Posts Tagged ‘public relations’


Saturday, July 13th, 2013

Every day, in organizations of all types and sizes,  programs are designed, products launched and campaigns kicked-off without a clear story to support them–and predictably, the results are often forgettable.

The good news is that more and more communications and marketing departments are developing storylines to provide some narrative grounding to key corporate activities.

The bad news is not only that the storyline remains a poorly understood communications concept with the result that many of these are so focused on corporate spin that they read like works of fiction, but that organizations will often mistake their own PR for reality.

Developing the narrative around an event, product, or initiative is more than a writing exercise—it should be seen as an exercise not just in strategic communications, but in strategic planning.

At InterChange Public Affairs, our approach to storyline development revolves around working through a facilitated process to ensure that our clients’ narrative will not only resonate with all of their key audiences, but that their project will meet their strategic goals.

Our approach to storyline development is part SWOT  (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, part journalism and part PR.

In all instances–but most importantly in the case of public events–we start by getting to and understanding the real story behind an initiative, and then framing our client’s narrative in the most objective and newsworthy fashion.

Depending on the complexity of the project, we typically develop two or more storylines. The first version–what we call the inside story–is rarely seen outside the boardroom.

When working on the inside story, we see our role much like that of a hard-nosed print reporter. We work with our client to answer the five Ws of journalistic writing (Who, What, Where, When and Why) to tease out positive storyline elements, and ask the tough questions to get at the problem areas. Our goal is to give our clients an advance look at how their story is going to read in the morning paper.

While this can make for uncomfortable conversations with the client,  it also results in a better appreciation of the communications and other challenges that may exist with their project and provides them with an opportunity to make the tactical and strategic adjustments needed for a successful announcement or campaign launch.

For a final product, we strive for a one page journalistic-style story that highlights the newsworthy and fresh, while framing in the most positive light any issues that could not be worked out through the earlier process.

This type of storyline can be readily adapted to produce core communications products such as news releases, key messages and media lines, while providing the outline and narrative structure for everything from op-eds, to speaking notes and speech modules.

In addition to generating a compelling external narrative, an additional benefit of this approach to storyline development is that it helps organizations clarify and address strategic and tactical problems and priorities.

We have had cases where clients decided to re-think and re-design a campaign because they realized that it just wasn’t ready for prime time. Or conversely, what had been seen as a negative corporate  announcement morphed into a good news story after working through its various (and sometimes subtle) storyline elements.

By taking what is most often viewed as an abstract writing exercise and translating it into a strategic communications effort, this approach to storyline development helps reveal potential opportunities and challenges that might otherwise have been overlooked in the initial planning process.


Monday, August 27th, 2012

A news story out of Vancouver, says the RCMP  warned its employees against identifying themselves as members of the force when posting personal comments on social media sites.

If the story is correct and the force’s warning goes beyond a reminder of members’ code of conduct obligations, then the RCMP, an organization with over 28,000 employees, is depriving itself of as many potential and powerful online ambassadors.  With the RCMP brand tarnished by news reports of bad behaviour, the organization’s focus should be on sharing its stories to put a human face on the red serge, not stifling social interaction.

But the RCMP is not alone in its digital skittishness as fear of social media seems to have replaced fear of reporters in many organizations.

In some ways, this is understandable. It is the nature of social media that content, good or bad, can be shared and viewed almost instantaneously. This is what makes it such a powerful communications and marketing tool. It is also what makes it potentially very damaging to reputations, brands and bottom lines. And it is what spooks many organizations, public and private.

There is no doubt that the real time nature of digital communications makes responsive damage control very tricky. Just  ask United Airlines who in 2009 got caught in the  social media turbulence created by a disgruntled passenger and his now iconic video, United Breaks Guitars The airline saw the value of its shares tumble by almost $ 200 million and its reputation take a hit it is still struggling to recover from.

That is why many organizations batten down the hatches when it comes to social media engagement.   Their fear of the digital faux pas, forces them to adopt stringent social media policies and practices that limit direct engagement and impose top down message control. And so doing they deprive themselves of their best tool for countering negative stories and bad PR: their community.

One of the reasons (and there are several) United failed to contain the online firestorm was that it was unable to mobilize the thousands-strong army of Twitter followers and YouTube susbscribers–all potential brand ambassadors–to share, amplify and most importantly, validate its message.

Where were United’s brand ambassadors in its time of need?  They were on the sidelines watching the airline they trust to move them safely, efficiently and economically, being grounded by a story and catchy tune gone viral.

In United’s case, it was less a matter of existing social media policies hindering their ability to mobilize potential support and more a lack of community building and engagement coupled with poor tactical execution.

But for many organizations, the very policies they develop to mitigate and manage risk,  hamstring their ability to respond effectively to online communication crises and attacks on their brand.

In theory, social media policies are easy to develop. Most organizations have policies governing just about every aspect of corporate and employee behaviour. From the size of their cubicle, to what they can wear at work, to the type of car they can rent on company business, policies spell out what employees can and cannot do. And in fact,  more and more organizations are adopting precisely those kinds of policies to govern social media interaction. The problem is that many of them miss the mark, like the RCMP’s new policy appears to do.

Effective social media policies should allow the emergence of brand ambassadors within and outside an organization by providing clear, common-sense principles that facilitate engagement.

The difficulty in implementing effective social media policies lies in the very essence of social interaction: spontaneity. Throw up a wall around what people can say or do online, or when they can say it,  and you limit spontaneity and genuine interaction.

This may not be a problem for organizations that see social media as something that should be managed and controlled. But for organizations that recognize the potential of employee and community online engagement, developing policies that do what they’re supposed to do should be a priority.

A few months ago, while developing a social media policy for a client, I came across a great social media policy database that provides examples of the best and the worst policies around.

I found the best policies to be ones that eschewed highly prescriptive language and focused on four things: trust, clear principles, common sense and simple rules.

In the case of the RCMP, and most police organizations, the code of conduct should form the base of the policy framework. This is what governs police officers’ behaviour in and out of uniform, it governs how they should interact with the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect, and it is what should govern their social media interactions. This basic framework would need to be augmented by proper social media training along with socialization of the critical role that sworn and civilian members can play in supporting the organization’s standing in the community through their online engagement.

Like most corporate policies, rules governing corporate social media use cannot cover every contingency or situation. Policies that are too stringent will only serve to discourage online interaction or render it stilted and lacking in spontaneity.

Social media engagement is like casting a pebble in a pond: Networks grow in concentric circles. Policies that force officers to shed their uniforms before engaging with their friends, family and peers, fail to tap in the networks and communities closest to the organization.

The best police social media policy is one based on clear principles that empower and guide the exercise of discretion. Policies that impose limits above those contained in members’ code of conduct risk seeing the organization forced to fend off PR challenges through corporate spin and traditional media, while absent from the channels where the conversations are taking place.


Friday, March 30th, 2012

In an earlier blog, I wrote that social media can transform how organizations operate. One important way it can do that is in helping create mainstream media (MSM) buzz in support of their brand. For any organization, this involves taking advantage of a changing media landscape which is characterized by: 1) a growing MSM online presence; 2) changing news cycle; and 3) reporters’ growing reliance on social media channels for story ideas, breaking news, background and fresh voices.

Today, not only is real-time monitoring of social media chatter a must for news organizations, but traditional media organizations have begun using all of the tools in the social media toolkit to maintain market share and relevance.   Strategies such as search engine optimization of stories, social amplification, and increased use of shareability-enhancing video, are being used by MSM to leverage social media traffic and influence and push their own online and traditional content.

In response to this changing media environment, organizations that in the past monitored traditional media channels and coverage as part of their environmental scanning, are now turning their attention to the monitoring of media chatter on social platforms.  They are also using social media platforms to engage in conversations with reporters and news outlets, or push out statements, news releases and background information.

The most popular of these platforms is Twitter.Twitter is ideally suited for the real time nature of the modern news cycle. In fact, the immediacy of Twitter has contributed to changing the news cycle.

Before the rise of social media, radio was the medium that provided the greatest flexibility and ability to cover breaking news. Twitter has now outgrown its role as amplifier of mainstream media news to become a “news breaker” as seen in story of Osama Bin Laden’s killing by U.S. special forces.

For organizations looking to use social media to enhance their MSM reach, Twitter can provide an important and direct channel to news rooms but it also means competing for attention on what is becoming a very crowded platform.

This means your interactions must be fresh, interesting and newsworthy. And it means building your network and community BEFORE you launch your campaign.  Invest in getting to know editors, reporters and producers.

Tips on using Twitter for MSM relations

  • Use Twitter Search to identify reporters that cover or are interested in your issues and start following them
  • Listen. Use Twitter to learn about specific journalists’ interests, needs, styles
  • Build an early  rapport, engage in conversations, be genuine
  • Respond to queries in a timely fashion
  • Provide value; become a trusted source for information, story ideas
  • Be available for on-the-record comment, including online
  • Use Twitter to inform reporters of upcoming media opportunities (press conferences, product launches)
  • Post your news releases on Twitter
  • Do not use Twitter to pitch your stories directly; paticularly if you have no rapport with a reporter
  • Don’t neglect personal, face-to-face interaction with reporters

Success in this new environment means being nimble  and responsive, and it means understanding the reality of the modern news room: fewer resources and more pressure to break stories. Failure to do so means running the risk of being left behind when your story breaks.

In practical terms, this means all organizations have to take stock of their internal media relations procedures and streamline decision-making.  It  means empowering front-line communications staff to engage with reporters, frame the story and provide comment.

In this new environment, organizations–private or public–no longer have all day to ponder the text of a statement,  news release, or Tweet. Overly cautious or bureaucratic media relations procedures will fail in the hypercompetitive real-time world in which MSM outlets operate.