Posts filed under ‘Media Relations’

Using a Gavel To Hammer Citizens’ Groups Can Cost More Than Legal Fees

Lawsuits, especially over opinions of a citizens’ group, can cost a lot more than dollars.

Should a developer facing a boisterous and vocal community group sue the members of that group to muzzle them? Tempting, isn’t it?

On the Jersey Shore, a homebuilder has done just that. That company received permission to build and sell 76 homes to the general market instead of to active adults, as originally approved. A group of residents, however, doesn’t agree with the change, and has expressed its opposition in a variety of ways. The builder has filed suit, according to the local newspaper, complaining that one of the members of the group has “issued defamatory statements and information constituting libel and slander.”

I don’t know any more than what’s been written in that one article, so I’m not going to comment on this particular case. But it got me thinking: Is it a good idea to fight back against citizen groups by using the courts?

Here are some of my random thoughts. What do you think?

  • Lawsuits are part of the development process in New Jersey. They shouldn’t be, but they are. Usually, suit is filed over interpretation of points of law, not over points of opinion. The arguments are usually esoteric, and tied directly to some law or regulation related to the project.
  • Companies that protect their reputation enjoy better sales, higher customer satisfaction rates and happier employees. They also can usually withstand the unsubstantiated verbal barrages of a citizen’s group. It is, of course, a different story if the citizen’s group is telling the truth and the corporation is isn’t being completely honest.
  •  Court is the appropriate place to prove a point of law, but is it the appropriate place to stop or hobble a conversation? Even if the gavel drops eventually in favor of a developer who complains in court that people are saying bad things about the company or a community, does anyone really believe they’ve gagged the opposition?
  • There are more expenses to a lawsuit than financial ones. One must weigh the reputational and good-will costs and compare them to walking away from a project or just gritting one’s teeth and bearing the insults. A lawsuit will be seen as heavy artillery wielded by a corporation against residents exercising their First Amendment rights. People – including those who will be giving you approvals and buying your homes – may wonder why the company was so heavy-handed.
  • There are other steps to try before filing a highly visible lawsuit (all lawsuits are highly visible). A developer can meet with the opponents to listen to concerns and, if possible, address them. Use public meetings; op-ed pieces; interviews with news outlets; alliances in the community; direct mail pieces; special Web sites, blogs, Facebook pages or other forms of interaction to communicate. A developer who wanted to build in my neighborhood went door-to-door. Does it work every time? No. Will you win over every opponent? No. Can you proceed and honestly say you’ve listened and tried to address concerns. Yes. Have communities been built and been very successful despite community activism? Yes.

A lawsuit is almost always a last resort. If used to stop someone from saying angry things against a corporation, it must be carefully considered, including how much it will fan flames and what it does to a developer’s attempts to build bridges in the community.

If, however, you find yourself filing such a suit, be ready to defend it in the court of public opinion as well as a court of law.

  • Make sure you can clearly explain in a few compelling words why you’ve filed the suit. You have about one sentence to make your case, whether it’s to the media, the mayor or the minions in your company and the community.
  • Make sure your allies and community officials know it’s coming, even if the warning is just a few minutes.
  • Decide with your public relations person whether the filing should be announced or if you should wait for questions.
  • Always respond to the media. Refusing to talk with the media allows your opponents to tell your story for you. Even if you’ve strategically decided not to comment, not returning a reporter’s call is rude. Returning the call keeps the lines of communication open. And remember: Never say “no comment.” You can explain that you can’t comment on pending litigation, or you can decline to speak about specifics, but talk generalities. Your PR person and your attorney must work together to counsel you on your response once a lawsuit is filed.
  • Remember to have your key messages ready and make any interview — media, community appearance or small meeting — yours.

Your development team should include an experienced public relations professional to protect and build your reputation by helping you deal with the media, the community and the government (shameless plug: like In-House Public Relations). Your public relations team is your diplomatic corps. A lawsuit is a big military weapon. You need both to navigate the crazy populist regulatory paths in New Jersey. And your PR team may keep you out of a lawsuit.

The method of dealing with issues that I’m suggesting may take more time and the outcome isn’t assured — you may still wind up in court. But then, a legal verdict is not a sure thing either. The longer method enables you to look everyone in the eye and honestly say you tried to be a good neighbor.

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July 25, 2012 at 10:46 am

Spring Brings Optimism To Business, Spring Cleaning Should Include Your How You Communicate

The real estate and homebuilding business is like a neighborhood after a bad storm: Everyone’s happy it’s over and happy to have survived. And while they’re still watching the sky, they’re optimistic enough to smile, start cleaning up and make plans for the future.

Whether you’re a builder, a seller of new or existing homes, or a supplier of the goods and services that keep the industry going, the feeling of rebirth is in the air. I’m hearing a lot people making plans for new business. Those optimistically planning new opportunities would do well to consider one more item that probably needs some spring fixing up: their communications program.

Notice I didn’t say your advertising program. I didn’t say your social media program, your Facebook page, logo, brochures or publicity program. I said your communications program, which includes all those things…and more. If you’ve never considered talking with a public relations professional, maybe this is the time to do it. And if you have, well, work with him or her to take a fresh look.

Some ad agencies have PR departments, but most don’t. PR people look at the world differently than advertising people. We see communications program in terms of measurable goals, consistent messages and strategies that can build and reinforce your most powerful business tool: your reputation. We use all available channels to tell your story to customers, employees, vendors, investors, regulators and the general public. PR is about two-way communications, so we also want to make sure you know what people are thinking of you and your company.

If you’re telling people about your business the same way you did two years ago, you probably need to rethink it. You communications could be as relevant as 2006 home pricing.

Ask yourself some questions:

  • You’ve survived. How are you different than you were?
  • How did you survive? Is it an interesting or inspiring story?
  • How are you reassuring and helping your customers succeed in this new market?
  • What are you doing to support your community. Keep in mind that “community” can have a lot of different meanings.
  • Who is important to the success of your business and how are you communicating with them? Are they listening?
  • How are you measuring success?

These are the kind of questions you need to think about to develop a communications plan for today’s market. Think about hiring a public relations practitioner to discuss these questions. They know how to draw out the answers and they will see things and ask you questions you might not think of. In addition, they will make you flesh out your answers. With the information you and the PR team gather, they’ll develop a plan to develop and deliver messages and gather feedback from the different groups that impact your success.

By telling your story the right way to the right people, you can share your excitement and optimism about the improving market and claim your spot as an industry leader. It’s as important as everything else you’re doing to move ahead for new success.

Let me know some of the new things you’re doing and how you’re explaining them to customers, suppliers and others. And let me know if I can be of assistance.

May 24, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Whole Foods Serves Some Crisis Management Lessons

If you think you’re immune to a crisis just because you’re not the biggest player around and you try to do things right, take a look at the controversy Whole Foods is dealing with. 

The store is well-known for having ethnic and special foods (disclosure: I shop there because it has products that meet some personal dietary needs). On its shelves are halal products, which are foods that meet Islamic dietary laws. When the company decided to promote those products to people who celebrate Ramadan, a period during which Muslims engage in rituals, including dietary practices, designed to encourage patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God (Muslim friends – jump in here if my description is inaccurate), an employee apparently wrote an email to his bosses questioning the idea.

I’m not sure how those goals can be bad, but apparently the employee was afraid that right-wing activists might have a problem with promoting something associated with Islam. His email somehow made it into the Houston Press  and on to Twitter, where it was taken as an official statement that the company was backing away from the promotion and – boom – Whole Foods found itself in crisis mode. 

Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, Tuesday told me the company became aware of the issue because it monitors its online presence and because of the tweets.

“Folks brought it to our attention and we immediately sat down and figured out what happened,” she said. They quickly tweeted that the promotion was still on and reached out to those who had tweeted to tell them the promotion was not being cancelled. Libba and her colleagues also started calling newspapers where the story appeared. As the word spread, they began fielding calls from the media.

The fast reaction quelled the crisis before it got legs. It was still a story, but the company’s response circulated so quickly that the story was the Whole Foods’ plans to continue the promotion despite the rumor. The company’s blog continues to include lots of information about preparing for the holiday. The rapid response kept the issue from hurting Whole Foods, but Libba thinks it’ll be kept alive for a while by those who only listened to the initial, erroneous reports.

“It’s inconvenient,” she said. “We’ll have to continue to educate people about it on individual levels.”  

A crisis is anything that threatens an organizations reputation and its viability as a business. This certainly threatened Whole Foods’ reputation, but because of the company’s quick response, the damage was minimal.  There are lessons here for the rest of us:

  1. You will have a crisis.
  2. You need to be ready. Libba adds that you must act immediately. “Social media is so much faster than anything else,” she says.
  3. Assume that anything in writing – email, memos, correspondence – will wind up public, even (maybe especially) if marked “confidential.” Keep that in mind before you send counsel or opinions by email or paper memo.
  4. Social media is a two-edged sword. You must stay on top of what others are saying about your business. Your public relations team, whether internal or external, will have tools to help with that. Your PR team also can make sure that you’re ready when a crisis does hit.
  5. (Maybe 4A) There’s nothing wrong with asking colleagues and members of your network to let you know if they see or hear anything about your company. Part of Whole Foods’ early warning system was tweets and calls from people who saw the original postings.

Public relations practitioners are experts in social media and its role in creating and quelling crises. If you and your PR counselor haven’t discussed situations like the one that hit Whole Foods lately, use this column as a conversation starter. And if you need some crisis prevention and management advice, feel free to contact me.

Finally, to our Muslim friends: “Ramadan Mubarak.”

August 11, 2011 at 11:39 am 1 comment

Apple vs. Android Lawsuits: PR Should Be Part of the Strategy

Apple has filed a lawsuit against several of its Android-using competitors, claiming the Android devices violate certain patents. Earlier this week, a court issued an important first decision in the case. There will be lots of appeals and companion cases.

 

Apple vs. Android

Is that Apple going to diminish the effectiveness of my Android tools? Where's the customer engagement?

I have no clue who will ultimately prevail in this battle. I hope we, the users, will, but I’ve seen no evidence that Apple is concerned about that. I’m an Android user, and I won’t forgive Apple easily if they take away or diminish my HTC Thunderbolt and my new Samsung Galaxy 10.1 (I love toys).

While the Apple vs. Android debate is great stuff for barbecues and water-cooler debates, these legal actions can impact reputations, sales and investor confidence. For that reason, lawyers should include public relations people when they undertake or defend against an action like the one launched by Apple. While the lawyers are worried about the fine points of the law and how to sell them to judges and juries, someone has to worry about the reputations of the companies involved in the lawsuits.

Whatever the legal arguments, public relations people need to:

  1. Explain in simple terms why the highly technical infringements are so important that they threaten the company and – equally important – its customers and employees;
  2. Head off those who will say the company is turning to the courts because it can’t compete in the marketplace through innovation;
  3. Assure customers that they will be protected, no matter what the outcome.

I’m not seeing much of that from Apple or any of the Android manufacturers.

Innovators should profit from their innovation. But high-tech, pharma and other innovating companies know they can’t protect innovations from competitors for long. While innovators certainly have a right to protect their intellectual properties, they should also consider that their defensive actions impact their reputation and the confidence of their customers, employees and others on whom their success depends. Similarly, those accused of violating intellectual property laws also have their reputation and consumer confidence on the line.

PR needs to be part of the intellectual properties strategy for both sides of these controversies. Apple, HTC and Samsung PR folks…where are you on this?

July 20, 2011 at 12:48 pm

From Inkhouse.net: How PR is Getting Better.

I write about things I think are important in public relations, and sometimes that means commenting on bad moves by my colleagues. I get tired, however, of the wholesale and unsupported criticism of public relations. Beth Monoghan wrote a great piece about how public relations is improving. It appeared in her blog ( http://www.inkhouse.net/inklings-blog/) and in PR Daily.  Thanks, Beth, for giving me permission to republish this. It’s definitely worth a read. 

In the early days of my PR career, I stood in the mailroom with a stack of a hundred or so cover letters sending out blast faxes to newsrooms as our press releases crossed Business Wire.

That same period saw me making late-night runs to Logan Airport, where the very last FedEx pickup happened around midnight as I rushed to get five boxes of press kits—which we’d been stuffing that evening—to Las Vegas in time for the opening of NetWorld + Interop the next day.

Inevitably, we’d outsource the press kits, receive them in the late afternoon, and discover all too late that a page was missing, so we’d take them all apart and redo them ourselves.

I can’t remember the last physical press kit I’ve seen or the last fax I’ve sent to a reporter. Today, our addiction to email and social networks has fundamentally changed the way in which PR professionals connect with reporters.

We used to call pitching “smiling and dialing” when I was just out of college, but caller ID put a quick end to stalker-style PR. And that is a good thing. It means that relationships, research, and quality content matter now more than ever.

Though many can argue the inherent lack of wisdom in 140 characters, the need to cut through that din with thoughtful, compelling, and divergent points of view makes public relations a more exciting profession. We have to be more creative and know our facts like never before. So, without further ado, here is my list of the six ways in which I believe PR has changed for the better:

1. Blast emails are going the way of blast faxes.

No one has ever liked bulk mail. I remember building long lists of reporters’ email addresses so we could send out our press releases when they crossed the wire. Inevitably, the mail merge wouldn’t work and Jane would receive a message that began, “Hello, Frank.” Thankfully, this is (almost) a thing of the past. We don’t allow blast emails at InkHouse. They don’t work. Personal emails related to a reporter’s area of interest have always been the best route, and today it’s the only route.

2. Quality content matters.

We used to struggle for the press to tell our clients’ stories in the words we’d like them to use. Today, the opportunity for quality content is practically endless. Companies have vast opportunities to seed, syndicate, and curate their own points of view and position themselves as thought leaders. However, the only way to do this is to have something interesting to say that is truly different. It’s not enough to agree with your peers.

3. New channels.

Between press releases we used to rely on trend stories, customer case studies, speaking engagements, and awards to maintain momentum and buzz for our clients. These tools are still important, but social media and blogging open up new channels every day. There might be a community just for cloud-based customer service that is eager for content. You may have a blog post on mobile travel technology for executives that Forbes wants to publish. Or maybe your point of view on the Groupon IPO is so unique that you are lighting up Twitter and the LinkedIn Groups about daily deal sites. Opportunities are out there, and they can drive real engagement, conversations, and even traffic. Good PR people know how to find them and how to engage in them.

4. Relationships matter more.

Media relations has always been about relationships. I have always believed that PR professionals should treat journalists as clients—we should help source information and experts even when it does not benefit our own companies or our clients. Social media has made relationships easier, which is the good news. However, you have to participate to be in those conversations. Yes, Twitter does matter for PR professionals! It’s a different kind of relationship, but suddenly PR people have instant access to real-time information about reporters’ stories, opinions, and deadlines. If we pay attention, there are volumes of useful information. The trick is organizing the onslaught into something easily perusable; I highly recommend Twitter lists organized into TweetDeck columns!

5. PR drives SEO.

It’s no secret that reporters aren’t using the wire services as news sources. In a recent conversation, Jon Swartz of USA Today said that he hasn’t looked at Business Wire or PR Newswire in more than five years. However, the wires do provide an important source of search engine optimization juice. Of course, this assumes that you are maximizing your keywords terms in your press releases, but if you are you can do your company or client a great favor and drive some traffic.

6. We can measure results.

I remember the days when we provided reports on circulations, which we multiplied by two-and-a-half to get impressions. We were mirroring advertising measurement models, and we knew that it wasn’t an appropriate comparison back then, but it was all we had. Today, there are lots of ways to measure PR success: Klout scores, Technorati Authority rankings, engagement through social channels (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), name your favorite new social measurement tool. My favorite tool is Google Analytics and its handy annotation feature. We can show how PR achievements—press clips, blog posts, conferences, keynotes, Twitter chats, you etc.—drive traffic. We can also see which PR activities are driving traffic through the top referral sites.

Beth Monaghan is a principal and co-founder of InkHouse Media + Marketing. A version of this story originally appeared on the InkHouse blog.

 

June 30, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Keep Communicating, Even When Times Are Clear As Mud

The news headlines that I receive each morning from Google make the housing market very clear. Look at a recent sample:

  •  Brinkman Sees Signs of U.S. Housing Market Recovery – Washington Post
  • Cold Reality for housing market here – STL Today
  • Economist sees housing market stabilization – Chicago Tribune
  • Spring market declines – WTHI, Terre Haute, Ind.
  • Housing market continues to disappoint – WNYC, New York
  • Demand up for downtown housing – Montgomery, Ala
  • Don’t expect a housing market recovery until 2014 – Forbes

 So, folks, there you have it: the market’s recovering. No, it’s down. Wait, it’s stabilizing. Ulp, it’s declining. Wait, it’s up, at least downtown. OK, it’ll recover…in three years.

This clear analysis and definite trending makes it easy to plan, right?

You’re already dealing with a market that is at least confusing and, according to some, in a double-dip. I can’t tell you what to do about the technical part of your business. But I can tell you that it’s not the time to be quiet.

Just as you’re thinking strategically about buying supplies, what projects you undertake and who you hire, you should be thinking carefully about how you’re communicating with the world.

Here are three things to think about: 

  1. What are you communicating?

Yes, you are communicating. If you’re hunkered down waiting for the good times to return, it sends a message. If you’re out there doing events, seeking out people and advertising in real estate sections, you’re sending quite a different message. You should think about the messages you are sending and the messages you should be sending. Are they the same? Are they proactive, strategic messages or are you just answering questions? Do they send information about who you are and how you want to be understood? 

  1. With whom are you communicating?

Customers, right? But how do you know that? Are you talking with past and present customers as well as potential customers? And what about the other groups on whom your business depends? Are you communicating with your employees and business partners? How about officials who have an impact on your business?  How these groups understand your business can have as big an impact on your business as customers coming through the door. And, by the way, what are your customers, employees, business partners and media people saying about you? 

  1. How are you communicating?

How you communicate sometimes sends a louder message than what you say. Everyone expects you to run pretty ads with your best product on it. But are you being cited as an expert in professional panels and by reporters in traditional and new media? Does your opinion carry weight? Are you using social media to blast out ads or are you actually engaging in conversation? Are you out in the community, participating in events and ready to answer questions or are you hiding in your office? 

 After you’ve thought about all these things, there’s one more question you need to ask yourself: Am I being heard?

 The better people understand you and your organization, the more likely they are to do business with you and to give you a little latitude as you work through the realities of getting the job done. How you communicate, what messages you send and how you send them create your reputation and people’s perception of your business. It’s not the kind of thing you want to leave to chance. You can’t handle the communications aspect of your business on the run.

 Running a business means being an expert in a lot of things, including knowing when to ask for help. Many organizations find it helpful to work with a communications professional, much like they have an attorney look at legal documents and an accountant look at the books. If you’re more comfortable negotiating a deal than writing and optimizing a news release, a firm like In-House Public Relations can help you.

 The economy and the housing business probably won’t become clear for a while. In addition to everything else you’re doing to protect your business, managing its reputation and making sure people know what sets you apart from others will establish and maintain your leadership.  Maybe they won’t call you tomorrow. But when they’re ready to call, you’ll be at the top of their list.

June 1, 2011 at 10:54 am

Will charging to read the news change how we pitch story ideas?

More and more newspapers are considering bolstering their financials by charging readers for content, according to an article posted last week in American Journalism Review.  The article discusses the dilemma from a publisher’s point of view, but I can’t help wondering what it means for those of us working with reporters and editors to tell our clients’ stories.

 Reporter Cary Spivak, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says some papers are charging for all of their content, others are using a meter system and others charge for special stories. Spivak also says some of their content will continue to be available without charge.

How will this change the way a reporter or editor evaluates information we give them? Will publications skew their news coverage by making available more stories that people will pay for, rather than stories that have important political and social impact? Will they ignore stories that might not be as exciting or that don’t sell as well as others?  Will they look for spokesperson stars (“spokestars”?) instead of quotable, knowledgeable people?

If any of these answers are affirmative, it could mean we will have to change how we develop and pitch story ideas. Perhaps we will have to put reputation and point of view in the backseat behind sellability.  Or maybe we will have to pick our spokespeople based on star-ability rather than credibility. 

This is a scenario that could have grave consequences for our profession and our democracy. Of course, if we’re doing our jobs well now, our spokespeople are knowledge and well-spoken and, if we’re lucky, approaching spokestar quality. The stories we’re pitching should be developed to not only present our point of view and bolster our clients’ reputations, but to be exciting, full of information and something that should help a reporter tell a story others will want to read, even if they have to pay for it.

But the idea of stories being judged on their ability to get people to open their wallets instead of their minds gives me pause. What do you think?

February 27, 2011 at 5:10 pm 4 comments

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