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American Idol had it all wrong by asking contestants to sing Billy Joel tunes this week.  Even though he was 24 years old when The Piano Man was released, Billy Joel was not your typical 20-something – certainly not like this year’s Idol contestants.  By then, he had earned his stripes as a lounge singer, healing his wounds from a first album failure.

Plus, you have to consider the idea that Billy Joel’s ’24’ is not the same as yours and mine – that dude is an old soul with a lot of layers.  Which is perhaps why Garth Brooks performing New York State of Mind with Billy Joel and Barry White’s take on Just The Way You Are works…

Aside from wanting to share some old footage of Barry White, there is a marketing communications lesson here: don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole.

American Idol tried to make its contestants (square peg) sing songs that just weren’t (in my humble opinion) suited to their strengths (round hole).  These contestants have some very strong voices – something that may be better suited for the likes of Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Marc Anthony and the like.  You don’t need a powerhouse voice to perform a Billy Joel song – his music doesn’t require vocal gymnastic.  I believe that the more you add on, the less ‘Joel’ you get.

As a marketing communications pro, you should never try to fit your square peg into a round hole – epsecially if you’ve delivered at a  certain level on other projects.  Case in point: when I was in New York, I worked with this one guy who could write just about anyone under the table – he was fast, smart and very creative at re-working dull copy.  The one time we let him speak to the client was enough to give him the opportunity to decline future meetings – the dude was sweating, stammered his way through a few sentences and looked shifty.  He was so nervous that it just presented an inaccurate portait of his strengths.

Squre Peg | Round Hole.

This is not to say that you should stay in your square peg world.  Nay Nay.  You should definitely try new things and strengthen what weaknesses you may have.  But to put yourself out there as being able to perform at the same level with *everything* that comes with the gig…is…a…mistake.  Know when to ask for help; seek advice; get a mentor; and lean on your team.  That’s what they are there for!

So, when was the last time you saw a ‘square peg in a round hole’ situation?  Have *you* ever put yourself into a ‘square peg | round hole’ situation?

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Say What?

 

One of the biggest gripes I have with people (myself included) is that we aren’t the best at…well, expressing ourselves clearly.  We’re pretty good at things like naming what TV shows we like, what kind of foods we prefer and what movie may have seen over the weekend. 

 

But when it comes to telling our own story (especially in business), quite often what comes out is something close to the Charlie Brown teacher…

 

 

Just a lot of jibberish that only makes sense to those who are used to the internal shorthand of the team.  With friends, this kind of thing can pass – we all have our own little picadillos and nicknames that only make sense to our individual tribes. 

 

However, in the business of communications, how can we let this happen?  There are lots of websites, press kits, etc. out there that are about as useful as a floppy disk for an iMac G3 (internal dialogue: ‘NERD’). Like Peppermint Patty, did we fall asleep in the midst of translating the ‘kwaah-kwaah-kwaah’ (Charlie Brown Teacher speak) for the masses?

 

Quite simply, I believe that we’ve taken for granted that outside audiences will ‘get it’ when they read your materials – be it a website, a company fact sheet, a BIO, whatever.  But unless your external audience is comprised of people from your board room, it is safe to say that no one will ‘get it.’

 

It is with this in mind that I offer up three tips to keep in mind when helping your audience ‘get it’…

 

Take a Quick Look: take a look at what you have drafted up (be it copy for your client’s website, a press kit, etc.) and take a quick snapshot of one piece.  Does this one piece look like something that would make sense to your target audience? Is it filled with jargon or industry-speak that can only be understood by 10% of your audience?

 

Take a Breather: it’s quite easy to get so entrenched with your own work that your fuzzy parts start looking clear.  It’s kind of like working at a chicken farm or at a cattle ranch – pretty soon you forget about ‘the smell’ until some ‘city folk’ come in to remind you of the stench.  You need to give yourself a break to get some outside air and perspective.

 

Bring In An Outsider: be it someone from your team who’s not involved with the drafting of the ‘working documents,’ a colleague that’s familiar with your particular industry or a family member, give someone else a look-see. Having a fresh point of view on what you already have working almost always leads to improvements.

 

So, communicators: what do you think?  What other things have you done to help bring some clarity to your client’s materials?  What have you done to help people on the outside ‘get it’ for your clients?

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This post was cross-posted on Waxing Unlyrical – a blog that is owned and operated by the wonderfully savvy and smart Shonali Burke.

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Early on in my career, much like everyone else in PR, one of the things that I was called to do was get some editorial calendars together.  This was right around 1996 and 1997, and since these kinds of things weren’t online just yet, I had to talk to the editorial assistant to get that information.

Even though this was a very timely task (especially since these were faxed back, providing the additional chore to make sure that these faxes came though clearly enough and, if so, enter in all of the data), I actually liked doing it.  At that time, I wasn’t really allowed to speak with anyone from the press; so, conversing with a ‘fellow grunt in the field’ was great for me – I saw it as a way to speak with someone at TIME Magazine, ComputerWorld or Forbes…!

Turns out, I was right.

Because, you see those editorial assistants I spoke with

 

Not that I had really planned on it, but since I was nice to those people when I was asking for the stuff that was easy enough for them to pass along, it paid off.  I was the fella with the interesting name that actually treated them like a human being…in truth, I treated them the way I wanted to be treated…I saw the game as well as they did and knew enough to know that being a good person went a long way.

So, PR pros, new & old, play nice.  You may very well be in a different part of the sandbox this time next year….the part that has you dealing with ‘widgets’ instead of ‘knobs’…who knows, there may be a writer that you’ve been cordial to in the same boat. 

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This post was cross-posted on Waxing Unlyrical – a blog that is owned and operated by the wonderfully savvy and smart Shonali Burke.

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One of the things I  love about Eddie is that he is both lovable and loyal – he’s never really met a human that he doesn’t love, while, at the same time, he’s never backed down from the ‘monsters’ behind the front door… at least until they come inside.

And even though Eddie is great about loving family and strangers once we invite them in, his initial reaction to protecting the family is what impresses me.

There’s a lesson for PR professionals here: Protect What’s Important.

Your Client’s Reputation

If it comes in the form of an interview or in the process of getting some news out about the company, we, as PR pros, must protect our clients.  We do this in media training, as we streamline their messaging and when we push back…yes…when we push back.

Just because a client may think that they have something that comes close to being worthy enough of being featured in the Financial Times, that doesn’t necessarily make it true.

Sometimes we have to save our clients from themselves.

Your Own Reputation

Much in the same way of protecting a client from putting out some lackluster news, we cannot allow this kind of thing to happen for ourselves either.  Think about it. The moment we start presenting members of the press with “ho-hum” news from any of our clients (even a brand name one), they start putting you in the “look at it later” pile (or, even worse, “ignore” pile).

We have to be ready and willing to push back on bad ideas.  Our clients hired us not just because of our expertise, but because of our counsel – our advice is just as important as setting up an interview with USA Today.

Moreover, like my little corgi, we have to differentiate between what’s worth fighting for and what requires drawing a line in the sand.

Don’t get caught up in the chaos or drama of your team or client – not everything is as imperative as saving kittens from a fire (even though they may think it).

So, we should keep ourselves and our teams in check.  While we may not be in the business of saving lives, it’s safe to say that we’re certainly in the business of saving a brand’s livelihood.

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This post was cross-posted on Waxing Unlyrical – a blog that is owned and operated by the very savvy and smart Shonali Burke.


Image:  Joel Goodman, Creative Commons

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When it comes to creating tales that have a good moral lesson to em,’ Aesop is a fella that almost immediately comes to mind.  He is credited as authoring such fables as The Lion and The Mouse, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and (drum roll please) The Ant and the Grasshopper (also known as The Grasshopper and the Ant or The Grasshopper and the Ants). 

 

The reason why I dig The Grasshopper and The Ant is because it provides a strong message about the value of hard work and preparation.  If you don’t know it, here’s the Reader’s Digest version: the story is about a grasshopper that pretty much spends his summer days singing away, while the ant (or ants in some editions) work and toil to store up food for the winter.  When winter comes around, the grasshopper finds himself in a bit of a pickle, dying of hunger.  He eventually finds himself going to the ant, begging for food, only to get sent away and chastised for his laziness and lack of foresight.

A little harsh, yes; but one could say he had it coming……which still seems a bit mean.  This is why I’m so grateful for Disney providing a much ‘nicer’ version of the tale as a Silly Symphony…

Ahh, yes – there’s big value in that little tale.  Which brings me to this question: why, oh why, do we allow ourselves to act like the grasshopper when it comes to dealing with the press?  While we’re not dealing with the threat of starving to death, the danger of ruining your reputation and company’s brand is very real.  Whether your interview is slated to last 5 minutes or 50, things can go awry in 5 seconds. 

This is no exaggeration. 

What you may think is a throw-away comment can sink your corporate ship in a jiffy.   This is why it will serve you extremely well to be like the ant when it comes to preparing for an interview.  When you have a game plan, it

  • Ensures Consistency
  • Reminds You On What You Can / Cannot Say
  • Limits Surprises – doing your homework better prepares you for different types of ‘encounters’ you may have with the media

 

Type of interview – having an on-camera interview calls for a different kind of game plan than having an interview on the phone.

Know their story angle – among other things, this will give you an idea on the types of questions they may be asking.

Know the Interviewer – if this person is known for getting to the ‘personality’ of a company or digging into the origins of a corporate culture, it will most certainly make you prepare for your time in a different way.

Know the media – because having an interview for the Financial Times is going to be a little different than having a face-to-face with Good Morning America.

While using this ‘ant principle’ may not keep you from messing up an interview or inserting your foot in your mouth, it will give you a level of preparedness – even if your prep time only lasts 5 minutes.  Because, unlike the grasshopper, you will have, at the very least, given yourself a level of comfort …however big or small that may be. 

What do you to adhere to this ‘ant principle’ in your work?  How do you keep your ‘inner grasshopper’ at bay?

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This post was cross-posted on Waxing Unlyrical – a blog that is owned and operated by the very savvy and smart Shonali Burke

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Looking over some financials, you’re getting some notes together for an impromptu meeting that your board has called.  Not thinking too much about it, you figure that so long as you have all of your ducks in a row, you’re covered.  Just gotta find those last few graphs in your files…

And then…

The phone rings.  Not really looking at your caller ID (expecting it to be one of your cohorts to chat about the meeting), you pick up the receiver…”Hulloh…?”

It’s a reporter on the line…and this person is asking you some ‘sensitive’ questions about your organization.  Questions that you may not even know where they may be coming from…or why.

How do you handle it?  How do you keep yourself ‘in check’ with your answers?  What is appropriate?

Following are three things that can help you navigate these kinds of waves:

  1. Give Yourself Some Time – Tell the reporter that you’ll call him/her back.  You’d much rather have this kind of conversation after you’ve given yourself a little bit of cushion instead of talking off the top of your head.  Find out when their deadline is – it’s ok to ask.  Use this extra time to think through what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it …especially if you anticipate any dicey issues that may be raised.  Saying ‘no comment’ is not an option – it makes you look shifty and sound guilty.
  2. Have a Little Bit of a Gameplan – Give yourself a little bit of a ‘cheat sheet’ with some key elements that you want to get across.  And don’t shy away from drawing a line in the sand.  If you’ve got something to back it up, put it out there.  From a writer’s standpoint, the more thought-provoking or interesting you can be, the more likely you are to get quoted.  Moreover, using your cheat sheet will make things a little bit more easy on your nerves…opening you up to be a bit more conversational and less robotic.  Reporters hate robots.
  3. Keep it simple and relevant – Use real-world examples that support your message points…leave the ‘theory work’ to the professors in college.   You will come over as more authoritative when you have facts and specifics to back yourself up. 

 

What other ‘essentials’ would you add to this list?

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Earlier this week, the Newspaper Association of America released some very sobering news about the state of its industry.  And, as Mashable’s Ben Parr reported, the numbers for 2009 were nothing short of disastrous.

While this news isn’t necessarily something that we weren’t expecting, these findings should give us folks in the PR industry good reason to re-evaluate our relationships with local newspaper writers and editors. 

Give yourself some time the next few weeks or so to have another look at the how’s / why’s / when’s of your approach.

  • How am I trying to get their attention?  Is he / she active on Twitter?  How can I be sure that I’m not bugging this writer? 
  • Why am I reaching out to this writer?  Do I really have a good story here?  Will this truly be something that is useful to the newspaper’s readership?
  • When is a good time to reach this editor?  Am I emailing this person too much?  Why is it that Thursday’s are bad for this person?

 We need to use this downturn to forge a new kind of relationship with our comrades in the newspaper industry – a relationship based on a bit more understanding and appreciation. 

Cause you have to remember that, for the most part, editorial teams in the newspaper industry are

   *  On Deadline

   *  Underpaid

   *  Taking on New Roles

   *  On Deadline

   *  Human and Have a Breaking Point (just like the rest of us)

   *  Only in Partial Control of Their Stories

   *  On Deadline

After all, the best stories begin with strong relationships.  And the best relationships begin with a little bit of understanding and appreciation.

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