PR – An Essential Business? Tips for Keeping Your Sanity, Job and Relationships in a Pandemic

It’s dark in here.  Let me find the light switch.  There you go.  Hey, where is everybody? It sure is quiet.

These are the thoughts you might have, if you work in PR in the Age of Coronavirus.

People are bunkered down.  No one knows for sure when the crisis will end.  Media and social channels can’t focus on anything else.  We are all adjusting to the new, shut-in normal

If you are lucky enough to be in a business that is not taken down, you may well be wondering: what is the proper response?  What should we say to customers, and the market?  Should we continue to pitch the media and promote our news?

One is tempted to think back to earlier crises. But this time is different.  There is no precedent, no play book to trot out.  Just the same, we need some strategy, some direction.  I thought I’d offer the following tips, based on what I’m seeing and believe.

It is not all about Business

Your first instinct may well be to protect what you have; perhaps by convincing clients that there’s no cause for concern. That would be a mistake.  You should check in, let them know that you are thinking of them, and that you care beyond the monthly fee.

My friend Don Leon offered some great advice on LinkedIn:

Take a moment to identify some of your favorite clients and customers (folks are tending to stay local so lots of people around/at their desk). Send them a brief text or email letting them know (in your own words) that you’re thinking of them. No agenda, no apologies, no doom and gloom–just thoughts from your heart. That little bit of love can go a long way in BOTH directions.

Don Leon

Don’t Over-communicate

Despite the first tip, Sword & Script blogger Frank Strong reckons that this may be a crisis that defies the usual advice to over-communicate:

Customers don’t need 500 emails from vendors telling them to wash their hands.  Businesses don’t need to send a message unless there’s some direct impact on customers as a result of the virus.

Frank Strong

DO Provide Guidance and Direction

People will naturally look to the pros for direction about communications.  When clients and corporate teams are unsure of how to best proceed, we need to provide clear and confident direction.

Yes, PR, you are an essential business function.

E.g. some may not be sure what the proper approach is to media and other external communications. They may be skittish and want to clam up. Others will want to jump in with ill-advised pitches.

To Pitch or not to Pitch

In times of crisis, people like to tell PR, essentially, to shut up – hold fire on our pitches. I do not agree (see a post I did some time agoon the topic).

No, you shouldn’t chase ambulances. And you should not flood reporter inboxes with irrelevant or clueless pitches (not that this was ever a good idea).

Yet there’s a danger in going silent, for the media and customer communications.
As long as the press and analysts are showing up for work, and you are also open for business, you should continue to communicate with the media, including on topics relevant to the crisis (but carefully; more about this below). The competition likely are.

This is especially true for companies that are visible and have significant roles, e.g. cater to consumers or employ large numbers; and those that are in the crosshairs, like airlines, or have good news (e.g., Amazon to hire 100,000 more workers and give raises to current staff to deal with coronavirus demands).

Michelle Garrett blogged about pitching media in the Coronavirus Era based on journalists’ feedback. The post confirms that the waters are safe for media pitches, with certain caveats and exceptions.

But we know this because the great team at Fusion PR has continued to support clients and generate results during this time.

What to Pitch

That doesn’t mean you should launch major news now, especially if there’s some flexibility in terms of timing.  People are distracted, it’s a busy news day times ten.

But some news has a shelf life and can’t wait. Awards, analyst recognition, customer wins that need to be announced now, or never – this drumbeat can be a backdrop to the more dire news crowding the headlines, show you’re there for the market and customers, and might even be a welcome distraction.

There’s an obvious appetite for stories tied to the crisis.  Here, you want to be careful.

As always, stay attuned to what’s being covered and what’s happening today that may make your news more relevant.

“Working from home tips” may be passé by now; but if media are covering a shortage of ventilators, and your 3D printer can generate parts for the same, it is a perfect time to discuss this option.

Don’t promote something crass, like a Coronavirus sale, but why not give away technology solutions to researchers or relief organizations, like Oracle did

The media may also be interested in your expert advice on a range of topics, e.g. about how best to cope and plan in the face of uncertainty, stories about your company and the impact of Coronavirus, as well as:

  • Personal stories, about how businesses and teams are coping
  • Thought leadership, observations
  • Technology that addresses security challenges of telecommuting
  • Telecommuting hacks, solutions, tech, stories
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Taking on the PR Agency Haters

It is once again de rigueur to slam PR agencies.

I learned this from a prospect who clued me in to a podcast and Forbes article (the former by uber influencers who should know better; the latter was generally negative on agencies but had some great points).

Before I go further, sure, I agree that PR does have its bad actors, just like any profession; and don’t have an issue with fair criticism. I am against clueless flaming.  Below I list a few examples, including ones I’ve covered before.

The Marketing Guru

If you want my respect as someone who understands PR, please don’t gloat about all the agencies you have hired and fired.  This just tells me you are not as smart as you think you are. 

I am referring to two recent pieces by marketing folks who seemed to take glee in repeatedly giving agencies the ax. In the first, Neil Patel and his sidekick Eric Siu trash the idea of hiring a PR agency, citing success with a single campaign led by in-house PR that drove lots of signups. This is described as hacking free PR.  They both decried PR to build brand and implied that you need to choose between product PR and the former.

I had this one friend recently talk to a bunch of top CEOs and the consensus is this: the 10, 15, 20K retainer that you might pay one of the top PR firms – they generally amount to nothing. 

I’ve actually canned a couple of PR companies… the top PR machine is generally the leader…  It’s not to hire out a firm that you pay and may not get anything back.  From my experience, that’s the trouble with PR companies…

Eric Siu

Neil agreed and went on to plug a couple of friends who offer pay-for-performance PR.  We can save the topic of performance-based PR for another post.  Suffice it to say that this is not a winning strategy. 

Udi Ledergor begins the  Forbes piece: The Brand-PR Relationship Is Evolving, And The Industry Needs To Adjust with this comment:

I’ve hired and worked with more than a handful of public relations agencies over the past 15 years. I fired them all within a year or so.

Udi Ledergor

It gets better from there.  He points out the challenges of working with traditional PR agencies amidst a changing landscape:

I believe it’s the typical public relations (PR) model that’s broken…The market has moved on and, based on what I’ve seen, the PR industry has yet to adjust.

Last time I had to say goodbye to a PR firm we hired was a couple of years ago. They went through all the motions…  update calls on media outreach and stories they were developing, checking in with us to see if we had some exciting news…. and explaining that… stories… weren’t going to happen because the reporters they had pitched to simply didn’t find them compelling enough.

Udi Ledergor

Um, Udi, sounds like you need an evolved agency that is more proactive and creative (hint hint!). He goes on to point out specific ways that PR needs to change and puts the onus on brands too.

The Churner

A close cousin to the marketing guru is the churner.  These are the companies that burn through agencies and are the worst kind of clients.

Churners would never admit to hating PR firms but show their contempt by always complaining about their current or last agency, and swearing they’d up their PR game if they only they could just find the perfect partner.

This breed is famous for treating the PR firm like “arms and legs,” just another vendor, and for setting unreasonable expectations while doing blessed little to support the program.

PR agency churners would be well advised to read Udi’s piece, and heed his words:

But PR firms cannot carry all the blame for a failed brand-PR relationship; a brand must assist a firm in understanding its needs and what it hopes to gain.

Udi Ledergor

Armchair Flacks

I’ve written before about armchair flacks.  Like armchair quarterbacks, they are great at calling the plays without having played in the pros.  These are all the CEOs, VCs, and journalists who claim to have solved the PR puzzle without using actual PR people.

They come in various sub-flavors.  The blustery tech industry hotshot like Mark Cuban; his post from 2014 deriding agencies circulated again recently; I addressed this in Tech startups, Want to Go Big? Get PR Help, for the Love of God. The jaded journalist, like John Biggs, whom I wrote about here (at least his rant was entertaining, he won points for style).

Those who are interested in this topic might also like my posts Startup PR Myths Debunked and Startup PR Myths Busted, via NY Tech Meetup.

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Is that paid PR Opportunity worth it? 5 Experts Chime In

They come in various flavors.  The too-good-to-be-true TV spot.  The “Pssst I can get you into XXXX, guaranteed, just pay me $YYYY.”  The endless procession of awards and articles with price tags attached.

Many PR people reflexively dismiss these and spend a lot of time explaining why to clients.

It’s a mistake to indiscriminately shoot them all down, as some are worth considering.  I explain why in this post and share thoughts from our team.

You Gotta Pay Somebody

Bob Dylan sang that you’ve got to serve somebody.  It is also true that in PR you’ve got to pay someone, even if this means salaries or an agency fee. So, PR is not free earned media, despite what some say.

Beyond the cost of PR talent, it can be tough to understand where to invest.

The growth in content marketing and paid media options add to the confusion.  Some think that traditional PR is a waste of money. Others say that the media game is all rigged (e.g., one client berated me for mocking their paid TV spot, saying all media is bought and paid for anyway).  It’s a cynical view – true, you can buy TV time on an infomercial hosted by some B list celebrity that runs at 2 am in isolated markets but you can’t buy, and stage-manage, a network TV news spot.

Should you pay that writer who contributes to major publications and can get you in for a fee, guaranteed?  While tempting, you’ll likely only get a minor mention and may get outed as it is a shady practice for contributors to make these kinds of promises.

The most irritating is all those offers to buy placements in top vendor articles as well as awards, like the kinds mentioned in my post: “PR Hits a Paywall.”

However, some paid opportunities are worth it. You need to pay to apply for most awards, including for those that carry weight in your market.  And selected paid media may be a great value.

Where is the line?  Which opportunities are worth considering?

Experts Chime In

I asked our team and reflected on how Fusion PR has answered the question. Here are some of the answers I got.

The awards that are tied to a major publication and typically cost between $200 – $400 to enter should be considered. Ones from FierceWireless or LightReading (in the telecom space), for example. I tend to entertain those and then vet them to see if the client has a real chance before providing a recommendation.  The rest I really don’t see any value in and the prices are usually out of control.

Ross

There are times where it makes sense when to consider paid media opportunities like Forbes councils, especially if it hits the target audience and/or they’re in a difficult market for garnering media visibility. 

Jordan

As far as bad ones – anything in which my client has already been shortlisted for, and it’s something they didn’t apply for yet still have to pay, is a bad sign.

Brian

I think a single publisher runs several of these outlets, because I constantly get what appears to be the same note (same formatting, similar wording, etc.) from different-sounding publications offering my clients inclusion in roundups like “Best Cybersecurity Solutions” and “Top 10 Fast-Growing Companies” in exchange for payment.  Once you see two of these and get a feel for them, it’s simple to recognize further attempts.  Publication titles include “SuperbCrew,” “CIO Applications,” “CIOReview,” “Analytics Insights,” “Technology Headlines,” “Beyond Exclamation,” “Aspioneer,” “Market Exclusive” and “Industry Era.”  These magazines apparently DO exist, but only for the purposes of selling feature space to gullible vendors.  Nobody actually reads them.

Mark

I’ll add my own two cents on the topic of industry analysts.  Coverage in their reports is another way to earn validation and reach your target market, especially in the B2B tech arena.  Analysts’ services come with fees, although most do take a limited number of free briefings (generally accompanied by a pitch from them).  Which ones are worth engaging and what are the costs?  Read more about this in my post Cracking the Quadrant.

Conclusion

It can be a challenge to navigate the field of paid PR opportunities.  Hire an agency or in-house talent with knowledge in your space – those that can help you avoid wasted time and money and maximize your PR spend.

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2020, PR Moment (decade) of Truth

Pixabay

As we enter a new decade, I implore PR to do its part in protecting the journalistic info supply chain.

Be truth-tellers. Be great fact-checkers.

Now wait a second, I can hear you protest.  That is not our job. We are paid to put the best possible spin on our news. To help the team win. And truth, what is truth, really?  Of course, we don’t lie!!! (Did I see a wink?)

In this post I explain not only why it is so important to be great fact-checkers; for our clients, employers, journalists, and their readers; but why it is good business, too.

Facts lost, facts are never what they seem to be
There’s nothing there, no information left of any kind

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are lame
Facts don’t come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of men

Talking Heads’ Crosseyed and Painless, via Lyric Genius

2020, the moment (Decade) of Truth

What really set me off was an article in BuzzFeed decrying a “new breed of PR firm that spreads lies and disinformation.”  After firing off an angry tweet, I got to thinking (always a bad sign); and reflected on a post I wrote over ten years ago: PR Moment of Truth (the title refers to a phrase from the customer service field). Then, it was social media that was forcing a reckoning for the profession, thrusting PR on a public stage and challenging us to find continued relevance. 

In 2020 it is a different moment of truth, a different kind of reckoning.  Here, “truth” has a double meaning – and some say no meaning.

We are living in a world in which it is all too easy to distort, weaponize info and use levers to manipulate people and algorithms. Shouldn’t PR be using the same sketchy tools and strategies, in fact, is it not our professional obligation to do so, to fight fire with fire – if that is what it takes to win?

These are some of the same kinds of ethical challenges we have faced before in an updated format.  PR has always had to decide how far to push rhetoric, persuasion, and yes, hype.

But this is not just about ethics.  The problem is bigger than PR and even journalism. 

Today, the very notions of truth, science, and facts are under assault like never before. The growth of fake news, alternative facts, etc. make reality far too malleable.

Yet journalism can combat fake news.  And PR should be a good cog in the reporting supply chain.  (Those who question the influence of PR on news-making should read this, and this article from PR Week). Sure, there are fact-checkers on the publication side, but we can make their jobs easier.

PR, do your Job, Be a Fact Checker

So, in the information supply chain we call news making do your job, challenge claims, check facts.

It’s not just the right thing, it is good business.  Here’s why:

  • Reporters like it when you are straight with them, you jeopardize relationships when you feed them BS; especially if bad info finds its way into an article.
  • Press releases with dodgy info can ding the brand
  • You bolster your personal and agency brands as a credible source (and hopefully won’t wind up in a BuzzFeed article like the above).
  • The client may not even know their claims are wrong; good ones will appreciate your diligence and candor in helping them tell accurate stories.

Most of all, we should all be doing our part to combat fake news and info.

Next up: A PR truth-telling how-to guide (and no, it is not the shortest book ever written!)

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Gazelles Learn to Dance with Elephants at InsurTechNY

Panel 2:at InsurTechNY December Meetup: Victor Dan, Daren Moreira, Brian Gilman, Megan Protas, and David Bradford

Insurtech startups and insurance carriers: they’re the perfect combo.  Startups love the budgets, distribution and big brand cred of the major insurance carriers. Plus, they can hone their tech in a real-world environment and maybe even find a nice exit.  Carriers crave the startup moxie and tech improvements that insurtechs can bring.

If it’s the proverbial match made in heaven, dancing with insurance stars can be challenging and frustrating for both sides.

InsurTechNY’s December meetup featured two great panels that covered just about every aspect on partnering for success, from those who have lived through it, covering the mechanics of POCs (proofs of concept), selecting the right partners, managing the process, and covering the HR and legal angles.

It was a great crash course in helping gazelles and elephants cut up some rug together without stepping on each other’s toes.

Read on for the details; but first, on a side note, let me say how happy I am to have discovered InsurTechNY. David Gritz, Tony Lew and team do a great job, bringing people together from across the industry. Each event offers the opportunity to make great connections and learn from the panels and content presented.

Fusion PR does much work in the space. We are headquartered in NY, although our clients come from all over. But it is good to know more about the thriving insurtech ecosystem right here in our backyard, and InsurTechNY is a key part.

War Stories Working with Insurtech Startups

This meetup focused on improving collaboration and results between insurtech startups and those who can make a big difference in their success, namely carriers and brokers. It featured two panels, which shared startup and carrier perspectives, respectively. Below I feature a small sampling of the great insight provided by the panelists.  Check out the video to see the entire session.

Panel 1: Magic formula for Proofs of Concept

David Gritz moderated the session, and started by asking the panel to explain proofs of concept vs. pilots vs. commercial implementations.

On POCs

It’s important to get everyone from the carrier who needs to kick the tires on a tool in the same room… POCs can be formed in different ways… always try to build one in steps…

Make sure the process to enter the organization is clearly defined; do not pass go if you don’t have this. Ask the carrier: “what would a positive outcome look like for you; how can I show that with this project?”

Dawn LeBlanc

A POC is about the cultural fit, and optics, not just technology

There are three potential pitfalls: selecting POC objectives; if you don’t set the right ones in the beginning, it is tough to change course later… is it measurable, easy to explain? Selecting the POC team; and setting up the right communications process at the beginning.

Oleh Shestakov

Try to get business and tech alignment up front; frame it as “If we check these seven boxes is there a path to doing biz together?”

Zander Steele

On finding the right champion

Find the person who directly feels the pain of the problem we’re solving; they should have significant influence and be someone who can sell effectively on our behalf.

Zander Steele

From POC to commercialization

If objectives that translate to success are defined at the beginning, then there’s less of a chance that [the POC] falls off a cliff. We advise carriers, if you’re not interested, just be honest, If you’re a startup, try to understand why it’s a no.

Dawn LeBlanc

Don’t be afraid of procurement; Involve them early, ask who we should be working with.

Zander Steele

Panel 2: War Stories Working with Startups

Insurance industry veteran David Bradford moderated the session.

Selecting the right startup

It starts with a strategic planning process, and defining problem statements: what do we want to solve?

Divide Into “food groups”: do you want to enable distribution, accelerate technology, focus on customer experience? Then you try to match problem statements to solutions that come from insurtech and fintech companies. If they can address the problem statement need in a crisp way, the faster the conversation goes.

Victor Dan

What criteria do you apply?

When a company acquires or invests in a joint venture with the startup, they’re buying the entrepreneurial spirit, the vision, technical expertise.

Megan Protas

Startups and carriers approach it from very different places; for the startup is it their whole world, their number one priority is to see the project become successful.

Daren Moreira

How to assess the viability of early stage company

It’s a little different than for more mature companies. It starts with strategy, does theirs fit well with ours? How do their capabilities fit? Can we work together to address a larger market or do things faster?

When it comes to financials, we are trying to understand how the company will evolve when we become partners. Would the customer funnel expand? What’s the conversion rate once they become part of Prudential? Great concepts need a brand behind them; life insurance is all about trust.

Being able to assess those metrics first, before looking at income statements and book value is very important to get a picture of the startup.

Victor Dan

Discuss best and worst engagements

At NY Life, we are excited about startups that are solving a problem that has never been tackled with tech before. An example we are proud of is Vault, formerly known as Student Loan Genius.  It’s a company that helps employers provide employees with student loan repayment programs.  We are proud that our benefits team is taking that initiative to help support our employee population.

Hire an attorney that knows the product…  In addition, there’s nothing more frustrating than insurtechs not caring about their own insurance coverage.

As much as it’s important for companies like NY Life to understand a startup’s sales cycle, it’s equally as important for startups to recognize the incumbent’s sales cycle.

Megan Protas

Vonages role

We are at the crossroads of build and buy for insurers, who use communications providers to build mobile or desktop apps.

Our visual APIs power the top ten insurers; remote visual inspection solutions.

Make sure startups are looking holistically at the communications stack for adoption and utilization of a solution between customer and provider.

Brian Gilman

How important is executive sponsorship?

It’s critical; 9/10 times the tech works.  You must get over that hurdle of what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s about finding what the end game is going to be for inviting a champion.  Once you identify the executive where it is a win, things move faster.

Brian Gilman

There’s no implementation without a business unit sponsor.

Megan Protas

Entrepreneurs underestimate regulatory hurdles – how can the carrier smooth the way make process easier for startups?

You must devote resources (personnel or funding) to projects. The carriers who struggle the most try to take people who have a full time job not working in the tech space – tag on an hour a day, to try to help startup launch – what happens is emails go unanswered for weeks, it dies on the vine.

Daren Moreira

What about the team, and financial side?

Founders of startups are equally as important if not more than the product. We look at their backgrounds, experience. Have they had exits? Do they understand the pain points of your business?

Megan Protas

How can startup determine the best carriers – and how to approach them?

Be aligned with the mission (not the same as culture or strategies). Have same purpose. Look at mission statements. Startups should find carriers that share the vision.

There are things we want to change based on the culture we see at a startup; e.g. how to make decisions.

Assurance IQs Chief Strategy Officer said they don’t pend a lot of time debating.  It’s different than what we do, we have meetings, we debate. They measure, cut, measure.

Find out what kind of culture the carrier wants to aspire to. If your startup has that culture, e.g. moving with speed, testing and learning, it’s appealing to a carrier that wants to fix things.

Victor Dan

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How to Overcome Startup PR Challenges

Pixabay

Some may assume that those who work in technology PR have similar gigs – but the assignments can vary substantially.

First, almost every company is a tech company today, right?  So just adding “technology” to PR does not shed much light. Job requirements for those pitching consumer tech products may be more like general CPG.  Getting press coverage for enterprise tech vs. chips vs. telcos are all very different challenges.

The most important variables that can shape tech PR are brand strength and company stage/maturity. The PR playbook should be very different for startups vs. established and recognized companies.

That was the point I made in the article I wrote for O’Dwyer’s November Technology issue: PR Challenges for Tech Startups. It discusses how to overcome some of the challenges the young company faces, here’s an excerpt:

Startups… need to play offense. This means taking risks and being bold to fight for attention. New can mean newsworthy. Disruption, taking on the giants: these are appealing storylines. Plus, there’s an affinity for the entrepreneur and a natural rooting for the underdog.

The new ventures, the lesser-known competitors should launch communications aimed at the weaknesses of the leaders to get coverage. A tried and true tactic in technology is sowing FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt.

In addition to taking more risks, startups can use their small size to advantage. For example, they can be nimbler when responding to news and marketplace developments. Big brands can be constrained by bureaucracy and disclosure regulations governing public companies.

Please check out the full article on O’Dwyer’s, and feel free to comment and share.

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He fired me and Launched my Career in Tech PR

People sometimes wonder how I started out in engineering and wound up in PR.  Something that happened recently really made an impression and brought my career journey full circle, 35 years later.  Read on to learn more, and I hope you enjoy the story!

Geeking out with Audio

I was walking the NAB show aisles at the Javits Center in NYC a few weeks ago, taking in the exhibits and scouting new business when I decided to check out the neighboring AES (audio engineering society) show.

Audio has always been a passion and was one of the reasons I wound up in the tech field.  I play keyboard, and liked to consider myself an audiophile back in the day; I attended AES meetings while in college in Boston, where luminaries like the Amar Bose of Bose Speakers and the “K” from KLH speakers also hung out.

I had briefly toyed with becoming a sound engineer before my parents convinced me that “real” engineering was a better career choice.  So, I switched majors, transferred schools and pursued an EE degree at B.U. – a move that cost an extra year in my studies, since I got a late start.

That was 35 years ago.  Now I was in NYC at an audio trade show and basking in all the gear.  I had recently decided to buy Avid Pro Tools, set up a home studio and finally figure out this sound engineering stuff – maybe get to compose and record the right way.

Anyone watching would have noted a shit-eating grin on my face.  And then, I saw a large booth for a company whose name I had been trying to recall recently.  I was amazed to see that it was Eventide – a manufacturer of effects processors for professional musicians.

Yes, that was the one! The company that gave me my first job.  They looked like they were doing great – it was an impressive booth, humming with activity.  And standing nearby, holding court among several admirers, was the man who had said: “You’re hired!”

It’s Agnello!!

His name is Tony Agnello.  

After flailing around after college, going on a European tour with my bros, and striking out on the job front for the better part of a year, I had lined up an interview with this man at an audio company in nearby New Jersey. If I wasn’t going to be a sound engineer, I was excited about the chance to work as a design engineer for a cool audio company like Eventide.  

It’s been a long time and I forget all the details.  At one point I made the mistake of calling him “Mr. Angelo.”  He snapped “It’s on-YELL-oh” (it seems the mispronunciation was a sore point).  That slip-up didn’t blow my chances and I was amazed to land what I thought would be my dream job.

So, I went to work at Eventide, which was in a cool office in a place called Little Ferry.  There was a funky vibe there, with much talk of gigs and name dropping of famous musicians who used the gear.

In addition to Tony, Richard Factor was a key exec (and is still there, Tony confirmed).  He was a long-haired, cool, fast-talking dude who was funny.  I once overheard Richard describing Little Ferry as “the most carefully pronounced town in NJ.” I remember there was a great hot dog place nearby, a local institution called Callahan’s.

I was given my first assignments, a station at a drafting board, circuit designs, chips, and testing equipment, and I set to work figuring out this design engineering stuff. But it was not the thrill ride I’d hoped for.  My eyelids would grow heavy as I did my best to figure out the circuits and assignments. No amount of coffee seemed to help.

And now, son of a gun, there he was, big as life, looking good, no worse for the 35-year wear.  OK, a bit grayer but fit and a little like Jerry Garcia in his later years, or Tommy Chong.

Remember Me?

The name on his show badge clearly identified the man; there was no chance I had the wrong guy. I waited for an opportune time and then tapped him on the shoulder.

“You’re never going to remember me?” Tony turned around with a broad smile, looking worried and eager at the same time. He said something like: “Try me!”

Tony Agnello, the Man, the Legend at AES

I told him my name and explained who I was.  He had given me my first job.  It lasted just two weeks. In the second week, I accidentally fried an expensive chip. Tony fired me soon after, telling me (not the exact words) that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing (and he had said that Richard agreed; seemed surprised about my fumbling around with the testing equipment).

Hearing all this 35 years later, Agnello was crestfallen and apologetic. He asked if he’d been mean about it.

“No,” I reassured.  “You were actually very nice and told me what I needed to hear.”  I explained that it really was OK, he had been right.  I was not an engineer.  But I’d gone on to a successful and fulfilling career in PR.

From EE to PR

These days when new business prospects ask how an EE geek wound up in PR. I sometimes talk about my ill-fated experience at Eventide.

From there I moved on to roles with GE, IBM, several startups, to where I am today – at Fusion PR, a tech PR agency that I helped grow from its earliest days. My roles were progressively less hands-on tech, more involving communications and people skills.  The common thread throughout has been working in the tech industry.

I am grateful for my engineering background; it has served me well in technology communications.  I might not be great at designing circuits, but I know what CPUs are, how a computer works and can explain digital signal processing.

So, I thank Tony and Eventide for giving me my first job and firing me, setting me on this path.

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The Call was Perfect! The PR pitch, Even Better!!

Recently, we’ve heard a lot about a phone call between a certain U.S. leader and a Ukrainian head of state. The call was said to be perfect at least by the former, and it must be true because he’s said it not once, but over and over again.

Some disagree, and there’s controversy on this (and even a non-proverbial act of Congress).  But without getting all political, let’s cut some slack.

We’ve all done things we thought were great but were not well received, or where reality crashed the perfection party:

  • The golf putt that almost went in
  • The drunken wedding toast that seemed funny at the time
  • The baseball pitch that was for sure a strike, until the ump ruled “ball!”
  • Perfect pitch (tonal) – this YouTube video explains that you can’t attain the skill after childhood; despite one adult who insisted he had. It’s by Rick Beato, a musical genius with a great and informative YouTube channel.

And what about PR pitches?  Public relations is my turf, after all.  In the spirit of transparency, I share a PR pitch that I thought had been stellar but that somehow missed the mark.  I asked others on the team to do the same.

Early in my PR career, I was getting a lukewarm reception when pitching a data storage startup.  This was before the tech took off in the early 2000s, and many did not seem to care about the subject or the vendor.  I took a humorous approach (and a clever one, at least I thought), likening covering storage to reorganizing a sock drawer:

“Last time I broached the subject 4 out of 5 people quickly demurred, citing the need to ‘reorganize a sock drawer’.

I didn’t get the chance to explain that amidst a tech downturn, one segment has continued to rack up impressive gains (IDC predicts an amazing 86% compounded annual growth rate through 2002), creating boundless value for shareholders and fostering a dynamic and innovative market. Do I have your attention?”

Pitch for Data Storage Vendor

One reporter did not agree it was so clever – and went so far as to rewrite the pitch:

You’re obviously not a salesperson.

Create dynamic tension. Sock drawers? Sure– most anyone would yawn the way you’ve approached the subject. Then cite IDC, the people that were sure that OS/2 would be the dominant operating system by 2000.

How to do this? Easy. Data is multiplying like horny rabbits in a good month. The madness: The powers that be estimate that data stored on the Internet is growing at a rate that actually doubles the size of all storage of anything anywhere in the world circa 1990 EACH MONTH!

How are people coping? What’s the impact? What about reliability? It’s not just about hard disks any more. It’s about a world that lives on magnetic and optical storage. Talk to our expert– he can give you the information, the timelines, the stuff that’ll make sense in a world that doesn’t make sense.

He’s strong, virile, and maybe even right sometimes.

See? Did I get your attention? Looking for left-hand socks.

Mark from our team shared these examples:

Early in my career, one of my clients released a Pink Panther computer game for kids.  I wrote a semi-humorous pitch letter from the point of view of The Pink Panther.  My boss thought it was creative and adorable.  At least one reporter disagreed, replying simply, “I HATE THIS PITCH.”

I also once put together what I thought was a truly fascinating pitch based on the information given to me by a client.  It resulted in MULTIPLE reporters informing me that I had my facts wrong.  One of them basically wrote a full essay explaining why I was so wrong. The lesson here: Never assume your clients know what they are talking about!  Research everything.

Emily also shared an example of a pitch she wrote based on inaccurate info given to her by a client; whose take on the market was 23 years out of date!  She started sending the pitch – only to learn from a friend in the industry that the assumptions were outdated.

And what about you? Got perfect pitch? Please share!


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Webinar: Scoring Great PR for you Blockchain Venture

You Don’t Need a CMO invited us to host a seminar earlier this month about PR tips for blockchain initiatives. The recorded session, called Thinking Out of the Block ran on YouTube and is also share above in this post.

Chris Nicholas of the No CMO team introduced me and led the Q & A portion. Here are some notes from the session; please check out the video, about 30 minutes long to view the entire session.

  • What is blockchain? A distributed decentralized network, database or ledger
  • Agenda: We focused on the state of buzz in blockchain space, a case study, the new rules in PR, how to attain PR and branding success for your venture.
  • Where is blockchain now?
  • Gartner Group, leading IT advisory and market research in enterprise tech published a Hype Cycle report that showed blockchain is in the trough of disillusionment 
  • Blockchains rose with the growth and excitement of crypto and bitcoin, that has changed.
  • The space is still relevant; it will take longer for mass adoption
  • BlockSafe technology was the first to market for solutions that protect crypto wallets 
  • We got attention and media coverage by busting the myth that blockchains are inherently secure.
  • It is a street fight for attention even in this industry 
  • Journalists mostly don’t care about your news because of all the pitches, noise and challenges of their jobs.
  • Success means not getting mired in tech for tech’s sake, thinking outside the ‘block’ 
  • Immutable Laws of Marketing and PR
    • Focus on long term brand building
    • Sharpen targets 
    • Connect with needs
    • Be interesting and relevant 
    • Tap content, social, influencers 
    • Understand the user

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Art of Communication: Q & A with Norm Magnusson

My friend Cecilia invited me to an exhibit of artist Norman Magnusson’s work. I don’t know a lot about art despite being engaged to a wonderful artist, Sine Hjort.  But Cecilia would not steer me wrong, and she raves about Norm and his work.  Plus, the theme for the exhibit is Communication – so I had to check it out.

The show opened two weeks ago, at Mount Saint Mary College, a beautiful campus overlooking the Hudson River in Newburgh, NY. I am glad we went, as I really enjoyed it and was extremely impressed. His art features playful riffs on how we communicate, or more often fail to, in a range of media.  

Each work drew me in, and shed light on the foibles we call modern communication. They were compelling, easy to relate to, and made this PR guy grin. 

For example, here’s a look at his piece: “I am Sorry…” Norm explains: “Individual words and phrases can be overused to the point of completely losing their sharp edge as carriers of thought and sentiment. Here, below is a drawing entitled ‘I’m sorry’, in which I’ve written ‘I’m sorry’ 1,000 times on a piece of nice thick watercolor paper.”

As he says, “Communication is a bitch.”  Tell me about it!

Norm is a former ad agency copywriter and creative guy, so perhaps it is not surprising that he chose communication as a theme.  I wanted to learn more about his work and asked if he’d agree to an email interview.

Norm said yes – so see the Q & A below.

Please tell me about your background; I understand you come from the advertising field?

I worked on staff as a creative director/copywriter at ad agencies in New York and london. one spring I had my first solo show (of allegorical animal paintings) lined up and I was sick of telling people “what I really wanna be is a painter” and I quit. I’ve been working primarily as an artist ever since. This exhibition, which has a lot of text-based work, feels, to some degree, like coming full circle.

Tell us about your work as an artist – when did you get into it, and why?

A deeply political piece in this era of “fake news”, one side reads “FACTS”, the other reads “LIES”. The effect of seeing both through this glass is obfuscation.

I started painting shortly after I moved to NYC in 1982. My mom had sent me a set of paints and some canvases just for kicks and they just sat there and then one night my roommate said: “Let’s paint a picture” and we did. He was amazing and I was mediocre but I got the bug and he didn’t.

I’ve been making art ever since. I still have the bug.

One of the things I’ve realized I really like about it is exploration and discovery and the CHANCE that things will work out as I’d dreamed they would. It’s kind of a gambler’s mentality: trying something new and hoping it turns out. In this show, there are a lot of pieces where the finished product made me really happy because it worked out. It’s like winning a little lottery. I’d never etched glass before but “Fake News” worked out exactly as I had hoped. I’d never written anything 1,000 times before but “I’m sorry, a thousand times I’m sorry” worked out even better than I’d dreamed. There are a few other pieces in this show that were brand new territory for me as well. I’ll tell you if you want.

Your work seems to have the same playful quality found in Dadaism – did the movement inform your art?

I remember the first time I saw Meret Oppenheim’s piece “Object”. The fur-lined cup, spoon and saucer at NY’s MoMA. It just killllllled me, it was sooooo beautiful. Not just on an aesthetic level, but on an intellectual level too. Same with “Cadeau”, the iron with sharp tacks welded to its smooth surface or the metronome with the eyeball, both by Man Ray or the urinal “Fountain” by Duchamp and many others, and these things really got under my skin in a big way. Some were considered “surrealism” and some “dada” I guess, but for me (I didn’t study art history and knew very little about any of it when I moved to NYC) they were all “absurd objects” and I loved them to bits. I even created and curated an exhibition a few years back on the subject. It was such fun. No one has ever asked me this question before. I guess it was the beginning of an understanding of conceptual art for me, a description that, increasingly, people attach to my creative output. I’m becoming less uncomfortable with it.

What inspired this exhibition?

I worked in advertising as a copywriter. A part of that craft is to say things JUST SO. So that they can be read only one way. The opposite of poetry, if you will. You would never want to write a line of copy that could be misinterpreted in an unflattering way or in any way at all!! I feel that I’m GOOD at that, both professionally and personally. And yet……miscommunications happen. ALL THE TIME!!!! I’m always wondering why? And how? And there are soooo many reasons….. It’s really fascinating to me. And I started to think about it and make art about it and started to think that it could make a really fun exhibition. I think maybe one of the first pieces I made happened when I was dictating through the voice recognition software, Siri, and it was just getting things wrong. Honestly, I think I could make art on this theme forever. There’s no end to how interesting it is to me. Communication is tough and it’s fun to figure out why.  

What’s next for your work?

I’m working on a series about internet pornography. It’s been percolating for years and finally, it’s ready to be created. I’m fascinated with how there is, as they say, something for everyone out there. It’s ubiquitous, 12% of existing websites are porn, 35% of all internet downloads are porn-related. Every second, 29,000 internet users are viewing porn and 1 in 3 of them are women. It’s an amazing force in our contemporary lives and I’ve planned a bunch of obsessive pieces on this topic and made one small example of one of them. I’m thrilled to get going on it.

Thanks Norm!

If you are in the NY northern suburbs I strongly recommended visiting the exhibit, which will be on display through November 13. You can see all the work in this series (some in the show, some not) here.

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