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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Taking Contol of the PR Narrative – 3 Ideas

I had the great pleasure of writing for PR ConversationsNewstweek again last week, after Judy Gombita graciously agreed to run with my post (the third one I have written for them). For the uninitiated, the group blog is a great forum that covers a range of PR subjects that should be of interest to client-side and agency folks around the world.

My topic was inspired by reviews of the book The Invisibles – which highlights the artistry of behind-the-scenes workers vs. the vanity of self promoters and personal brand builders. I appreciated the thoughtful comments on my post. However, at some point, the thread took a turn from self promotion to PR for PR, and how the field is portrayed in the media.

Heather Yaxley recalled a discussion at an industry event: Ian Burrell (Assistant Editor and Media Editor of The Independent newspaper) argued that a problem for PR is that it doesn’t own its public profile and lets this be defined instead by journalists and those we deem aren’t representative of our industry.

Toni Muzi Falconi replied: journalists have little idea of what we do for a living beyond hacking them simply because neither us as professionals nor… our professional associations have ever reached out to them in a planned and conscious way…. The conclusion is that it is not their fault if they do not understand what we do. It is our fault.

It got me to thinking, and I ran across a NY Times article over the weekend which crystallized my thoughts further. It was about celebrities using social media to wrest control of their narratives from the gossip media.

I recognize that it is a much different and greater challenge to seize the narrative for an entire field. But that doesn’t mean we should not try, and take it upon ourselves, individually and collectively (via the associations Toni referenced) to use our craft to promote better understanding of the field.

Here are a few ideas to get the process going, I of course welcome input from others, and hope that I can rally interest in the cause.

Build Consensus, Carry the Message

Part of the problem is that the field can be amorphous – terms that sound similar but are quite different get sloshed around (publicity, PR, media relations, communications, etc.) Even within the field, there’s disagreement about how to define PR and what is important.

Some may recall the PRSA-driven effort of a few years ago to update the definition of PR, and all of the industry mud wrestling around this. How can the PR field help others understand what we do if WE can’t agree? We don’t want to be like the Democrats, a party of great ideas, but one that is riven and does not carry a cohesive message.

There is now an updated definition – why not embrace it and do your part as a member of the profession in educating, and carrying the message?

Become Tireless PR Promoters and Educators

My PRC post was about the tension between self promotion and the quality of our work; I argued that you can have your personal brand and happy clients / employers too. Why not allocate a portion of the personal brand building time budget to defending and educating about our field? Wouldn’t we all have stronger individual brands if the profession is better understood, and seen in a positive light?

If you see something (inaccurate or slanderous about PR), say something. Apply the same skills and diligence that you do for your clients / employers – become ruthless fact checkers and correcters of the record.

That is what I have tried to do with this blog (and Twitter). I know many might be gun shy about taking on those who buy ink and electrons by the barrel (especially when PR critics are the same people you approach for coverage) – but if you use the right tone it can work, and even earn some respect. E.g. I have taken on NY Times, Businessweek and many others (the links point to these posts) – and am still in business.

Promote PR as a Fun, Smart and Creative Field 

The sad fact is that most people simply do not understand PR.  The running joke in my family has been that even my kids do not know what I do (they have asked if I can get them on TV).

Most seem to confuse it with advertising, others may think that it is sneaky and vaguely illicit.  Those who say they do know the field (e.g. certain members of the media) seem to assume it is just about pitch spam and hype.

As I mentioned in this post, one of the problem is that there is no recognized cult of PR, unlike advertising (which is generally seen as fun, hip, glamorous and creative).

It will take some work to turn this around – but if we are talking about the PR field as a client, and building the brand of PR, why not talk about campaigns and tactics? E.g. why not have a real reality show about PR – one that does not make everyone think that the field is just about celebrity publicity, for a change?

Some might think that it is not that interesting; Davina Brewer commented on my PRC post: Real Work is hard to glamorize. Reading, typing, meetings that would put someone who’s on their 4th cappuccino to sleep…

She makes a good point, on the other hand there have been many fun and entertaining moments in my experience, ones that would be good fodder for a reality show, or even a musical or book or movie (well, hopefully not a tragedy).

This post was about the nefarious words that surround PR in media.  Why not pool together and sponsor/run a campaign that builds better understanding by explaining what we aren’t:

“PR is… NOT!!!”

PR is not a crisis

PR is not a problem

PR is not a war

PR is not publicity

PR is not advertising

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How to Beat the Tech Leaders: Lessons for Startups from the Cantor Rout

Most were surprised by David Brat's win over House majority leader Eric Cantor in the Republican David_goliath_cbig-771648congressional primary in Virginia a few weeks ago. Where were the reporters and pollsters in this race?

Scores of articles were written in the aftermath to find answers (funny, but if just a fraction of the journalistic effort focused on Virginia beforehand, someone would have predicted the upset).

The episode got me to thinking: can the tech sector learn anything from Brat's triumph? After all, there's a constant tension between the old and new in tech – i.e., the market leaders and challengers. The startups behind that next innovation would like nothing better than to sneak up and clobber the competition, Brat style.

Granted, that win was in politics; and tech market battles generally don't turn on a single make-or-break contest. But tech consumers do vote for products – with their wallets. Product features and brand reputation can be likened to the profiles and images of the candidates.

So, I thought that I would study how Brat won the race – and find some takeaways for tech startups. Here is what I learned:

Build Support While Flying Under the Radar

It is great if you get wads of funding from the top Silicon Valley VCs, or have a serial entrepreneur with star power at the helm. Your launch will get covered by the major tech blogs and media. But one of the reasons Brat was successful is that he quietly built support without the help of the political media machine. He avoided the noise and distraction of the Beltway crowd – or they avoided him.

Either way, no one, especially team Cantor, knew what was coming until it was too late. The point is, most startups think that they need big buzz in the top tech blogs to win. But you may not need this if you follow another tactic from the Brat playbook.

Appeal to Your Base

Ultimately, Brat scored an upset because he had a better "product". His tough-on-immigration stance and humble, outsider persona won over those who were tired of politics as usual. He proved that all politics really are local.

In tech, you can win by appealing to another kind of base – your user base, or universe of potential customers. Develop products and marketing that really resonate with end users and you will be one step closer to unseating the tech incumbents (this may sound like obvious advice, but how many startups really do this?).

But if you are flying under the media radar, how do you get the word out to potential customers? That question leads us to the next tip.

Rally the Key Influencers for your Market

It seems like a contradiction. How can you fly under the media radar, yet build buzz and convert people to your cause? Brat found an answer to this question – he tapped the power of talk radio.

Strictly speaking, this is still media – but more about opinion and analysis than reporting mainstream political news. And it would be a mistake to think that information flows efficiently between the two. As David Carr wrote in his NY Times Media Equation column:

Hordes of blogs and news sites continue to chase the latest incremental scoop that will draw followers on Twitter, but a whole other channel of information is out there, including talk radio. Politico called it “Brat’s secret weapon,” to which, we might ask, secret to whom? About 50 million people in America listen to talk radio, much of it from conservative commentators like Mark Levin, Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham.

They may represent a significant slice of Vox Populi, but they aren’t on heavy rotation in most newsrooms. Conservative talk radio blows a whistle that many journalists either can’t hear or don’t want to listen to.

The takeaway for tech? Find the influencers that hold sway over your targeted users and have reach into the marketplace. Get them excited. Court them and find common interests.

If this all sounds a little iffy, let me remind you of a company that famously won by using stealth PR techniques; that eschewed mainstream tech events like CES; that got big by firing up consumer tech tastemakers and launching products (and marketing) that really resonated. Anyone heard of the (once small) company called Apple?

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Lessons from Louis C.K. on PR Messaging

I am a big fan of comedian Louis C.K., and love his show on FX.  I have blogged about his lessons for PR before.

Another one recently occurred to me.  We had just completed two seminars here at Fusion PR in conjunction with Internet Week NY, about honing the tech PR message, and new launch tactics.

One of the key takeaways actually sounds a lot like Louie’s riff on overstatement, which I share below (excerpts come from this website, which had a transcript). It is risque, like much of his stuff, I cleaned it up a bit below, check out the YouTube video above for the uncensored version:

We go right for the top shelf with our words now. We don’t think about how we talk.

We just [go] right to the fxxing, just–“dude, it was amazing.”

” really? you were amazed? You were amazed by a basket of chicken wings? Really? Amazing?

What are you gonna do with the rest of your life now? What if something really great happens to you?

What if jesus comes down from the sky and makes love to you all night long, leaves the new living lord in your belly?

What are you gonna call that?

You used “amazing” on a basket of chicken wings. You’ve limited yourself verbally to a shit life.

He goes on to list other examples, e.g. when people casually throw words like “genius” and “hilarious” around.

It kind of reminded me about the tech industry’s overreliance on hypey words like “revolutionary”, “disruptive”, “game changing”, “paradigm shifting” and, of course, “revolutionary”.

The advice we gave in the seminars was to stay away from such language, sounds very much in line with Louie’s observations. Great minds think alike, I guess!

 

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iPhone Case Cage Match at Fusion PR

My email query to the Fusion PR team set off a frenzied debate, about the best case to protect an iPhone Cagematch_thumb1 from damage.

I am a chronic phone dropper, and my old phone had just died after one too many.  Luckily, it was insured.  Unluckily, there was a hefty $200 deductible to replace the phone (which I learned was necessary, after going to Apple's Genius Bar.  The tech came back from some quick exploratory surgey; he looked at me grimly, and just shook his head – the patient was gone).

But Asurion, the inurance company, shipped me a new one overnight, which was great.  It was a 5s, a step up from my old iPhone 5.  Getting my apps and data back, and getting started with the new phone, were incredibly easy, nothing short of miraculous, via iCloud, and a wizard that walked me through the process.

So I sent the request to the Fusion team and got lots of great email suggestions.  The camps seemed split between Otterbox, which some said is clunky, and Lifeproof, which one person called "a dream". The IT guy favors Evutec: "Nice price at $49.95 and great carbon fiber case."

The email back and forth turned into some trash talking, and eventually they took the debate offline. The Lifeproof zealot dared the IT guy to a drop test in our NY office – he declined, but she dropped her phone.  It survived (I wouldn't recommend trying this, but word has it that Lifeproof will pay you if a phone with their case gets damaged in a drop).

This is the team I am proud of!.  They debate the issues on an intellectual level, and then slug it out, without taking prisoners – don't get in their way!

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Hate Spin? Sorry, We Get the News (and PR) that we Want

Two stories I saw recently and new research gave the PR field an answer for spin haters. Note, I am not Truth_and_lies_tsaying that PR = Spin. And who says spin is necessarily bad? We all spin. It so happens that the PR field is particularly good at turning a set of facts into an interesting story. This can become a problem if we distort facts or lies. My many years in the field tell me that this happens much less than some people say.

Journalists, of course, also turn facts into interesting stories. They spin too, except their spin gets the fancy name "editorializing".

These thoughts occurred to me after I read an article and a blog post. The article cited research that would seem to show that newspapers slant news based on the preferences of their readers. The second calls out a Business Insider story for being a PR-influenced puff piece. How are these connected?

The New York Times article Media Slant: A Question of Cause and Effect highlighted research that seemed to prove, essentially, that we get the news that we want.  Here's an excerpt:

[Research]studied the political slant of more than 400 daily newspapers…With a measure of political slant in hand, the researchers then analyzed its determinants…A natural hypothesis is that a media outlet’s perspective reflects the ideology of its owner… The bottom line is simple: Media owners generally do not try to mold the population to their own brand of politics. Instead, like other business owners, they maximize profit by giving customers what they want.

The second of the above-referenced pieces deconstructs a Business Insider article. Host Analytics CEO blogger Dave Kellogg takes down the profile of a competitor, almost line by line, claiming:

I’m doing this mostly because I’m tired of seeing stories like this one, where it’s my perception that a publication takes a story wholesale, spin and all, from a skilled PR firm and sends it down the line, unchallenged, to us readers.

While the screed might seem to be sour grapes over nice coverage of a competitor, it is very well written and makes some excellent points (plus, you got to love any post that quotes Jello Biafra, lead singer of 80's punk band Dead Kennedys).

Kellogg uses his own knowledge, common sense and quick digging on the Internet to refute the entire piece, from the headline through each facet of the story.  He argues throughout that BI should have done a better job fact checking, and ran with what was likely PR-generated copy to make it a better story:

All part of the journalist embellishing the (probably already embellished) details in order to make CG larger than life and get a lot of hits on the story.

As the research in the Times piece showed, however – we get the stories that we want!

I am not arguing in favor of shoddy reporting.  I am saying that the PR field often bears the brunt of blame for spinning, and this is not fair.  We tell the stories that we think are great ones.  The media reports news and sometimes gets their info from PR, based on what they think the readers want.

If we are doing a good job, users scarf down the content and come back for more.  But, agreed, journalistic and PR success should not come at the expense of accuracy and honesty.

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