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Conversations with Ellen: Value of Listening

Below is the first in a series of one-on-one chats with Blattel Communications Founder and CEO Ellen Blattel titled, “Conversations with Ellen.” Below is a dialogue with Assistant Account Executive Michael Panelli on the value of listening.

Michael Panelli (MP): One of the things you’ve said has been helpful in life and in business is being a good listener. Can you say a little about this?

Ellen Blattel (EB): One of the most important skills in business is listening. Without really listening to clients or customers, it is easy to offer advice and counsel that is off base. I almost always recommend establishing a foundation for the discussion and then letting the client provide pertinent information. You can guide the conversation, make clarifications and ask smart questions to ensure you get to the information needed to be strategic and effective.

MP: Is part of listening also deciphering what wasn’t said and then diagnosing where clients may be looking to go in the future?

EB: Absolutely! Listening entails assessing what was said, what was implied and what was — intentionally or unintentionally — left out of the dialogue. It is important, at the end of a discussion, to briefly reiterate the highlights, decisions made and agreed upon next steps.

MP: Do you have a particular philosophy when it comes to note-taking at meetings? How do you organize and act on these takeaways?

EB: I remember a new client pitch where several PR agencies were brought in for interviews. At the meeting’s conclusion, the potential client told us we were the only group to take notes. She thought this was impressive because it would allow us to better reflect on the conversation and to make better recommendations – and it demonstrated that we listen. We landed the business and worked with the firm for several years, increasing its market visibility and credibility to position it for sale. I am pleased to report that a successful sale occurred!

I recommend designating a primary note-taker prior to meetings. This should not be the lead. While lead presenter should also take notes, these will not be as detailed to allow for a meaningful conversation with direct eye contact. Follow up with a thank you note, highlighting next steps and important deadlines, to confirm how well you were listening.

MP: Can you talk a little about the importance of follow-up calls and “just checking in” moments?

EB: We all know communication is the key to success. It is always important to provide clients and team members with regular updates as a way to solidify relationships and be accountable. You never want a client (or supervisor or teammate) to wonder about the status of a project. You want to communicate before they feel the need to reach out to you (and well before it keeps them up at night).

MP: Do you have any strategies for when a client isn’t listening to your counsel and the relationship seems to be at a disconnect?

EB: Acknowledging that we have different perspectives on how to approach a situation is always important – particularly in judgment-intensive positions like professional services. This comes up often in crisis situations when we’re dealing with existing or potential media coverage and sensitive situations. These interactions can put stress on even the best of working relationships. If there is a big disconnect, I usually follow up with an email highlighting the approach or messaging the client desires and then addressing, in a professional manner, our recommended approach and why and how this is different. Putting it in writing can be pivotal. In some instances, this gives the client the space to consider a different perspective and variables that may or may not have been top-of-mind during the initial conversation. The goal is to be both accommodating and professionally opinionated and direct.

Ellen Blattel, as told to Michael Panelli


January 23, 2018 at 6:32 pm Leave a comment

Senior Media Director Michael Bond Looks at “Making Marketing Plans That Work” in LMA Mid-Atlantic Newsletter

Blattel Communications Senior Media Director Michael Bond authored the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) – Mid-Atlantic Region Newsletter article titled, “Make Marketing Plans That Work.” The piece considers how law firm marketing professionals and attorneys can take advantage of the enthusiasm of a new year to create and execute impactful, achievable marketing plans. Text of the article is below and can be accessed on the LMA Mid-Atlantic Region’s website by clicking here.

Make Marketing Plans That Work

One of the great things about the new year is that it offers a fresh slate. Most of us make a bunch of “New Year’s resolutions” and charge into the chill of January with renewed optimism.  Six months later, we wake up and accept the reality that we didn’t learn how to sail, drop 40 pounds and read six books and that these goals are probably not going to happen by year’s end. Marketing and communications plans often end up unfolding similarly. With this dynamic in mind, let’s consider how to create a plan that is achievable.

Keep it Simple, [Silly]!

Don’t let your ambitions outstrip your time. Attorneys, and the marketers who support them, are wise to stick to three-to-five goals. Limiting what one hopes to accomplish lessens the tendency to start a raft of projects and never bring any single one to completion. This self-imposed limit also provides focus on the true priorities.

A short list of goals needs to be practical. For instance, “Being regularly quoted in The Wall Street Journal” or “Appearing on 60 Minutes” are low-probability media goals. When presented with minor or major delusions of grandeur, marketers need to shift expectations. “I know your goal is to be quoted regularly in The Wall Street Journal. That may be hard to achieve. Let’s work on a media strategy that creates wider exposure for you and raises your profile such that the Journal is more likely to come calling,” is the kind of advice and counsel that steers an ambitious attorney back onto the tracks of feasibility.

Have a Purpose with Social Media

A goal marketers may hear is that an attorney wants to “get active” on social media and create lots of “buzz.” If the tools the attorney has lined up to do this are a threadbare Twitter account and a LinkedIn profile with a photo from 1996, this promises to be a tough road.

Oftentimes, well-meaning voices outside the professional services realm have their advice – which is more aimed at the business-to-consumer market – picked up by attorneys eager to leverage “new” tools, such as social media. No attorney – with rare, high-profile exceptions – is going to create the kind of buzz that rivals the Kardashians. And, if “buzz” is defined by raw follower numbers – especially on Twitter – the end goal remains fuzzy. Chasing followers without purpose is not a good use of time. Not every attorney can or should look to generate a mass of Twitter followers. There simply isn’t the direct-to-business pipeline other industries enjoy; and, the time it takes to achieve scale has a very real cost.

For 75 percent of all attorneys, “getting active” on social media means dusting-off and cleaning-up LinkedIn profiles. Every account should be stocked with current information and regularly updated with bio changes, new article postings and civic/charitable engagements. And, attorneys need to be in the habit of turning business cards from networking events into LinkedIn connections. This is one goal that should be in pen on any marketing plan.

Be Specific with Writing Goals

Countless plans are minted every year with the goal, “Write more byline articles.” Assuming the attorney in question wrote one last year, we have to start with how many do they want to write this new year? Drilling down, the question then becomes what publications should be targeted and why? Then, what are the desired topics, and what is a reasonable timeline?

The first draft of a personal marketing plan may express the stated goal as follows: “Write more byline articles.”

The final draft should be: “I want to write five articles, about one per every two months, targeting the following publications…”

If the writing goal is to increase the number of posts to a firm or practice area blog, start by setting a rate that is reasonable. A good target is at least two new posts a month. However, ideally, a practice or industry blog will feature numerous voices. One way to space out content and ease the load for an attorney is to get others involved by creating an editorial calendar and working in advance. There is real value in moving the goalpost for an attorney from “more posts” to “more posts with underlying guiding strategy” and shifting them from sole/principal writer to contributor and editor.

Let’s Talk About Speaking Engagements

Speaking engagements tend to require the most build of any marketing initiative, a fact of which attorneys may not be aware and the reason expectations often have to shift considerably in marketing plans.

Plans tend to target big national or statewide conferences and are tied to not-fully-baked concepts. As with other components, speaking engagement goals need to be broken down into steps and aligned with a range of targets – from the readily-achievable to the entirely aspirational.

A good short term goal is to craft two-to-three paragraphs breaking down the proposed program’s contents and how it would address and benefit a target audience. But, beyond the content of the program itself, it is crucial that speaking engagement goals include taking the time to make key connections in targeted organizations. Encourage attorneys to attend educational and networking events and go with specific people to meet in mind. Marketing and communications teams can assist by tracking events and creating “facebooks” of leadership contacts – complete with photos, interests (mined from LinkedIn and the actual Facebook) and potential alumni network connections.

It is OK, during a planning session, to end up with a shared goal of simply making progress towards securing an engagement. These can be multi-year builds; but, once achieved, repeat sessions are more likely and the business development payout can be great.

Be Yourself

A marketing plan, at its core, needs to be an extension of the person writing it. This means there is little point to “planning” to write byline articles if doing so is a constant struggle or tripling attendance at networking events if the lawyer is painfully shy and a perpetual wallflower.

Today, there are so many avenues for attorneys to explore for business development and marketing. Social media, blogging, byline articles, networking, speaking and expert commentary – and any combination thereof – are just a start. Marketers need to do more than just pass around a standard, static survey: they need to connect one-on-one with attorneys and help them find the tools and outcomes that work best for that individual.

Create Benchmarks and Points of No Return/Pivot

One of the hardest things to do as a planner, or one charged with overseeing a plan, is pulling the plug on an initiative. There is a tendency to equate doing so with failure. This just isn’t true. Rather, marketers and attorneys need to see this as often a very courageous and practical move.

Plans are meant to be fluid. When an initiative is clearly not working out – judged by results/progress over a set period of time – it’s time to get out the eraser and write a new goal. Both attorneys and marketers suffer when progress isn’t measured and goals languish. Marketers also position themselves as strategic partners rather than facilitators by crafting shared goals and tracking outcomes.

Just Do It!

Creating marketing plans is a great way to understand what attorneys and firm leaders want to accomplish, especially when starting a new year. The process often uncovers goals unvoiced before and leads to a realigning of priorities that can better organize a marketing department’s priorities. The new year is a great time to make a plan.

January 16, 2018 at 2:51 pm Leave a comment

Very Merry Media: BC Holiday Traditions and Picks

This holiday season we polled the professionals at Blattel Communications asking what media they will be consuming. The resulting list is a potpourri of movies, TV shows, books and even a newspaper section. We wish you happy holidays and merry media!

EllenEllen Blattel When I’m not enjoying the TV comedy The Big Bang Theory, I plan to turn to more serious subjects that will help put today’s politics in perspective. I intend to read Steve Swatt’s Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California. To get me in the mood of the season, I like to listen to my collection of holiday music sung by cats. Yes, each note of a tune is a different, recorded “meow.” It makes me laugh because it’s so silly (but I do love cats), and it drives my husband, family and friends crazy, which is fun!

MichaelMichael Bond —  I started and hope to finish John Hodgman’s most-recent book Vacationland. Hodgman, of Apple commercials (He played PC.) and Daily Show fame, has authored a memoir on his life and “minor celebrity” (his words) status. This new title follows three humorous compendiums of fake facts he previously published. I find Hodgman to be incredibly witty and incisive, and just a great writer. Check out an interview with him on the NPR/Maximum Fun Podcast Bullseye, itself always a great listen.

ChuckChuck Brown — I look forward to completing the series of Preacher, a comic book published by Vertigo. Consisting of nine graphic novels, Preacher tells the story of Jesse Custer, a preacher in a small Texas town that is accidentally possessed by a supernatural creature named Genesis. I read the first book after watching the television show based on the comic book. It will be enjoyable to finish the series and immerse myself in the crazy supernatural world created by the authors and artists.

PennyPenny Desatnik —  I’m looking forward to finding the time to dig into season two of Netflix’s The Crown. I’m a total anglophile and love to see such an important part of history played out in this beautifully written, acted (hello The Doctor!) and filmed series. I have some travel time coming up and am looking forward to filling my hours with the Queen and her Corgis before coming back to the real world.


VickyVicky Jay One of my holiday goals this year is to finally watch Elf, starring Will Farrell! Every year someone inevitably quotes the movie and I’m typically the only one that doesn’t get the reference. Aside from watching holiday movies, I’m excited to clear out the clutter in my apartment while I catch-up on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. A stand-up comedian who is also famous for his UFC commentary and hosting the original Fear Factor, his podcast is a long form conversation with friends and guests that have included other comedians, musicians, scientists, historians and authors. The content is always interesting with an inquisitive and intense comedic style.

Michael PMichael Panelli I plan on reacquainting myself with one of my passions – criminology and criminal psychology. Watching Netflix’s Mindhunter reignited my interest in criminology for the first time since earning my B.S. in the field. I have a few books on my shelf that I plan on reading to immerse myself in the fields of crime and deviancy.

I also plan on taking in many visual forms of media, including catching up on the latest seasons of Homeland and Vikings and seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi in theaters at least one more time.

TraciTraci Stuart — There are several special editions of the San Francisco Chronicle I relish annually, and the Geography Quiz that runs in the paper’s Travel section over the holiday is pretty high on the list (coming in just behind Michael Bauer’s annual round-up of the Top 100 restaurants, but that’s a spring thing). It’s a perfect read-aloud (over coffee) to test the family’s worldly knowledge (or reveal their lack of), pick up trivial tidbits to casually drop at seasonal gatherings, and fantasize about your next big trip. And if you’re an early riser that devours the paper before most are awake, you have a decided advantage when the final quiz results are tallied. (Although, my high schooler does have geography this semester – and it would be quite the gift to see him best me!)

JoeyJoey Telucci — Besides my annual binge of The Office Christmas episodes, I always look forward to watching my favorite holiday movies – some of which I’ve seen 15+ times. My #1 is definitely Elf with a close second going to such 90s classics as: Jingle All The Way (yes, with Sinbad and the Governator), All I Want for Christmas and Home Alone. A newer holiday tradition for me (since 2013) is watching the Warriors play on Christmas Day. It’s always fun to mix in a rivalry game with the usual Christmas activities – especially when it’s against the Cavs (even if the rest of the country is beyond sick of that matchup).

December 21, 2017 at 4:24 pm Leave a comment

Quick B2B Takeaways from the Pending Blockbuster Disney-Fox Tie-Up

At first glance, it may seem there are few implications for professional services companies from last week’s announcement that The Walt Disney Company is acquiring – pending regulatory and shareholder approval – many of 21st Century Fox’s assets; however, the deal speaks to larger macro media and consumer trends that impact marketing and communications strategies for B2B companies.

Traditional Advertising in Decline – Disney’s stated long-game with Fox’s assets is to bolster its forthcoming streaming services, one for Disney/Pixar/Marvel fare and one for sports. Increasingly, young consumers are “cable-nevers,” picking and choosing entertainment options on demand and with far fewer commercials than the standard cable bundle. This accelerates the move away from ad-supported programming. A lower tolerance for explicit sales messages means an increased reliance on branded content – companies “advertising” through subtle messaging and by creating compelling media that drives thought-leadership. Bottom-line: traditional ads are more and more passé while blogs and podcasts are rising in status.

Adapt or Suffer – Netflix used to be a company that stuffed DVDs in envelopes and mailed them out to customers. Today, a whole generation has never known that side of the company, as it has transformed into a content aggregator and now creator – with an estimated yearly original content budget between $7 – 8 billion. Disney wanted Fox because it’s engaged in an arms race where millennials favor device and content accessibility and care little about brand pedigree. Professional services companies – especially post-Great Recession – are also finding that the name on the door isn’t a bulwark against disruption. Brands still matter, but consumers are more open to alternatives than in previous generations, and legacy defenses – “geographical fiefdoms” and the cable bundle – are no longer as meaningful. Professional services companies do well to avoid a mindset and marketing and communications strategy that dwells on company history without regard for where and how the consumer mindset is shifting.

Content, and Lots of It, Is Still King – Consumers today have access to virtually limitless entertainment fare – more TV shows, movies, news and music than ever before. Disney wanted Fox because it gives the company even more content to offer, from The Americans to The Simpsons. There is increasingly an expectation that professional services providers not just be good at the technical application of their jobs, but will also be insightful and personable. Consumers are more inquisitive and have more resources to learn about issues than in past generations. This is yet another reason that byline articles, blogs/guest blog posts, speaking engagements and third-party commentary should be the norm for business-to-business professionals.

Michael Bond

December 19, 2017 at 9:46 pm Leave a comment

The Value of Quotes, Even Without Mention of the Company Name

Let’s take a look at a not-uncommon scenario: you are connected with a reporter as an expert source for commentary and quoted in the resulting story. Great, right? Nope. While your name is mentioned, the company’s is conspicuously absent, creating a great deal of angst. This is when I, your trusted media liaison, am rudely awakened from the glow of landing a high-profile placement.

You: The quote is great, but where is the company name? Can you have them add it in to the piece?

Me: This particular publication does not list company names.

You: (Uncomfortable silence and internal stewing) I see. Well, doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?

Let’s pause and reflect on the dynamics at play here.

Question 1: Why do some publications list companies and some don’t?

This is a highly publication-specific issue, and it’s governed mainly by each outlet’s internal style guide. Occasionally, a publication goes either way, with the reporter having final say. (This is rare.) As to the underlying reason, one can only assume that space concerns, dating back to the print-first era, are a partial answer. Other outlets and empowered reporters may feel, although never publicly announce, that listing company names is free advertising and dilutes the purity of the editorial content.

Question 2: Can a company name be added to the online version, assuming the print is already on newsstands?

Sometimes, but not often. Media reps can ask, but once this is denied by a reporter/publication, the question should never be posed again. A good communications professional will track which publications do/do not and offer this information up-front. But…

Question 3: If a publication isn’t going to mention my company, do I really want to be quoted in it?

This is a divisive question among PR pros. My answer is an emphatic, “Yes!” Why? Credentialing plus promotion equals positive brand building.

Being quoted in a third-party publication reaching a target audience is one level of promotion. Your name, even if not your associated company, is passing by the eyeballs of clients, potential clients and referral sources.

The next level of promotion is through company platforms – websites (main site and associated blogs) and social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn). Even if the publication did not draw a direct connection between you and your company, these posts will.

The final level is personal promotion. In addition to emailing key contacts (when appropriate and not gauche), you should be posting to LinkedIn (You have one, right?), tweeting/retweeting and even sharing to family and friends on Facebook. Oh, and let’s not forget adding the piece to your company bio.

Consider this ice-cream rooted analogy:

Quote – The ice cream in the sundae.

Company’s name mentioned – The whipped cream.

Title (e.g. “Managing Partner,” “Chair of XYZ Group”) mentioned – The cherry on top.

Put simply: Ice cream > no ice cream. And, sometimes you just have to make your own sundae.

While it can be frustrating to have your company’s name omitted when quoted, through effective promotion and the wonders of the internet, any media mention can be leveraged for maximum impact. Now, why am I craving an ice cream sundae all of the sudden?

Michael Bond

November 16, 2017 at 8:27 pm Leave a comment

Twitter’s Change Is Too Much, For Me

Twitter is setting us all free! We can finally tweet a full 280 characters! Life is great! Yeah, not so much.

Twitter’s move to expand its character limit is a change that may make the service worse. (This is not to mention rendering one of my soft “skills” – crafting 140-character posts – utterly useless.) One of the great things about the social network site is that it tamped down the urge to be overly loquacious. For professional services firms (and hey, even presidents), this meant brevity ruled. From a marketing and communications standpoint, it forced companies to boil their messages down to just the essence.

Despite the site lagging behind the popularity and active user base of Facebook, Twitter has become a key conduit for and window into the media. It’s transformed live events, particularly conferences, sports and breaking news. The shorter character limit meant posts actually read more like headlines, making a pitch for viewers to click-through or follow the user for similar, future content. This has always stood in contrast to Facebook, where lengthy posts are the norm, with lots of extra verbiage that may or may not offer additional value. My philosophy when writing social media posts has always been to start with a tweet and then write for other sites where you can add that extra word or two for emphasis or clarity. Twitter was one of the only spaces on the internet where editing was necessary.

You may be thinking, “C’mon, 280 isn’t such a change!” In absolute character terms, it’s a 100 percent(!) increase. But, yes, most of us fire off more than 280 characters in nearly every exchange. The bigger issue is that Twitter is changing its formula. It may not be its “New Coke” moment, but it is definitely a big shift – and one that ushers in the potential for extra-puffy posts.

It should be noted that I’m terrible with change. Almost every rebranding I see I think is a mistake. (Almost. Some companies and brands really benefit.) Maybe I can grow to love the new spacious Twitter. Perhaps. But, my counsel to professional services companies leveraging Twitter remains the same: keep it short. Everyone’s attention is going in a million different directions and delivering a targeted, concentrated message is the best strategy for reaching a target audience.

Michael Bond

November 10, 2017 at 2:55 pm Leave a comment

Disruption is Coming to Law Firms: Are You Ready?

Think about this for a minute: venture capitalists are looking to “disrupt” the sock industry. As chronicled on Marketplace, $110M has been invested in a sock company(!). This kind of investment in a static, eminently mature market is even more proof that disruption is coming and will continue for the legal sector, a $100-$400 billion-dollar piece of the U.S. economy. Plainly stated, there is simply too much money at stake for law firms and the standard legal services model not to be scrutinized and pushed towards change.

The bulwark surrounding the legal services industry is starting to show signs of strain. Consultancy firm PwC recently announced it is opening a law firm within its business; and, a Silicon Valley startup named Atrium is actively harvesting the insights and tracking the routines of attorneys to build an automated, A.I.-driven, low-cost law firm.

If disruption is to be expected, how can marketing and communications help in adapting to the changing marketplace? For this aspect, let’s consider the humble men’s razor. (No, really.)

The men’s razor industry traditionally was a bit of a two-horse race – Gillette was far-and-away the leader and Schick was in second place. In 2010, Gillette held 70 percent of the market. Then, the disrupters came in. By 2016, Gillette had lost 16 percent of its market share to the combined Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club. What are some of the key lessons that translate for law firms?

Geographic Fiefdoms are Over – Law firms can no longer rely solely on being, or having an office in, a particular location as a guarantor of business. Gillette owned all of the key distribution channels and still does for the most part. However, the internet has made physicality far less relevant. It’s important that marketing be done in a bimodal way – regional when materially important, but primarily national. “We’re a San Francisco firm” and a website containing only images of cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge is limiting when looking to work with national clients.

Generational Habits are Changing – The next generation of decision-makers is fundamentally wired differently than its peers. Millenials survived the Great Recession and emerged with levels of cost-sensitivity not seen in Gen Xers. In addition, the latter portion of the  Millenial demographic group has no concept of pre-internet times and sees online marketing on even footing with traditional ads, despite the massive investment difference between Facebook and print ads. For Gillette, this meant that cheeky, cheap YouTube ads from Dollar Shave Club (NSFW) ate market share even when countered by big budget sponsorships, such as the NFL.

Brand Building is Exponentially Easier – Gillette literally invented the safety razor. It then pushed the limits of design, adding all the way up to five blades (plus a sideburn trimming one). Generations of fathers taught their sons to shave with Gillette razors. Harry’s, in less than 10 years, swooped in, contracted out manufacturing and scored market share. Harry’s ads are ubiquitous on podcasts, a low cost way to target Millenials. It scored a halo effect with mentions on popular programs and offers of promo codes. Harry’s brand grew in strength to the point that Target now features it in stores and on its website. All of this says to law firms, your reputation and carefully curated brand are important, but they only go so far. If a firm isn’t exploring new marketing and content distribution channels (especially social media), it risks being usurped by the new kid(s) in town.

Cost (and Transparency) Matter – As the name implies, Dollar Shave Club has pitched itself as a way to get a quality shave at a much lower price point than Gillette or Shick offers. Gillette for years added blades and increased cost. With a 70 percent market share, it had the leverage to do so, reaping huge profits with each successive product enhancement. An argument can be made that this dynamic led to complacency, which allowed disrupters to enter a market deemed inefficient. Recently, Gillette announced that it was dropping prices and now spends major TV money to convey this point. For law firms, having and promoting alternative fee arrangements is critical. The “taxi meter”/surprise bill for “services rendered” may boost short term profits, but in the long-term it hampers client relationships and impacts future engagements.

Quality Counts, To a Point – If lined up side-by-side, the fanciest Dollar Shave Club or Harry’s razor may very well underperform compared to the top Gillette model. But, as stories like this one illustrate, Millennial consumers are not swayed by marginal performance advantages. All things equal, a good shave at a good price point often beats a slightly better shave at a worse price point. For law firms, championing (and then demonstrating) cost-sensitivity and rejecting needless perfectionism or bill padding is essential. Just like the battery-powered “Fusion Power,” Millennials see through hype.

From a personal perspective, and as a regular shaver, I think Gillette razors are much better. But, from a marketing perspective, it would be foolish to assume that all are like me. This is a trap into which law firms can fall. It’s critical to understand and consistently deliver an entire suite of professional services – from prospective marketing and communications, to client service, to billing, to post-engagement outreach – that continually adapts to fend off disrupters. You can either change or be changed. Choice is yours.

Michael Bond

October 17, 2017 at 4:54 pm Leave a comment

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