment, foreign contents just fall off the radar. So in mainland China, it is still necessary to communicate in Chinese and localize communication efforts.”

Want to learn more?

We will be blogging more on this topic, and issuing a series of briefs about how to maximize PR results in China, and other parts of Asia.  Please visit this link to learn more.

 

 

 

 

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Fortune Magazine Bites the Hand that Curates

A funny thing happened on the way to the LinkedIn forum. PR Week covered their What-A-Tangled-Web-900x675CommsConnect event last week – what caught my attention was the headline:

Fortune’s Lashinsky: Branded content is ‘propaganda’

I’ll say more about this in a moment.  But first let me tell you about another article which relates, and I think you will enjoy, from Digiday: How Dan Roth became the most powerful editor in business publishing 

It explains how former Fortune journalist Dan Roth is now chief editor of a media juggernaut  – namely, you guessed it, LinkedIn.  Here’s an excerpt:

.… when you examine the multiple aspects of LinkedIn’s media operation — a popular and growing native-ads business; tens of millions of potential “content producers” churning out nearly 40,000 posts per week at zero cost… an audience that’s larger, wealthier and more engaged than that of the average website — you realize it may very well be the most formidable title in business publishing and Roth, the most powerful man in business journalism.

Of course, the LinkedIn audience is of great interest to brands and business publishers alike:

Anyone who has ever published a news story can tell you that it’s nice to have readers. That’s why every day, editors from dozens of the Web’s most reputable, highly trafficked business publications — Bloomberg, Business Insider, Quartz, to name just a few — pitch Dan Roth with their best, most timely stories. Roth and his team scour the pitches, looking to aggregate those most likely to resonate with their own audience of 86 million U.S. visitors….

The numbers have been reflected in LinkedIn’s ads businessrevenue was  up 44 percent.  Much of this growth has been fueled by “native” advertising.

Native advertising, AKA branded content – and, interestingly enough, some customers for LinkedIn’s branded content business are publishers.

Which brings us back to the intro.

It is an interesting world these days. You have a social network that is, by some measures, the most influential business publisher. You have editors pitching the social networks, like PR flacks, and at least one very influential editor calling branded content propaganda.

A tangled Web indeed, the irony is thick.

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Punch up Your News without Using Hype

PowYou know the feeling; you’ve written a pretty good press release, or so you thought – but the client or internal sponsor kicks it back to you because it “lacks excitement.”

It can be hard to understand or respond to such subjective criticism. In theory, the excitement of a release should relate to the news at hand. But we know that the same story can be told in different ways.

Reporters and editors prefer facts and neutral writing. The release owner might want to get all hypey. The PR person is caught in the middle.

Assuming that you do have important news to communicate, how do you tell a great story – one that satisfies the release owner, and conveys excitement but doesn’t veer into chest beating? You might want to consider these tips:

Let the facts tell the story

The problem with neutral language is that it is, well, neutral. It does not scream “We have great news!” But here’s a bold concept, why not stick to the actual facts, i.e., use superlatives or hard data?

E.g., if you are first to market with a 10 Tera-flop whatever, by all means say so. Ditto if your new product is the fastest, or you are reporting some breakthrough in the lab.
But don’t use soft, indefensible claims like “best” or “most innovative”.

Let others tell the story

The problem with any kind of claim is that it might lack credibility.  So bring in independent testing data to support the claims, and/or market research.

The media would rather hear how important your news is from others, ideally those who are at arm’s length. Why not brief industry analysts, and include a quote from them in your press release? If you are lucky enough to name and quote a customer, by all means do so.

The quote is the one place in the release where you are allowed to go over the top. Here, it is OK for your client and their customer to amp the excitement. Still, you want to avoid clichés and anything that smacks of BS.

Tell a great story

Even if you don’t have lots of firsts, hard data, or independent validation, you should be able to write a press release that tells a great story – one that the release owner loves, hits the mark with customers, and also satisfies the media.

To do so, it should answer the questions: who should care, and why? Talk about benefits and applications of the technology. Explain how the new product or service advances the field in an easy-to-understand way, using language that resonates with the intended audience.

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NewCo Showcases NY Tech “In the Wild”

I attended the NewCo New York kickoff event on Tuesday evening.  It was a great opportunity to network with like-minded bloggers, journalists, marketers and entrepreneurs and hear from top tech influencers.

As NewCo co-founder John Battelle (the search wonk and tech influencer who launched Industry Standard and co-founded the Web 2.0 Summit with Tim O’Reilly) explained, they were interested in launching a new event concept and came up with NewCo, a “conference-as-festival, where innovative companies throw open their doors to the public.”

It is about meeting with innovative NY Tech startups in their natural habitats, AKA their own offices (NewCo runs events in a number of cities around the world now – Austin is next).

I unfortunately did not get the chance to make the circuit, but really enjoyed kickoff’s centerpiece – a fireside chat between BuzzFeed Founder and CEO Jonah Perretti and Battelle.  It was a lively and provocative conversation, and both gave as good as they got.  John tweaked Jonah a bit about listicles, and Jonah fired back with some witty retorts.

Below, you can see some curated Tweets, via Storify.

 

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And One More thing… David Carr Deconstructs Apple’s Media Playbook

It is an old saying in PR: “there is no accounting for taste.”  Said another way (as we teach in media training), in any market, one company will rise to the top, fueled by “story energy”.   The media will inexplicably latch on and just fawn.apple_wall___one_more_thing______by_thedevartist-d4bfml9

These thoughts crossed my mind as I read NY Times Media Equation columnist David Carr’s excellent analysis of the media fascination with Apple in light of last week’s “Applemageddon” news orgy.  (For those in tech PR not working with Apple, it seems like we were handed a mini-vacation during the 9/9 event – it was futile to be trying to pitch anything else, especially consumer-tech related).  He wrote:

Apple’s ability to seize the moment and preoccupy the press is without peer. Think about it: Absent that showmanship and hype, the company announced two very good-looking, very expensive phones that catch up with consumers’ preference for larger screens, a smartwatch… and a payment system that will need buy-in from retailers.  So, what is it about Apple that makes a sea of professional curmudgeons whoop like children on Christmas?

He went on to list some of the tricks from Apple’s PR playbook.

Given the company’s history of maniacal secrecy… its sway with the news media is even more remarkable…. the stage management of its events rivals what is being announced... Seating charts are meticulously studied, rehearsals are endless and strategic leaks are used to temper expectations… The audience claps because everything — the lighting, the fanfare, the reveal — is meant to elicit applause.

On the one hand, Apple’s success with the media might not be that surprising as they use tried and true tactics, like stealth, and stagecraft to maximal effect.  Yet another vendor would probably would not get the same results with these tricks.   Why is that?

The answer lies in the story energy, taste, and the intoxicating power that an intangible such as brand can have.  If reporters lose perspective and swoon, who can blame them?  They are people too.  They love a good story, and love to fall in love.

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Who needs a Strategy? Just Schmooze us Please

buellerI wrote in my post that Hate Spin?… that we get the news stories, and hence PR, that we want.  But do we sometimes want more spin than we get?

This thought occurred to me regarding a story that was hot in the news over the Labor Day weekend. Many covered Obama’s statement “We don’t have a strategy yet” regarding the threat posed by ISIS.

It was great fodder for Republicans, and reporters in search of a catchy headline on a slow news day.  As the story was repeated and amplified, I wondered whether Obama’s statement was simply an example of unfiltered candor from a politician, which might actually be refreshing.

But Frank Bruni broke it down in his NY Times column Obama’s Messy Words.  He wrote:

There are things that you think and things that you say…  These overlap but aren’t the same. Has President Obama lost sight of that?

Not having a strategy, at least a fixed, definitive one, is understandable. The options aren’t great, the answers aren’t easy and the stakes are enormous.

But announcing as much? It’s hard to see any percentage in that. It gives no comfort to Americans. It puts no fear in our enemies… [It's not] the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate…[not] savvy, constructive P.R.

 

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Tech startups, Want to Go Big? Get PR Help, for the Love of God

Dont-Try-This-At-Home-logoWhen giving advice, it generally helps to have real credentials, such as professional experience in a field.  But I have noticed a trend in which armchair flacks such as VCs, journalists and CEOs spew forth about PR (saying things like you don’t need PR, or an agency, or you’re doing it all wrong, etc.)

The straw that broke the camel’s back was an article in the NY Times, by Robert Moore, CEO of RJMetrics (which my friend Judy Gombita shared). He wrote that you don’t need “pricey PR firms” because it is not “rocket science”.

I AM a PR pro, and find advice like this to be misguided, simplistic or just plain wrong, and even potentially harmful to young companies that are trying to figure out the best way to launch and build sales and brand.

I’ll be the first to admit that there are no guarantees  in PR.  Not all investments pay off, and yes, just like in other professions, there are the good and bad apples.  But it is an area that has consistently proven value, especially when compared with other marketing vehicles – and most startups that have gone beyond the emerging stage, to grow, capture market share and exit successfully have done so with the help of professional PR.

Here are the reasons that you need professional PR help (whether you hire a firm or an in-house team), stated as answers to the most common objections.

Agencies are too expensive
Compared with what? There are firms to fit all budgets, from freelancers, to boutiques, to the big shops.  And what is the opportunity cost of not getting good PR?

We don’t need PR experts, reporters want authenticity and direct access
Right, and I am sure your top execs could handle legal briefs and accounting too. Should they be mired in the all the work required to get media and social media attention these days? Don’t they have other things to do?

PR is an incredibly rich and complex field, one that is constantly changing (20 years in, and I am still learning every day). Leave it to the pros: hire a person, team or agency that has PR experience in your field.  They will not compete with or compromise your authentic, expert voices – but will make the best use of your time, and bring you and other execs in when needed. The PR team will run interference with media, who often do like to get help with access to sources and info.

We need sales leads not fancy, agency PR
That kind of sounds like Robert Moore, whose article ran in a section of the NY Times that focuses on SMBs. If you want to graduate to become a big business, and maybe even cash out via a successful IPO or acquisition some day, use PR to build long term brand and company value. Hire a team that will get you there.

It will cost less to hire someone and run PR in-house
It may cost less if you look at hourly wages vs. fees. And it is better to hire an experienced person or dedicated internal team than throw the job at top execs or people who are already wearing multiple hats.

That said, with an agency you get a team and benefit from senior level counsel, admin, and the extended network of contacts and relationships. You also get access, through the agency, of info services they offer. They serve as an impartial sounding board and proxy for what works in the media.

Our CEO is a social media rock star, we don’t need outside PR
It is a great that your CEO blogs and/or has thousands of Twitter followers. But what about credibility that can be gained through media and analyst coverage? A good PR team can leverage your established / owned social media channels and use these and other assets to get even more attention / visibility.

Sure, it is possible to find the outliers like Uber, who apparently succeeded without PR, and it is sometimes fun to stir things up and take a contrarian view.

Uber and RJMetrics are two examples, what about all the companies that did call upon PR pros to go big and exit?  Here are some you may have heard of (I know from first-hand experience or media reports that the following companies had agencies and/or hired top PR talent): Fusion-IO, Nest Labs, Waze, SoftLayer, Skype, Airbnb, Twitch, Square, SnapChat, Pure Storage, Pinterest, MongoDB, DropBox, etc. etc. etc.

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The Most Disruptive, Purpose-built list of Tech PR Clichés Ever

The Journal featured a book review yesterday for Orin Hargraves’ It’s Been Said Before.  I was really excited because thefile000349823764 article described a whole book about clichés and, let’s face it, I have no life (OK, I have a life, is it really so bad to be fascinated with words and language)?

The review starts:

I’m inclined to listen to any politician who warns his listeners about the dangers of deficit spending—right up until he talks about “kicking the can down the road.” The use of that deplorable old cliché suggests to me that the speaker isn’t… interested in persuading anybody of anything, since he can’t be bothered to express himself on the issue without relying on a worn-out phrase 

It quotes Hargraves’ definition:

All clichés… express common ideas that require frequent expression. But that’s not all it takes to qualify.. What turns an idiom into a cliché is its frequent use in ways that hinder clarity rather than enhancing… Many clichés seem as if they’re making an argument but really aren’t… That’s the trouble with clichés. You can’t help suspecting that the cliché-user… may just be attempting to fill space.

The review cites examples such as “world of difference” and “best kept secret” and “whole point”.

Hargraves blames journalists for propagating clichés, but I think that tech marketers and PR folks can learn a thing or two here as well (“a thing or two” – is that a cliché? Damn, this is hard). In my experience many tend to over rely on and recycle trite words and phrases.

Communicating about complex technology clearly can be a challenge in and of itself. Every character counts, and we simply do not have time or attention to waste space on words that add no meaning.

So I thought it might be helpful to share some examples from the world of tech, via the following list. Which ones am I missing? Please add your suggestions (as a bonus, I am sharing a link to a post I wrote that describes technology that can scan text to detect FOG – fact-deficient obfuscating generalities).

Out-of-the-box solutions

Cutting edge
Leading edge
Oftentimes
Purpose built
Disruptive
Paradigm shifting
Seamless
End-to-end
Game changing
Next generation
Proprietary technology
Easy-to-use
World class
World leading
Industry leading
We are pleased
There are more… than ever before
The fastest in the industry / world / market
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Do Nice Headlines Finish First? Tech Media Training Redux

We had a media training session this week involving one of our larger clients last week. NaughtyOrNice1_zps06c1f9f3

Executives from around the world flew in to learn about the art of getting key points across in press interviews, and take turns in the Hot Seat (mock interviews with real journalists).

I love these sessions because they help us bond with clients, and share experiences and observations about the worlds of technology and the media.

We commiserated about the increasingly negative and provocative tone of tech reporting. The tech trade press used to be a safe place to share your story, and get your messages across unchallenged.  These days, it seems, everyone is after that biting headline that draws viewers and clicks.

That is the perception, but is it true?  I saw two articles in the NY Times last week that are relevant to the question – one about the dangers of being too incendiary, and the second, which seems to show people enjoy and prefer to share positive stories.

In Stumbling Along in the Race to be Provocative, William Rhoden wrote:

Stephen A. Smith will return to active duty this week at ESPN, which suspended him for being overzealous — and imprecise — while doing what he is paid to do: provoke and incite. [His] remarks are the latest example of how the line between being thought-provoking and merely provoking has become blurred and how thoughtful discourse has been compromised.

histrionics are intended not as much to facilitate debate as to draw, and keep, fans. As competition has escalated, news media outlets have become increasingly obsessed with their audience numbers. We want your eyes, your ears, your wallets.

Heated debates around polarizing figures and polarizing quotations make for good copy and great TV. But do they lead to positive change?… As we chase dollars, we make progressively less sense

Sheila Marikar wrote in her story On the Nice Internet, Caring is Sharing

Anchored by websites including Thought Catalog, Upworthy and ViralNova, this is an Internet that aims to lift up, not take down…But behind their warm and fuzzy veneers, these growing media companies are businesses, and they peddle in uplifting content because they believe it’s profitable.

“A lot of it is clicky headlines and shareable headlines, and shareable headlines that play with certain identities.. people want to share with their friends to self-represent,” Mr. Magnin said. Indeed, his site has filled a void: Thought Catalog’s compilation of life advice, nostalgic lists and “betcha didn’t know this” type wisdom drew more than 34 million unique visitors in June, according to Quantcast.. the website of Time magazine had about 2.6 million unique visitors during the same month.

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