A blog about standing up, standing out, and standing for something in tech PR and communications.


PR agencies could learn a lot from the Warriors, says a Celtics fan

Look, I don’t care about the Golden State Warriors.

My Boston sports blood runs strong and I’ll be a Celtics man ’til death, even though I live and work in the sunny Silicon Valley.

That said, my friendly neighborhood Warriors proved unstoppable once again this year. Led by a front office willing to invest in success, the Warriors have appeared in an amazing four straight NBA Finals, winning three, sweeping the last. I don’t care if LeBron goes for 70 against them, they just can’t lose.

They are a wonder to behold and there are some great business lessons a PR agency can learn from them.

1. Teamwork

Have you seen the Warriors pass the ball? They’re selfless.

Golden State’s league-leading 29.3 assists per game this season means everyone on the floor is engaged in supporting each other’s opportunities.

Most public relations agencies are bogged down in structure and definitely don’t want just anyone taking a big shot. By all means, have your Kevin Durant go for a jumper from the key when you need a bucket, but is it too much to ask for everyone on an account to have permission to speak with a client during the normal course of business? No, it’s not!

The Warriors show that when everyone’s getting touches, the team tends to be set up for an open look or slam dunk.

2. Helpfulness

Stepping up, even when it’s not your game, is essential in a run to glory.

It’s a backup player being thrust into the limelight and thriving in an unfamiliar role. It’s a coach moving a player to a new position, or asking for “less shots, more rebounds.” It’s the opposite of Malcolm Butler refusing to play slot for the Patriots in the last Super Bowl (I’m still salty, leave me alone).

For the Warriors, asking players to be helpful on the defensive end of the floor has translated to an efficiency rating ranked in the top third of teams in the league. Nobody on the team exemplifies this value more than Draymond Green, a defensive utility tool who has covered every single position on the floor. He’s an animal, I love it.

PR pros should be Greens, not Butlers. If an account lead justifiably asks someone on the account to inject some utility into their life, everyone else on the account should support that person in taking on the role adjustment.

The team is the thing. Always.

3. Curiosity

This is probably the first time that a basketball team has even been characterized as inquisitive. But the Warriors are as curious as George.

Consider Steph Curry’s constant stream of “imaginative” bank shots, runners, floaters, crossovers, and assists. Consider Steve Kerr’s openness to exploring, “What if I let the players’ coach for a game?” Consider Joe Lacob coming off a Game 7 loss to the Cavs in 2016 and thinking, “What if we took two of the best shooters in the game and then added a third,” then signing Kevin Durant.

PR agencies can foster a spirit of curiosity by encouraging employees to stretch and really dig into the industries of the accounts they cover with open minds. Hold discussions on why things are the way they are, and then work backward to see how a client might fit into that world in an unexpected way. Challenge the status quo to see if there’s actually a better way to deliver a company’s message. We’ve all heard the “adapt or die” mantra.

The Warriors show PR teams how to “explore and thrive.”

4. Flexibility

Flexibility in action for the Warriors is a low-key “next man up” attitude, where players like Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell were inserted into the lineup in the absence of injured mainstays and continue to help the team win.

The Warriors have had their share of injuries during this golden era, missing Curry, Durant, Andre Iguodala, and the departed Andrew Bogut for significant chunks of time, but there’s always been a player to fill in and keep the engine running. If you notice a crossover with the second Warriors principle, you’ve identified a Captain Obvious statement: Being flexible is helpful to everyone.

Similarly, PR agencies should understand that it’s a two-way street with clients, especially when it comes to activity volume, monthly retainers, or unexpected shifts in messaging needs or goals. Understand that no client fits perfectly into a cookie cutter mold, and maintain an open dialogue to ensure that your activities meet the real needs of your client as circumstances shift.

5. Passion

Passion for the game of basketball is the odor that gives “Roaracle” arena its funky smell. It’s embedded in the sweat of guys like Curry and Green, and literally makes the entire venue reek with its potency. There’s no way to fathom Steph practicing his circus shots as long as he does without acknowledging how much he obviously loves the game.

PR agencies should be passionate about the work they do, too. Passionate employees have that Roaracle stench about them, and clients can smell it.

6. Fun

Is any team having more fun than the Warriors on the floor? I know winning is fun, but take a look at the sheer joy on display when Steph does a shimmy or bernie. The Warrior commitment to fun explains why killer reputations survive things like the China Klay incident, why JaVale McGee is on their bench, and maybe even why Kevin Durant came on board.

Imagine work that feels like play. Wait, you’ve heard that one before? Me too, the Warriors embody it.

And PR agencies would do well to copy their winning playbook and encourage a culture of fun — where accomplishment is shared, camaraderie is cherished, and champions flourish.

*This article was originally published on Muckrack here.

Failing to Prepare = Preparing to Fail

In the tech industry as in all things, disaster is always within the realm of possibility: Be it earthquake or flood, product malfunction or sudden stock slide. Measured and timely communications during crises are often key to mitigating damage and sustaining company mission.

Having an established crisis communications plan “in case of emergency” is simply sensible. It requires establishing situational awareness within your organization and outlining how your company is going to solve problems quickly as a team. Who needs to make decisions? What is the process for response or outreach? What will determine resolution? A crisis communications plan is like an emergency preparedness kit — you may never have to use it, but you’ll be glad you have it if disaster strikes.

Here are three tips excerpted from my PR Daily article on how to stock your crisis communications emergency kit.

1. Assemble the team.

Effective crisis communications hinge on activating the right team members. Response team documentation should clearly identify decision makers and supply contact information, note approval hierarchies (and back-ups), and assign spokespeople (and back-ups).

A typical enterprise critical response team may be comprised of the entire c-suite (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CMO), as well as legal counsel, the HR lead, head of corporate communications and product and/or regional leaders, as appropriate.

Back-ups are key. Remember you are planning for a crisis; it’s fair to assume some team members will be unreachable.

2. Appraise the response.

Communications audits are great preparation for crafting crisis plans. Trust departmental instincts to identify experts and knowledge bases within key groups and seek their input. Be sure to poll outside partners about their concerns in the event of a crisis and exchange emergency contact information.

Response time in a crisis can be crucial, so developing pre-drafted and pre-approved communication materials will give you a head start when you need it.

3. Plan of action.

Your course of action when dealing with a crisis event will address an issue spectrum (a list of between 6 and 20 areas where the company is potentially vulnerable). When developing an issue spectrum, always begin with the most likely and most potentially damaging.

For example, if you are a cybersecurity firm operating in Miami, your top two crises on the spectrum might be getting hacked and getting hit by a hurricane. Even something as simple as a pre-written online statement, such as “We’re aware of a problem and will keep everyone posted as we gather more information,” should be ready to launch.

More comprehensive action plans will include detailed messaging, an FAQ, holding statements, a press release or media alert draft, a landing page, customer/partner communications templates, and sample social media posts for each issue on the spectrum.

A word of caution: Companies tend to focus heavily on obvious dangers and overlook important, but less conspicuous, potential crises. For example, commercial airlines have well-developed crisis playbooks for responding to a plane crash, but some carriers seemed ill-prepared in the face of customer service calamities.

A great way to ensure you aren’t neglecting to prepare for a solid issue spectrum is to analyze what has happened in the past to other companies — particularly competitors — and model how you’d respond in similar instances. While most organizations won’t need to engage in exercises as drastic as The New York Times’ recent crisis simulation, it is helpful for response teams to periodically engage in a little role-playing. You can also monitor media coverage of how other organizations deal with a particular crisis, note things that help or hurt, and practice running through some scenarios.

No two companies are completely alike, but everyone can learn from others’ experiences.

The Power of a Common Goal

Around this time each year, Sterling carves out some time for our annual Agency Summit — an all-hands gathering running anywhere from one to three days for intensive organizational review, technology and process presentations, and skills workshops. This year, the summit was devoted to recognizing and expanding how our core values inform our work.

After brainstorming about ways to inject more teamwork, helpfulness, curiosity, accountability, flexibility, passion, and fun in our daily efforts, we all sat down for a reflective writing exercise in expressing how some of those qualities are seen in an old news photograph of rescue workers preparing to free the men trapped in a Chilean mine for two months back in 2010.

The picture embodies teamwork. The rescuers are working in an obviously inhospitable environment, but they are intent. They look tired, stressed, maybe even frustrated, but their actions are calculated and coordinated. They are making sure that they put everything they have into this mission. By working together, these men know they are able to accomplish much more than they could individually. Each one of them is accountable for a particular task in the effort, and everyone has a role to play that will impact the outcome. Real people are depending on them. The work is important. But they know that their team will have their back no matter the circumstance and they will collectively achieve their goal.

Though we aren’t engaged in efforts so noble as liberating people in physical peril, the picture ties into who we are as Sterling Communications. No one person can handle an account. Team input is everything, as is making sure we are all on the same page and working towards a common goal. Having everyone is on board with same vision for the client is how we succeed. There are going to be circumstances where you need to rely on someone else on your account for whatever reason, but that is exactly why we work as a team. There are going to be tricky obstacles that must be overcome, but you figure it out together and keep at it. Real people are depending on us. Understanding the task at hand, doing your part, helping each other, and working through the mission as one cohesive unit.

That’s a powerful combination built on strong core values. That’s Sterling.

Truth Matters

One of the simplest definitions of truth is “the property of being in accord with fact or reality.” Unfortunately, you can’t scan the headlines these days without noticing that there is no longer anything simple about the concept.

We have algorithms that amplify outrage over veracity, provocation via abuses in programmatic advertising, mistrust of science, charges of fake news and citations of “alternative” facts — even AI that can learn to falsify video. Reality seems a little less real and finding the truth gets trickier by the day.

In tech PR as in all professional communications, we all have a part to play in defending the truth. This isn’t a problem that will be sorted out in search engines or negotiated in newsrooms. It extends to what we all post on our blogs, share on social media, choose to include in OpEds, PowerPoints, whitepapers, press releases…you name it. Here are three tips excerpted from an article I wrote for MuckRack on standing up for truth —both in tech PR and in life.

1. Be honest
Authenticity is priceless. If your client hopes to do or be something, go ahead and say so. But be transparent about where they are in that pursuit. Don’t inflate or misrepresent the situation just to spice up a story, advance a brand objective, or win some pageviews. A bent toward hyperbole is an affront to truth and can easily snowball into catastrophe. (Theranos, anyone?) Conversely, feel free to tout real value and successes far and wide. Openly share vetted and verified data and hard-won experience. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with staking a claim, so long as you back it up with facts.

2. Check your sources
Pause before you cite or share “found” content on social media or search engines: Do the links trace to valid data? Who are the sources? Where did referenced statistics or images come from? Assertions from screamy red-faced radio hosts and Macedonian teenagers may be entertaining to some, but that doesn’t make their screeds true — and their pronouncements most certainly do not carry the same weight as analysis from Gartner or Gallup or Pew. We can no longer rely on the notion that if anything seems too weird to be true, it probably isn’t. But if you come across something astonishing that the international press corps has somehow overlooked, Snopes it before you share it.

3. Do your duty
If you are a subject matter expert, please stand up. And if you work with an expert, nudge them into the debate.
Our world would be poorer if Carl Sagan never eviscerated pseudoscience, Marc Andreessen never suggested that software is eating the world, or Clayton Christensen never asked how to measure a life’s work. We need real research, real expertise, real analysis, real discourse.

In the words of Louis Pasteur, “knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.” Do not let the flow of information fall to trolls and bots and no-nothings. Contribute genuine knowledge to the conversation and you are contributing to the cause of truth.

The 7 Deadline Sins

The great Douglas Adams once wrote, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

He never worked in tech PR.

All jesting aside, here at Sterling, we regularly work under deadlines for our clients: drafting and wiring press releases, placing contributed articles, nominating for awards or submitting speakers for industry conferences, scheduling social media posts, creating metrics reports, etc. We operate under internal deadlines as well to ensure the company functions smoothly and our tech PR prowess continues to evolve and expand.

When it comes to business, everyone faces deadlines. Thus, the internet is littered with handy lifehacks designed to aid in beating the clock. That’s great, but it’s also important to know what to avoid if you hope to deliver on your personal KPIs. So, I wrote up a compendium of deadline fouls for PR Daily, which I’m also sharing here. Avoid these seven deadline sins to successfully meet your obligations in the workplace.

  1. Assuming you don’t need approval or review: Give yourself (and your colleagues) plenty of time to review, revise, and/or approve the respective project. Don’t expect that no one else needs to see it before it’s officially complete — it’s very likely someone does, and at the very least, it’s always helpful to have another pair of eyes on the work.
  2. Calling in sick the day it’s due: If something falls through the cracks, don’t make matters worse by playing hooky and letting the burden fall on others. To offset situations that arise where you genuinely may be unable to work on deadline day, always prepare and convey the necessary steps and information so that someone else can complete the task seamlessly.
  3. Failing to ask questions: If something is unclear, it’s better to ask about it up front than to waste time heading down the wrong avenue. Review requirements at the outset and discuss any questions with the appropriate stakeholders. Clarity is the mother of productivity. Meeting a deadline is only successful if the completed work meets its criteria.
  4. Waiting until the last minute: Many of us still have recurring nightmares about this from our school years! Procrastination breeds panic. It can be easy to underestimate the amount of time, effort, and resources required to complete a given project. Start early so that you don’t wake up with dread on deadline day. There is only so much you can do in so many hours. Plan accordingly.
  5. Withholding status updates: You likely have colleagues involved in the project you’re working on. It’s always a good idea to communicate the status of your work at each stage so that collaborators are informed and up to date. This also serves as a safety net, since other people can often spot potential issues that you might miss while working in a silo.
  6. Expecting everything to run smoothly: Regardless of how optimistic you are or how much confidence you have in yourself and in others, hiccups are bound to arise. Allow yourself a buffer for unforeseen setbacks (and trust that they will occur). One best practice is to set an internal deadline ahead of the actual, final deadline — so that you’ll always have extra time in your pocket.
  7. Neglecting to create a schedule: Schedules and sub-deadlines are the most effective tools for staying on track. For larger tasks, try mapping out the various steps and checkpoints throughout the process. Even for smaller assignments, understanding from the onset who is doing what by when makes it less likely that an important box is left unchecked when deadline day arrives.

Sadly, there are many ways to miss a deadline, but avoiding these seven sins goes a long way toward preventing that “whooshing sound” as they fly by. Just check your pride at the door, stamp out sloth, … you get the idea … and start tackling your next deadline. (Right about now would be a good time.)

Lisa Hawes can be reached at lhawes@sterlingpr.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at @LisaKayHawes.

Why Charting Your Course Matters

Three Keys to Charting a Virtuous Course: Values Fuel the Mission Built on Vision

Most folks are familiar with the concept of a vicious circle, wherein actions form a feedback loop that ultimately returns to the starting point without any benefit having been achieved. Conversely, there is the virtuous circle (more aptly described as a virtuous “spiral”), wherein positive feedback serves to elevate ensuing action toward ever more favorable results. Vision, mission, and values protect us from pointless spinning and enable that virtuous journey.

Without a vision, you cannot manifest that which you hope to build. Without a mission, you have no goals upon which to build. Without values, you have no tools with which to build. Communication is essential in forging all three keys, so that you may know what you are trying to achieve, what you need to do to get there, and how you’re going to do it.

The more time and effort you put into communicating your vision, mission and values, the more likely you are to feel passionately about your work and thoroughly enjoy your career journey. At Sterling, we strive to ensure that every employee understands all three and that our team operates in lock step (healthy debate notwithstanding).

For those who don’t know Sterling, this is our vision:

To help shape a brighter future by creating awareness and preference for technologies that deliver positive societal impact.

But penning a statement is not sufficient: A vision also requires group alignment.

We foster alignment around Sterling’s vision by seeking out clients that work to address pressing societal issues with cutting-edge solutions. Ideally, they’re tech companies capable of changing our world for the better in areas that really matter to members of the Sterling team. Sometimes it’s a matter of professional interest; other times, the interest is highly personal.

For example, one of our clients has created a solution to enhance diabetes management. My brother has diabetes, as does a Sterling employee, so this technology is highly relevant to us at a very personal level.

Several Sterling employees have elderly parents/grandparents who stand to save time and money (and reduce exposure to contagions common in waiting rooms and pharmacies) via the efforts of another Sterling client — a company that has developed a telehealth platform to radically improve access to common prescriptions for recurrent health issues.

We also have a client creating advanced technologies aimed at protecting people, structures, and communities from floods and earthquakes. The vast majority of our employees live and work near the precarious California coast, so that one is near and dear to all our hearts.

I could list several more examples, but you probably get the picture by now.

Group alignment is sustained by communication. We spend significant time at our annual Sterling Summit talking about our vision, and we actively encourage employees to be on the lookout for interesting companies working on issues that resonate with them personally. Not every client we work with fits neatly within our vision parameters, but the majority do. And when we’re looking at potential new clients, we always ask ourselves if we could get passionate about promoting the technology solutions they’re developing.

As for defining the mission, here is Sterling’s statement:

Our mission is to help our technology clients stand up, stand out, and stand for something.

You can see how our mission directly feeds our vision of “helping shape a brighter future by creating awareness and preference for technologies that deliver positive societal impact.”

The way we achieve our mission is to design and deliver high-impact communications programs that compel not just interest, but action — unique programs and campaigns that generate great ROI and leave a lasting, positive impression.

Our Sterling values have proven very helpful in keeping us “on mission” and attracting candidates who will thrive at our company; they guide the way everyone who works at Sterling relates with colleagues, clients, and partners. The entire Sterling team collaborated to cement our core values, which was a very fun and valuable exercise. To keep our values top of mind at all times, we’ve woven them into our hiring process, included them in our performance discussion documents, and listed them on a huge graphic that covers an entire wall in our open office.

Activating a virtuous spiral isn’t complicated. Define what you hope to build. Make your goals clear. Seek alignment and reward behaviors consistent with your values. Do everything you can to keep your vision, mission, and values top of mind.

We’ve found that at Sterling, charting a virtuous course—by communicating vision, mission, and values across the entire organization—begets satisfying partnerships…and builds a team full of passionate, enthusiastic colleagues who actively contribute to a fun and vibrant workplace.

 

 

 

Recap: Sterling’s Agency Summit

One of the best traditions at Sterling Communications is our annual Agency Summit. For two full days, all hands gather to attend a corporate culture check-in led by our CEO, Marianne, learn more about each client’s business and technology from account leads, and partake in creative writing workshops and mission alignment seminars. Oh, and of course, we let our hair down with the shockingly competitive Sterling Challenge scavenger hunt. This year’s event, skillfully coordinated by our VP of Operations, Tiffany, did not disappoint.

Marianne opened this year’s summit by sharing her projections for the company in 2017, along with the results of an employee survey identifying Sterling’s seven core values:

  • Passion
  • Curiosity
  • Helpfulness
  • Flexibility
  • Accountability
  • Teamwork
  • Fun

After we heard a little bit about why each of these values made the list, we broke into groups to identify tangible examples of how we demonstrate each value in our work, the challenges each poses, and solutions for overcoming those challenges. Groups then presented their findings to the agency, allowing the whole team to see exactly how our core values inform our day-to-day lives at Sterling, and how we can continue to apply them effectively for ourselves and our clients.

Note: We’re still trying to think of a helpful acronym to describe the seven values, so feel free to send us your suggestions!

Having provided PR and communications services to Silicon Valley’s tech industry for more than 27 years, we’ve learned to take our own advice: We regularly update our messaging and realign our strategy to best reach and serve both current and prospective clients. Our executive team presented the annual results of this effort and our expanding services menu, which in addition to traditional public relations, now includes marketing and demand generation support, infographics and video production, web development and SEO. With Sterling, our clients get that all from one nimble team as opposed to having to contract and onboard multiple vendors. Our VP of Creative, Kawika, recently wrote a blog post on the diversity of modern communications needs and how PR isn’t just about press releases anymore. It’s definitely worth the read.

In the afternoon, appointed presenters shared in-depth analysis on their respective accounts, so every Sterlinger could learn more about each client’s staff, technology, and vision. As we have an open office and celebrate each account’s successes as a team, it was great to get more context on the various businesses we represent, put faces to names, and match concepts to products.

At the end of Day 1, the Sterling Challenge saw our crew divided into teams of four and given a mind-boggling list of items to find and activities to complete — all of which had to be recorded with a camera phone. Task scoring was weighted on level of difficulty (like sitting in the back of a police car or convincing strangers to share food in a restaurant!). Gloria, our finance manager and reigning Challenge champion of many years, was relegated to the role of host and judge, thus putting an end to her streak of dominance.

This year’s winners (dubbed the Fighting Amish) were announced at our holiday party the following night: Kawika, Madeline, Lloyd, and first-time combatant Jennine. Can you tell from the photos below that they were just a little excited to have won?

 

Day 2 kicked off with an informative (and very entertaining) briefing with Scott McGrew, tech reporter from KNTV NBC Bay Area News and host of Press: Here. Scott shared his insight on what makes for a great story. His best tip for PR pros: Does your pitch immediately trigger a slew of additional questions? If it doesn’t strike curiosity, it’s either not a good story or it needs a different approach.

For the rest of the afternoon, our senior content manager, Deirdre, led the company through a series of professional development sessions on sourcing content and creative writing. The writing exercises provided an opportunity to stretch our skills beyond the standard press release format on topics outside our B2B/enterprise comfort zone. There were some folks (*cough*VP of PR Lisa*cough*) who couldn’t resist displaying their mastery — in Lisa’s case, producing what may be the most creative press release ever written from a random prompt.

In her closing remarks, Marianne announced the winners of the Sterling Star awards, where everyone votes to recognize exceptional and inspirational performance over the course of the year. The two 2016 Stars are the extraordinary Lloyd Berry and Madeline Mains (both also anchors on this year’s Challenge-winning team. Coincidence? I think not!)

We also celebrated Pouneh Lechner, who had been named PR News’ 2016 Account Supervisor of the Year at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, earlier in the week. The cherry on top: Our client, Greenwave Systems, had nominated her for the award!

Day 2 wrapped with our holiday party at Marianne’s house, where we enjoyed amazing food by chef Lynne Howell, delicious wine, and general end-of-year silliness. During the white elephant gift exchange, our newest account coordinator, Jennine, scored a giant flask before it was stolen; account exec Josh picked an aromatic combination of oregano, rosemary, and thyme, which was also stolen; and someone stealthily slipped away with a whole pound of chocolate. I personally received a “Pull my finger” Santa, whose finger has now been pulled too many times to count (thank you, Deirdre!).

I hope I’ve conveyed some sense of why I love Sterling’s annual Agency Summit. It reinforces all the reasons I’m proud to be a part of the Sterling team. We’re fun, passionate, and curious people who cherish our esprit de corps, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s event!

Rosie Brown is Creative Project Manager at Sterling Communications. You can follow her on Twitter at @lilmsrosieposie.

Tread Lightly, Journalists May Bite

As we said goodbye to Thanksgiving and welcomed the holiday season, one thing was evident here at Sterling—we readied ourselves for what we call the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Sprint. We always look forward to what CES brings, but with all the anticipation and excitement comes a flurry of fast-turnaround PR initiatives to ensure you rise above the noise.

We start planning early. We watch for CES predictions, formulate media pitches, and draft client announcements (ideally before December begins!) so that we’re ready to contact journalists when the trade show’s mega media list is unveiled. Why the rush to pitch, you ask? Because the road to CES success can be a prickly path if not well navigated. Just check out Twitter to see what all the fuss is about.

(more…)

Video Killed the Press Release Star

via GIPHY

A decade ago, I told a nonplussed supervisor that the future of public relations would be in creative. She had good reason to doubt my forecast. For every enthusiastic proclamation I got right (“Twitter is going to be huge. Reporters are going to love this!), I got many more spectacularly wrong (“RSS feeds are the future of news publishing!” “Digg is going to be your new home page! “Facebook’s ubiquity will dilute partisanship around the world!”)

In this case, though, the prediction was prescient.

Only 27 percent of agency leaders think “public relations” will adequately describe the work they do five years from now, according to a new USC Annenberg study. This dramatic shift isn’t so shocking to firms that started offering creative services with communication programs years ago. (more…)