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Why Going ‘Off the Record’ is Perilous, Just ask The Mooch

In his short but impactful tenure as White House Communications Director, Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci taught anyone new at interacting with the press a valuable lesson – understand and be wary of going “Off the Record” (OTR) with the media.

OTR is the highest level of confidentiality an interviewee can request from a member of the media. It basically translates to: don’t quote, reference or allude to anything said under this cover. In practical terms, it is a very challenging method to employ. OTR implicitly requires a high level of trust with a reporter and works best when you have value, as a source for future stories, to bring to the table. The Mooch certainly had the latter, and had he requested to go OTR with New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, his profane rant on White House happenings might have remained private. Media critic Margaret Sullivan at The Washington Post explored this issue in a recent column.

If asked, as a rule, we advise clients to avoid going OTR. Instead, every comment should be carefully considered and understood to have the potential to appear in coverage. Here are just a few considerations with OTR:

1.    It Isn’t Illegal to Break OTR Confidence – There is no law that says what is said under an OTR understanding will remain private. The dynamic is based on journalistic ethics, and as stated earlier, the need to value a source in the long run as opposed to chasing clicks in the short term.

2.    OTR Cannot be Assumed and Can be Denied – If OTR is desired, it must be verbally verified – upfront. “This is off the record, correct?” A reporter can also say no. One cannot ask for OTR retroactively. You may be denied.

The Mooch gave his explanation to the OTR gaffe:

Most of what I said was humorous and joking. Legally, it may have been on-the-record, but the spirit of it was off.

Lizza noted:

It was on-the-record and extremely newsworthy. And my job is to put that in the public domain.

3.    You Can Still Negatively Influence Future Coverage – If, for instance, you unload about dysfunction at a company involved in a transaction, you can be sure that an interested reporter will independently keep an eye on this issue. As The Mooch taught us, reporters are not therapists.

4.    OTR Should Only be Used for Strategic Purposes – Journalists and sources often develop friendly rapports. Traditionally, this has led to candid private conversations between say politicians and reporters. A senator might go OTR to say, “This bill is DOA.” The value in this remark is in fostering the personal relationship, which may help inform future coverage. Many interactions with the media, however, are one-offs, meaning that going OTR isn’t a good move. Value or candor is being provided, but it’s a one-way street.

5.    OTR Lies Can Have Major Repercussions – Being deceitful under the veil of OTR is never a good long-term move. Let’s say there is a real crisis at your firm. Partners are leaving in droves. You know that there is talk that the firm may need to reorganize. Asked by a reporter about the future of the firm you reply, “We’re actually about to announce a slate of new hirings and possibly acquire a firm. We’re growing, really.” You may help put off some negative coverage in the short term, but you are inviting a pillorying when the firm does indeed reorganize.

Be strategic, be judicious and be honest with the media. They have an important job to do, and you need to ensure that they are provided with pertinent facts, insightful and respectful commentary and nothing more. Save your salty language and your palace intrigue. Don’t be like The Mooch.

Michael Bond

August 9, 2017 at 8:23 pm Leave a comment

Beware Groupthink

In recent days, both Pepsi and Nivea have suffered public embarrassments caused by tone-deaf ad campaigns. In times like this, it is not uncommon to ponder the question, “What were they thinking?” The answer may very well hinge on the word “they” and the concept of “groupthink.”

Groupthink is when a group of individuals on a project become overly insular and fail to rely on outside thinking or fresh perspective. In professional services, branding campaigns and website redesigns oftentimes suffer from this affliction.

Large company marketing projects, and even communications channel launches (blogs and newsletters), are complex and potential hotbeds for groupthink. Here are some if the common issues that arise:

Too Much Democracy – Asking every partner, or even every member, of a company to weigh in on a design proposal is a recipe for delay and, often, derailment. The combinations are endless, and many professionals simply would rather (and probably should) focus their energies elsewhere.

Too Little Input – When considering a theme for a blog or features for a website, feedback on what content or capabilities and navigational tools will help clients is often not fully considered. Tap clients and family members to give candid, layperson feedback. Say, “While I have you on the line, what are your thoughts on this slogan?” Or, “What parts of our website do you find you use the most?”

“The Emperors” – In each organization, leadership is – ideally – viewed with both respect and a healthy amount of deference. A company’s “rainmakers” are often the meal tickets for many employees. But, respect and deference should not hinder constructive feedback and the airing of alternative ideas. Having open-minded leaders who stress free dialogue leads to better outcomes. Having an entirely sycophant workforce often creates serious blind spots and can lead to outcomes later questioned with, “How did we end up with this?”

Not Enough Perspective – Outside marketing and communications consultants are trained to examine every aspect of content and design, with an eye for catching potential issues and liabilities. Not to mention, these folks have probably seen a mistake before or are aware of the six other similar efforts in the pipeline. Close scrutiny of concepts can help avoid issues such as poor webpage navigability (e.g., no mobile presence), branding issues (e.g., domains and social media accounts being unavailable/leading to undesirable content) and tagline issues (e.g., use by a competitor, overly common or too opaque).

A word we always come back to is “process.” Creating properties and crafting content that increases engagement and leads to business development is a constant process. Awareness of issues such as groupthink is critical to ensuring projects meet performance, timetable and budgetary goals.

April 10, 2017 at 4:06 pm Leave a comment

Consider the Content, But Don’t Forget the Packaging

In marketing and content promotion, any professional will tell you – almost reflexively – that packaging matters. This is true on two fronts: 1) protection and presentation of the product within; and 2) accessibility to the purchasing consumer. Although you may be picturing a physical box with a product, this also applies to professional services websites and content vehicles, such as blogs and newsletters. Let’s break down the box and see what it can teach us:

Function is Important – At the most basic level, a box needs to transport its contents to its ultimate destination. A professional services content channel is no different. Websites need to offer convenient access (optimized SEO) and unobtrusive viewing experiences. Blogs should be created – not as a page or tab within a website – but as a standalone site with a well-thought out custom URL.

Keep it Simple, But Inviting – It’s worth pairing great content with a great platform. Clean lines are important and navigability should be optimized. The best websites, blogs and newsletters are designed with posts and pages that flow into each other, with related content discretely placed in the viewer’s line of sight.

Identify the Author/Sender – Corporate branding elements – colors, images, fonts and even layouts – should match across web properties. In addition, logos should be prominent. Blogs that lack these features (think “personal” offerings that have slowly evolved into corporate channels); websites that fail to be consistent (think PDFs with one font and webpages with another); or newsletters that are unpleasant to the consumer and can – consciously or subconsciously – impact your brand position.

Sometimes, You Need a New (or Bigger) Box – As companies expand, so too do their offerings. If you are using the same website platform as you did five years ago, you likely need to update. Navigation, functionality (like integration of social media) and layout have all evolved. And, if you don’t have mobile-optimized websites and blogs, a large swath of traffic may be passing you by.

Repackaging is a Fruitful Process – Building and transitioning to a new website is a long process, and it involves quite a bit of planning. But in moving to a new platform, companies often identify and correct common branding, grammatical and positioning mistakes. For instance, consistent references to a company are put in place (e.g., every time “ABC Firm,” not “ABC” on second mention, or always using “LLP” after the full corporate name,) and “content fiefdoms” (e.g., new practice description written as a project by a principal), where tense and layout differ from main pages, are reworked to mesh with the whole. Companies also often find “deadwood,” words and pages that have little utility and can be removed in the name of streamlining the viewer’s experience.

Professional service companies should think about both content and packaging, as the two go hand-in-hand. Think of the “little blue box” associated with Tiffany’s. It is instantly recognizable and adds real value to the jeweler’s brand. Well-designed, thoughtful websites, newsletters and blogs do the same thing. Packaging matters.

Michael Bond

April 4, 2017 at 7:15 pm Leave a comment

Five Tips for Making the Most of #LMA17

Headed to the Legal Marketing Association Annual Conference 2017 in Las Vegas starting next Monday? Us too! Look for Blattel Communications Founder and CEO Ellen Blattel and President Traci Stuart.

With the conference nearly here, we wanted to share five quick tips for having a productive conference:

1. Bring LOTS of Business Cards – It happens to people at every conference – running out of business cards. So, double-check your packing list to ensure that it includes cards. And, when you think you have a sufficient amount, add some more. It is always better to return with extras than run out.

 2. Take Notes and Consider Putting Your Laptop Away – Keeping up on email and moving time-sensitive items forward is a great use of laptops and phones. After those items are checked off, the temptation for the mind to wander away from presentations is great. Consider closing the lid, putting the phone in your pocket and opening your physical notebook. There is a line of research suggesting that handwriting notes leads to better retention of content. It also helps keep you engaged in a presentation. Of course, if you’re actively tweeting a session, go ahead and keep the electronics active.

3. Plan for Networking – Networking is not always easy. You are essentially introducing yourself, oftentimes, to virtual strangers. If you are a little shy, resist the urge to disengage. A tried-and-true strategy is to walk in to a networking session with a set goal. For instance, pledge to meet enough new contacts to hand out the business cards in your pocket. Or, plan to meet a handful – just five – new contacts before the event concludes. (And, remember to follow up and connect on LinkedIn.)

4. Learn About Something New – There is generally a temptation to skip sessions that are outside of one’s area of expertise. This creates two problems:

1) You select programs on topics with which you’re already familiar, potentially limiting the usefulness of content.

2) You leave the conference feeling that the educational content really didn’t grow your skillset.

Given this dynamic, take the plunge and try something new or intriguing to you. It will also afford the opportunity to learn more about your colleagues in the industry and how other firms and marketers think and operate.

5. Don’t be Afraid to Change Sessions – If you go to a presentation and the content is too simplistic or truly not of interest, don’t rule out sneaking out of the room and trying something different. Presenters have tough skins and would rather you get the most out of the conference. Going back to tip two, if you lose interest and end up scrolling aimlessly through email, you won’t be taking advantage of all the conference has to offer.

BONUS – The house always wins, always. (This is Vegas, after all.)

See you next week!

March 24, 2017 at 7:33 pm Leave a comment

“Pass the Heinz” Campaign Pours Out Earned Media Value

One of my favorite stories of late is Kraft Heinz’ intention to make a series of ads that Don Draper, of the fictional drama Mad Men, pitched on the show, which ended in 2015. The ads feature various shots of foods that are missing one element, Heinz ketchup. The tagline is, “Pass the Heinz.” Even with the news completely dominated by politics, major outlets devoted space to covering this instance of art-meets-reality. In The Washington Post, Allen Adamson, founder of BrandSimple Consulting, criticized Heinz for pursuing a billboard strategy in an era when people walk around stoop-necked looking at their phones:

Reproduced from AdWeek: goo.gl/hU7tBH

“While they were effective in the ‘Mad Men’ days, people don’t linger that much with print ads,” Adamson said. “Today, you need to hit them between the eyes with a two-by-four to get their attention.”

Adamson isn’t wrong, but he is missing part of the point. While advertising campaigns are sometimes given full article treatment, it is rare. Kraft Heinz may be getting limited bang-for-its-buck buying signs in the sky (Paid Media Value), but it is getting tremendous Earned Media Value through stories like the one quoting Adamson.

The most rudimentary way of calculating Earned Media Value is to compare the cost of running a print ad of the same size as an article in a print version of a newspaper. In general, and almost always with publications such as the New York Times and the Post, this cost is many multiples of what was spent by marketing and communications agencies to promote the content in question. Bottom line: Kraft Heinz’ Earned Media Value was likely many times its Paid Media Value – rendering Adamson’s critique moot.

Kraft Heinz in January had a similarly spectacular Earned Media Value moment when it announced that it was giving all of its salaried employees the day off after the Super Bowl. For a telecast with spots costing $5 million for 30 seconds, the company may have garnered more publicity with its move than with a pitch for snacks or condiments during the game.

“Gotta get that publicity anyway you can, right?” asked Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal in his final note after a quick segment on the move. Exactly.

Kraft Heinz’ costs in these initiatives are not zero. The company is buying billboards and it absorbed the cost of the day off for employees after the big game. But, for many professional services organizations, media mentions come at low cost. When an attorney, accountant or architect is quoted by the Associated Press, they often appear in a hundred different publications across many media markets. When they appear on TV, they are sometimes on screen for more time than the local car dealerships that pay dearly to reach us all. And, top-tier publications offer two major benefits: exposure to a concentrated audience and an air of credibility and visibility that enhances the success of future media outreach efforts.

Scoring high Earned Media Value is a process, with statistics that best rival baseball, where a hit in three-out-ten plate appearances is considered success. As public relations professionals, we strike out a lot. Sometimes a reporter keeps a contact in mind and circles back later. (Call this a walk.) Other times the topic and resources line up perfectly for great results. But, most of the time is spent building incrementally. Media lists expand and contacts are tapped regularly. Not the sexiest thing we do, but very important and a pathway to success with proven results.

A good PR campaign produces Earned Media Value well above its cost and often well above commensurate advertising campaign costs. For professional services companies, PR campaigns drive thought-leadership, foster corporate and individual brand awareness, and ultimately, influence business retention and development.

While Kraft Heinz’ moves are extreme examples of Earned Media Value, there are many similar – if smaller – success stories just waiting to happen. The key is to design a forward-thinking gameplan and assemble a good team. And, just like baseball (top of mind as Opening Day draws closer), anticipate a long season. It takes 162 games to get to the World Series.

March 21, 2017 at 4:15 pm Leave a comment

I Hope My Mom Doesn’t Like This Post

Building and maintaining an audience for content is a true challenge for professional services companies, especially given today’s dynamic where organizations are de facto publishers and marketers of their content. Part-and-parcel to this process is understanding what engagement looks like, with one measurement being “likes,” “retweets” or “favorites.”

It’s likely that employees, family members and service providers all – to varying degrees – are consumers of company marketing materials. This is all very reasonable and desirable. In fact, we recommend encouraging employees to like and follow corporate channels. What is to be avoided, however, is reflexive likes and repostings of content under the belief that doing so boosts the “viral” nature of a post.

It’s important that content be allowed to perform organically, and it is painfully transparent (and even gauche) to see random shares on Facebook of articles and posts that lack any explanation. When a random surgical supply ad is posted without context, its genesis is more likely a well-intentioned, if misdirected, share than a genuine endorsement.

If you are proud of a family member or genuinely in admiration of a post, add a note explaining why you are promoting the content. “Just read a great article by my nephew who works at an accounting firm in town and has some great thoughts for tax season.”

As an employee, be judicious about sharing content. If you are the author of a piece, or featured in a photo, share away – provided you add narrative context. But, don’t be like a bot, regenerating company content without comment or connection. (There are surely more effective ways to curry favor with the powers that be.)

Engagement, measured in likes and shares, should not be a primary focus or concern for professional services companies. Content from these organizations tends to be quite nuanced and a challenge when engaging given the limited feedback options offered on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Does one give a thumbs-up to an update on white-collar crime? An angry face to new tax rules? Zero reactions is OK, really.

Building a library of insightful content and chronicling the good news (such as charitable involvement) happening at an organization is beneficial in many ways, but it’s a long game.

When a prospective client or referral source wants to learn more, they check out your channels. When a client is scrolling through news and pictures on Facebook and even just sees that you posted, that is beneficial. And, when recruiting talents, a well-polished and dynamic image is critical. However, all of these individuals are unlikely to provide immediate feedback through the like button. But, if they do, it is genuine.

We’ve previously discussed the fruitless obsession with raw clicks, and chasing “likes” is in the same boat. Don’t be like the teenager on Instagram, devastated when a post pulls only a few likes. And, please ask mom to stop re-posting your content. When two kids crash your live media interview, that is the stuff a viral post is made of. An update on the estate tax, not so much.

March 15, 2017 at 3:24 pm Leave a comment

Political Discourse and Professionalism

We’ve been part of numerous professional services client discussions where the question asked is, “Can I discuss politics on social media?” The answer we generally give is, “No,” as one always risks losing favor from the opposite side of the spectrum given the nearly even political divide in the country. With the new Trump administration, there is now really no easy answer. Decisions being made in these early days have elicited passionate responses and activism at levels not seen in decades. How does one navigate these tricky reputational waters?

Here are some thoughts to consider:

Maintain Professionalism – Aim to frame issues intelligently. For example, “I wanted to share with you my thoughts on X, Y, Z, and why I support or am opposed…” Ignore snarky comments, or, as a last resort, delete them entirely. And, if a true troll emerges, block, unfriend or mute them.

Understand What is “News” and What “Isn’t” – News literacy emerged as a major issue post-election. Spreading misleading information can impact your professional image and reputation. Here is a quick set of guidelines to consider when vetting a story for promotion.

Use a Filter – Developments often impact on both a professional and personal level. When speaking on behalf of your company, stick to the impact on its clients. When personally posting, focus on the personal and avoid statements like, “I know my clients feel….”

Proceed Cautiously – Before posting anything public, pause to consider potential positive and negative feedback. Picture a, “Do you really want to post this?” button that needs to be pressed each time.

Do a Privacy Audit – Many people operate under the belief that personal Twitter and Facebook accounts are private. This simply isn’t so. Log out and Google yourself to see what non-followers and friends can see. Then, consider implementing more restrictive privacy settings.

Choose Your Network – A call-to-action political post may be better suited for Facebook, a site stocked with friends and family, rather than sharing it with your business connections on LinkedIn.

We are certainly living, for better or worse, in interesting times. Freedom of speech and expression are vital parts of a democracy. Doing so in a smart, considered manner protects these freedoms while preserving one’s professional image.

Michael Bond

January 31, 2017 at 8:11 pm Leave a comment

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