How to Lose Your Reputation in One Day

A positive reputation can take years to build. That same reputation can be lost in one day.

For thirty years, I’ve advised business leaders and organizations that no amount of my public relations services can overcome bad customer service. Sadly, that advice became more real to me over the last week.

An Internet services company I have loved and referred dozens of organizations to, has been put on my “never use again” list. It took exactly one day to go from hero to zero with me and my client that they screwed.

Below is the story with names and some details removed. Why do this anonymously? I’m in the business of helping companies, not hurting them. Perhaps this company will turn itself around or make this situation right. I am not holding my breath for either. But I won’t add to the damage. As a business leader, just use this case study to be better.

Here’s the story. Three years ago, my largest client needed an Internet hosting company to host a blog for a major program. This program has grown so exponentially, it’s presence is now on CBS television. Their blog grew alongside them — until last week. The blog site just . . . disappeared. We called the hosting company, which announced it had decommissioned the server it’d been hosted on, and the blog failed to get moved to the new server. Here’s the kicker: they had no backup. You read that right. This company had no back-up of a site it hosted for three years. The site was gone. For forever.

Know what else? This blog, which was hosted elsewhere prior to moving it to this-company-that-shall-not-be-named, had years of history. All told, six years of blog posts, images and more have been lost.

Know how they responded to our angst over this? “We’re sorry. There’s nothing we can do. Here’s your several hundred dollar hosting fee you spent over the years. Goodbye.”

Our repeated requests to talk to managers and to get a better explanation than ‘oh well’ went unanswered. My client, which has an international presence and is associated with major, household brands, is now in the position of recreating the blogsite. Do you think this company will pay for the time and effort to make this happen? Nope. Not one cent has been offered, even when we asked. In fact, they refuse to talk to us. Pure radio silence.

So, there you have it. One mistake, a failure to manage your business well (what hosting company doesn’t have backups?), and a pitiful customer service response put this company not just in the doghouse but in the “worst experience ever” category.

Don’t let this be you. No public relations in the world can turn around blatant disregard and care of clients and their assets.

(Oh, and ensure back ups. You’d think that lesson would have been learned long ago.)

How To Be An Ideal PR Client

You want the best public relations and communications support you can get. As a communications firm, we also want to provide the best service and results as possible. Communications is a partnership business. To ensure your investment is put to good use, below are five ways to make sure your communications or PR firm is set up for success on your behalf.

  1. Be available. You don’t hire a PR firm and then walk away. Expect to hear from them a lot, especially in the first few months of the relationship. We need to know your unique stories, background, objectives, people, and culture in order to portray you in the best light. By communicating to us often, we are able to better communicate YOU to the external world.
  2. Ask us questions. If you don’t understand what we are doing or why, please let us know. Some of us have been in the business of reputation and image management a long time. We often instinctively take action given our experience. This means we are being efficient, but we also want you to be comfortable with our work.
  3. Share with us as much as you can. This means telling us about your business, your wins and successes, and, yes, even your failures. We can’t help you, if we don’t know what’s going on. I have yet to hear a PR person say a client gave them too much information. We are insatiable information consumers.
  4. Tell us how we are doing. We can’t fix problems if we don’t know they exist. Not getting along with a team member? Not happy with the way something is worded? Unclear as to why something happened the way it happened? Let us know and we can fix it. We’re problem solvers.
  5. Share your ideas. You know your business better than anyone. Have an idea that you think would positively impact your reputation, image or story? Let us know. We come loaded with ideas, but we want to do what works no matter where it comes from.

When You Should Avoid Hiring a PR Firm

I know it sounds odd for a PR person to write that there may be a time with hiring PR counsel is a bad idea. But, having been in the business for 27 years has shown me that there are situations where public relations will not help you but rather just frustrate you. Below are some of those scenarios:

  • Your staff doesn’t care. I don’t mean they aren’t on the same page or have their own ideas about the correct business strategy.  I mean, they don’t believe in your organization or your products and services. You’ve already  lost the battle here. Work on them first.
  • You are in a leadership transition. Your key staff people have left and you are in a significant hiring mode. This doesn’t mean you don’t continue to communicate with your publics. In fact, you need to increase the level of communication to your stakeholders, customers and others during this time. But, hiring a new firm should wait until you have key people in place.
  • The CEO or executive team doesn’t believe in public relations. If you don’t think we can help you, why hire us? Having your PR firm spend endless hours “justifying” their existence is a waste of your investment dollars. Unfortunately, I have been in those meetings where it comes up, spent hours on reports to just “prove a point,” and talked my team “off the ledge” after being told again and again that what they do “doesn’t matter.” It is a fruitless activity for both of us. Either your reputation matters to the C Suite, or it doesn’t.
  • You have no spokesperson and aren’t interested in having one. Public relations is a partnership, where we tell your story on your behalf. But, this does not exclude you from telling it, either.  When the Wall Street Journal or NBC Nightly News calls, someone from your company has to be able to face the microphone. They should be articulate, well steeped in the messaging, sound human, and be passionate about the company and what it does. It helps if they have the “right” title for the messaging, too. (More on that later.)
  • Your issue is asking a lot of society, and you want to rely on a PR firm to make it happen. This last one is tough. I almost didn’t write it. But, it has to be put on the table. PR people won’t ever be able to adopt the level of passion you  have for your work. We get pretty enthusiastic. But, if you believe passionately that the public is wrong about its perception or ideas or something needs to change at a society level, you need to lead the troops. PR people aren’t mercenaries (as much as we’ve been called that).I realize the women’s suffrage movement, Planned Parenthood, The Civil Rights movement – they were all pushing rocks up hills, right? Yes. And, they won because the people who took those ideas on were the people who had the most at stake. If your issue is that charged – be willing to take it on, directly, and not have a PR firm be your front line. Use us as support.

I expect to get push back on this last one. Feel free. I would love to hear what you have to say in the comments section.


The E-Mail I Hate Getting the Most From Clients

Just fix it. I hear this statement a few times a year. It usually comes after a message isn’t carried correctly in a news report or the CEO’s name was misspelled. (Yes, that still happens. Even in the age of Google.)

Every once in a while, though, I get this little line e-mailed to me after a client cut us out of the loop on a media interview. We don’t expect to be on the phone with clients for every single interview. But, if you have a PR firm, it would be wise to:

a) let them know someone from the press contacted you

b) talk out some key messaging before the interview, and

c) let us follow up with the reporter or blogger to make sure they have images, your bio, other background, and got the right ideas and messages from you. (You’d be surprised how many will recap the interview with us, giving us a good chance to correct any misperceptions.)

But, unfortunately, too often this doesn’t happen. The head of sales or the engineer or anyone else in the company thinks it’s not big deal to just give an interview. (Sorry to pick on sales and the techies, but this is where it happens the most.) Then the story comes out and someone higher up starts e-mailing like mad to find out “what happened.” (Naturally, we are “cc-ed” because it must be our fault.)

Right about then, we get the “fix it” e-mail. All in a day’s work, or would you rather have your PR dollars spent on getting opportunities rather than sweeping up later?

What Does a PR Person Do All Day?

The PR person’s job is probably one of the most misunderstood jobs of all. No, we don’t go to parties every night, we don’t “spin” tall tales to reporters, and we don’t slap backs at fundraisers and festivals to appear part of the “in” crowd (though we aren’t above shaking hands and introducing ourselves to anyone we feel needs to hear our clients’ stories). The other day I decided to log a day-in-the-life of a PR person, namely my day. Here is what it looked like:

In one day, between reading, sorting and replying to no less than 75 e-mails and receiving several phone calls, I:

  • Started a PR plan for a client’s new communications program.
  • Wrote a script for a workshop I was to co-deliver with a client on the new messaging we helped them craft.
  • Held 2 one-hour conference calls with 2 separate clients – one to strategize on an upcoming event and the other as part of our monthly check-in how things are going.
  • Had coffee with someone wanting to get into PR.
  • Took a quick, 30 minute peek at Twitter-Facebook-Pinterest-RSS feeds.
  • Wrote a press release, including having 2 phone calls with the client to “get it just right.”
  • Talked with 3 reporters, requesting one correction and setting up two interviews.
  • Counseled  one of my consultants about a media strategy that wasn’t going well.
  • Developed a report for a client’s upcoming Board of Director’s meeting.
  • Completed a message “audit” of one (out of 6) competitors for a client in preparation of an upcoming messaging session.

In essence, I wrote, researched and talked all day with a focus on preparing and getting out client’s stories to the right people, with a little bit of smoothing wrinkled brows when things didn’t go as planned. Not exactly a party, but rather what it takes to make progress in the game of influencing.


UVA and Bad Public Relations From Someone Who Lives Here

As a long-time public relations counselor, it is painful to watch the PR debacle around the ousting of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan by its Board of Visitors. As a long-time “C-villian,” it is agonizing.

When blunders are obvious to the man on the street (poorly worded public statements, the media reports around hiring of a PR firm to “burnish” an image, secret meetings and seemingly blatant truth hiding), you know you’ve got trouble. And, the PR gaffes seem to continue. The damage done to the reputation of UVA will take years to overcome.

But, something else pains me about this whole PR nightmare. The impact it is having on Charlottesville, overall.

I am not a UVA graduate. I have not worked for the University. But, I am member of this community. I grew up just 25 miles outside of Charlottesville, and returned in 1999 to make this town my home. I remember the days when UVA was “just a school” and not considered a top school to attend, as it is now. I remember the days when Charlottesville would never have landed on the lists of  “best places to live in the United States” as it so often does now. I remember the days when the Charlottesville downtown mall — lauded as one of the most successful walking malls in the country — was crime-ridden and lined with abandoned store fronts. Today it is now a thriving destination for the arts, dining and shopping. In fact, I am often told by UVA graduates — my stepson included — once they get to Charlottesville, they never want to leave. I understand.

But, the utter lack of transparency and authenticity displayed bu UVA’s Board, and the disrespect shown to the larger community by an institution, which calls itself a cornerstone of our economy, history and population, boggles the mind. Why can’t they just tell their community what is really happening? And, why continue to keep the doors closed?  It would do well for the Board of Visitors and Rector Dragas to remember what Thomas Jefferson, founder of UVA, said: “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”

How To Know It Is Time For Public Relations

I often hear from colleagues that they believe public relations (though they don’t always call it that) is as important as managing a business’ finances. Yet, when it comes time to actually launch a formal communications effort, suddenly PR is a “nice to have, but not necessary” activity. I have been a professional communicator for more than 25 years. To save you lost time, if you have any of the symptoms below you need to run, not walk, to the nearest PR firm. You are missing or losing business every day.

  • You can’t remember or seem to focus your message. Or worse, it changes every few weeks.
  • You see or read about your competition more often than you read or see your own company’s news.
  • You repeatedly hear surprise from potential customers that you exist or that you offer what you offer.
  • You hear things out of your employees mouths on the phone, in trade show booths, in the media, and in sales calls that make you wonder who they work for (because it can’t be your company).
  • Your Web site hasn’t gone uder a message and content refresh in more than 5 years.
  • People are talking about you, publicly, and you feel it isn’t too bad so why get into it?
  • You think social media is for the birds and just a fad.
  • You have no communications staff, haven’t hired any communications help, and trust that everyone is just “doing their best at telling our story” and that “good enough is enough.”

But, this wouldn’t apply to you, would it?

The Modern Strategic Communications Plan

If you google “how to write a communications plan” you will receive thousands of hits containing templates, advice and guidance on how to take your reach, influence and visibility to new heights. But, if those suggested formats were written before 2009, they aren’t complete. Here’s why.

Smart organizations develop a communications plan that will help steer you and your colleagues to greater reach and influence. But, today’s communication plans must include strategies and timelines that a few years ago were not even possible. The new communications game of visibility demands a new way of thinking.

Just a few trends coloring today’s communication landscape include the democratization of information and influence by social media, the introduction of tiny messages (140 characters or less), the rise of the visual medium and entertainment (games), a reduction in objective journalism, and content going mobile. Add a whole new generation of workers who don’t communicate or consume information anything like previous generations along with a coming mass exodus of the baby boomers into retirement and one could say it’s not just a whole new ballgame. It’s a whole new sport.

Are you ready?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll break down each part of the planning process for a communications effort that fits modern times. Yes, that means social media will be addressed. But, we also will discuss the rise of storytelling over messaging, the breakdown of the communications heirarchy, having a content management strategy, having a “we won’t” list, and more.

What is perplexing you about today’s communications landscape? I’ll try to address it in this series.


More On Finding The Right PR Firm

On Friday I blogged about things to think about when hiring a PR firm. Developing a score card for each PR agency or counselor that you evaluate can be a helpful tool in making a final decision. Four big areas to “vet” include:

  1. Communication skills
  2. PR staff characteristics
  3. PR services offered
  4. Overall character

To get more granular, under “communication skills” consider these questions:

  • How well do they know your industry? Did they do their homework before meetings and their pitch?
  • Do they appear to engage in strategic thinking that adds value? Do their tactics stem from objectives and strategy?
  • Is their timeframe clear? Is the program budget reasonable?
  • Do their ideas appear innovative yet personal to your organization, and clearly outlined? Are their ideas realistic and makes sense?
  • Is the program measurable?

Under “PR Staff Characteristics” consider these questions:

  • Does your team and the PR team assigned have good chemistry and a good mix of personalities?
  • Have you met the people – before hiring the firm – who will be conducting the campaign?
  • Does everyone you’ve met at the firm appear to be professional, qualified and competent?
  • Is the account team accessible and responsive? How quickly do they answer your communications?
  • Does the staff have experience in your industry or markets?
  • Are they enthusiastic about the strategies and tactics offered?
  • Do they have demonstrated “street smarts” and common sense?
  • Do they have client references?
  • Do they have a written approach to financial and administrative account management?
  • Do they understand time and budget management?

Under “PR Services Offered” consider these questions:

  • Do they have examples of proven outcomes for clients?
  • Do they have proof of competency for the type of strategies you hope they deploy for you (examples would be social media, writing, research, media relations, speaking engagements, trade shows, events and more)
  • Does everyone on the team appear to have a baseline of knowledge and competency in the PR field? (examples include social media savvy, writing skills and more)
  • Do they have any specialties, such as crisis communications or messaging and storytelling work that is important to you?
  • Are their people published, have blogs, strong online presences and other personal branding strategies that keep them connected and constantly learning?
  • Does the firm appear to have invested in their people’s ongoing education and evolution?
  • Do they invest in the tools necessary to do their jobs, including analysis, tracking, issuing of news, and other administrative functions necessary to execute and evaluate the program?

Under “Overall Character” consider these questions:

  • Does the firm share its mission and values?
  • Can the firm service multiple accounts seamlessly and efficiently?
  • Is the firm known in its field? Been published or has engaged in thought leadership activities in its industry?
  • Have client conflicts been discussed and resolved?
  • Has the size, stability and make-up of the firm been shared?

7 Things to Think About Before Hiring a PR Firm

The social media realm has made it easier than ever for an organization to directly manage their reputation and image. An entire public relations effort may be conducted from the inside of the organization. However, there is more to reputation than tweeting, posting and blogging – all of which we agree should be done by someone from inside a company, nonprofit or themselves for their own personal brand. But you may find you need help in directing mere attention to a specific kind of visibility that you want and need to compete. It’s not enough to just be seen. That attention must cause action. And, that is where a PR firm can help.

Public relations experts will help prepare you for media work (both social and traditional), conduct messaging, work with you on presentations and pitch the organization (or you), its management and its products and services to the media, conference organizers, and other influencers. Media analysis, market monitoring and finding new channels and opportunities for visibility are also parts of a good PR program.

But, how do you choose the right PR partner? Below are seven action items to set you in the right direction to attract the appropriate PR counsel.

1. Get to know them through a Request for Proposal (RFP) process. Meet with the firm in person, if possible. Chemistry between the PR people and the person managing them is important. But, also know that making your decision on personalities and attraction alone is not going to guarantee good results. Issue an RFP. It does not have to be lengthy, but it should help you compare apples to apples when getting bids from different firms or consultants. This ensures you also will get a response that covers all the things you want and need to know before making a decision.

2. Identify what they are capable of in the real world (not just what they say on their blog, social media outlets or in a pitch). When choosing your PR agency, request media clips, social media case studies and statistics, speaking engagements booked, events handled and more that were conducted over the last year. No PR campaign is the same. But, you should be able to see the results from another client that had similar PR needs to yours.

It is important to ask the various budgets for producing such results, as well. After all, a company spending $2,000 a month cannot expect the same level of attention and outcomes that $20,000 produces. You want to get a realistic picture of what your money buys.

Additionally, ask how much time in actual tactics will be spent for your investment. Most agencies today know that strategy is an important step, but tactics are where the action is (literally).

3. Find out if you will be a little fish in a big pond. How many clients does this agency or consultant have? How much time will they put toward the investment you are making? And, specifically, who will be managing your account and making things happen for you? You will want to know your place on the totem pole.

4. Answer honestly how much time you have to manage the agency. Lack of internal resources to work with the PR agency is one of the greatest killers of a campaign’s success. Public relations is a partnership. You will need to devote some time to get the agency up to speed on your company, personnel, products and market. You will need to be responsive to documents that need your approval, and be available for media interviews, be engaged in the social space yourself (if growing your online presence is a goal), and get engaged in other activities.

5. Know your objectives up front and share them openly and honestly with the PR team. A good PR firm will craft a customized program to meet specific goals and objectives. In fact, your investment will be determined by what you want to accomplish. Ask how much time the PR group believes it will take to achieve the outcomes. No one can predict media coverage or your YouTube video going viral. But, they should have some sense of how long it will take to gain traction.

Side note: iI is not appropriate to ask a PR firm to develop a communications plan for you in the proposal stage. This kind of work “on spec” is asking too much and that strategic work should be conducted once you hire the firm.

6. Share your budget. The game of not telling someone how much you can afford won’t do you any good. Share at least a ballpark figure so the agency can provide a proposal that is realistic. You don’t want to waste your time just as much as the PR firm or consultancy doesn’t want to, either. If you aren’t a match due to minimum budget requirements by the agency, it is better to learn that up front.

7. Ask how results are tracked and measured. What tools do they use to show and report the outcomes of the PR effort? Do you need graphs and charts on a regular basis? Do you need your PR firm to submit regular reports to boards, executive teams or others? Tell them up front what you need in the way of justifying the PR expense and discover early if they have the ability or inclination to do so.