Black History Month Brings Out Best & Worst Content

It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. So here is a tale of two pieces of content. It’s up to you, fine readers, to determine which one’s a best practice and which one’s a worst practice.

Match the Quote to the Black History Hero Who Said It
BuzzFeed quizzes can be a polarizing piece of content. Let’s face it, we work hard to get our content shared into ubiquity. Yet BuzzFeed can drop a quiz telling you which meat you are and it’s passed around like a 100% off coupon code.

But asking readers to match quotes to the hero from black history that said it? This is a wonderful example of edutainment. And it’s focused on a topic we could all stand to learn more about. It could only be smarter if a BuzzFeed staffer wrote it. But props to the community member that did.

Black Author’s Book Teaser Will Make Your Kids a Slave to Reading
The individual that alerted us to this news release wonders how it was even allowed to go out over the wire. And I must wonder the same exact thing.

We’ve talked about forcing a connection between your topic and a timely event before. But this example is worse than that. We’ll just let the headline speak for itself and simply note that book marketing is hard. But that’s no excuse for poor taste.

Lazy Hack Turns Lazy Flacks Into Story

Lazy Cat with Beer

The year ended with less of a whimper than expected in the public relations industry with everything from Uber and Sony missteps to smaller gems like GoGo Squeez and Play Doh.

In fact, this story from the New York Post almost went unnoticed. In his December 25th article, “A gift to all the p.r. people who were blown off in 2014,” business reporter John Crudele turns a dozen pitches into a story and outs the 12 folks that sent them his way.

Facebook comments ranged from the expected “he’s mean” and “these people are just trying to do their jobs” to the more snarky “bet they include this in their wrap reports” and a deeper comment noting the “mean generation of faceless relationship building” we’re forced to deal with these days.

Is the story, and Crudele’s approach, mean? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. But let’s remember two things before you weigh in.

1) Consider the Source: The New York Post notes it’s a “tabloid-format” newspaper. And we all know what tabloids tend to be really good at, picking a fight.

2) Target the Pitch: Based on his profile in Cision, you’d wonder why anyone of these folks are pitching Crudele in the first place.** He focuses on topics like stocks, finance issues and related topics. So why in the hell are pitches about beans and regifting being sent his way? Many of the pitches he singled out are clearly not related to his beat.

Do Your Homework

Let’s say your pitch does cross his topics of coverage. If I looked up a reporter and read that he has an aggressive writing style and thrives on issue-oriented controversy? I’m reading his last few articles, at a minimum, before deciding to send him something.

Crudele wrote the piece on Christmas Eve. And by wrote, I mean he phoned it in. So he was being lazy to be sure. But I’m not so sure he was being mean as he was simply being himself. And there are an endless number of ways these 12 pitches, and the people that sent them, could have avoided becoming the story.

Thanks to Traci Coulter for the NY Post link. She’s one of the good PR folks we like to highlight on this blog because they are most excellent professionals.

Kevin Dugan, @prblog

Will PR Automation Put You Out of a Job?

Ironman: "Did you get my press release?"

Nine months ago, robo-journalism was in full effect when the LA Times used its Quakebot algorithm to report on an earthquake — three minutes after it happened.

It’s ironic to note the math of an algorithm is being used to generate the words of a newspaper article — 108 of them in the above example. In another example, the AP uses a tool called Wordsmith to help fill their pages. According to Arik Hanson, “they’re using Wordsmith to auto-generate quarterly earnings stories — 4,400 stories every quarter.”

This all begs a bigger question.

“As computers begin replacing journalists, could they replace YOUR job?”

 

Welcome to the Machine

With apologies to Pink Floyd, it’s important to note that this trend is far from new. More than a year ago, researchers noted 45 percent of America’s occupations will be automated within the next 20 years.

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking. “I’m creative! I’m a strategic thinker! They broke the mold when they made me and no amount of math known to man could replicate what I do!”

And I’m inclined to agree with you. But you should know that people are composing auto complete song lyrics and getting robots to write fiction.

Even more relevant is Google’s Primer App. It’s designed to help startups with marketing tasks like Search Advertising, Content Marketing and what it calls “PR and Media” read: media relations.

The app won’t replace anyone, but it doesn’t suck either.


 

Game Over or Game On?

This post is not to get you freaked out or to get into the weeds on the pros and cons around this topic.

But it is motivation to continually improve your craft. Increasing your relevance and differentiating yourself from others — be they humans or math equations — can only help you. So consider some small, medium and large ways you can improve yourself in the coming year.

Small: Under promise and over deliver, ask more questions, challenge your own thinking.

Medium: Learn enough about the areas of marketing outside your core expertise that it helps you do better work. Compare seemingly unrelated data sources like Google Analytics and customer service stats to mine a new insight about your audience.

Large: Add a completely new skill to the tool kit – personal or professional.

So you can rage at the machine like the Luddites did. Or you can dive into the many benefits the machine has to offer. But your future is not black and white. Your future is up to you. (cues Bluto).

Your Social Media Policy & the Nude Celebrity Photo Scandal

You’re thinking, “come on…this is headline bait. How can these two topics be even remotely connected?” This Venn diagram depicting Internet privacy (created by Dave Hoffman) is our answer.

No, you and your fellow employees are not celebrities. Celebrities are subjected to an unfortunate level of attention. And in this case, a hacker pulled the celebrity photos from password-protected iCloud accounts and not social media. But there are some relevant takeaways from this unfortunate scandal you can apply to you and your company’s social media policy.

1) Simplest Approach: If you don’t want someone knowing about it…don’t put it online. Snapchat is rendered useless via a screen grab. The Secret app isn’t really secret. Yet I always get “what if” questions from folks running through a Byzantine list of privacy settings that they think will keep them safe from prying eyes. Well, if it’s online, it’s just not 100 percent safe.

2) Short & Simple Policy: If you can say it to your Mom and your competitor, it’s probably safe to say online.

3) Go With Your Gut: If you’re asking, “should I post this?” Your gut instinct may be a red flag. So check first.

Training Must Follow Policy

And one more reason the nude celebrity photo scandal is related to your social media policy is training. A social media policy spells out everything you can’t do, but you better be showing employees what they can do. Many employees will not understand the subtleties of certain platforms. If you don’t walk them through the platforms you want them to use, and how you want them to use it, the odds are they’ll be used incorrectly, if at all.

Kevin Dugan, @prblog

3 Reasons Why You Should Love Data: a PR #protip

Early in my career, I’d declare I’m part of the creative class, in part, because of my dislike for math. Today, I still wouldn’t trade my career for anything. But I’ve learned to love math.

The silos between art and science dissolved long ago. And every public relations professional should love math and, more specifically, data. Here are just three reasons.

1) Inform Strategy: Since hugging it out with data, I’ve been able to show clients exactly why I’m proposing a specific editorial strategy. It’s all thanks to insights mined from search queries and social data.

Searches tell us what content an audience is looking for and social data tells us what content they’re talking about. This is just one way data can inform strategy.

2) Create Content: We’ve been talking about this for years. And you may love or hate infographics at this point, but they remind us how data can fuel very visual content. Data is everywhere, it doesn’t have to come from primary/expensive research.

Mappos is my all-time favorite example of how Zappos uses, without violating customer privacy, the zip code and item numbers from each order to create killer content.

3) Measure Success: Out of respect, I should just put a picture of Katie Paine here and call it a day. But first, I’ll remind everyone in this data-laden world, the key is not just measuring…it’s measuring success.

That requires agreeing on what success looks like before you get started. And there is a difference between progress metrics and success metrics. Progress metrics show a plan is working. Success metrics show the plan worked.

4) Optimize Content: A fourth reason? Hey, I told you I loved math, I didn’t say I was good at it. We’ve discussed the need to tap data throughout the research, plan, execute and measure process.

Data is available throughout the entire process and it allows us to iterate what we’re doing to help ensure our success. Take content marketing for example.

Once we publish our client’s (data-informed) content, we support it with paid discovery to drive audience to it more quickly than organic search. Performance data from this is layered with web analytics to see how the content is reasonating with our audience.

A follow-up check of search and social data makes sure nothing new has emerged. And each batch of content improves based on what you’ve learned from the previously published stories.

Art x Science = Innovation

When I started in content marketing, it was called custom publishing. And the big difference between then and now is how we’ve moved from 100 percent art-driven projects to projects driven by a mix of art and science.

Hopefully you’ve seen above that by tapping art and science, you’ll make something better than either side of your brain could create by itself.

Kevin Dugan, @prblog

photo credit: B Tal via photopin cc

Is Soft Language Killing Your Pitch?

We just paid homage to Ernest Hemingway for his support of simple, clear and effective writing. Add George Carlin to the list of talented individuals reminding us to write tight.

The infamously expletive-wielding Carlin could be the NSFW poster child. So does that make him the worst possible role model in this situation? Before you decide, consider the phrase he invented…soft language.

“American English is loaded with euphemisms — because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. So they invent a kind of to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation.”

To explain soft language, Carlin details the evolution of the term shell shock — in a way only he can.

Term / War Meaning Carlin
Shell Shock / WWI “A condition when a soldier’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum.” “Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables.”
Battle Fatigue / WWII Same “Four syllables now. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock.”
Operational Exhaustion / Korean War Same “We’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile and sounds like something that might happen to your car.”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Same “We’ve added a hyphen. And the pain of the condition is completely buried under jargon.”

 

The Best Intentions…Don’t Matter

Soft language can ruin your pitch regardless of how well-intended it might be. My favorite example of soft language is from a student’s resume I received for an internship. To dress up the description of a waitressing job, she noted she “excels in suggestive selling.”

I don’t know what suggestive selling is, much less if it’s legal. But more importantly, this word choice almost distracted me from the fact that this student helped finance her college education. This is a good sign that she is probably a hard worker who can manage multiple projects simultaneously.

Softening or inflating language may be used to present something in a better light. It usually does the exact opposite. Even Carlin noted it “takes the life out of life.”

Oh, and if you are up for some NSFW content, Carlin’s bit on soft language is here in its entirety.

Kevin Dugan, @prblog

Hemingway App Fights Bad Pitches

When it comes to media relations, the analogy about a chain only being as strong as its weakest link applies. Your media list may be solid, but if your pitch is ham-fisted it doesn’t matter. This applies to the entire cycle.

The Hemingway App is one tool you can use to make sure your pitch is as simple and clear as possible. As you’ll see below, it points out the readability of whatever you cut and paste into the site, or you can compose on the fly. It also tracks long, complex sentences, passive voice and other common errors.

Unclear writing is color coded and the app gives tips on how to improve each passage. If an adverb shows up, for example, the app recommends that a “verb with force” take its place. Papa would have wanted it that way.

The site is as smart as it is simple. We’re hoping in the future it can used with Word, Google Docs or Evernote. Until then it’s available online and for the desktop (Windows and Apple).

The app’s namesake possessed a writing style described as “lean, hard, athletic narrative.” The end result of this approach to writing is the ability to tell more using less words. And that will make this link in your chain as strong as steel.

We put this post through the app and improved it. Cut and paste your last pitch into the Hemingway App and see what it tells you.

Headline Clickbait: PR Science or PR Fail?

A scan of current events this morning brought me to a news story angering me enough that I didn’t need my morning coffee.

Couple Killed After Posting Sunset Picture to Instagram

To be clear, it’s not the (tragic, local news) story that aggravated me. It’s the misleading, headline clickbait that pulled me into the article. I’m interested in Instagram, and the odd nature of the headline lead me to believe it was being served up by The Onion. It’s not a parody story. So I’ve re-written it below for accuracy.

Couple Killed THREE HOURS After
Posting Sunset Picture to Instagram.

My re-write wouldn’t draw in readers. But it may make you wonder why someone would point out this ironic, but completely unrelated, fact in the headline.

The Headline That Cried Click (see what I did there?)

Sites like Buzzfeed, Upworthy and Viral Nova are pretty polarizing. They’ve even inspired spoof headline generators and entire parody sites trying to tap into the craze simply by mocking it.

Love them or hate these traffic-magnet, sharing-fueled sites, Google analytics proves that headline clickbait works. But even Upworthy is acknowledging its an issue. The site announced it’s “on a mission to cleanse the web of content that exists primarily to be clicked on or shared.”

No, I’m not suggesting you avoid proven best practices around headline generation. I followed three myself for this post’s headline.

I am pleading with you to consider the bigger picture behind any tactic. I’m willing to bet that whatever the goal is behind content you’re publishing, you’d prefer to establish an ongoing connection with the audience your content attracts.

Tricks for Clicks

Or ignore me and follow Time’s lead. This once iconic, news magazine’s Twitter bio reads: “Breaking news and current events from around the globe.” And they’re publishing headlines like “Watch a Baby’s Face Sour While Eating A Lemon” and “Here’s a Half-Naked Man Wearing 100 Pounds of Bees like a Coat.” It’s embarrassing to see them chase someone else’s success. And it’s costing them their hard-earned credibility in the process.

Tricks for clicks may get you a short-term increase in traffic. But it won’t build audience in the long-term. If you’re worried you won’t attract readers without headline clickbait? Either spend money on headline syndication or come to grips with the fact that your content might suck.

Kevin Dugan, @prblog

Image via xkcd

You Don’t Need Client Approval to Pitch the Media (Well)

If you’re in business to business communications, you can empathize with the bane of my career’s existence…client/customer approvals to tell their story, more commonly known as a case history. If you’re in business to consumer communications, there’s a lesson here for you also.

For those who don’t know, case histories are simple stories stating the problem, your client’s solution and the results it brought their customer. This informational overview is the oil that helps the btob media relations machine operate seamlessly. Consider that the story is told by the media, from the customer’s perspective. If your client’s customer is a known brand, case histories turn into earned media more often than not.

The biggest issue in mining this black gold is usually customer approvals. But before we give you some tips on how to get that approval, here’s an example of why you shouldn’t let customer approval stop you from telling the story.

Take No For An Answer
Years ago, my agency turned a client’s issue with getting customer approvals to discuss case studies into an ad campaign. They designed brief case studies to resemble classified documents like the one above.

With details like the customer’s brand and other particulars blacked out, it eliminated the need for customer approval, it attracted the reader and made the ad even shorter to read. The only way it could have been a better campaign would be if I could take credit for it.

Creativity is a Universal Opportunity
This need for creativity applies to the business to consumer segment as well. Consider what the adult video website, Pornhub, is doing for a pending ad campaign. It’s asking the ad community to submit designs for a national, safe for work (SFW) ad campaign touting the site.

We’ve received porn-related pitches before. One of them ranks (literally and figuratively) as one of our worst pitches EVER. But the initial success of Pornhub’s approach, regardless of how we feel about the topic, is a reminder that PR people can talk about anything.

Five Tips to Get the Story Told
So here are some tips to keep in mind about getting your client/customer story told.

1) You Don’t Know Unless You Ask: The one time you don’t ask to tell the story is inevitably going to be the one time you’d be allowed to do so. Never skip asking.

2) It’s How You Ask: I start by telling my client’s customer what a case history is NOT. It’s not an ad or a testimonial, it is an informational overview of the project. And they get to see and approve everything before we pitch the media.

3) Mutual Benefit: How is a Fortune 100 brand going to benefit from a story about how it’s new toilet paper dispensers saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars? It’s probably not. But the person most closely connected with the story, the person approving your request, will benefit. It can be used internally to remind management this person did a good thing, it can be used to remind this person’s team they did a good thing and it can help their personal brand. It doesn’t hurt to tell them this as part of the ask.

4) It’s Who Asks: Who owns the relationship with the client or customer approving your request? This person can help you assess if it’s better for them to ask (with your guidance) or for you to ask or someone else entirely. If the relationship owner is worried it’ll have a negative impact, they either don’t understand what you’re asking or they have other issues in play with the relationship.

5) Ask Once: If this single approval will launch a tide of thought leadership, uh, ships, make that clear. If you ask to pitch the media, then ask to submit it in an awards competition, then ask to put it on your website, right before you ask to use it in a speaker’s proposal….yeah, you wear out your welcome.

Much like baseball, if you average .300, you’ll be a pro — and you’ll probably have enough stories to reach your broader goals.

Kevin Dugan, @prblog

Why You Should Read Spin Sucks: a BOOK REPORT

Spin Sucks by Gini Dietrich

Spin Sucks, is a much-needed, pragmatic explanation of the changing communication landscape.

The book’s author, Gini Diterich, dives into this changing landscape and clearly articulates how its changed — without hyperbole, fifty cent words or, of course, spin. The book is practical, clearly written and helpful as a result.

It’s no surprise Dietrich hails from the Midwest…we’re known for this kind of counsel. The fact that Spin Sucks is written for clients should encourage, not discourage, practitioners from reading it. This ultimately helps the reader better articulate how communication has changed to their own clients.

 

Spin Sucks Basics
As you can imagine, social media, content marketing and search are all topics of discussion in Spin Sucks. Each chapter includes plenty of explanation, how-to instruction and great examples to support its assertions. It is a quick read with 10 chapters, organized into four sections, comprising the just under 150 page book. And it’s written in a way that you can read it in the old-school, linear fashion or get all millennial up in here and jump around based on your interest or needs.

A Point of Contention
The only thing I disagree with in Spin Sucks is Dietrich’s classification of social media as shared media — a fourth silo along with paid, owned and earned media.

Social media has disrupted our industry. Social sharing has become so critical to what we do, it’s becoming a seamless part of communication. And there are examples of paid, owned and earned on nearly any social platform today. This and the fact that technology convergence has been eliminating media silos for years, something I’ve promoted for some time, is the basis for why I do not carve out social media separately.

In her defense, Dietrich notes in Spin Sucks that consumers are distinguishing less and less between “the four types of media.” And that “the lines between communication, marketing, ads, sales, customer experience, product development and human resources will become blurred.”

The bottom line is I think the lines are already blurred and this assumption didn’t change the validity of anything Dietrich proposes in her book.

The Hybrid Skills Trend
One topic Spin Sucks touches on, a trend worthy of its own book, is how changing technology and consumer habits are pushing the need for more hybrid skill sets (inclusive of traditional and non-traditional communication skills).

“Today, public relations professionals have to be knowledgeable about web development, search engine optimization, mobile marketing, content marketing and more.”

Work culture is shifting to address this trend. But things are changing so rapidly the academic world still has some work to do. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, we must be willing to test, learn and iterate what we do more frequently and consistently than we have done in the past.

Dietrich speaks to this as well, noting “your culture must be about experimentation, and you must be willing to take some risk.” This is critical because more than ever as an individuals biggest skill may become the ability to “tolerate failure, quickly pivot and try again.”

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Dietrich’s mantra throughout this book is to “remember, it’s a marathon and not a sprint.” And our industry needs to be chanting this mantra.

The key is to be able to show clients why  it’s a marathon, and to ultimately follow up with the results this approach will yield.

Click here for a video about the book. And for more Spin Sucks in general, click here to dig into the community.

 

Kevin Dugan, @prblog