Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kicking Bad PR Habits (the highly abridged version)

This post is a very abbreviated version of my luncheon presentation to the Westchester/Fairfield branch of the PRSA on January 14, 2009.

The public relations industry is under attack like never before, and a lot of it is our own doing. In the past, if a publicist made a mistake, they caught hell from their boss, maybe it appeared in the newspaper and it was pretty much confined to a small group.

Nowadays, thanks to the Internet, the PR industry is getting its dirty laundry hung out to dry all over blogs.

The stupid mistakes that publicists have made for a long time are now transparent to everybody and now there's hell to pay. If publicists were viewed as a slick profession before, we're now being pushed down there with car dealers, ex-Governors and investment bank presidents.

And if that's not bad enough, we even have publicists taking the police role and calling out other publicists for doing a bad job. We're even at war with ourselves.

In order to improve our habits, we need to examine some of our bad habits, face them, realize what we're doing, why they are wrong and correct the siutation. Little things do matter because clearly those are the things that are killing us.

One of the ways we are hurting ourselves is with the things we use the most -- words. We've become sloppy, careless and lazy with them. No wonder why we end up like this fellow here all the time:

Remember that movie "Mean Girls," where Lindsay Lohan talked about how she couldn't help letting out "word vomit" and getting her into unwanted situations and trouble? Publicists not only suffer this horrid affliction but they also come down with an additional case S.O.W. -- Same Old Words. You know, the words that publicists hand down from generation to generation, like folk tales, urban myths, Bible stories, and we don't stop to look up and say, "Hey, aren't there any other words we can use?"

Viral marketing strategist David Meerman Scott calls some of these words "gobbledygook." He even has a Gobbledygook Manifesto, explaining why many phrases need to be banned from every marketing and PR person's vocabulary. He even has this fabulous chart demonstrating how these words have been infiltrated press releases sent out over the wire services.

My favorite one is "world class." There's a progessive rock station in Westchester called "The Peak" whose tag line for the last four years has been "World Class Rock." They say it repeatedly over and over again during their ID's and in their ads, until you don't even know what "world class rock" is. One of Sirius Satellite Radio's stations called themselves "world class rock," so now the phrase really was nebulous. I wrote an e-mail to one of The Peak's programming guys saying that the term was saturated and could they please come up with something new. He replied it was the best they could come up with, essential to putting themselves in a "brand category," and he sincerely asked if I could come up with something that would replace it that would "still imply rock."

I said, "How about, uh, rock?"

I have my own collection of The Most Overused Phrases in PR. There should be some kind of mandatory retirement for these combination of words, such as "No comment," "He/she is leaving to pursue other interests," "We're taking it very seriously" (which the web site Consumerist calls "disaster ketchup"), and those immortal three used in quotes: "excited," "thrilled" and "honored" (which I discuss here and here).

Speaking of press releases, firms and in-house entities are so in love with them sometimes, they come down with what I call Press Release Dependency. This is the overwhelming urge to crank out press releases for everything, even if it's not news, and hope that somehow by putting it on the paid newswires, it will be written about. Most of the time, it ends up on these obscure sites like and clogs up Google searches.

A press release is no substitute for the credibility of news. It can not replace great strategy, relationships with the press, and the execution of that plan.

Turning around bad PR habits is a top down endeavor. If you are enough about the quality of not only your work, but your colleagues and staff, you have to take up the cause as a personal mission. Nobody wants their bad judgment calls and silly errors paraded out across the web.

The fact is: most of these habits are preventable and it's really up to you to enforce high standards. You want to lead by example.

Here are some suggestions to get everybody on the same page:

Explain the benefits of personalization.
Put people names in the subject lines of e-mail.
Show that you are familiar with what you they do.
Quality is far more important than quantity, so avoid blasting out e-mails.

Make staff meetings more educational.
Have writing workshops twice a year, emphasizing how to create a lead and capture a person's attention quickly.
Have everybody share news and things that they have learned about what's going on in the media and with journalists they deal with.

Share your personal mottoes.
Everybody has credos that have meant a lot over time.
Here are a couple of my favorites:
"If you can't move a mountain, go around it."
"Aim high, then deliver."

Have staff listen silently to some of your calls with the media.
Sometimes the most effective learning is by watching how you actually perform your job. Show them how you relate to the reporters you speak with, pitch them, and seal the deal in a strategic, smart way.

When it comes down to it, what we all want is personal happiness on the job.

Not the kind of happiness you find on Hallmark posters like this.
That's your life outside of work.

Double happiness is nice.
But it makes a better Chinese takeout dish.

It could be the kind of happiness that would make you dance through a beautiful green meadow in the Austrian alps singing as if nobody was there.
But you'd look silly doing it if you weren't in a movie.

I'm talking about not being a wooden soldier. You want employees who come to work every day with an emotional stake in their work. If you are a firm who chases checks dangled in front of you, as opposed to partners who actually interest you, that's also a mistake. Everybody wants to love what they are doing. Being the biggest or fastest growing PR firm doesn't mean you're the most satisfied.

Eventually, with the hatchet buried with bloggers and journalists, and a new found respect for the PR profession, we may be able to see something like this in our lifetime:

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