Public Relations

Trump's breaking all the "PR rules" on his way to nomination

Claire Celsi is a communications consultant in West Des Moines, Iowa.

I've conducted media training sessions for clients for years. From nonprofits, to educational institutions to businesses, there are some PR constants that remain fixed no matter what. Tell the truth, be prepared, never insult people. Trump has destroyed these rules in his gold-plated shredder and adopted his own personal style in this campaign. There are several well-known PR platitudes that people spout when referring to publicity. PR Rules

I've seen Trump turn this conventional wisdom on its head. Perhaps you've heard of some of these rules.

  1. "There's no such thing as bad PR": This commonly-used platitude is actually quite false on its own, but Trump has taken it to a new level. His bombast on subjects like immigration have shined a bright light on his bigotry. Since his outrageous comments were recorded for posterity, chances are his views will bite him in the culata during the primaries.
  2. "Tell the truth": Surveys have indicated that people like Trump because he "tells the truth" about things that the other candidates are afraid to vocalize. This would probably be refreshing, but he also says things that are flatly false on a regular basis. If people like him for being bold - that is awesome. But liking him for making up stuff is a completely different story. I ran across this quote recently and it's my new mantra for this campaign. "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts."
  3. "Rise above the fray": Trump is the head of a large organization, and didn't get there by poking people in the eye. Since announcing his candidacy, he's much more interested in retaliation against those who criticize him than he should be. He's just calling attention to some of his most vile behavior, like name-calling.
  4. "Don't take the bait:" Until Trump's entry in the race, the only candidate who showed this flaw was Chris Christy, who can't resist telling hecklers to sit down and shut up. Much to Christy's relief, Trump has taken over in this area. He never misses an opportunity to insult, belittle or embarrass a rival - or even a complete stranger. My dad would diagnose this phenomena as "diarrhea of the mouth."
  5. "Credibility is key": Trump's credentials as a "business leader" seem to unduly impress a lot of people. Nevermind that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and was busy rollerskating at Studio 54 while John McCain was in the Hanoi Hilton. And his flip-flops on some key conservative issues will surely get more scrutiny as the race gets more serious. All that old footage of him saying he is pro-choice, supporting gun control and praising Hillary Clinton will definitely hold him back.

Trump's got some serious PR counsel on board - Hope Hicks - PR royalty from a swanky firm. She has wisely deleted all her social media accounts. And I'm sure she's tried to tame the Donald. But the Donald will do what the Donald wants to do. Rules be damned. Perhaps she can convince him to get a new hairdo.

Claire Celsi is a communications consultant in West Des Moines, Iowa.

How to recognize and adapt to tipping points

Two recent national events - the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds and the Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling - got me thinking about the factors that cause a "Tipping Point." Both seemed to happen very quickly. But if you examine the underlying factors and circumstances surrounding these moments in time, you'll quickly find that the events don't happen in a vacuum. Beans spilling

In the United States, tipping points tend to have a few things in common:

  1. National support
  2. Powerful and influential supporters
  3. Groups working on behalf of the cause - even when it's not in the news
  4. People who have been on the "other side" and convert to the "Tipping side"
  5. Some sort of legal action or political consequences

Both the Confederate flag and the marriage equality issues certainly have all of these characteristics. Marriage equality advocates have been diligently working their legal strategy, state by state. This tipping point definitely was years in the making. Many, many small legal victories and setbacks happened along the way. The Supreme Court ruling was the "last bean on the pile."

The Confederate flag's removal was also years in the making, but had a different kind of tipping point. The massive "change of heart" caused by the murder of nine people in a Charleston church tipped the political climate in the state. State leaders who could not politically utter the words "take the flag down" before the tragedy now found themselves on the wrong side of the issue. Taking advantage of the new public awareness and sentiment, they ran to the other side of the seesaw.

It always feels great to be vindicated and be on the "winning" side of a tipping point. But what if you're on the "losing" side?

Here's some advice:

  1. Prepare: If at all possible, have a discussion about what is happening and discuss ways to respond. Don't shut down people who disagree with your viewpoint. Let everyone have a chance to contribute.
  2. Pivot: This requires specific words that you will use to communicate to your constituencies. In Alabama and Louisiana, it's apparent to me that many county marriage licensing clerks have not had any leadership on this matter. Their willingness to break the law and embarrass themselves and their state is not a sign of good communication.
  3. Be gracious: It's not a good idea to pout. A tipping point is just like a game of Spill the Beans. Once the beans are spilled - they don't have a chance of going back. Our society changes slowly over time, but occasionally it's punctuated by memorable events that forever change the landscape.

Always remember - the one thing that remains constant is change. Be prepared. Use your words.

Claire Celsi is a communications consultant in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Hillary's smart media relations strategy

- Claire Celsi is The Public Relations Princess

Hillary Clinton and her team have a different media relations strategy this time around - and if driving the national mainstream media crazy is a measure of success, then she's achieved that goal. This time around, her focus is on meeting people one-on-one, limiting the number of huge rallies, and hand-picking interviews with local media outlets. It has relegated national outlets like CNN to reporting on local interviews.

Hillary Clinton in Iowa
Hillary Clinton meeting with activists before her June 14, 2015 rally - photo shot by Claire Celsi

From a PR standpoint, it's good to be driving the strategy and keeping national reporters at bay by being less available and less predictable. Especially when you're Hillary Clinton and have been around so long - and are asked the same questions over and over again - it's best just to limit media interviews to local outlets - for now.

When I worked on the Gore caucus campaign in 1999-2000, their campaign adopted a similar strategy and it was effective. Al Gore was being asked repetitive questions about Bill Clinton at the time - so he tuned out the national media and allowed local outlets more access. Predictably, they stuck to issue-related questions and not the hot-button issue of President Clinton's status.

As much as possible - Hillary has taken herself out of the fray, which for her is a good thing. Local media outlets tend to ask questions that are important to their readers, like her stance on being the first female with a real shot of winning the presidency, tweaking Obamacare so it works better for families, early childhood education and Iowa's caucus process. There were no questions about Benghazi or her email server - questions that have already been asked and answered many times.

The fewer gaffes and fumbles a candidate makes (and they ALL eventually make those) the less fodder for campaign ads in the future. For example, Jeb Bush was being interviewed by a reporter recently and ending up conveying that it was not a mistake to invade Iraq. He quickly retreated on the position and said just the opposite in subsequent interviews.

Then-candidate, now Senator Joni Ernst took this strategy one step further in her 2014 campaign by simply refusing all but the most favorable interviews toward the end of her campaign. It worked!

We should also remember that it is still VERY early in the caucus campaign. For reference, Al Gore didn't even have an office open in Iowa until July 1999. Clinton already has at least five Iowa offices and is still planning to open a lot more. Even though she is in her "listening" phase, she is a lot more present than some candidates in years past.

Now that she has some Democratic challengers, she has definitely stepped up the "position" announcements. Minimum wage, immigration and women's pay equality have all been covered in recent statements. And she's finally embracing the "first female president" dream that so many of her supporters are hungry to hear.

It's great to be in Iowa during caucus season! Full disclosure: I am a Hillary Clinton supporter. 

Claire Celsi is a communications consultant in West Des Moines, Iowa. 

 

 

 

Like 'em or not, the Duggars know how to give a mea culpa

- Claire Celsi is The Public Relations Princess

The Duggar Family (of TLC's 19 Kids and Counting Fame) had a carefully-buried bombshell explode Thursday. It seems though the eldest Duggar son, Josh, molested several minors when he was 14 years old.  Josh Duggar

The news is shocking on every level. The clean-scrubbed godly family has a squeaky image and receives a lot of attention for their quiver-full lifestyle. But the media statement they released when the new broke is really what caught my attention.

It was the most direct, to the point statement I've ever read. There was no equivocation. There was no blame. It was pure apology done right - no matter what you think of Josh Duggar or the allegations against him. Here is an excerpt: 

"Twelve years ago, as a young teenager, I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends," Josh, 27, tells PEOPLE in a statement. "I confessed this to my parents who took several steps to help me address the situation. We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling. I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life." -Josh Duggar statement released May 21, 2015.

According to the police report and other documents coming to light, the oldest of 19 now-famous children apparently fondled his own sisters.

He also resigned from his position at the right-leaning Family Research Council - a job he left Arkansas to take, after moving his young family to Washington D.C.

Like him or not, he was very forthright in his statement, squarely took full responsibility for his actions, and apologized. That is the only way to truly begin to regain trust. There have been many celebrities that have botched their apologies by waiting too long, not seeming sorry enough, or equivocating their actions.

This apology was swift and did not seek to implicate others. No one can see into another person's heart to know if they are really "cured" or really "sorry," but taking on the firestorm head-on requires good counsel and conviction. This statement goes a long way - in my mind - to begin his long journey back from the brink.

Josh Duggar's behavior was inexcusable - there is no other way to say it. But he didn't duck his responsibility to take ownership and apologize. Whoever is advising him should be praised for recommending this strategy. It was the only way to go.

His parents, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar also released a statement which was equally apologetic. Read both full statements here.

It remains to be seen what the fallout for the Duggar clan will be. Josh Duggar's work at the Family Research Council included making very judgmental remarks about gay people. The backlash will surely be severe and sustained. But Josh Duggar did what many people take weeks or months to do - admit fault and apologize. Compared to the behavior of many other celebrities in the same situation, his apology was lightning fast and thorough.

Claire Celsi is The Public Relations Princess and communications consultant. Find out more about her company at clairecelsi.com

PR rules for companies with odd names

We all know the companies. When we hear the name for the first time, we tip our heads to one side and say, "Could you say that again?" or "Could you please spell that?" or even "What the hell were they thinking when they named that company?" 

Shinola

Companies with funny names have very specific PR problems that "normal-sounding" companies do not. They have a tremendous hurdle to get over before they can even tell you about their products, services or wonderful employees. A funny name can be very off-putting for a potential customer.

I remember the summer of 1983 very well. I was going to be a senior in high school. My friend Pam's mom ran a phone bank for AID Insurance Company. It rebranded as Allied Insurance, and is now part of Nationwide. It was a solid P & C insurance provider, with thousands of customers all over the Midwest. The only problem is that some scientist named a new virus AIDS. That was the beginning of the end for AID Insurance's brand. It was too high a hurdle to cross with the customers.

I've tried to serve companies who have funny names. It's not easy. But I do have a few observations that may be helpful for those companies to break through the clutter...and the WHUT??? barrier.

  1. Use self-deprecating humor. A case in point? Kum and Go used to sell boxer shorts with it's somewhat eye-opening name emblazoned on it. Yes, they probably get the joke. And they have a good reason for being named Kum and Go. The K & G are in initials of the last names of the founders Krause and Gentle. So get over it, they are never changing their name. 
  2. Include a pronunciation guide within all media materials. There is a large insurance company that has a rather short name, but the phonetic pronunciation causes it to be pronounced incorrectly at least 90% of the time. It doesn't help that the name has no meaningful translation into any English word. Help people pronounce the name correctly right off the bat. 
  3. Use an abbreviation or acronym after the first mention in all print and digital materials. If your law firm is named Smith, Udall, Davis and Sanders, it's ok to refer to it as Smith Davis in the next reference. Or, if you have a sense of humor, SUDS.
  4. Get over yourself. Insisting that your ridiculously long name be pronounced and spelled correctly in every media mention will get you nowhere fast. The best you can do it make sure it's spelled correctly in all media materials, mention it once to the reporter or blogger, and then cross your fingers. 
  5. Change your name, already. If the name of your founder is long, cumbersome or hard to pronounce change the company name to something a bit more easy to pronounce. My friends at Strategic America did this more than ten years ago, with great success. The Schreurs (Shhreers) Brothers (Mike and John) are great guys - but they wanted the company to reflect their national footprint and be more approachable. Smart move.

One company that's doing great business despite a quirky name is the Shinola Company in Detroit. Despite the common (and somewhat derogatory) expression that is associated with its name, the company has managed to create a desirable luxury brand. 

Claire Celsi is The Public Relations Princess and communications consultant. Find out more about her company at clairecelsi.com.

A lesson in crisis PR from Dowling Catholic

Tyler McCubbin, a substitute teacher and coach at Dowling Catholic High School went public this week, telling the media that the private high school rescinded an offer of full-time employment because he is openly gay.

In the ensuing firestorm of public criticism, the Diocese of Des Moines called on Bishop Richard Pates to address the controversy in a TV interview. To say he botched it is the understatement of the year. 

His first statement was straight out of the Catholic playbook. "We accept everybody, we love everybody, everybody is always welcome, within the context of the Catholic Church." Then, he seemed to go off the rails a bit. When asked why McCubbin was allowed to be a gay substitute teacher and volunteer coach, Pates scrambled for words.

"A substitute teacher comes on in an immediate need, and then as they were going through that whole process of the application, that's when this surfaced," Pates said.

The reporter also said that Pates was not rejected because he was gay, but because he was so "open" about it. 

The reporter then asked, "Based on church doctrine, he should not have been allowed to teach and coach?" "That is correct," said Pates.

I'm not sure who was advising Bishop Pates. His office had already written and released a statement that outlined the school's position. He should have never gone on camera to defend his position. What Dowling did was legal - so his appearance just served to further point out the hypocrisy of the position and his obvious discomfort with stating their mistake.

One of the first decisions to be made in a crisis situation is "who will be our spokesperson?" In my opinion, they chose the wrong person.

The second decision is whether to put the spokesperson on camera, or to simply release a statement. In this case, the statement would have sufficed.

It's not pretty to hear the words, but at least they are backed up by state law, which allows them to discriminate against gay people...because...church doctrine.

Full disclosure: I am a Dowling alum and while my sense of fairness is assaulted by this position, I am (sadly) not surprised. The best person for the teaching position was overlooked because he is gay. That sends a terrible message to all the gay kids at Dowling and to the community in general. Unfortunately, no amount of media training can erase bigotry.

Claire Celsi is a communications consultant in West Des Moines Iowa. Visit her company's website or follow her on LinkedIn or Twitter

The PR of disaster recovery in Indiana

In our hyper-polarized society, it should come as absolutely no surprise that Indiana has procured itself a gigantic black eye due to the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" that was recently passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Mike Pence. A media uproar has ensued and threatens to reverse all the other work the state has done in the past 25 years. Hoosier

Indiana has become a convention and tourism magnet in recent years - totally transforming their economy. This incident has captured the nation's attention, and not in a positive way. 

How does an entire industry recover from such a debacle?

My advice: A sustained public relations campaign to boost Indiana's chances from slipping into fly-over state oblivion.

How does Indiana begin this process? I'd suggest getting every stakeholder around the table and listening. Then, get a quick plan together. The very first thing that should materialize out of this plan is an all-out media blitz from the Indiana Chamber, Tourism Bureau and any celebrities they can conjure up.

This citizen army is this only thing that can counteract the thoughtless act of the Indiana legislature. I hope they don't waste time trying to repeal the law or toss people out of office. That will only serve to further polarize the state. 

If I lived in Indiana, I would be emailing, calling, texting and Facebooking all my friends. I'd invite them to welcoming places - and offer to host them. Face-to-face and heart to heart can combat the awkward actions of elected officials.

In a couple of weeks, the world will move on. But if Mike Pence's botched TV interview - where he couldn't answer simple yes-or-no questions about the implications of the law - is the last impression people have, then that would be a shame.

The lovely people of Indiana have worked hard to make it a destination for so many events. They deserve better.

Claire Celsi is a communications consultant in West Des Moines, Iowa. Visit her website, or follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn

Keep your business top of mind - in your customer's email inbox

Most of us had our very first interaction on the social web via email. Email as a technology may seem very simplistic and far flung from what most of us consider social media. Truth is - email is the mothership of all social media - always has been. Email symbol

There is still no other communication device that can transmit as much information in a way that still gets sufficient, consistent attention by consumers. We'd all drown in the sea of information that engulfs us each day if we had no ability to filter this information by importance. Since we all need email to function in the working world, email became our default "must have" social media. We cannot ignore email for any significant amount of time if we are to be taken seriously in our professional lives.

That is precisely why email is still the best marketing tool out there. Here is a recipe for cultivating your best marketing asset - the "opted in" email list.

  1. First and foremost - you must offer something worth having. Don't just send a random email. Think about what your audience needs. This is NOT about promoting yourself for the sake of promoting yourself.
  2. Convert contacts into subscribers. When you receive the name of a contact, send them an email to confirm that they want to receive information from your company. If they decline or unsubscribe, make sure that you honor that request.
  3. Use name and email address as the price for the payoff. When giving something away, require that people provide their name and email address. This is called a value exchange.
  4. Host a giveaway or contest and use email as the sign-up method. The person will have to "opt-in" to get a chance to win. They can always opt out later.
  5. Use software to help you manage your list. There are a ton of email vendors out there, each with a level of email management sophistication. Ranging anywhere from free to several thousand dollars per month, the need to pay more for help will correspond to the number of subscribers you have.
  6. Don't be boring. Very few people will open an email with a lame subject line like "March 2015 newsletter." Instead, try something that sounds much more personal - use their first name if possible in the greeting.
  7. Use your blog, website and social channels as email collection opportunities. Provide current subscribers an easy way to share your content and remind them to tweet or forward your content.

Once you have a clean email list, set some goals. Do you want to increase likes on your Facebook page? Increase sales? Recruit employees? Improve customer service? Once you've identified a goal, then tailor your email messages around reaching that goal. Without a goal, you're just wasting the marketing capital you've worked so hard to build.

Claire Celsi is a marketing communications consultant. Visit her website to learn more about her business, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

AIB's lack of transparency harms students and the community

Truth should have been the number one goal of communication to students, employees and the community about the AIB and University of Iowa merger. Unfortunately, it looks like that imperative was violated when the president of AIB announced the deal last week. Saying that the school merger was brought up during a casual conversation last summer was disingenuous at best.

Rumors have been floating around about the financial situation and declining enrollment at AIB for years. The merger with the University of Iowa was a graceful way for the 90-year old AIB to exit "stage left" and not leave a big empty campus behind. Unfortunately, AIB leaders chose not to share the full picture with their constituencies at the school and in the larger community.

Of course, they had students to think about, and the announcement was carefully timed so as not to have a bunch of students bail at the semester break. There were many loose ends - such as the future AIB athletic scholarships - that were poorly communicated. There are other deals in mid-stream as well, such as the AIB-Lincoln high school athletic fields partnership - that is now left hanging without any real resolution. I am disappointed that this renovation may be stopped in its tracks before being completed, leaving Des Moines schools officials holding the bag and students without the fields they were planning on. I hope there was a tightly-worded contract in place so that AIB will be forced to fulfill its end of the deal.

It also seemed as though students found out about many of the details of the takeover in the media. That is unfortunate. As difficult as it might have been to break the news, students are the customers of AIB that really deserved special treatment and over-communication about what was going on. The last thing they deserved was to have the sketchy details of the merger announced in the media. Adding insult to injury, it seems they were also misled on several aspects of their scholarships and athletic careers.

I'm sure that when things shake out the University of Iowa campus will be a wonderful addition to the Des Moines educational community, but that does not help the 300 student athletes with more questions than answers. Just because AIB is a privately-run institution doesn't mean it can conduct its affairs in secret. There are many people and community partners (some of them publicly-funded) to whom AIB owes transparency. And saying that they "want to be as transparent as possible" is not the same as being transparent.

Here are the values listed on AIB's website:

  • Quality education and experiences that encourage and stimulate intellectual and personal growth. 
  • Leadership, teamwork, open communication and lifelong professional development. 
  • A diverse campus community based on respect and integrity. 
  • Ethical and transparent decision-making. 
  • Stewardship of all College resources. 
  • Service to others – locally, nationally and globally. 
  • The health, wellness and safety of our students, faculty and staff.

Kind of rings a little hollow now. As my mother always told me, there is no better time to tell the truth than the present.

Claire Celsi is a communications consultant in West Des Moines, Iowa. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Bad customer data = Bad PR

Recently, I've received a string of unbelievable emails from my car dealership. After the last one, I seriously got up from my desk and looked around to make sure I was not on Candid Camera. Elantra

The first ones started last year and they weren't bad. "Hey, Claire!" the personalized message started out. "It's Matt from XYZ Clive Dealership. Just wondering how your Elantra is doing. We're a little low on used cars right now, so I thought I'd inquire to see if you are ready to trade in your vehicle anytime soon?" I recognized the guy as the one who'd sold me the car. Since my car was about three years old, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. I politely declined, but before hanging up the phone, I told Matt that when I was ready to trade this one in, I would probably get an SUV.

The next series of emails were a little sketchy. First, I got an email asking me if I'd like to sell my red Honda Accord. That would be my daughter's car. I didn't even co-sign for it. My name was not on the title. I politely told them that they had the wrong person.

Let me just stop right here and tell you that I've purchased two vehicles from this place, the first in 2002 and the most recent in 2011, long after the invention of computers. 

Fast forward to this week. I got a curious email from another person who I've never met. "I noticed that you got your car serviced here last month," (true) he said, "I just wondered where you purchased it?" 

I responded with total incredulity. "Ha ha ha! You're kidding, right?" I replied. "I bought my last TWO cars there." The reply? (I'm not kidding) "Can you tell me who your salesperson was?" 

Can you see where I'm going here? Their total lack of control over their own customer information is causing them to lose a future sale from a very loyal customer. The solution is two-fold.

First, they must capture all customer data from the first inquiry all the way through to the sale. Then the process doesn't stop, it just gets a bit more segmented. For an organization like car dealership, there are even systems that are customized just for them. There is simply no excuse to ask customers the silly questions that I was being asked.

Second, you must TRAIN your people how to use the system. Customers should not suffer the consequences of employees plundering a pile of unorganized data. 

After you have all the data in a CRM (customer relationship management) system, the real magic can happen. By sorting and segmenting data, your salesforce can mine it to reach out to customers with helpful and timely sales offerings. For example, last year when I told Matt that I wanted an SUV, he should have entered that into their database. Then, they could've sent me an email with an offer to upgrade to an SUV and trade in my current vehicle. This is called "personalization" and it's a very effective sales tool.

The lack of data integrity at this dealership looks like a fixable problem - and they have good salespeople who are obviously willing to reach out to customers, albeit a little clumsily. As their PR person, I would advise them to fix this problem immediately before some pushy blogger writes a blog post about it.

Claire Celsi is a PR practitioner in West Des Moines, Iowa. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Executive blogging is a key corporate PR strategy

Blogging is alive and well - attempts to declare it dead have failed. It is true that blogging has changed quite significantly over time, but it can still be an effective tool for your personal brand and your business. I love blogging

I think most executives feel that their time is better spent golfing than blogging. While golfing can be a very effective relationship-building tool with people you already know, blogging attracts new clients and customers to your business with the lasting power of thought leadership.

What should executives be writing about? Here are some ideas:

  1. Insights and personal discoveries: Yes, people really do care about your thought process. To be seen as a leader in your field of expertise, you must risk sharing your stories, foibles, goof-ups, and successes with the rest of the world. This makes you more human to your employees, customers and potential customers. Nobody wants to do business with a contact form on your website. They want to do business with real people who have real experiences.
  2. Trends: No one knows more about your business than you. If you can light the way through the next year for potential clients, they will come back for more advice, and perhaps hire you to get them to the next level.
  3. Time-sensitive information: If you have a piece of information that can help your customers save time and/or money - share it! Everyone appreciates a friend who keeps them in the loop. 
  4. Community news: If there's a firemen's chili supper or high school car wash going on in your city, let people know about it. Better yet, take a "selfie" while attending the event and invite people to join you in real time on your social media networks, then blog about it later.
  5. Employee praise: If you have a stellar employee, nothing means more than praise from their boss. Give them the honor of a blog post touting their accomplishments. Be sure to include photos!

Don't wait for the perfect post to inspire you. Just sit down and blog once a week and see what happens. I think you will be amazed at the results. Happy New Year!

Claire Celsi is a public relations practitioner in West Des Moines, Iowa. Please connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Content marketing is a sales machine for your business

The average company spends a fair amount of time each year trying to convey its value and benefits to potential customers. What assets are you deploying in your quest to win the hearts and minds of your ideal customer?

Consider this: Most people investigate a purchase by searching online for ideas, information, prices and even your corporate values. What do people find when they Google your company's name, or the name of what you sell? If the answer is "not much," then you are in trouble. Content is king

For example, if you are a home building expert in Central Iowa, and someone Googles "Central Iowa home builder" and you don't come up on page 1 of Google results, then you have some work to do. Nobody will be able to find you. If your Google result is on page 2 of Google results, the chances of someone finding you decreases more than 88 percent. That means less than 12 percent of your potential customers will stumble upon your site and even fewer will click on the link to your website.

How do you get attention without paying for ads? The answer is content marketing. Here are some ways to use the content you may already produce to attract the ideal buyer right to your business.

  1. Optimize your website with fresh content: When a potential customer comes to your site, does the page reflect the latest information about your company? Is the content engaging? Is there a specific call to action or next step the visitor is encouraged to take? Besides engagement - search engines love fresh content and rank it higher.
  2. Keep social media interactions current and engaging: Like it or not, people expect to be able to reach you on social channels. They'll be asking questions, seeking customer service interaction, and hoping you notice their latest complaint. Are you ready to interact in real time?
  3. Add a newsroom and keep it up to date: If you have a positive public relations success, you can put that story to work for your sales team indefinitely by posting it to the newsroom on your site. Over time, your newsroom will be filled with information that your customers can find and read when they discover your site. It's like creating your own media channel, except you don't have to ask anyone for help. The messages are yours to define and you can publish whatever you want.
  4. Seek customer testimonials: Nothing is more powerful than a third-party endorsement. Use your imagination - don't just post text to your site. Add photos and video to create a richer viewer and more impactful experience.
  5. Show your employee's faces and let them be spokespeople for your brand. Many websites don't feature the names and faces of their employees, and that is a mistake. Employees are brand ambassadors - let them tell your story in their own way and on their own social platforms, too.

Digital content marketing is a very effective way to tell get positive messages into the public sphere without breaking the bank. All it takes is a little planning, knowing what you want to promote, and the time it takes to write and post the content to your digital properties. It's an extremely authentic and enduring way to get noticed.

Claire Celsi is a public relations professional in West Des Moines, Iowa. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Why the bully pulpit is important - and it's not what you think

Lately, our political leaders are talking past each other - straight into the ravenous, relentless, non-forgiving cable news cycle. Their soundbites are increasingly lost on the people they're intended for. It's actually quite painful to watch, especially when you compare it to some of the best communicators of times past. 

Bully!"

The term "bully pulpit" is widely misunderstood because of the commonly used definition of bully in modern America. The "bully" in bully pulpit does not mean imposing or forcing your opinion on someone. "Bully" in this sense means "jolly good" or beneficial. President Theodore Roosevelt first coined the term when describing one the advantages of the presidency - lots of people are inclined to pay attention to your speeches, so you'd better take advantage of the opportunity and make them worth listening to. His philosophy was to remove the fluff and grandstanding - and take the opportunity to inform, encourage and educate in a positive manner.

How are you using your bully pulpit? Everyone influences someone. Are you using that influence for "bully" things or bad things? Let's compare two modern speakers who are using their bully pulpit in contrasting ways.

Bill Gates has transformed himself from technology innovator to world health expert over the past ten years. He's climbed to the top of the technology world, but instead of staying around and being a critic or commentator on that subject, he's using his bully pulpit to change the world. Using his money and his influence through the Gates Foundation, he's decided to tackle some of the world's largest public health problems, such as eradicating malaria. Every speech he gives seems to make the headlines. Gates has mastered the use of the bully pulpit.

Rush Limbaugh is an influential man in some circles. But when compared to Gates, his public remarks and radio show have taken a remarkably different turn. Instead of using his bully pulpit to elevate the dialog, he's made the decision to be incendiary, derogatory, and just plain mean. I'd even argue that his pulpit has not been "bully" in the sense that Teddy Roosevelt meant - but bully in the worst sense of the word.

You don't have to be famous to have a bully pulpit. Here are five things you can do to use your bully pulpit in a positive way:

  1. Write a blog post or Facebook message about your favorite charity and why you choose to donate
  2. Send an email to twenty friends and challenge them to take an action that will benefit the community
  3. Turn your dinnertime conversation into an educational time for your children. Share your values with them and encourage them to take positive actions.
  4. Contact your political leaders and tell them what's on your mind. You'd be surprised how few people actually do this.
  5. When you're giving a presentation or speech, can the fluff and talk about something beyond yourself or your organization. Get people thinking about their influence and the positive things happening all around them.

Who are your favorite "bully" speakers or leaders? Please feel free to leave a comment here or connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Claire Celsi is a public relations professional in West Des Moines, Iowa.

 

Story songs create a memorable narrative

Want to use more storytelling for your brand or company? Claire Celsi suggests using the storytelling techniques used in famous story songs as a way to begin.

As a public relations professional, I'm responsible for coming up with ways to tell my clients' stories. When great companies need to talk to their customers about what makes them special, I recommend using the same storytelling techniques that are employed in the best and most beloved story-songs. Here are a few of the songs that have always gripped me with their powerful lyrics, haunting imagery and sometimes memorable music. But the STORY is Storytellingwhat pulls you in and keeps you listening.

Cat's in the Cradle - Harry Chapin: It never fails to evoke memorable life stages of childhood and becoming a parent. Connecting with familial emotions and the everyday life of a made-up family causes us to listen and compare the story to our own lives. And it's memorable. And it sometimes teaches a lesson.

Hotel California - The Eagles: This haunting tune is effective because it taps into the powerful emotions associated with the unknown. And since so many Americans believe in some sort of spirit world, it's not hard to imagine a haunted hotel with a friendly (but ghostly) staff. Mix that with powerful descriptions of the scent, the decor and an attractive stranger, you have the ingredients for a seductive story. Besides that, it's got one of the most memorable guitar solos of all time.

Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - Gordon Lightfoot: Based on a real story, this song is immediately compelling because it is true. The telling of a true story, either literally or metaphorically, lends credibility and people tend to pay attention to see what happens next. What really gets you about this song is the descriptions of the time

Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown - Jim Croce: Written in an age before the politically correct crowd sucked all the fun out of the world, Croce manages to write a playful, if not biographical tune. This type of story transports the listener into a world that may be slightly different than theirs, but then comes back and grabs you with a classic tale that is very common: Guy wants girl, other guy gets jealous, a fight ensues, and somebody loses. 

They Dance Alone  - Sting (read the background of this song)Using historical fact to tell obscure cultural stories is a time-honored tradition in American folk music, going back centuries. Who says history is boring? Using the story-telling technique, old stories and lessons from history can be dusted off for a new generation.

Getting someone's attention in a media saturated world is difficult at best. Using storytelling is about connecting on an emotional level. Stories are remembered better when they're told in a memorable way. So the next time you're telling a compelling story, remember to use the techniques used in your favorite story-song. 

Claire Celsi is a public relations practitioner in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Digital marketing is a huge part of public relations

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Spindustry Digital in Des Moines, Iowa.

Public relations is still an essential ingredient to any good marketing plan. That has not changed. But HOW public relations is practiced has changed a lot since the digital revolution began. Will it Blend screenshot

Two factors really play into this trend.

  1. It used to be that mass media outlets (TV, radio, magazines, newspapers) held all the power. They were the gatekeepers of information that was eventually shared with the public.
  2. People did not have options. Everyone watched the same channels. There was no internet, no NetFlix, no cable TV, no Sirius radio. We all had very similar media "intake" experiences.

Now, each of us have our own personal media intake system. We wake up to our Facebook and Twitter feeds and then move on to our favorite news outlet. There are now hundreds of options thanks to the specialty websites, cable outlets, YouTube and radio channels. 

Public relations professionals are faced with a dilemna. How do we help our clients get their news out to all the new channels? OR...how do we help clients get their OWN messages out? Many companies have figured out that its easier and much more effective to create their own content marketing, and use their website and social channels to get the information out to the public - skipping the media entirely.

How does this work in practical terms? My favorite example of digital content marketing is BlendTec. They've used digital marketing to promote a relatively unsexy product and made it fun, findable and viral. A relatively unknown company with a small marketing budget has turned a series of funny videos into marketing gold. Check out one of my favorites - blending a few iPhone 5s into mobile dust.

BlendTec learned that if you create valuable content on a regular basis - people will seek out the content over and over. That is PR flipped on its head. No reporter needed.

Yes, you'll still need old school public relations to get your message out. But in the meantime, start creating great content and attract your customers (like a magnet) straight to your website.

PR is like pork scraps and pickle juice

Claire Celsi is the director of public relations at Spindustry Digital in Des Moines, Iowa.

When I was growing up, my grandma Celsi lived next door to us. My grandma and Mom took turns making a traditional Sunday pasta dinner. When it was Grandma’s turn to cook, all we had to do is keep the kitchen window open to hear her sweet little voice yell, “Reeeaaddddyyyy” toward our house. We’d drop the Sunday comics section and high-tail it over there.  Pickle juice

For some reason, Grandma’s pasta sauce was always slightly better than my mom’s. It was thicker, richer, meatier and just had that extra va-va-voom. Her meatballs were also better – more tender, flavorful and delicious. Try as she might, Mom could never quite replicate it, no matter how hard she tried.

Years after grandma died, Mom stumbled upon a grocery list my Dad had written for her. It was obviously the ingredients for her magic Sunday pasta sauce. There was one surprise on the list – pork scraps. Apparently, Grandma used to take pork scraps and fry them, then she browned the meatballs in the same pan before throwing them in the sauce. The resulting extra flavor was the missing ingredient. (Side note: Here's a fun little video of me and my mom rolling meatballs for a lasagne-like dish called pastachina (pronounced "pasta keen-uh")

Mom’s specialty is German potato salad. She carefully follows her great-grandmother’s recipe – which called for chopped baby gherkin pickles. And even though it was not in the recipe – I noticed that Mom always throws in a substantial splash of pickle juice. However, when I went to look up Mom’s potato salad recipe in the church cookbook - she had left out the splash of pickle juice. Apparently, she has learned a little trick from Grandma.

So, I’m sure you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with PR.

Some companies just have a little pork scraps and pickle juice in their marketing mix. Using PR throughout the year is a smart way to keep ahead of the competition, yet it’s often not the first thing marketers think of when compiling their list of things to do for the year. Here are a few things to add to your marketing recipe:

  1. Know what makes your company different and special – this is your pickle juice and pork scraps. Every company has a special recipe.
  2. Make a list of newspapers, trade pubs or other media outlets your customers will likely be paying attention to. The list doesn’t have to be extensive. In fact, honing a short list of really interested media outlets is smart.
  3. Don’t forget digital journalists. There are many bloggers and thought leaders in the digital space. Many of them have “crossed over” from traditional journalism, so they have a foot in each world. They are real journalists too – so treat them exactly the way you would a “regular” reporter.
  4. Reach out to the media outlets every week or every month, depending on your resources. I call this “heartbeat” PR.  Like the steady thump of your heartbeat, news and tidbits of information should be shared with your media targets on a regular basis.
  5. Make an annual plan. Whether your PR is being handled in-house or you have an agency helping out, spend some time thinking about your initiatives, special projects, new product releases or anniversaries.
  6. Allocate resources. Figure out how much time or money you should allocate. If you’re having trouble finding the money to pay for PR, add up all the money you’ve spent on marketing in the last year, and spend a fourth of it on PR next year. I guarantee you that your audiences will pay more attention to positive media coverage than an ad.

PR is the pork scraps missing from your pasta sauce and the pickle juice missing from your potato salad. Add a little PR to your marketing mix for the extra bit of va-va-voom.

How to Manage a #BashTag PR crisis

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Spindustry Digital in Des Moines, Iowa.

Hashtags are all the rage, especially on Twitter. Using a hashtag to categorize a tweet is a great way to help people search for and discover your content. But what happens when your hashtag gets hijacked? It's a very real concern, as McDonalds found out the hard way. It paid an agency to come up with the campaign #McDStories on Twitter. The only problem is, there were more bad stories than good. Hashtag fail

How do you know when using a hashtag is a good public relations move for your brand? Here are a few things to ponder before launching a #hashtag campaign.

  1. Make sure you have allies who are willing to support your position. In the case of McDonalds, it became clear very quickly that McDonalds had more detractors than supporters.
  2. Are you prepared to monitor and tweet 24 hours a day? Hashtag campaigns are like newborns - someone's gotta be watching and responding all day. If the person in charge stops tweeting at 4 p.m. on Friday, the detractors have all weekend to fill up the tweet stream with all kinds of shenanigans. I suggest pre-programming a full set of tweets to appear when you are not actively tweeting by using Hootsuite or a similar product.
  3. Are you prepared to own, manage and monitor the hashtag for YEARS? Once the campaign is created, a monster is born. Even if you eventually abandon the hashtag, your detractors may use it to bash you for an indefinite period of time.
  4. Make sure your "side" is bigger than their side. In the case of McDonalds or WalMart - the detractors seem to outnumber the supporters by a large margin. They are better organized and have more to say than the agency who created the hashtag.
  5. Do you own the domain name of your hashtag? It's a good idea to buy it and use it as a call to action. Don't launch the #hashtag campaign until the site is done because you'lll lose valuable interactions with both supporters and detractors. McDStories.com lays unclaimed, making it vulnerable to hijack by detractors.

Creating a hashtag is a bold move, but I've rarely seen it succeed in the intended way. Some of the most successful hashtag campaigns have been created around non-controversial issues. One great example is the #ThisSummer campaign, which allowed user to tweet their summer plans and have the tweet turned into a dramatic movie voiceover.

Be careful when creating hashtag campaigns - you may unleash unintended negative consequences for your brand.

Social customer service is free PR

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Spindustry Digital in Des Moines, Iowa.

Recently, I had an unpleasant and rude experience with a couple of grocery store employees. I've shopped there hundreds of times and know what their normal service looks and feels like. So I'm an expert on how the wayward interactions should have gone. Social customer service

For a "social" customer like me, the next step is to complain. Not by writing a letter or calling, but by posting my thoughts on their corporate Facebook page. Which is exactly what I did.

Consumers are changing the ways they interact with companies. My dad would have sat down at his desk and written a letter to the store manager. My mom would have probably called. Some people would just tell everyone they know what happened, without telling the store manager at all. I chose to air my complaint with the store AND my friends.

This type of complaint can turn into a disaster or an opportunity for the company receiving the complaint.

What good can come out of social media complaints? How can a company embrace the fact that people use public social networks to air their grievances? Here are some steps the company can take to turn a sour experience into a PR win.

  1. Have someone monitoring your social channels during business hours - and checking in at least every 12 hours on weekends.
  2. Have a plan in place to react immediately. Here's a formula: 
  • Acknowledge the complaint and promise to investigate
  • Take the complaint "offline" if the person continues to complain loudly on the social network, but follow up publicly if possible.
  • Offer to remedy the complaint immediately if it is feasible to do so
  • Apologize if there has been a breach in normal service levels
  • Ask the person what would make it right
  • Follow up. Make it right.

When someone complains about your business online, you have a crisis on your hands. But you also have an opportunity. If you're not ready to answer social media questions and complaints, then you're not ready to be using social media. How can you prepare?

  • Monitor: Make sure you have all your social channels covered by staff.
  • Training: Teach your employees how to spot trouble and empower them to respond.
  • Have a plan and follow it.

It's a reality. People use public social networks to comment and complain about your business. Consider yourself lucky when they do it on YOUR social channels. They could use other means (like blogs or Yelp) and destroy your reputation. When they complain on Facebook and Twitter, at least you can learn about it and respond. Take my advice: do your best to respond. Deescalating the complaint and resolving it as soon as possible is your best bet. And THAT is good PR.

Facebook “research” marks a new low for the social giant

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Spindustry Digital in Clive, Iowa.

I’ve been watching the rolling debate about Facebook’s latest flub. Some numbskull at Facebook decided it was OK to manipulate user’s feeds to prove that negatively spreads FB dislikefaster when people view negative posts. Guess what? It worked! Shouldn’t we all be grateful to have this bit of knowledge bestowed on us from our kind and benevolent Facebook overlords?

Stories like this make the social scientist in me very angry. It might be time to educate people on what “real” academic-type research looks like – and how much it differs from the head games Facebook is currently playing on its users.

Real research starts out with a hypothesis. It looks like Facebook at least got that right. They hypothesized that sadness and bad moods are contagious. Not a bad premise, actually. And it could be very useful information to have. But, unfortunately, Facebook went off the research reservation after the hypothesis was formed.

The next step is questioning the ethical boundaries of the proposed research. Anyone who’s ever majored in psychology will recognize these simple guidelines:

  1. Informed consent: Researchers must let the subjects know they are being observed or studied. Facebook hid behind their terms of service document (which absolutely no one reads) which apparently allows these kinds of shenanigans to occur.
  2. Professional fidelity and responsibility: Researchers have a duty to reconcile their “need to know” with their subjects’ “right to know” about the experiment. This goes to the very heart of a scientist’s job. They have to err on the side of caution.
  3. Upholding the dignity of the subjects being studied: The researchers simply assume that since their sample size was small and the experiment brief, that they didn’t cause any harm. That is dangerous and outrageous. No, we didn’t hear reports of people jumping out of windows – but the repercussions may never be known.

To make matters worse post study, the researchers gave a lame “apology” that felt more like excuses. “But, but but…we meant well. And we didn’t hurt anybody. And we’re Facebook. We care about people.” And, let’s get real. Facebook has had plenty to apologize for in recent years. They should be getting better at it, not worse. Sounds like they need a righteous PR pro at the table. I’m not available, but I heard Jenny McCarthy’s looking for a new gig. Oh wait, she’s not a professional. Nevermind.

Developing key messages for your business

Claire Celsi is the director of public relations at Spindustry Digital.

Key messages are essential to an effective communications strategy. Here’s the process I’ve used and recommended to my clients over the years. This is a shortened version, but it’s a good roadmap to writing key messages that can be used in news releases, web copy or sales materials. Key messages

The first key message you should develop is a master narrative. This is your "elevator speech," the three sentences that define your company and what it does. It is sometimes tough to boil this down into a short statement, but sometimes you only have a very short time to impart this important information. Every company should have one. If written out, this message should be short enough to fit on the back of a business card.

A reporter will often ask a very generic question, such as, "tell me about your company," to start off an interview. Sometimes, it's just as much for their own information as for the interview. The Master Narrative is a good answer to that question. One quick tip: You are who you say you are. You're the expert about your own business. Let your master narrative reflect that.

After the master narrative is solidified, the next step is developing three memorable key messages. These will be the cornerstone of media relations efforts as well as sales and marketing materials. The first key message should address the quality of the products or service offered. Here's an example:

"Acme Pencils are manufactured with the highest grade of wood and are quality-controlled to assure each pencil meets our strict standards."

The second key message should delve a little further into the workings of the company itself. What is the central passion that inspires or drives the company's owner or its employees? Here is an example:

"Acme Pencils is dedicated to preserving the environment by using only recycled packaging and a no-waste manufacturing process."

The third key message should be about your customers: "Acme Pencils are preferred by school districts in the United States, and our company has more repeat customers than our competition."

Of course, not all of these messages will apply in every situation. That is why you need to develop message categories based on likely interview subjects. There is a great technique for doing this. Sit down and think of the top five things that are likely to affect your business this year. Then write a key message that addresses each situation.

After you have your key messages written, go back and write at least three supporting points for each. For example:

Key Message: Acme Pencils are manufactured with the highest grade of wood and are quality-controlled to assure each pencil meets our strict standards.

Supporting Point # 1: Acme Pencils have a money-back, no-questions-asked guarantee.

Supporting Point # 2: Our associates average 15 years with the company and have a combined 150 years experience manufacturing pencils.

Supporting Point # 3: Acme Pencils win accolades year after year – we’re recognized by American Pencil Magazine as the industry leader.

One very important caveat about supporting points: Use numbers, use facts and use third-party endorsements.

After you've developed the master narrative and main key messages, you can even go a step further and define a tag line or write a boilerplate for your website or news releases.

The key messaging process is a collaborative effort. A facilitator (who ideally is familiar with the company, but has outside perspective) can help identify key message themes and write the messages. The process works best when all stakeholders are present for the initial work session. It’s important to get their perspective, and especially their endorsement.

Storytelling 101: The role of the sidekick

Claire Celsi is a public relations practitioner in West Des Moines, Iowa.

We've known it for centuries: Storytelling is an effective way to communicate information. A narrative with relatable characters engrosses us and makes us stick around to learn the ending. We become invested in the outcome of the story - and in the process - we're more likely to remember the moral of the story. Donkey-in-shrek-the-third_wallpaper

The sidekick - who typically has a lower station in life and has less power than the protagonist - often provides much needed logistical support, advice and even comedic relief. But don't let the sidekick's lowly status fool you. The storyteller can use the sidekick in meaningful ways to improve the storyline and highlight the main character (protagonist). Here are some ways the sidekick can help the story move along:

  1. Highlight the attributes of the main character: The main character in a story can have a cathartic change during the course of the story. Sometimes, using the sidekick as the "explainer" works as a way to highlight the internal struggles that the main character is facing. A perfect example of this is how Donkey humorously interpreted Shrek's ongoing struggle to regain control of his swamp.
  2. Provide the back story (history) of the main character: There are ways to show past events in visual stories and books - like the flashback - that can inform the reader or viewer of a past event that has shaped the main character. The sidekick can provide a convenient shortcut for the storyteller. Rafiki, the wise monkey in Lion King was often the one who reminded Simba the Lion of his lineage and responsibilities, influencing him to make the right decisons.
  3. Contribute complementary skill sets to those the main character lacks: In Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant intuition of Sherlock Holmes was complemented by Dr. Watson, who brought his brilliant analytical mind to the duo. Watson also becomes the person who makes sure Holmes' skills are recognized in the London press when a case is solved.

There is one very important thing to keep in mind when creating a sidekick character in a story. It may sound harsh, but the sidekick shouldn't have much of a life story of their own. The sidekick's role is to support the main character - not distract from the main storyline. If you develop the sidekick's life story too much, they lose that special "sidekick quality" and just become a co-equal actor in the story.

Sidekicks are readily seen in advertising, but also appear in PR and branding. (remember the lonely Maytag repairman and his apprentice?). Using a story with a sidekick in a PR pitch is smart, especially if trying to quickly build empathy for a cause. A good example is featuring the friend of a cancer survivor shaving their head to show support, while raising money for a good cause. Everyone can relate to the heartache that comes with being the friend of someone who is suffering.

Including a sidekick is a smart way to add dimension to a story and provide opportunities for extra insight into the main character. Elementary, my dear Watson.

In PR, timing is everything

Claire Celsi is a public relations practitioner in West Des Moines, Iowa.

The news cycle is a tireless beast. There are countless media outlets looking for stories and content - 24 hours a day. I always recommend that clients tell their own stories by starting a blog and using their website as a self-publishing tool. But, there are times when it's Images-1appropriate and even necessary to reach out to the media and entice them to help out by telling a compelling story on your behalf.

Interaction with the media is like a graceful dance routine. Timing is everything! Getting pushy and over-eager is like stepping on your partner's toes. Sitting around the edge of the dance floor doesn't work either. No one will notice you unless you take a chance and get our there and dance.

When sharing news with the media, it's important to remember that the timing of your outreach is crucial to success. Be sure to follow these recommendations to have a better chance of getting noticed:

  1. Give enough advance notice: When publicizing an event or something that has a shelf life - like an application deadline - don't send it to the media one day ahead of time. Unless it's breaking news, editors need a little time to fit it in the right spot in their newspaper or newscast.
  2. Seasonality: If launching a new product tied to the weather or time of year, make sure your pitch is delivered to the media when it makes sense to talk about it. For example, if you have a new line of kids backpacks, start talking about it in July when parents are shopping for back-to-school purchases.
  3. Pay attention to the reporter's schedule. Sending a news release on Sunday or the day before a holiday almost gurantees that no one will be there to read it. Even the time of day can make a big difference.
  4. Be cognizant of breaking news or other big stories. Trying to pitch a reporter during the Iowa State Fair is an uphill climb. The reporters are either at the fair or on vacation, so don't expect to get a response.
  5. Stories are cyclical, but if that reporter just wrote a piece about the same subject two weeks ago, don't expect them to write about your news. Wait a few months or come back with a fresh angle.

Having a great story to tell is very important. But it won't matter if you botch the timing.

The importance of public input in public projects

Court AvenueClaire Celsi is a public relations professional and social media strategist in West Des Moines, Iowa.

According to all the business rankings guides, Des Moines is where it's at. We have the best incomes, we're the best place to raise a family, best place to be a young professional, and one of the best places to get more value for your real estate dollar.

Still, the city of Des Moines has a lot to learn about public input on public initiatives. The most recent example is the Court Ave. project proposed by Knapp Properties and HyVee. Let me state loud and clear: I have no idea which project is best for the space proposed. But that is the point! Input from downtown residents is what counts - and what is missing from the debate.

Here is a quick checklist for organizations needing to gather public input for a project in which public funds will be spent. The main keys to success are TIME and TRANSPARENCY.

  1. Clearly communicate the timeline and the process for public input. The Court Ave. project does not meet this simple test, because the public comment period was not announced far enough ahead of time and the project is on a "fast track" to completion.
  2. Set public meetings in locations where downtown residents are likely to attend. Vary the times and days of the week the meetings are held to allow more residents to attend.
  3. Publicize the meetings ahead of time in the newspaper, websites, and using social media.
  4. Educate community leaders and use them to get the word out about public input opportunities. For example, member of the Downtown Chamber should be briefed by city leaders and prepared to answer questions from their associates.
  5. Gather input and comments into an easy-to-read document and disperse this information widely.

After public input is gathered and published, take the recommendations seriously. If downtown residents are the key to the success of the grocery store, then they are the people we should listen to. Public officials sometimes rush through this process - with disasterous results. Let's slow down this train and listen to public input.

-Claire Celsi

The brilliant CVS no smokes decision: Great PR for years to come

Claire Celsi is a public relations practitioner in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Health advocates across the country are hailing CVS Pharmacy's decision to stop selling tobacco products. The company admits that it will lose millions of dollars in revenue over time, but is mostly citing the obvious: Smoking is detrimental. Selling cigarettes is antithetical to good health. Conclusion? A business focused on helping people become healthier should not be in the business of selling a product which has a deadly track record and is the number one cause of preventable death. Makes perfect sense from a PR standpoint.  No smoking

If you dig a little deeper, there is another very compelling reason for CVS to go this route. It's going to be more beneficial financially in the long run. Health and wellness is big business and the implementation of Obamacare has created renewed opportunities for healthcare companies to provide healthy options for customers and patients. CVS is making a strategic move to align itself more closely with the wellness moverment and consequently, the money that comes with it.

From a PR standpoint, this is a triple win for CVS and its reputation:

  1. They get the lasting publicity value of being the FIRST major pharmacy to announce this strategy. Being a trendsetter is a powerful thing. Trust me, CVS's name will show up in news coverage on this issue for years to come.
  2. CVS will experience a flood of support from potential customers, vendors, and most importantly health partners who want to align themselves with a leader.
  3. CVS will eventually make more money on health and wellness programs - which has much more potential than income from cigarette sales.

As someone who has worked in the fight against tobacco, I admire CVS's courage to step out and be different, seemingly flying in the face of logic. As a PR practitioner, I see the move for what it is - a smart business decision that will pay dividends into the future.

Move From Reactive to Proactive PR in 2014: Here's How

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn.

It seems that some companies just have good luck when it comes to getting attention in the Proactivemedia. You see a new article about them - sometimes every week. It can be frustrating to watch, especially if your company's story is just as compelling. Sometimes, you get lucky when a story falls on you, either through blind luck, or (unfortunately) a crisis occurs. Either way, you're stuck on the wrong side of the proactive PR equation.

What does it take to have a proactive PR program? Here are some basics to follow if your New Year's Resolution is to finally get ahead of the news.

1. Have a plan. This is basic PR 101. Companies who get a lot of publicity PLAN to get a lot of publicity. And they ususally don't sit around and wait for it to come to them. Your PR pro (on staff or agency) should be at the table for all your strategic planning sessions. Have that person listen for opportunities and incorporate those ideas into your plan. Ideally, even the smallest company should have something to offer at least once per month. So, that's 12 ideas.

2. Have something to say. Most companies have a lot going on, but are relatively reticient to talk about it publicly. Unless you are developing a new product that is going to rock your entire industry, or you're in the patent process, or in a silent period before a public stock offering - get out there and talk. Reporters like people who talk to them and tend to gravitate towards people who are willing to go on record with something new and different. If you're not willing to talk, reporters will move on to someone who is.

3. Don't spam reporters with stupid press releases. Your news releases should have a cogent idea and should be explained using very little jargon. Don't hide your lead in the fourth paragraph and make the reporter or editor fish for it. If an eighth grader cannot grasp your main idea after reading the news release, scrap it and start over.

4. Be transparent and proactive. This sounds like a really simple idea, but it's amazing how many companies (who should definitely know better), still decide it's a good idea to hide things for days and even weeks. If you don't tell your story - your way - first, then someone will most certainly tell it for you. And it will come out wrong. Ask Target. When the news came out about its recent Christmastime data breach, details from Target were scant so news outlets ran off the range with their own spin.

5. Be ready with additional information. After your news release is sent, be prepared to provide reporters with details. This might include photos, a quote, an annual report or other prepared information. If you're unprepared, you may not meet the reporter's deadline and cause her to move on to the next story.

6. Limit the fluff. Even lifestyle reporters will want to embelish the story in their own way. Don't add to much "opinion" and flowery, self-aggrandizing prose to your news release. That turns it from "news" to "National Enquirer" in a heartbeat. If you must sing your own praises to make a point, weave it into a quote.

7. Jump on spontaneous opportunities. Just because you're trying to be proacitve doesn't mean you shouldn't look for ways to break into the news cycle when appropriate. When a story breaks in the national media that has anything to do with your company's business, take the opportunity to reach out to national and local media to offer your opinion. Not only does this save time for a news outlet, but it helps to build relationships with reporters and producers who cover your industry.

A Failure to Market: Why the Hotel Pattee really closed

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Hotel Pattee is a gem on the Iowa prairie, located in Perry. The hotel is set to close (again). And it's sad, because it could have been avoided.

When a property such as the Hotel Pattee - which is 45 mins from downtown Des Moines - is left to market itself, failure is assured. The hotel's management failed to plan for and spend money on marketing of the hotel. Let me elaborate.

Hotel Pattee lobby

The Hotel Pattee would never be sustainable on its own. It's in a lovely small town, but there aren't enough business customers to keep it afloat during the week. On weekends, it's an attractive destination for couples, but without anything to do in Perry, it's attractiveness is very limited. The Hotel foolishly invested in a fancy salon last year. What it should have done is invested in the entertainment that was offered in the lobby and lounge. Also, it provided two measly little rent-a-bikes for hotel guests. It should have really taken advantage of the fabulous trail system and hosted bikers and rides at least once per month.

Another total wiff by the hotel's management: They didn't market to their own proven customer base. Despite being a customer on numerous occasions, I did not receive a postcard, email or text message letting me know of specials or room deals. I never received a note from the manager thanking me for my business or noticing that I hadn't been back in more than a year. They squelched the opportunity to use the rich data they already own.

Don't even get me started on the social media aspect. Whoever was operating their Facebook page didn't know how to spell. And they never figured out how to use Twitter, despite numerous customers who consistently tweeted their praise to the @HotelPattee handle. A day late and a dollar short, the social efforts never took off.

Each category of product has a different level of spending that should be planned for marketing and put right into the budget, just like expenses for staffing, cleaning and supplies. Without a consistent marketing effort, even the best hotel is doomed to fail. The Hotel Pattee had a number of mitigating factors such as its isolation, which in some ways made it even more important for marketing to be implemented from the beginning.

Another important note: Sales is NOT marketing. Sales professionals work their contacts to get people in the door and make relationships. But those efforts should always be backed up by a smart marketing plan. Unfortunately, the Hotel Pattee never hired an outside company to conduct serious marketing and public relations on its behalf. 

Here we are. Lots of broken hearts. One of Iowa's gems is once again closed. I hope the new owners invest in marketing and public relations from the first day it re-opens.

And I hope I get an email asking me to return.

Claire Celsi

All Media is Biased

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn in Des Moines, Iowa.

During the recent George Zimmerman trial, I heard every conceivable angle on each minute detail coming out of the day’s proceedings…ad nauseum.

After the verdict, every person, radio commentator, every news program and talk show had a parade of experts on, touting their angle and their opinion. Like our country, the bias for one side or the other was on full display. Media bias

I cringe when I hear people decry the bias of their hometown newspaper or popular cable news network. They are under the assumption that we’re playing by the same journalistic rules that we were 50 years ago.

Back then, there were a few “major” newspapers, three networks, no cable news shows, no internet and no social media. We were all “fed” the same information and didn’t have news sources that catered specifically to our belief system or political persuasion. Of course, there were magazines and newspapers on the fringe of the discussion, but they didn’t have an influence on the culture as a whole.

Now, the situation is very different. Each of us are able to watch, listen, read or surf wherever we want, at the click of a button. It’s much easier to find “information” that caters to our underlying belief system. Unfortunately, that is also what’s behind the polarization of our politics and an increasing gap between fact and reality.

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself in this information age is to learn how to sort out fact from fiction. Identify a few news sources that you can really trust, and then brush up on your old school investigative methods to sift out the spin.

Here are some of the resources I use to find the information I’m looking for to discern the day’s news.

  • The library. Public libraries are packed with reputable resources. Ask your friendly local librarian for a tour of the reference section. A lot of these databases are available from their online as well.
  • Transcripts: If you’re looking to prove a point, there’s nothing more powerful than an official transcript.
  • Scientific studies by independent sources. Credible sources don’t have a stake in the argument one way or another. One example that comes to mind is the Pew Research Center.
  • Snopes - If you get an email or see a Facebook post that seems a little hokey, especially if it's asking you to believe something you haven't seen in the news, check it on Snopes.com. This website independently verifies whether it's true, false, or somewhere in between.
  • Your own brain. Sometimes if something looks ridiculous, sounds ridiculous, and seems ridiculous, it’s RIDICULOUS. Use your head.

Bottom line, no one is right all of the time. Except my friend Brett Trout on Facebook.

 

 

"Media Relations" means relating to the media

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn in Des Moines.

TwitterBirdPressAbout five years ago, I was invited to speak at a Society of Professional Journalists meeting here in Des Moines, held in the old Des Moines Social Club. I was there to talk about how social media was forvever changing the face of journalism. 

The room was divided between two "camps." The first camp was a group of newspaper publishers, owners and editors who thought that they should "own" the digital lives of their reporters and every single thought they thought or word they wrote.

The other camp was the reporters themselves, some of whom were listening intently but not saying anything. But there were a few brave souls who stood right up and admitted (GASP!) that they were starting to use social media in their reporting! And sometimes (double GASP!) they had personal opinions about things that they didn't really try to hide. They also asserted ownership over their own personal thoughts and written content (THE SKY IS FALLING!).

This created a vigorous debate amongst the group. There was a true upheaval taking place in the industry. The "old-school" position was that reporters were neutral arbitors of the news, had no discernable personal leanings, and isolated themselves from the commoners to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Fast-forward five years. In my estimation, most journalists still conduct themselves with the utmost journalistic intergrity and very carefully stay within the lines. However, many of them have found ways to be "one of us" and have joined social networks. While a few disclose their personal political bias, most stay neutral, at least publicly. But, the good journalists I know all use social media to further their craft.

Journalists can still use help from their friends and the general public and maintain journalistic integrity. They have always been trusted with the job of rooting through contradictory information and severly divergent viewpoints. Social media just helps reporters do their jobs more efficiently. Furthermore, I'm fairly certain that reporters get story ideas from conversations they witness on their social networks.

Journalists talk about themselves a little now. I can tell when someone is having a frustrating day. Or when they have an ailing parent. Or just need a hug. The thing I like the most is that I can really get to know them as a person before talking to them about a story. I can read their previous stories on Facebook and Twitter and know what beat they cover and what they are interested in.

Having this information makes me FAR more attuned to them as a person and as a professional. I really like having this new way to learn about reporters as people, not just paragraph stackers. 

So when you're looking around for someone to tell your story to, don't forget...Reporters are people, first and foremost. It's likely that you can find out a lot about them by following them on Twitter. 

-Claire Celsi

PR content can enhance search engine results for your website

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn

When meeting with clients, the state of their website inevitably comes up. Not surprisingly, Search engine spider the focus is on the design, not the content. Search engines like Google constantly "crawl the web" to find new and interesting content to deliver to users. Having a "static" website, tells the search engines, "Move on, there's nothing to see here." The result is a lower ranking for your site compared to sites that are updated more often.

Companies that create their own content have a big advantage over those who don't. "Content" is a general term and can mean written material such as news releases, articles, photographs or videos. After the content is used for its intended purpose, posting it to your website is a cheap way to flag down the search spiders and say, "Hey! Look over here! New content!" Search engines reward you by ranking your site higher.

Public relations activities naturally generate very positive content. News releases, product launches, awards, employee activities and newsletter articles should all be repurposed on your site. 

When meeting with your website developer, be sure to ask them if your site is working for you to attact new customers. Here are some other simple tips to make sure your site is optimized and attracting the attention it deserves from search engines:

  1. Do you have a site map? Websites with site maps are easier to index and provide structure. Here's a free site map generator that will create a site map for you.
  2. Create outbound links. It's not just "nice" to create links to give readers more information, it's also crucial for optimizing your site for search. 
  3. Repurpose content: Does your site have a newsroom or an "About" page where you can post public relations content? If not, create one.
  4. Make your content easy to find. When you add a new page or article, be sure to link to it so it's easily found.
  5. Use social channels to link to your site. Don't post on Facebook or Twitter without a link - you're wasting an opportunity to create a click on your site.

If you'd like to explore this topic some more, here are some free resources from Google.

-Claire Celsi

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When do sponsorships make sense?

Bike month MiddendorfSponsoring events can be a smart way to use your public relations budget, or they can be off-target. Companies are always getting asked to support events by becoming a sponsor. But it should be a two-way street, benefiting both the sponsor and the organization they are supporting. Before writing that big check, here are a few things to keep in mind. 

  1. Make sure the sponsorship matches your mission. Middendorf Insurance sponsors Bike Month because they are interested in wellness. Hubbell Homes sponsors Anawim because it's in keeping with their corporate mission of providing housing for people in our community.
  2. Employee Buy-in: Do your employees support the organization you’re sponsoring, or is it the boss’ pet project? I’ve been to a lot of fancy dinners where the tickets have been purchased by an executive, but the seats remain empty because not enough employees have buy-in on the project. Why sponsor something if your employees are not passionate about it? Instead, look for an organization that everyone can support.
  3. Does the sponsorship save you money over creating your own event? If it would cost you less to sponsor than to create your own event, then you’d be better off just writing a check than running a whole separate event. Events have all kinds of hidden costs, like insurance, security and publicity that can really break the bank.
  4. Loss of productivity: Is the sponsorship plug-and-play, or is it going to require a big staff time investment? Be sure to factor in these labor costs, and the cost of lost employee productivity.
  5. ROI: Will your sponsorship provide a return on investment for your company? ROI does not necessarily have to be increased sales. Sometimes the goal is just increased name recognition with your target audience. 

Taking all this into consideration, many companies do use sponsorships as an effective public relations tool. Once in a while, re-evaluate all the sponsorships you've signed on to, and only renew the ones that make total sense for your entire enterprise.

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn in Des Moines, Iowa.

Incorporate 5 new trends into your PR plan

IA biz word cloudWhile it's imperative for any company to have a PR professional on staff or on call, it's equally important to know what trends are driving engagement across your entire enterprise. In layman's terms..."How does your customer consume their information?" Knowing where to place your message and how to do it is an essential piece of business intelligence.

Fear not. Some of the best trends are practical, and achievable for the average company.

1. Content marketing:

There is a lot of buzz about content marketing. First a definition. Content marketing is creating written content about your business or industry that will attract new customers or retain current customers. Creating your own content can be a tall task, but don't be tempted to use content from other sources. Create your own. Why? Several reasons. 

  • Thought leadership: Why would you highlight the expertise of others when you could showcase your own?
  • Share the spotlight: Give your employees a chance to shine.
  • Tell your story: Writing your own content gives you the ability to infuse it with your own style, humor and history.

2. Storytelling:

Storytelling goes hand-in-hand with content marketing. Stories can be about your customers, employees or the company itself. Every once in a while, let people see what goes on behind the scenes. Here is some more inspiration from companies that have used storytelling successfully.

3. Vanity metrics are OUT. Engagement metrics are IN.

Forget number of followers. Forget silly Facebook "get more followers" contests. Concentrate on the followers you have. Engage. This could be scary or it could be a game-changer for your business. Respond to customer requests on Facebook and Twitter just like you would if they called your customer service rep, or if they walked in your front door. Who cares if 5,000 unengaged and ignored people are following you?

4. Visual communication:

Whether it's a video or an infographic, telling your story in a visual format will help you expand your content offerings to a new audience. Pinterest, the new darling of social media, in based almost solely on images as opposed to text. And YouTube, owned by Internet giant Google, treats video content very favorably in its search engine results. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

5. Social and mobile dominance:

After all the hype over social media dies down, and we all have smart phones, then what? The smaller screens have implications as to how we deliver content to our audiences. While we used to do platform testing across different browsers on a PC, we should now be asking our audience what device they prefer instead. Also, we should critically examine the need for apps when a mobile site may be more user-friendly.

It's pretty amazing that the ancient art of storytelling is still playing such a prominent role in our modern communications, isn't it? I'd love to see some examples of how Central Iowa Companies are telling their stories. Please leave a comment.

 

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn in Des Moines, Iowa.

 

How the media failed us, and Lance Armstrong

English: Cyclist Lance Armstrong at the 2008 T...English: Cyclist Lance Armstrong at the 2008 Tour de Gruene Individual Time Trial, 1 November 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The media is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate of government. That is how truly powerful it is. But sometimes the media meets its match in power, stature, intrigue, and hope. Let me tell you how the media failed us in the Lance Armstrong debacle. It's a cautionary tale that has happened before. Think WWII, Te'o, and a number of other stories. Sometimes the media WANTS to believe so badly that the story will have a good ending that it misses the obvious, skips fact checking and YES... even wantonly disregards the real story. Lance Armstrong's fall from grace was one of those epic stories.

First of all, Lance's story is great, if you believe all the hype. Cyclist recovers from near-fatal disease to win an epic 7 straight Tour De France titles. Then he starts a famous cancer foundation that raises of millions of dollars to help cancer patients. And all the while, Lance is fighting off constant attacks on his sterling reputation. Rare was the negative mainstream media article. The sports media fell over themselves (sometimes literally) to get time with him. The dark side and perhaps most insidious side of Armstong's personality was to demand 100% loyalty to the myth and legend of Lance. Any journalist who came around asking funny questions was immediately banned from ever talking to him again.

So the media - whose job depends on access to Lance - had a decision to make. Either cover him in a positive light, or lose the right to write about him in an authoritative manner. It was like choosing between a rock and a hard place.

Journalism works under the supposition of a thing called the Master Narrative. The narrative is built over time and is a premise somewhat based on what has happened in the past. Once the narrative is built and is repeated time after time, it's hard for anyone, even members of the media, to dislodge it from their subconscious thinking. The Lance Master Narrative was well-known and famous. Since no one with any more credibility than Lance was accusing him of wrongdoing for so long, Lance Armstrong had years to refute any statements that might arise against him. He even got the chance to paint the opposition with the brush of his choosing. In this case the brush was named "You have no proof."

It was only when mainstream journalists who had no connection with Armstrong (or his merry band of thug protectors)  - started writing about his coverup that people began to doubt Armstrong's story. It took a huge number of people speaking up against him to even nudge public opinion against him. Lance Armstrong's master narrative was so powerful that even the U.S. Justice Department barely put a dent in it.

Citizen journalism and the sworn testimony of his former teammates were the only things that finally did Lance in. The great and all powerful Oz had been exposed, once and for all.

Lance's master narrative included the belief that he was a super-being. A survivor. A determined athlete. A humanitarian. A good person. Anything that did not fit with that narrative was ignored by the media for a very long time. Even when it was reported on by the mainstream media, for the longest time the reporters went to great lengths to report Lance's sometimes implausible side of the story.

It was only when a critical amount of evidence and confessions piled up into an irrefutable  and well-documented tattle, that the media stopped using the Lance Armstong master narrative. It came unceremoniosly crashing to the ground.

The media does indeed play an important role in our society. When the media builds a master narrative built on "persona" of one charismatic individual,  that is where is becomes dangerous. The media allowed itself to become mesmerized with Lance Armstrong. That is why his fall was no long and hard. There was absolutely nothing big or strong enough to break his fall.

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn in Des Moines, Iowa.

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Be prepared for the worst day of your professional life

What is a crisis? My definition: Any scenario where people or animals are injured or killed, or where a financial breach has occurred that needs an immediate response. That's it. 

As I watch the tragedy unfold in Newtown, Connecticut, I'm keenly observing the clues to what sort of crisis communications plan was in place for the unlikely scenario that ultimately occurred.

So far, I've been impressed by what I've observed. Parents were informed quickly by text message via the "campus alert system" to come to pick up their children. The Sandy Hook Elementary School website - though somewhat overloaded now - functioned to give quick bios of the teachers and principal when there wasn't much information available for reporters.

What exactly is a crisis communications plan? It's not a disaster evacuation plan or a physical escape scenario. Every business and organization should have a plan on how to evacuate a building due to a disaster, or how to hide from an intruder. A crisis communications plan is different. It's how you respond to the outside world after the disaster happens.

The media is a voracious creature after a disaster happens. It serves many functions: to inform others of a pending threat, to report on the unfolding scenario, and to summarize the facts of the case to the public. Communications professionals should lead the effort within their organization to write and implement a crisis communications plan. 

The Connecticut State Police have been disciplined in their messaging and have obviously been trained to mete out messages in a particular, legalistic order. For example, the shooter's name was not officially released until he had been methodically identified, even though some media outlets had already released his name hours earlier. For communicators in the private sector, saying "no comment" is not advisable.

The essence of crisis communciations planning is thinking of the worst disaster scenario ahead of time, and getting as many communications vehicles in place as possible. In this situation, it appears that parents were informed by emergency robo-calls, giving directions to what had happened and where to pick up their children.

Communicators should lead a team of professionals in your organization to create a very simple plan to follow in case of an emergency. The basics are as follows:

  1. Preparation: Create key messages, web pages, calling trees, etc. ahead of time, to be used after the emergency occurs.
  2. Control: It should be decided in advance who is the spokesperson to the victims and the media. It doesn't help anyone if unauthorized spokespeople without the latest information are allowed to speak to the media.
  3. Access to the plan: Create the plan and give everyone a copy so that it may be accessed remotely. Better yet, hold emergency drills to assure that everyone knows their role. Include passwords to all website content management systems and social media passwords. 
  4. Backup plans: Think in terms of Plan A and Plan B. If you are thwarted in trying to execute Plan A, you will be prepared. For example, if you cannot gain access to your computers at work to make website updates, make sure people know how to access the site remotely.

To create a crisis communications plan, gather your most senior staff members together and get started. It should take a least a few weeks to write and refine a plan. When it's done, use every communications channel available to get the plan out to everyone involved. It's especially important to let everyone know that it exists and to practice using it regularly. If you need help getting started, or don't have time to coordinate the plan, hire a public relations professional to get you started. 

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn in Des Moines, Iowa.

 

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