Is Improv the Latest PR Trend?

LOL !Communications professionals are geared to be planners.  We do research, create plans, make road maps, all in the name of being thorough.  Certainly our timelines are more condensed than they’ve ever been before.  But what if we should be doing the opposite of planning? The nature of today’s communication environment makes planning more difficult, maybe even obsolete.

In a recent interview for The Strategist, editor John Elsasser interviewed Fred Cook of Golin, the recipient of PRSA’s Gold Anvil last fall.  He believes that improvisation is the key to success. His comments about improvisation made me pause.

“Because things are happening so fast in all parts of our lives, we don’t have time to research and do focus groups and message testing on every single thing that a company says or does.  You have to be much more improvisational in how you operate.  You have to play it by ear, and be willing to say and do things when you don’t have all of the information at your fingertips.”

This is a huge challenge for uber-planners.  What if you get it wrong?  How fast can you recover?  Or can you even recover?  And while communications professionals have always espoused the need to be responsive – especially with the pace at which  messages move through social channels — Cook’s thoughts are scary for the communications planner.

“It’s a much more instinctual kind of communication, and you have to be able to move quickly in order to be relevant to the conversation.  The research that we’ve done shows that a company has about four hours to participate in a conversation and still be relevant.”

Later in the interview, he likens this preparation to that of stand-up comedians as opposed to the uber-preparation of movie actors.

It turns out that improvisation is being used in some business schools and companies. In 2010, CNN focused on how improvisation was being used in several business schools

 Slate Magazine subsequently covered how corporations were beginning to use improv groups and comedy troupes to improve internal dynamics, customer engagement and even energize new business pitches.

“At first glance, zany improv and the straight-laced corporate world might seem to be unlikely bedfellows. But the cross-pollination between comedy and business has led both to fruitful managerial skills development for executives and to fruitful employment for funny folks. Comedians have not only led training workshops, but have begun to infiltrate marketing departments and advertising agencies,”according to Seth Stevenson in the article.

As communicators, we want to stay on top of the story and we want to stay relevant.  And we might actually be more prepared for this constant state of readiness than other professions because we’ve always been “think on your feet” kind of people. For others, though, using improvisation in a business setting will be a challenge.  Think you’re ready for this trend? Wait, let me go get my joke book and costume box.

Read The Strategist article

Using Cheat Sheets to Improve Social Response Time

I recently posted about companies hiding from their customers on social media. The story raises the single biggest challenge for organizations: how to meet the demands of responding to customers on social media. No matter the size of your business, you can shorten response time with a few simple cheat sheets.

Make A Standard Responses Document

When I first started working with one of my clients, they had all sorts of “standard” answers to questions which were asked over and over again, but they weren’t in a single place. Some were at the receptionist desk, some were used in H.R., others were used by an operations team.  The language, the approvals, the legwork had all been done! Many of these responses could be applied to some of their social media channels BUT, these tools were not really formatted for social media networks. By creating a standard document, everyone who manages your networks can access information quickly.

Here’s a quick example I remember from a nonprofit I counseled. They got numerous calls from people offering to volunteer, but they had a lot of guidelines and training for specific jobs in this organization. Once we gathered them all, we created brief answers tailored for Facebook and Twitter AND created a dedicated web page with more detail which could be used over and over.

graphic of FAQ page on Freshbooks website

Great example of an FAQ From Freshbooks

Build an FAQ

It sounds like a big project if you do it all at once, but you can build it over time, just like the standard responses document. It might even use some of the material from a Standard Responses Document, especially if you find 2-3 questions which come up all the time. Drop your responses into a text document or in the CMS of your blog.  Before too long, you’ve formed responses for questions you get over and over again. Now, publish it and save the link to point people there quickly.  The screen grab to the left is an example of a great FAQ from my accounting program provider, Freshbooks which you can explore further here.  Another great FAQ is from the learning platform we use at Northwest Vista College, Canvas.

Create A Link Library

What is a link library? It’s another cheat sheet to quickly pull appropriate links to which you want to point your customers.  Let’s say you already know that you will point people to the main portion of your web site, but sometimes you will send them to a contact form or to that FAQ you just built.  I like to drop the full link into an Excel or Google sheet and then shorten each of those links for tracking purposes. That way, you can show how much traffic you’re sending directly to your company’s channels.

Using cheat sheets allows you to spend time on the tone and voice you need to achieve in customer service without agonizing over finding the background for each answer on the fly. What do you use to save time on your customer outreach?

Related Post: Are You Hiding From Your Customers?

Are You Hiding From Your Customers?

Are You Hiding From Your Customers GraphicWhile social media has enabled widespread conversations between brands and their customers, for some organizations, it’s also an opportunity to hide behind social channels.  These organizations are still struggling with how to manage the 24/7 nature of online customer service.  Here are some signs that you may be hiding from your customers:

  1. You never have humans answer the phone– all calls go to voice mail.
  2. You do not respond to Facebook posts or Twitter feeds or use any social listening platforms.
  3. There’s no obvious contact method on your website or it’s buried at the bottom.

Are Customer Expectations Changing or Just Changing Channels?

But customers expect you to be there and many expect a response from you when something goes wrong. Some expect you to respond within 30 minutes and, according to the Sprout Social blog, 26% of consumers post a negative comment on social networking sites after less than stellar customer service.

“Customer service is not about speed. It’s about expectations and satisfaction. For businesses, setting and managing customer expectations may be the single most important step to improve customer service,” says Alan Berkson in a recent post on Social Media Today.

A third example, in a recent infographic by KISSMetrics, shows that the majority of customers still want a response within one day. This makes doing customer service via social media very manageable for many organizations.

Customers Still Want to Be Heard

Customers still want to know that someone hears their problem. And if you can respond by saying “I’m working on it” within a day, your organization will stand out.  Look at all your digital sites and see how can make them more obvious. Is it a form, a button, a phone number or an email? How about using all of them? Now you are on the road to being more visible with your customers.

Related Post: Using Cheat Sheets to Cut Social Response Time

Note-Taking is Good for Your Strategy

books2croppedNearly everyone I know takes notes in some form or fashion. Most of us were programmed to do it as students, when we faithfully tried to hang on every word the teacher said in case it showed up on a test somewhere.  If you want to make sure you are counseling your clients in their strategy, maybe a new note-taking strategy will get you there.

Research on Note-Taking

Educators call the first stage of note-taking  a “regurgitate strategy,”  If note-taking evolves to the next level, the person taking notes actually reformulates and interprets the information.  In a Sept. 2005 edition of the WAC Journal, published by Colorado State University, Boch and Piolat found that note taking helps students to learn, but also helps them learn to write.

The authors also offer three benefits of note-taking.  First, note taking aids in reflection, which allows the note-taker to synthesize the information. Second, it helps the note-taker remain attentive and finally, creates stronger connections to the material which is being noted.

“It contributes to the carrying out of a range of intellectual processes, such as making judgments, resolving issues, and making decisions. The taking of notes can aid time-consuming, real-time thought processes…” Boch and Piolat.

In Praise of A Notebook

Ann Quinn with her Notebooks

Ann Quinn, Director of Education for SeaWorld San Antonio, with her Notebooks

I am a note-taker, but the veracity of my work varied greatly from day-to-day and project-to-project.  Several years ago, I found myself with loose papers, scribbled ideas, and stacks of sticky notes of different sized and shapes all over my notebooks until Ann Quinn.

Ann is the Education Director for SeaWorld San Antonio and a devoted note-taker. She is a gifted teacher, but before she was a gifted teacher, she was (and still is!) a gifted student. Ann and I were in lots of meetings together and one day, I couldn’t recall part of a discussion from a meeting we’d been in and after consulting her notebook, she quickly and easily filled in the missing information. AND she made a copy of the page out of her notebook and dropped it off in my office. That’s when it hit me:  Ann had a NOTEBOOK. One notebook, carried everywhere, with every meeting titled, dated and timed and all contents summarized.   My approach to note-taking changed immediately because, I, too, adopted THE NOTEBOOK.

Note-Taking as a Strategy

In his piece on the Lost Art of Note-Taking, Michael Hyatt gives 5 good reasons for taking notes, including the fact that it provides “a mechanism for capturing ideas, insights and questions.”

Many of my Solo PR Pro colleagues  are big on note-taking too, but using an actual notebook is not necessarily how they accomplish it. Many are using tools like Evernote and Notability or are making audio recordings of actual meetings from which to make notes.

Since adopting the “Ann Quinn Notebook Strategy” I find that whatever form my notes take, they give me a point from which to review my week. They assist me to follow up on to-dos and make assignments to team members.   I can jot down ideas and concepts and the mere fact of writing it down, clarifies my work and my thinking. I can’t imagine life without my notebook.

How PR Pros Can Use ‘The Invisible Sale’

Book image

This week I read a new book called The Invisible Sale by Tom Martin, founder of Converse Digital and a longtime advertising agency professional. I first heard Tom speak earlier this year at the Solo PR Pro Summit in Atlanta, in which he talked about Painless Prospecting.  That presentation became part of his new book. Despite its name, I highly recommend that PR Pros read this book.

What is the focus of The Invisible Sale?

This book focuses on using your website in a more meaningful way to empower the “self-educating buyer” with helpful information, in the form of blog posts, white papers and videos, to name a fe. Over time, The Invisible Sale advocates building a digital powerhouse to prospect and qualify leads and clients. Tom has figured out a system for doing all of this while running his own agency.  He has used it for himself and for his clients.

I strongly believe it should be on the bookshelf of every public relations pro. It will change how you think about marketing your own business. It will change how you counsel your clients. Here’s why I liked this book.

Uniting Online Selling and Social Media

First of all, The Invisible Sale takes two disciplines within marketing — online selling and social media, and unites them into the useful compatible tools that they should be.  When I work with clients to develop social strategies, they always want to know if their efforts are paying off.  They want to know how this investment in time, money and resources will actually help their business.  Far too many digital strategists will say “don’t ask questions, just get in the game.”  Now, with Tom’s book, you have a blueprint for uniting and tracking these two disciplines together.

 Telling, Not Selling

The second thing I liked about Tom’s book is he talks about helping instead of selling.  This spirit of generosity –giving away what you know — is what attracted me to network in the digital world back when HARO was a daily email to a couple of hundred people and Twitter was where you could talk about issues, trends and new things. It is the main premise on which the Rackspace social media customer service team got its start under the leadership of Rob LeGesse. Now that there are millions more people “marketing” in the space, the spirit of generosity is often lost.   Tom pulls us back there.

It’s STILL About Your Network

The third thing about Tom’s book which I found most valuable is that he emphasizes over and over again this very salient point:  it’s about building a network.  Tom doesn’t suggest that you abandon traditional methods of developing new clients (at least not right away!)  and this is the key takeaway for public relations pros.  Tom advocates developing volumes of content for current and potential future customers with each piece targeted to their needs.

Why PR Pros Should Understand this Book

Here’s the real opportunity for PR pros:  we are perfectly positioned to develop this type of content. Many of us are the “writers” in an organization so turning the raw materials of our intellectual property into helpful materials is what we thrive on. If you are a solo PR Pro or part of an agency, you should be asking yourself:  What have we done for our clients that WE or THEY could benefit from? And then get to work using Tom’s system to build your business.

Tom’s got the business track record to back up everything in his book:  his Converse Digital firm has experienced double digit growth year over year during the worst recession of our time.  Need I say more?

Marketing Plans: Dust Collector or Useful Tools?

Last week, I facilitated a session by the same name at the Texas Travel Industry Summit in Corpus Christi.  It was a “shirtsleeves” session designed to help travel professionals talk about their successes and challenges and draw sessionphoto1from the collective group to find solutions or ideas they could take back to their organizations.

Our panel of experts included Beth West of Meredith Corporation, Daryl Whitworth of Madden Media and Shanna Smith of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau.  Each panelist brought a different point of view and had past experience creating marketing plans for different types of travel organizations or clients.  Prior to our session, the team curated a list of resources for travel organizations on building marketing plans. You can see the list here:

Here are some of the best practices we discussed.

Make your Plan Relevant

It’s a key challenge to make sure your plan is relevant to your current marketing challenges and the audiences you are trying to reach. To be relevant, your plan should include a variety of disciplines including public relations, social media, advertising, sales and stakeholder outreach.

Give Your Plan Context

This is the starting point for a marketing plan.  It should include your mission and vision or statement of purpose as well as an assessment of where you are. That might be a SWOT Analysis or assessment of how last years’ plan turned out.  This sets the stage for your new ideas to follow in terms of creating goals and objectives.

Do Some Research

Before writing next years’ plan, reflect on what happened this year.  Which stakeholder groups are up or down? Which events had better attendance? Can you attribute success to a particular channel or campaign? What happened in similar destinations? What research findings from US Travel Association and TTIA are relevant to your plan? This should form an entire section in the early part of the plan.

Create a Timeline

Many travel organizations traditionally plan one year out.  While some use a calendar year, others are forced into a fiscal calendar which begins in October and spans one year.  Rapid changes in technology make this timeline challenging. Many tech companies only plan one quarter at a time. Since that’s not an option with travel organizations, the timeline is tough.

Build Flexibility Into Your Plan

Having a plan with flexibility is one way a travel organization can beat the timeline crunch.  One destination manager shared her agreement with a governing board which allows for discretionary spending on a percentage of the annual budget.

Integrate Your Plan

Media Spending is NOT a marketing plan.  Media spending should be PART of your marketing plan.  Integrating all the functions of your marketing team makes your plan richer and sets up your organization for success.  It also minimizes the possibility of missing a consumer touchpoint, too.

Have a Contingency

Contingencies are a great way to leverage a last minute opportunity.  They are also necessary for travel organizations in the event of a disaster.  Most travel organizations have a small spending contingency, we had no consensus as to what that level should be.

Engage Your Partners

Destinations have specific partners which they must engage for a successful marketing plan.  One new destination group shared that they have a day-long  workshop with their hotels and attractions to talk about the successes and challenges of the year and begin planning for the next year. This early buy-in from their partners guarantees that everyone is happy with the final result.

Be Visible to Your Stakeholders

One destination at the session shared that they meet with their stakeholders monthly to take a pulse on attendance and revenue. This goes a long way to informing the key elements of next years’ plan.

Incorporating one or more of these themes into your next marketing plan should take your travel organizations’ marketing plan from dust collector to useful tool.  Do you have best practices in your travel organizations’ marketing plan that you can share?

Consider the Source

Microphones in a RowA disturbing media trend emerging the past few years really came to light for me last week while scanning the morning news programs: media interviewing other media. I’ve noticed it on two occasions: celebrity news and breaking news.  Here are two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Celebrity News

Celebrity A is divorcing Celebrity B.

The news coverage includes B roll of celebrity A emerging from a night club and Celebrity B leaving a hotel or restaurant.  The story also includes file footage of the couple – together—in happier times as well as clips from their last hit record, blockbuster movie or product release. But what the news team really wants is the celebrities talking about the break-up, which celebrities almost NEVER do. Not if they have a good PR team and legal team.  So, when the editor is screaming, “Get me someone, anyone, who can talk about the divorce” what’s a reporter to do? Call in the editor of a celebrity magazine who may have the inside scoop on how the relationship unraveled.

Scenario 2: Breaking News

Tragedy Strikes and All Hands Are On Deck

A horrible tragedy occurs and news organizations are interrupting regular programs to cover it. Every news organization wants to offer in-depth coverage by going beyond the basics of what just happened. So they start to develop sidebar stories to fill in the time already allotted to enhanced news coverage while they are waiting for a development, press conference or official information.  They might develop profiles on people, location or work the angle on the economic impact.  This buys them time and makes it appear as if they are advancing the story.  Another solution is to compare and contrast this tragedy to others.

Why Do the Media Do This?

First, it’s a question of access. There are only so many good spokespersons to go around, so if another network or newspaper gets hold of them first, you are stuck.

A second issue is expertise. There are fewer beat reporters on the job today and general assignment reporters have less in-depth knowledge to cover a story beyond the basics.

The last issue is vanity.  It’s pretty easy to fill time by calling your friend who edits the celebrity publication and get them to agree to an interview.

Why This Practice Should Stop

Media outlets using this practice are highlighting sources and information that should serve as background. The celebrity publication editor and industry watcher are being elevated to primary sources of information, which they are not.  Viewers are seduced into thinking the source is important because they have a slot on national television.

So the next time you’re watching the morning news, pay attention to who is being interviewed and consider the source. It may not be as credible as it seems.

That’s what’s on my mind today.





On My Mind: Talk Value

Is PR talk value?  At a recent professional development event I attended, the speaker continually  referred to talk value as PR. The first couple of times, it was okay. By the seventh or so reference, I started to cringe each time the phrase was used.

What is it about this reference which grates on my ears?

Perhaps it is the dismissive tone that seems to accompany the statement.

It might be the propensity for this phrase to be one of dozens of cliches used by PR practitioners to justify tactics. Some others that are popular right now include buzz and viral.  As in, “Let’s create some buzz with this new widget” or “how about if we make a viral video.”

Most likely, what troubles me about the reference is the complete lack of finality.   That buzz or talk value is good enough goes completely against the relationship building that is and should be at the heart of every public relations practitioners’ sense and sensibility.

Hanging your hat on talk value completely eliminates a vital component of public relations: effecting attitude or behavior change.

What are your thoughts on talk value? Love it? Hate it?  Please comment here.

Three Signs You’re About to Lose That Client

During a recent Twitter chat with solo PR practitioners, the subject of recovering from the loss of a client became a hot topic.  As the chat progressed, the group serendipitously compiled a list of signs that all, in hindsight, recognized were signs that a client was about to change their mind about the relationship.

Change in Reporting Order

What does this mean?  Your contact changes or the client’s team makes changes. Always a sign of a company on the move and maybe your services will be part of that change.  Karen D. Swim, a Michigan-based Solo PR practitioner (@karenswim) recommends watching for red flags.  Olga Orda, based in Vancouver (@olgaorda) suggested early detection could help prevent a meltdown.

Clogs in the Pipeline

Has the workflow suddenly changed? Extreme acceleration or slowdown may be a sign that the client has other plans.

Unpaid Bills

This is a sad fact for Solo PR practitioners but sometimes it’s the first sign of trouble.  Mary Deming Barber (@mdbarber), a seasoned PR practitioner in Anchorage, Alaska, offers a suggestion for lessening the impact of unpaid bills.  “Always keep eggs in lots of baskets.”  Paula Johns’ advice (@PaulaJohns) includes building a broad base to lessen the impact of a lost client.

The key to surviving a sudden client loss?

Perspective, according to Daria Steigman (@dariasteigman), from Washington DC.  She once lost a client during a company sale, but her clients lost their jobs.

Kate Robins (@katerobins), a Connecticut practitioner, believes you should have a magic number of clients.  With six clients, you can lose two and still recover.  That’s when it’s important to leverage the relationships in your current network.

Are you a solo PR practitioner?  Then join the group!  Organized by Kellye Crane (@kellyecrane, @solopr), an international group assembles each Wednesday from 1-2 p.m. EST to chat on Twitter, using the hashtag #solopr.

Many thanks to the collective intelligence of the group for making this blog post happen.

What signs have you seen that a client is about to bolt?

Business Plans and Sticky Notes

Sticky Notes as a Business Plan aid I have been writing a lot of proposals for new business lately and it’s easy to get lost in the details when you are trying to impress a new client and win their business.  It’s gratifying to have the opportunity to write proposals but when you are working on them back-to-back for different types of clients, in different industries, you can go from steamrolling through them to feeling like you’re slogging through mud.

So I thought it useful to write questions and answers to myself as I went along. This helped me to stay on track and think strategically, rather than get lost in the romance of the tactics.

Some of the scribbles were pretty humorous.

SO WHAT? I wrote on one sticky note.

This is a good reality check that things are getting too wordy.

WHO CARES? Sported another neon square.

This made me think of a saying from one of my earliest marketing mentors.  He would ask:  “Does it pass the red-face test?” In other words, can you describe it, champion it and believe in it without turning red?

REALLY? I usually scribble this one when I think that the proposal is getting off track and is out of line with what the prospective client would do.

While these things seem rather silly, in the end, three questions come to mind which are at the core of every communication plan.

  1. Create awareness    — For someone to care about it, they need to know about it. Whatever it is.  Product, service, cause or belief.
  2. Enhance reputation – It goes without saying that any communications effort should serve to strengthen a company’s reputation, and therefore, its market position.
  3. Meet business objectives – This is the action part of the plan.  Whether it’s leading a consumer to buy a product or service, or a nonprofit to motivate someone to make a donation of time or money, if it’s not a business objective, it shouldn’t be a communication objective.

So there. Three little phrases to get your proposals — and all your plans — back on track.

What’s even better is that they all fit on a sticky note.

How do you stay on track when juggling multiple proposals?