Plan to Protect Your Reputation


By Beverly M. Payton, M.A., APR

Public relations professionals who specialize in crisis communications are among the highest paid in the industry. That’s because they are usually called in to consult for an organization only after a crisis has been boiling over for some time. Besieged leaders hope the consultant can invoke some PR magic that not only turns down the heat, but also moves the boiling pot off the burner and cleans up the gooey, sticky mess. Most of the time, they can’t. The kitchen is already on fire.

What will you do when the S%#$ hits the fan?

A famous quote usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads: “He who fails to plan, plans to fail.” As with most things in public relations—indeed, in life generally—planning trumps reacting. But, incredibly, many organizations don’t plan for how they will communicate in a crisis. So, when a crisis occurs, organizational leaders are blindsided, with no blueprint for what to do or say. The resulting chaos usually exacerbates the crisis because the media and other important publics get the impression that the confused organization is inept at best, or unethical at worst.


Don’t fall into the trap of thinking: “This can’t happen here.” Public Relations media is peppered with case studies of spectacular crisis communications failures in government organizations (e.g. Flint, Michigan’s water crisis), businesses (e.g. Volkswagen’s diesel dupe), nonprofits (e.g. the Red Cross disaster response debacle) and even religious organizations (e.g. the Roman Catholic Church’s pedophile priests cover-up).


Implementing a well-thought-out crisis communications plan can prevent misinformation from gaining a foothold, give your organization’s leaders credibility and preserve trust among your most important stakeholders.

Eight Steps to an Effective Crisis Communications Plan:

  1. Assemble a crisis communications team and develop between three to ten possible scenarios of things that can go wrong and cause your organization unflattering visibility. Prioritize by significance and likelihood.
  2. Develop a telephone call tree specifying the order in which key decision makers will be notified about a crisis.
  3. Create a plan for each scenario that specifies: what, during those first critical hours, you will do (ordered by priority), who will do it, what you will say, who will serve as the interface between your organization and each public (e.g. victims, board of directors, employees, donors, reporters, government officials etc.) and who will speak on behalf of the organization to the public in press conferences, interviews and on the internet.
  4. Develop processes for how you will communicate candidly, compassionately and completely with key internal and external stakeholders. Create a draft news release and social media posts.
  5. For each scenario, develop a list of hypothetical Q&As of what reporters and key publics are likely to ask you. Develop some “placeholder” statements you can use during the discovery process while you are searching for more complete, factual information to share. This is no time for the synthetic emotings of corporate speak; your initial statement must project sincerity, humanity and empathy. By the way,“No comment.” is never an acceptable placeholder statement.
  6. Write your mea culpa statement, sans finger-pointing blame games. After the facts are known and communicated, you must explain what went wrong and what you will do to alleviate the situation and prevent similar future occurrences. For example: How will crisis victims be cared for?  What and how will you change?
  7. Run a fire drill of your highest risk scenario. Assess how effectively your team responded and make changes to your plan, as needed.
  8. Give each person on the crisis response team (including your CEO, executive director or other fearless leader) two copies of the finalized crisis communications plan—one for the office and one to keep at home (in case the dreaded phone call comes at 3 a.m.)


Review your crisis communications plan at least annually—quarterly is preferred. Are there new risks or vulnerabilities to consider? Do you need to make changes to the crisis team phone tree? Distribute two copies of the updated plan to everyone on your crisis communications team, and tell them to destroy previous versions.


Please share how your own organization planned for a crisis. Do you have any other helpful steps to add? Also, if you had to carry out a crisis communications plan, how did it go? What would you do differently next time?



Media Relations 101: Don’t Spam the Press!

Blame the publicist, not the media database.

New York Times consumer columnist David Segal, aka The Haggler, went off topic this week to slam publicists who clog his email with spam—press releases on topics that are irrelevant to him, his readers, and, most likely, The New York Times readership.  In his column, Swatting at a Swarm of Public Relations Spam, Segal complains about publicists who subscribe to a very powerful and—when poorly used—dangerous media relations tool, an online media database.


 The offenders he hunted down were using Vocus, but other media database providers–Cision, Agility and Media Pro–to name a few, are equal opportunity platforms for making a pest of yourself.

Segal isn’t the first journalist to rant about press release spam. In 2007, former Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson published, in The Long Tail blog, a long list of PR and publicists’ email addresses, whom he declared would be forever blocked from his email because they sent him press release spam or didn’t target their pitch to the right person on his staff.

“Lazy flacks send press releases to the Editor in Chief of Wired because they can’t be bothered to find out who on my staff, if anyone, might actually be interested in what they’re pitching. Fact: I am an actual person, not a team assigned to read press releases and distribute them to the right editors and writers.”

David Henderson, award-winning journalist, former CBS News correspondent and Author of Making News in the Digital Era said in a Strumpette Leaders Perspective guest column:

“Most news releases are not read or are ignored. Unsolicited, irrelevant and meaningless news releases—the overwhelming bulk of releases emailed to newsrooms—are the #1 complaint of journalists about the PR business.  The problem has reached such proportions that most news organizations now actively work to block press releases in special spam filters to prevent the sheer volume of them from overwhelming the email in boxes of reporters and editors.”


How and why spam happens

As someone who has used both Cision and Agility media databases, I have a pretty good idea of how such spam happens.


Let’s say your public relations firm is engaged by the Lightsaber Training Academy on the planet Tatooini to “get us some press.”  (A really bad way to begin an assignment, by the way, but that’s another topic.) The media database allows you to plug in filters for reporters, editors and bloggers based on specific criteria. You can target media in a designated market area (DMA), a geographic location, the topic the outlet covers, the topic the journalist or blogger covers, audience demographics and other relevant parameters. But often, if you are too specific, nothing comes up when you plug in your ideal search criteria. So, you systematically start broadening your filters.


Maybe your topic category was too narrow. After all, with newsrooms shrinking into oblivion, you rationalize, many reporters are now expected to cover several beats. So, in your topics filter, instead of typing, “Jedi” or “lightsaber” or “training,” you choose the more generic “news” category.


Or, perhaps there aren’t enough media outlets on Tatooini to give you a respectable distribution list. So instead, you choose a few of the main DMAs in the United States: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. This will bring up a potential distribution list of hundreds of contacts, almost all of whom will not be interested in your Lightsaber Training Academy on Tatooini, because: 1) none of their readers are aspiring Jedi and 2) they don’t live on Tatooini.


You know this, of course, but it would be too time consuming to examine each one of those contacts to determine whether the outlet and its audience are appropriate for your topic. If you’re being paid on a flat fee or project basis, time is literally money out the door. And, if you’re billing hourly, you’ll have a hard time explaining to your client or boss why you are billing for several hours of database research only to cull a tiny handful of  journalists who will receive their precious release.


So, you conclude, the most efficient solution is to upload your press release, hit the SEND button and hope that at least some of those hundreds of outlets and journalists will be on target and snag you a “hit.”


Moreover, now you can report to your client or CEO that you distributed the release to hundreds–not a mere dozen or so–journalists. It sounds like a win-win. You save time, your client or boss is impressed by the volume of your output, and the hundreds of  journalists and bloggers you just spammed can simply hit the delete key? So what’s the big deal?


“That’s like fishing with dynamite.”said Andrew Lazorchak when Segal spoke to the managing director of the company that hired the spamming publicist. As Segal points out, fishing with dynamite is actually more productive.


As a former journalist, I feel their pain. 

Before being seduced by The Dark Side, I spent nearly 20 years in a newsroom, so I know, from painful experience, what a big deal press release spam can be. And I can say, with near certitude, that if you routinely send spammy press releases you, and the organization you represent, will have little or no credibility with the news media.


Journalists are just as time crunched as you are, perhaps more so. And most of them are predisposed to distrust public relations “flacks,” anyway, regarding them as little more than gnats buzzing in their ears. So, if, on top of their preconceived attitude, you heap obvious disrespect for their time, you court their wrath.


As a newsroom copyeditor, I had to take my turn at the dreaded duty of cleaning out the bin below the fax machine (remember those?). We had to winnow through the overflowing heap and distribute the few, relevant news releases to the appropriate editor or reporter. It wasn’t long before we learned how to screen the releases by the headline, and later, simply by looking at the PR firm or business’s logo. Releases from habitual spammers went straight into the recycling bin, unread. When I entered the public relations field, I swore I’d never forget or betray my journalism roots that focused on factual accuracy, good storytelling and relevancy.


Journalists use email to stay in touch with genuine news sources and communicate with colleagues. When their email gets too cluttered, its harder to find that crucial piece of information they need to plug a hole in a story before the copy deadline. This is more than irritating. It makes it harder to do their jobs.


Remember that PR does NOT stand for press release; it stands for public relations, which is about forging mutually beneficial relationships with people–including the media. So spend some time getting to know the most important media outlets and journalists that cover your client’s or organization’s sector. Read what they are writing about, follow them on Twitter and other social media outposts (but don’t spam them there either). Occasionally send them useful news tips, even when it has nothing to do with your client or organization. Finally, pick up the phone and talk to them (first making sure they’re not on deadline) to find out what topics they are most interested in and how and when they’d like you to pitch story ideas. Always be polite and respectful.


Keep in mind that journalists avoid covering the same story that ran in a competing media outlet, so consider offering your most important media outlet an exclusive, or at least an individualized story treatment.


Follow these media relations tips.

Once you refine your media distribution list to precisely the right journalists, keep these tips in mind when crafting your release:

  1. Lead with a story (about people — not things or corporate entities)
  2. Show (don’t tell) how and why this impacts the news media’s audience.
  3. Stick to the facts (Kill as many adjectives as possible. Fact-check your information.)
  4. Keep it short. (The reporter will call you if he or she wants more information.)
  5. Never call a reporter to ask: “Did you get my press release?”

Be your own media outlet.

Finally, in today’s media marketplace, there’s no reason to rely on the traditional news media and its gatekeepers to tell your story. Use your website, social media outposts and other venues to identify and communicate with your most important stakeholders. Forge a mutually beneficial relationship with people who are engaged with your organization, your cause or your brand. Inspire them to share your important, relevant information with their own networks. Who knows? Maybe a journalist will notice the online chatter and cover your story.

Media outlets can do more to solve the PR spam problem.

Instead of—as Segal suggests—declining to be listed in the media databases, which would be a disservice to both public relations professionals and journalists, media outlets can develop a better solution to deal with the volume of press releases. Set up a separate email address specifically for press releases on various topics, such as: Regional and Local News, Science and Technology, Business, Health, Travel, etc. Then have section editors sift through their press release email as time permits. I’m certain they’d cull interesting, relevant and useful information fairly often. Also, this would help PR professionals quickly identify the correct address based on the topic of their release. Seriously, it doesn’t have to be this hard.



In PR, Measurement Matters; But How Do We Do It?

Key Takeaways from the Public Relations Society of America Measurement Symposium

Mark Weiner, CEO of Prime Research


Any public relations professional who has studied for the APR exam, or who has read the Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles, released in 2010, knows that research and measurement are key components of an effective, strategic communications plan.


The first Barcelona Principle stresses the importance of goal setting and measurement. Effective measurement begins with developing communications objectives that answer who, what, when and how much the PR program is intended to affect.  A useful acronym many PR professionals are familiar with is SMART–Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-driven and Time-based.


Yet many of us still struggle to apply measurement in our everyday practice.


For those seeking guidance, PRSA and the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications (AMEC) teamed up to present a pre-conference measurement symposium during the 2013 PRSA International Conference that took place Oct. 27 at the PRSA 2013 International Conference in Philadelphia.


“Data is a competitive advantage,” said Allyson Hugley, in her opening remarks. Hugley is chair of the AMEC North America chapter and executive vice president of Measurement, Analytics and Insights at Weber Shandwick. “Companies that are data driven are more productive and more profitable.”

Baby Steps to Measurement Management

Marguerite Marston, commercial PR manager for IKEA U.S., described her department’s struggle to develop a new measurement mindset. The catalyst for change was a new chief marketing officer who used analytics to drive the business forward. Prior to that, Marston said, the PR department was measuring campaigns, but not yearly progress.


“What stopped us was lack of awareness and that PR was more of an afterthought, with the smallest budget in the marketing department,” she said.


IKEA’s PR team members began by educating themselves about the Barcelona Principles, and having an ongoing dialogue about how to move towards integrated measurement. Marston said they then took “baby steps” towards implementing changes. “We were talking about outputs and impressions and now we’re seeing a shift towards reporting behavior change,” she said.


Marston advises PR teams taking their own baby steps to keep it simple, affordable and make sure your approach is aligned with your client’s or organization’s needs.

Outputs, Outcomes and the Rise of Stupid Machines

The second Barcelona Principle states: “Measuring the effect on outcomes is preferable to measuring outputs.”  Outputs include all the tactics deployed by the agency or organization, whereas outcomes include shifts in stakeholder awareness, comprehension, attitude and behavior.


Mark Weiner, CEO of PRIME Research and author of Unleashing the Power of PR said PR professionals must measure both.


“Measuring outcomes without measuring outputs is the slowest path to victory,” he said, because outcomes are measured infrequently—usually only once or twice a year. And since these outcomes reside in the mind of your target audience, the primary way to measure them is to conduct a survey designed to capture the outcomes you need to measure.


“That’s not agile enough to guide day-to-day decision making,” said Weiner. As an example, he said, knowing what press releases were picked up, and which ones weren’t, immediately informs your ongoing media relations decisions and activities because you will know what kind of content whets journalists appetite.


“On the other hand, measuring outputs without measuring outcomes is the noise before defeat,” Weiner added, because without outcome evaluation you will never know enough about your performance to make improvements as needed.


The fourth and fifth Barcelona Principles state: “Media measurement requires quantity and quality;” and “AVEs [Advertising Value Equivalents] are not the value of public relations.” So, instead of reporting clip counts, impressions and comparing the space of earned media (news stories generated by press releases and media alerts) with its equivalent in paid media (advertising), public relations professionals are asked to measure such things as tone, credibility and relevance of the medium to the target audience, key message delivery, inclusion of a company spokesperson and prominence within the medium.


The principal method for measuring these qualities is through content analysis. Weiner noted that content analysis methods have evolved through three distinct trends.


The first wave was manual content analysis by communications professionals.  “This was appropriate and possible when the pace and volume of media was slower and manageable,” he said. This produced high quality content analysis, but the process was slow.


The second wave was fully automatic content analysis, which came about in an effort to keep up with social media, which moved at a faster pace than human eyes could track. So, software solutions were developed to track such things as keywords.


“These were fast, but they were stupid,” Weiner said. “They couldn’t tell the difference between such statements as: ‘Ford makes great cars and Ford makes anything but great cars.’ This high-tech approach to content analysis generated lots of irrelevant and inaccurate data, and resulted in a lot of false, misleading insight.”


Now, he said, a third wave is evolving that’s a hybrid of both technology and human measurement, which Weiner says is far superior. This approach is shaped around letting tech do what it does best—delivering speed and consistency—and letting humans do what they do best—uncovering relevancy and insight.


“If it was about technology alone, everyone with a keyboard would be Tolstoy,” Weiner said.


Demonstrating Value and ROI

But measurement without context isn’t enough. The third Barcelona Principle states: “The effect on business results can and should be measured where possible.”  For many public relations professionals, this is the most challenging—and most expensive—analysis to undertake because it involves marketing mix modeling and statistical analysis—fine if you’re Wal-Mart, Apple or General Motors, but not so much if you’re, well, nearly anybody else. Yet there is broad consensus that public relations must demonstrate value and show a positive return on investment.


“Measurement is essential to the ROI/Value conversation,” Weiner said. But he cautioned that public relations professionals should avoid using those terms interchangeably.


“ROI is measurable,” Weiner explained. It’s a quantitative financial measure, which relates dollars spent with business results. Value, however, is subjective and relates only to perceptions of expectation, worth and importance.”


Weiner invites communications professions seeking online guidance about measurement to visit PRIME Research’s content database at


Measurement that’s sweet for the C-suite

Valuable metrics answer the questions executives care about.


Mark Stouse, vice president, Global Connect of BMC Software explained the Influence Scoring System (ISS), a measurement platform his company developed after a pivotal conversation with a CEO who asked some tough questions, such as: “I know this is important, but how important is it?” and “How much of what you do is luck vs. skill?”


Stouse said this motivated his company to change the conversation about communications metrics and start with “the big three — the Crown Jewels in the CEO world: revenue, margin and cash flow.” ISS was developed for business leaders, with their collaboration and guidance. The system was field tested for eight years in three public companies and later with five PR agencies.


ISS integrates tactical, operational, and strategic outputs to calibrate marketing and communications activities. First, all tactics are given a point value, then an “environmental difficulty index” is applied, which Stouse said is analogous to driving a car on a paved road at one end of the spectrum versus a dirt road in the rain at the other end.


The third overlay assesses each tactic for demand generation, deal expansion and sales velocity. These affect revenue, margin and cash flow. “All three levels are always fully exposed, based on principles of transparency,” he said. This ensures all stakeholders know and understand all three perspectives.


“ISS creates a logic path that chief executive officers recognize and respect, and data correlations they need to make decisions,” said Stouse.


He added that the platform also “enables agencies to run their organization like an investment fund, to accurately predict performance and impact across multiple functions.”


It also eliminates client subjectivity around performance and allows agencies to automatically adjust performance objectives based on increases and decreases in spend, he added.

A version of this post was published in PRSA Tactics available here.