Sarah Fraser

My Journey to Sterling

Unlike my coworkers, I didn’t gracefully land into PR. Instead, I stumbled and landed (on my face) into the world of public relations.

sex-and-the-city-kim-cattrallAfter deciding that law school wasn’t for me, a friend suggested that public relations might be an industry that would make me happy. The only thing I knew about the industry was what I learned on Sex and the City (á la Samantha Jones) and thought that her life rocked, so why not give it a try. I had two things working for me in entering a new field: I was (1)willing to work for free and (2)put in long hours.

Six months later, I landed an entry-level position at a glitzy agency. It was fast-paced, aggressive, and in a fancy location, but I felt like a tiny cog in a very big wheel.

I was lucky to find Sterling, an integrated communications firm. What drew me in was Sterling’s commitment to its employees. There are ample opportunities to expand upon your skill set. Sterling empowers its employees and allows them to take ownership of their career trajectory. I’m excited to join the team and add to Sterling’s value!

Sarah Fraser can be reached at sfraser@sterlingpr.comFollow Sarah on Twitter @sarahafraser.

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The Human Aspect of Social Media and Guidelines for Handling a Crisis

‘I knew I was going down’: 78-year-old Boston Marathon runner Bill Iffrig captured in viral photoWatching the aftermath of the Boston Marathon tragedy really hit home for me. Boston was  the place I called home for 11 years. I have family and close friends who live there. As a proud graduate of Boston University, I remember enjoying sunny afternoons on Patriots’ Day cheering on the valiant runners as they came through Kenmore Square on their way to the finish line. I was deeply saddened to hear the news that one of the victims killed was a BU student. During my days as a broadcaster in the area, I often stood right at the finish line just steps away from where the explosions went off, waiting to interview local runners as they reveled in their accomplishment. It’s hard for me to comprehend how such a joyous event can turn into a horrifying disaster in the blink of an eye.

Over the past few days, I’ve been consuming the news coverage, reading the latest online reports and viewing the responses stream across Facebook and Twitter, and it amazes me the power that social media has over traditional media channels. This coming from an old TV guy. At the time of the blasts, people began sharing the images of the chaotic scene across social media channels. It continues today with a tremendous outpouring of support for the City of Boston and the victims of this unspeakable tragedy. Folks from around the globe – celebrities, politicians, even the rival New York Yankees have joined together to demonstrate to all this city’s unity, strength and resilience. Seeing hashtags such as #BostonStrong, #PrayforBoston and #OneBoston littered across Twitter reinforces my belief that social media is not just another medium to promote the news, but a means of connecting human beings especially in the face of adverse conditions.

As PR and Social Media Managers, it is often our responsibility to handle communications when a crisis occurs. One can’t even imagine having to deal with a catastrophic event like the one that unfolded in Boston, but regardless of the situation, it’s our job to have a communication plan in place to control and effectively respond to a crisis as quickly as possible. Disseminating accurate information in a timely manner during a crisis is a priority, but social media has certainly changed the game. Too often media outlets put a priority on getting the news out first rather than getting it right. The Huffington Post learned this the hard way when it incorrectly reported that BU graduate student Zhou Danling was one of the fatalities of the Marathon bombings, when it fact, she survived the ordeal. They’ve since posted a retraction. This rush to report and scoop your competitors mentality can backfire and has certainly drawn its share of criticism.

You can never be too prepared when it comes to crisis management. Having a plan in place will help you deal with a terrible event like the one we saw this week. Here are a few guidelines to remember when dealing with a crisis situation:

  • Plan ahead – Don’t wait until crisis hits to put a crisis management plan together.
  • Act like a human being – Express empathy and concern when victims are involved.
  • Activate appropriate mechanisms to keep the public and media informed on an ongoing basis.
  • Integrate social media into your plan – Be quick, but get it right.
  • Keep your message simple and clear.
  • Select a primary spokesperson to represent the organization throughout the crisis process.
  • All communications should go through one channel.
  • Respond to incorrect information that may be circulating as necessary.

Ross Coyle is an Account Supervisor at Sterling Communications. Follow him on Twitter at @rossjcoyle

Amanda

Happy Birthday, Twitter! 7 Ways Twitter Has Changed PR…

TweetYesterday marked the 7th anniversary of the first tweet. For a service that was initially met with much skepticism (why does the world care that I’m eating a sandwich?), Twitter has steadily become a necessary PR tool, taking its place alongside (or in some industries, ahead of) the traditional press release. In honor of Twitter’s 7th anniversary, we have compiled 7 ways Twitter has changed the PR industry as we know it.

  1. Information dissemination. Perhaps the most tangible use of Twitter today is the ability to quickly distribute news to a mass audience. Twitter moves fast, and its users are constantly checking to see what’s happening now. The downside is that it’s easy to miss the opportunity if you don’t jump in quickly, and in some industries or organizations, a lengthy approval process can translate to missed opportunities for the organization. The solution? Sit down with executives, legal, investor relations, and anyone else who may be skeptical of the process and come up with a list of best practices and approved topics.
  2. Scandal. No doubt about it, Twitter can be a double-edged sword for PR pros. While the ability to quickly distribute news and opinions makes for more timely and relevant opportunities for a brand, it can also spell disaster when tweets are not thought through carefully before posting. Just a quick search in our own blog archives shows numerous instances where a Twitter faux pas has been the cause of a major cleanup job for a brand’s PR team (none of our clients, of course!).
  3. Engagement. PR used to primarily serve as a one-way communication function — and often a third party function at that. The traditional chain of command was brand –> journalist –> target audience. With Twitter, conversations look more like brand <–> target audience.
  4. Media relations. In addition to serving as a great channel for connecting brands to their audiences, Twitter has also become a great way for journalists and PR pros to converse, giving journalists story ideas and real-time feedback on their articles, in addition to discussing industry news in general.
  5. Humanization of brands. Whether a large enterprise, your neighborhood coffee shop or a celebrity, Twitter has enabled consumers to feel personally connected to people and organizations they wouldn’t have such close contact with otherwise. This human touch can go a long way in terms of making consumers feel more connected to a brand, knowing there’s a real human on the other side of the computer screen.
  6. Customer service. In the same vein that Twitter has humanized brands, it has also provided a valuable customer service channel. While some brands may shy away from having their dirty laundry aired for all to see in the way of customer complaints, how a brand chooses to address these issues can go a long way in shaping public perception. A brand that’s responsive – even if it’s just to say “email me at ___ and we can discuss this further” – looks more in-tune with the customer than a brand who turns a blind eye to customer complaints. Remember, conversations are happening about your brand, whether you’re a part of them or not.
  7. Viral tactics. How did things go viral before Twitter? Or was this term even a part of our lexicon before then? Whichever the case, there’s no denying that Twitter has been essential in viral marketing campaigns. The very nature of the retweet makes sharing as easy as one click, enabling links, videos and articles to spread like wildfire across a large audience.

So there you have it. 7 ways in which Twitter has changed PR as we know it. Did I leave anything off? Fellow PR pros – how has Twitter changed how you work?

Amanda Hoffman can be reached at ahoffman@sterlingpr.com. Follow her on Twitter @hoffmandy.

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Is Social Media the New Fortune-Teller? Predicting Oscar Winners Based on Social Media Sentiment

oscars-socialLook no further than social media to predict the winners of award shows – not to mention box office grosses, outcomes of sporting events, and more. For every uninformed social media user, there are many more experts weighing in on events and topics in social media, coming together to offer sound insights and predictions.

General Sentiment, for one, put out its Oscar Predictions report, using social media and Twitter sentiment to predict this year’s Oscar winners in the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress categories. (General Sentiment is not a Sterling client.)

As it turned out, the General Sentiment report correctly predicted the Best Picture and Best Actor award winners. And, as Meat Loaf said, two out of three ain’t bad!

Our client, Attensity, also got into the prediction action, with its media and entertainment arm, Attensity Media, analyzing social media sentiment and correctly predicting Argo as the Best Picture award winner.

Armed with this 66% success rate, social media sentiment is a valid predictor of awards shows. Add to the mix the aforementioned box office grosses and sporting events, and social media can be used to predict almost anything.

Think what social media can offer in predicting the success of PR campaigns and product launches.

For example, with Attensity, Whirlpool gets early warning for safety and warranty issues and, in many cases, has been able to mitigate expensive recalls through an early view offered via social media analysis. They extrapolate an ~80% savings on their costs of recalls due to early detection with Attensity.

What else can social media be used to predict? Chime in below in the Comments field.

Jordan Hubert can be reached at jhubert@sterlingpr.com. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jahubert.

Photo credit: http://www.thecredits.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Unknown-1.jpeg

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The Rise of Churnalism – Distinguishing between News and Fluff

churnalismWe all know that the journalism industry is amidst great change. Shrinking budgets, smaller workforces, and the 24-hour news cycle of a 2.0 world all add up to a higher pressure to deliver more with less.

While more content is created for our consumption, these circumstances can lead to shortcuts that can cost a journalist their credibility and even their jobs. One of these shortcuts has become so prevalent, it’s been assigned its own moniker: Churnalism.

According to Churnalism.com, “Churnalism is a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added.” It’s become so prevalent, Churnalism.com even features a “churn engine to distinguish journalism from churnalism.

I chatted briefly with our new team member, Ben Marrone, who came from the world of journalism before he joined us, to get his thoughts on churnalism, plagiarism and the gray area in-between.

“PR people are giving you content with the explicit aim of you using it in a story, whereas plagiarism involves stealing it,” he said.

“Ooo that’s good. Say that again, but slower,” I told him, as my fingers flew over the keyboard. “Wait…is this plagiarism?”

That gave us both a pause.

“What if I attributed you?” I asked, as I hastily typed quotation marks.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s mostly about attribution – where is this information coming from?”

So where is the line drawn when a reporter uses a press release for his or her article? What happens if we, as PR professionals, do our job so well that our release encompasses a great hook or catchy phrasing? Must the journalist re-invent the wheel? Or how much information can the journalist take from the release without blurring that line between background info and plagiarism?

cutandpaste

Let’s face it – as PR professionals, our job is to get positive coverage for our clients. We can’t be unbiased as long as we are getting paid to get our client’s name or product in the press. No matter how well written a release may be, there will always be a conflict of interest in passing off a press release as an article. As Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, writes, “this material, whether or not it is truthful, is designed specifically to promote or suppress stories in order to serve the interests of political, commercial and other groups.”

But coming back to Ben’s words, it’s about attribution – distinguishing between independent content and content that is written by people who have been paid by the company they’re writing about. As Martin Moore in his piece for the Columbia Journalism Review notes, churnalism has its place and time – when it comes to the public interest, such as major government announcements or the release of a cool consumer product. But he says very few news outlets distinguish between a press release and a news article, or put the press release into its proper context.

“In the past, this lack of transparency was partly excusable given space constraints and given that newspapers never aspired to academic standards of sourcing. But now, given that many press releases are published online and are so easy to link to, any news outlet that wants to could easily link to a press release from the article,” Moore writes.

So with the state of journalism today, it looks like churnalism isn’t going anywhere soon. The question is: how do we differentiate between news and releases? According to Moore, it takes honesty – being clear about the source of the news gives readers the ability to judge whether news has an agenda or whether it should be taken seriously.

As one of my friends – who works as a reporter for a major tech publication – said: “I think [churnalism] reflects how the world has changed. I think journalists have to change with the times, and that means being honest about what you are putting out there.”

Jennifer Kincaid can be reached at jkincaid@sterlingpr.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennlkincaid.

Photo credits: The Times & Tribulations of Tove Pearce; Ragan.com 

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Beyond the Five Ws

QsMy career in the newspaper business began like that of any other cub reporter, with the requisite no-nonsense editor who drilled into me the importance of the facts –just the facts – derived from a simple but powerful set of questions known as the five Ws. You’re familiar with them, I’m sure, but like my old boss, I’ll err on the side of repetition and spell them out: Who? What? When? Where? And, finally, Why?

Answering these five questions brought me to the heart of a story when I couldn’t find where to pick up the thread. They guided the way through rough thickets of conflicting detail that threatened to obscure my article entirely. They gave me the material to write compelling ledes and the perspective to cut lard from my bloated paragraphs. But in the end, they trapped me.

What I hadn’t realized, while I was busy gathering these Ws and trying to piece them into easily digestible reports, was that a lot of people around me had already begun to do my job. What’s more, most of these people were not professional reporters. They were people with day jobs: citizen journalists, community activists, local gadflies, all without press credentials, but still reporting the news. I must admit that it was disheartening to return from chasing down leads to see that someone had already posted or tweeted or updated the material that I worked so hard to scrounge up. Before my story came out, everyone knew who did what where – and knew it practically when it happened.

However, there still remained one of these magic Ws that was rarely answered in a status update: Why? What made this story important? Why was it relevant? And how did it stand out from the flood of information that poured in through the growing multitude of channels every day? I realized that telling someone why had become my most important function. More than ever, there was a need for someone to sort through the mounds of data and come up with a compelling story to explain why some facts are more relevant than others, and why we should pay attention to this instead of that.

This is the very task that a good PR professional must confront on a daily basis. When pitching a story, writing a blog post, or composing a press release, the facts are a given. However, we need to provide the relevance, the reason, and the sense of motivation behind the report. The question of why is always at the heart of the story, and without an answer you’re left with little more than a shapeless stack of information, which is becoming cheaper by the minute.

I will remember the five Ws as I transition to a career in PR, but today I do not see them as equals. We face a deluge of data, and gathering information is like holding a bucket to a waterfall. I reserve the utmost respect for those people who hunt down and publish the facts (though their “truthiness” can sometimes be subject to debate), but it’s not a story until you provide context and consequence. So give me your who, what, where and when. Let me tell you why.

Ben Marrone can be reached at bmarrone@sterlingpr.com. Follow him on Twitter @Maronay.

Amanda

2013 Predictions

Hooper, Patel and Dyor at the WTIA Predictions event.

Last week, the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), a Sterling client, hosted their annual “Predictions” event – bringing together some of the brightest minds in the Seattle tech industry to get their take on what trends and events defined the previous year — and what will be big in the coming year. This year’s panel was unique as it looked at the tech industry from a VC perspective, as all panelists came from various stages in the investment process.

From the traditional VC perspective was Steve Hooper, founding partner at Ignition. Matt Dyor, managing director of the Microsoft Accelerator, spoke from the incubator perspective; and Sujal Patel, former president at Isilon, shared his viewpoint as an angel investor. The panel was moderated by Enrique Godreau III, managing director at GSharp Ventures.

When asked what was one of the most important qualities of a company seeking funding, all agreed that the willingness to listen was important. According to Hooper, “If they can’t listen, they can’t take advice.”

When Godreau asked the panel their opinion as to what trends were on their way out, Dyor was quick to note that zero revenue models are waning. Companies and investors now are interested in monetizing from the start. Patel said that VCs have already funded too many cloud companies, and Godreau noted that that consumer Internet entertainment is overcrowded.

Panelists were next asked what scares them, and most agreed that losing our entrepreneurial spirit would be the demise of innovation. According to Hooper, certain government regulations could threaten an environment that fosters entrepreneurialism. Patel noted that China and India are poised to step in and fill America’s entrepreneurial shoes, should the U.S. lose its entrepreneurial drive. On a related but more local scale, Dyor cited the talent flight to Silicon Valley, should entrepreneurship wane in the Pacific Northwest. Godreau cited an entirely unrelated fear and a valid question: “who owns my ‘data exhaust?’”

When asked which industry is next to be transformed by technology, Dyor answered with “my inbox.” Patel referred back to “data exhaust,” noting that big opportunities await for those who find a way to analyze it and turn into action. Hooper hoped we would continue to evolve phones, citing technologies such as RFID and calling us a “click and done society.” Godreau believed the next revolution was lurking in the education industry, which stands to impede the next generation of entrepreneurs if standards don’t improve.

Next, Godreau asked the panelists what they were surprised hasn’t been fixed yet. Both Hooper and Patel referred to phones again, with Hooper lamenting why in this day and age, we still find dropped calls normal and acceptable. Patel commented on how ridiculous it was that email is still so limited on your smartphone. Godreau laughed at the fact that three way conference calls are still so difficult!

When asked whether there is a social media bubble, both Dyor and Godreau agreed that the next step is finding value. According to Godreau we’ve delivered entertainment, now how to we deliver value?

In closing, Hooper noted that there’s a lot of money to be raised, even in bad times. If it’s a great idea, great ideas get funded.

Patel added that there are so many misunderstood ideas, where no one believes in a product but the founder.

Misunderstood ideas? Sounds like clear messaging and a good communications strategy may be the answer, if you ask me!

Amanda Hoffman can be reached at ahoffman@sterlingpr.com. Follow her on Twitter @hoffmandy.

Image via GeekWire.com.

Amanda

2012′s Most Notorious Events

Happy New Year! As we head into what will inevitably be an exciting 2013, it’s interesting to sit back and reflect on some of the most notorious events of 2012 that caught our attention, and the lessons we’ve learned from each…

In January, just in time for Martin Luther King Day, many visitors to the new MLK monument in Washington, D.C. were taken aback by a misquote of the late Dr. King etched into the new monument. Thanks to the actions taken by the public, including poet Maya Angelou, the quote was eventually changed. Lesson: whether a misquote is printed in a magazine, written online or literally etched in stone, it’s important to speak up and make sure what’s being written is both correct and taken in the desired context.

February brought us the Super Bowl, and of course, Super Bowl commercials. Last year more than ever, companies not only shelled out big money for a 30-second spot on game day, but many ran ads and posted online videos in advance, essentially creating advertisements to advertise their advertisements! While many companies undoubtedly did this in order to supplement their pricey ad spots with cheaper or free additional exposure, ultimately the ads that garnered the most buzz were those who didn’t unveil their spots until the big day. Lesson: Timing is everything, and reaching the right audience at the right time is often more effective than sheer number of impressions.

In March, a Goldman-Sachs employee posted a scathing farewell to the company in the New York Times, igniting a media firestorm that ultimately cost the company a lot of money, as their stock price dropped 3.4 percent after the incident. Lesson: A PR disaster of great enough magnitude can have immediate monetary consequences.

In April, we discussed the Trayvon Martin shooting case, and how two brands – Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea – found themselves tied to the case through no effort of their own. While the association was positive (sales of the two brands increased due to people buying the products to show support for Martin), both companies chose to keep a safe distance, and released nothing more than a statement expressing their sympathy for the Martin family. Lesson: Don’t take credit where you haven’t earned it; we’ve certainly seen the pendulum swing the other way when brands find themselves negatively affected by an event.

We discussed the growing second screen trend in May, when ABC partnered with Yahoo!’s “Into Now” smartphone and tablet application to reach a large audience on ABC’s hit show, “Revenge.” Other popular shows like “Glee” and “America’s Got Talent” soon followed suit by encouraging viewers to use special hashtags while viewing. The verdict is still out as to how effective these specific tactics are, but it’s safe to say that innovative ideas like this are headed in the right direction, given the growing tablet usage and second screen trend. Lesson: Go where your audience is.

In June, we blogged about Facebook’s lack of courtesy for its users, when they made the decision to hide users’ email addresses in favor of displaying their own “facebook.com” email address. This is yet another example of the social media giant changing settings without regard to what its users want, in favor of what’s best for the company and its bottom line. Lesson: While Facebook may be able to do what it pleases with its users now, due to a growing dependence on the social network, they should tread carefully, lest they end up like Netflix, who fell from grace, thanks to poor customer service and increased competitive offerings.

July brought us tragedy when a gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, killing more than a dozen people. July also brought us two notoriously ill-timed tweets, first when the NRA took to Twitter the morning after the shooting with “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” CelebBoutique.com also posted an inappropriate Tweet, speculating that #Aurora was trending due to a dress worn by Kim Kardashian. Understandably, the backlash against both tweets was brutal. Lesson: when you’re a polarizing organization such as the NRA, perhaps scheduled tweets aren’t the best idea. Also, it’s a good idea to figure out why a topic is trending before jumping into the conversation.

Few events can inspire as much social media buzz as the Olympics, and the London games in August were no exception. From the bizarre rants by U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte to the downright racist comments made by Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou, there were enough media gaffes to make any PR person sweat, just reading about them. Lesson: An athlete does not a spokesperson make, and anyone thrust into the public eye could benefit from some basic media training.

September led us into the thick of election season, and Sterling’s own Dave Gifford traveled to Charlotte, NC for some contracting work with the Democratic National Convention. Three days before the event, some unexpected weather forced the DNC to change venues, throwing a wrench in what was already quite the logistical undertaking. Thanks to quick planning by Dave and his nimble team of volunteers, the venue was changed with minimal inconvenience to attendees. Lesson: It’s not always about having a B or C plan; sometimes pulling off a successful event requires the willingness to shift gears quickly should the unexpected occur.

In October, Nike found itself in a pickle when compelling evidence against celebrity spokesperson Lance Armstrong was found by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. In the end, Nike made the decision to let Armstrong go. While Nike has been known to stand by spokespeople plagued by personal scandal such as Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, this time was different in that Armstrong’s transgressions took place on the “playing field” – something Nike takes seriously. Lesson: Stay true to your brand and mission, and have a good crisis communications plan in place.

In November, a snarky and entertaining restaurant review in the New York Times went viral. In the review, award-winning restaurant critic Pete Wells thoroughly flamed Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri. Not surprisingly, this scathing review sent Fieri’s PR team into crisis mode, with Fieri himself appearing on the Today Show to assert that Wells had a personal agenda when writing the review. Fieri’s response took the lead in any follow-up coverage and in the end helped douse the flames on the poor review. Lesson: A well-delivered and timely response can help negate bad publicity.

We discussed Redbox’s entrance into the streaming market in December, and speculated how the move would affect an already ailing Netflix. Ever since Netflix alienated their customers in 2011 by poorly communicating a pricing change, the company has been headed downhill, both in terms of stock price and public reputation. Lesson: while it still remains to be seen who will come out the streaming king, it’s clear that treating your customers poorly only diminishes brand loyalty and gives them a reason to switch to your competitor.

What do you think of the lessons learned in 2012? Will 2013 bring us more savvy crisis communications? What new and creative tactics and technologies  will companies employ to reach their target audiences? Will we see more polished tweets and media soundbites, or are brands and spokespeople destined to make the same mistakes as those who have floundered before them?

Amanda Hoffman can be reached at ahoffman@sterlingpr.com. Follow her on Twitter @hoffmandy.

Image via dreamstime.com.