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Lesson from the IRS media call: Better come prepared

May 13, 2013

irs_610x413Few stories light a fire under journalists more than allegations of abuse by powerful government or corporate interests.  Even if they don’t always get the facts right, the press takes its role as arbiters of truth in a democracy extremely serious.

So if your organization is accused of abusing ordinary citizens, you better come prepared for sharp questions from the press. The latest example of how not to prepare for tough media questions is the Internal Revenue Service, which is under fire for allegedly targeting certain non-profits for extra scrutiny based on their political beliefs.

Click here to read how poorly the IRS handled media questions.  The disaster can be best summed up by these mistakes:

1. Conflicting answers.  The IRS provided different answers to the same question. Your responsibility as communications professionals is to ensure your organization repeats its message relentlessly – no matter how many times you’re asked the same question. That doesn’t mean being defensive or withholding vital information. In fact, transparency can often buy an organization goodwill in a crisis. It simply means determining the right message before you speak with the press and sticking with it.

2. Off-the-cuff remarks during a serious media interview. Rest assured, the IRS’ talking points did not include the devastating phrase, “I’m not good at math.” But once the agency’s spokeswomen uttered the ironic phrase it was bound to undercut the agency’s desired message.  We can only imagine the spokeswoman was appealing for benefit of the doubt from the press, but it’s a searing reminder to resist attempts at humor when talking to the press about serious subjects.

3. Absence of any evidence. Again, transparency can often by an organization time and goodwill in a crisis. But the IRS offered no evidence to back up their assertion that their targeting of certain groups was not partisan. The press isn’t paid to give your organization the benefit of the doubt; they are paid to find the truth, preferably backed up with hard evidence. Until you provide evidence, don’t expect the benefit of the doubt.

We did not attend the IRS’ call with reporters nor have we read a complete transcript. We try to resist making sweeping judgments without all the facts. But the IRS’ public statements smack of an agency that did not appreciate the ramifications of undisciplined, uninformed media relations. If you find yourself under similar scrutiny, you better come prepared.


Morning embers: Operation Smile, marketing egos and writing backwards

May 3, 2013

1.) Operation Smile launches viral campaign for World Health Day (K Street Cafe) — Operation Smile recently launched a viral social campaign on World Health Day. The objectives of the campaign are to spread awareness about cleft deformity and to generate donations that fund corrective surgery for children across India.

2.) When PR takes patience… (Ground Floor Media) — While PR is a very effective way to build brand awareness, thought leadership and credibility, it is not a quick fix – and that can, understandably, create frustration at times.

3.) Marketers, let your egos go (Harvard Business Review) — Marketing has changed a lot since Don Draper ruled Madison Avenue.  In the 21st century, marketing is a combination of power storytelling and hard data-crunching. 

4.) Writing tip: Say it backwards (Seth Godin’s Blog) — Seth writes that the world already knows you think your company is great, so stop selling us that predictable line. Instead, he’s recommends a different approach. 

Chart of the day: It pays to mobilize your company’s supporters

March 18, 2013
Comparing online display advertising campaigns in the 2012 presidential election. (Source: ComScore)

Comparing online display advertising campaigns in the 2012 presidential election. (Source: ComScore)

You don’t have to be a political junkie to appreciate the lessons in the graphic shown here.

The chart compares the respective online display advertising campaigns of the Romney and Obama campaigns in the 2012 presidential election. While the sheer volume of ads run by Obama for America (OFA) stands out, the chart holds another lesson that too few businesses appreciate:

Note the huge spike in OFA ads just prior to Election Day in November. By unleashing an unprecedented campaign to remind supporters to vote, OFA was executing a standard political communications tactic that more businesses should employ: community mobilization toward a business goal.

Every business is up for “election” at some point in the year: a big conference, a product launch, a zoning hearing, the list goes on.  Without a community of supporters mobilized in your favor, your chances of winning that “election” are slim. Companies need to ask themselves how they are mobilizing their supporters to help win on “Election Day.”

We’ve written before about what businesses can learn from political communications.  Check out our 2012 presentation on the subject linked here.

Morning embers: Sequestration, online advocacy, and better business writing

March 1, 2013

1) Former Obama group solicits stories on impact of sequestration (TechPresident) — Organizing for Action on Wednesday asked the members of its e-mail list to share personal stories on how the looming automatic budget cuts, known as the sequestration, would affect them. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer did the same through Twitter.

2) How to improve your business writing (Harvard Business Review) — You lose time, money, and credibility when you settle for poor business writing. In this podcast interview, Bryan Garner of Black’s Law Dictionary outlines tools you need to write clearly and persuasively. 

3) Is it OK to ask to review a journalist’s article? (PR Daily) — Most PR professionals—particularly the experienced ones who have been in the business for many years—would likely answer that question with an emphatic “no” – but there may be some exceptions. 

4) How to run a great online advocacy campaign (Powell Tate) — The team at Powell Tate says a great online campaign relies on three main pillars: content creation and curation, community management and paid media.



When business underestimates community opposition

February 26, 2013
Credit: Associated Press

Citizens protesting the Lynas Corp. mining project (Image credit: Associated Press)

Here’s some required reading for those of you in industries that tend to incite community opposition, namely transportation, construction, and real estate.

The Wall Street Journal article linked here tells the story of a 64 year old math teacher who is running PR circles around a $1 billion mining company.

Lynas Corp. is seeking to open a minerals refinery in Malaysia.  But retired teacher Tan Bun Teet and other tech-savvy activists have brought construction to a halt through an aggressive, web-based PR campaign designed to highlight the mining project’s environmental impact.  Their group, called Save Malaysia Stop Lynas, combines social media, traditional media outreach, and citizen protests to influence public opinion.  The campaign prompted the Malaysian government to delay issuing an operating permit by more than year, prompting a 42 percent decline in Lynas’s share value.  No less than the Lynas CEO has publicly stated that he underestimated the activists’ determination and PR savvy.

This is an all too common scenario here in the U.S as well. Deep pocketed companies routinely get outfoxed on the PR front by underfunded, but determined citizen groups.  Why? Partly because journalists view outmanned citizen activists who speak to truth to power as more sympathetic characters than big companies. Fair or not, it’s reality.

At Campfire, we just ran communications strategy for a real estate developer who faced stiff community opposition to a $200 million proposed development near Baltimore. To our client’s credit, they recognized early that elected officials with oversight for the project would be very sensitive to public opinion. The more we could neutralize opponents and build community support for the project, the more likely we were to gain government approval. We focused heavily on media outreach, coalition building, and advertising.  Sure enough, our client won.

If you’re in an industry that tends to create controversy, think about how public relations can help you achieve your goals. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, “an ounce of PR is worth a pound of litigation.” The earlier to seek to sway public sentiment in your favor, the more likely you are to avoid ugly battles in the court of law and the court of public opinion.

Campfire’s Henry Fawell featured in the Baltimore Business Journal

January 22, 2013

Campfire’s Henry Fawell has penned an open communications strategy memo to Lance Armstrong following his doping admission.  The column appeared in today’s edition of the Baltimore Business Journal.  You can read it by clicking here.

Morning embers: Sierra Club, tech experts, and overcoming presentation anxiety

December 21, 2012

1) Sierra Club goes beyond press releases to share its story (Ragan) — Press releases or slickly produced videos don’t always seem authentic; they can appear too polished.  That’s why on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day,the Sierra Club and Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, conducted a 45-minute Google+ hangout to discuss how the Sierra Club helps veterans with outdoor recreation.

2) Media interview tips for tech experts (Startup Nation) — Most tech experts have spent a lot of time in front of a computer screen rather than a TV screen. But if your company is developing game-changing technology, the press will come calling. Here are a few tips from IT expert Robert Lecount for successfully managing interviews with the press.

3) Six ways to overcome presentation anxiety (Duarte blog) — Here are a few techniques for those who present regularly but can’t quite overcome presentation anxiety.

4) Nearly half of all social networkers engage with brands online (PR Daily) — Good news for brands: People are increasingly likely to interact with you in social media.  A recent Forrester study shows that 45 percent of people on social networks have interacted with a brand over the last three months.