Tuesday, June 24, 2014

When PR Firms Go, "Yada, Yada, Yada"

Seinfeld (the sitcom) is known for its many classic catch phrases and plot lines, but one that has been on my mind lately when hearing other PR firms pitch their services is the old “Yada, Yada, Yada” episode.

In the Seinfeld scenario, Jerry’s sidekick, George, meets a woman who draws him in through intrigue created when she skips over the best parts of her stories and descriptions of herself with the words, “yada, yada, yada.”  He decides to fight fire with fire and does the same. Before you know it, the two are a hot item, that is until, she “yadas” George one too many times and leaves his trust of her in the balance.

PR firms sometimes “yada, yada.”  Only they don’t use those words.  Usually, they describe their firms and their services as new, never been seen before, reinventing the old “agency-client model,” or “turning the agency-client relationship on its head.”  In PR speak, it’s all “yada, yada.”

In other words, the words mean nothing but they create just enough intrigue to draw clients in further.  Here’s how I saw one new agency describe itself:
  • “We offer a model that, to (our) knowledge, no other agency offers…” Yada.
  • “Our firm believes every stakeholder group responds most effectively to content that’s consistent, clear, and memorable…”  Yada, Yada
  • “We get clients in front of the right audiences…This approach works well now and will work more effectively in the future, as PR continues to grow...”  Yada, Yada, Yada

This new firm described PR and what it has been doing for the past 100 years in various ways.  It really isn’t saying anything new, and while perhaps, it may add its own twist and style to the practice of PR, it’s certainly not going to break new ground in such a way that it will transform the field.  In other words, the firm isn’t the game-changer it wants prospective clients to believe.

Beware of firms, particularly newer ones, who present themselves as something totally new and different.

So how should agencies present themselves?

Each should have its own style and build its model around that. But all should speak clearly in plain English with the understanding that while we all may promise different things, provide service in different ways, bill our clients according to different scales, and measure and evaluate performance differently, at the end of the day it’s about communication, words, trust, connection.

If we want our clients’ messages to matter, they need to be clear. If we want our clients to connect with us, our messages need to matter, they need to be clear.  No “yada, yada” about that.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Region's Brand Can Trace Part of its Roots to Noll's Steeler Defenses

A few years ago, I had the chance to go to a Notre Dame football game in South Bend, where a good Fighting Irish team faced Army. The event was rich in football tradition.

As a fan, I loved everything about the day with perhaps one exception.  Any time Notre Dame’s offense left the field and the defense took over, the crowd became noticeably more muted.  Even when the team made huge defensive stops, the applause was so polite it sounded like the halftime baton twirler just finished a performance.

I couldn’t believe that in the house Knute Rockne built, Notre Dame, a football mecca, defense would be given such short shrift.

Then I considered that maybe it’s not the other fans, but rather my own predisposition towards defense because  I’m from Pittsburgh.  In Pittsburgh defense matters.

Even the most casual fan in Pittsburgh, the one who only watches the games because that’s where the party is, knows not to look away from the action when the defense is on the field.  This is not the norm in other places.

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to see numerous football games at all levels.  I’ve seen games far away from Pittsburgh, and more than my share in this region.

I’ve found that the closer you get to Pittsburgh, the more intense the fans are when it comes to defense.  Pittsburghers know good defense when that defense is near the ball, away from the ball, from the home team or the away team.  They appreciate third-and-long defense in ways the people of Vienna know a good Baroque number when they hear one.

Why?  I’m about to get to that, because the answer is in a name.  But before I do, I think there needs to be some background.

In the game of football, defense starts with a desire and a will to be aggressive, to stop the other team by taking the ball back. Sometimes that means an interception, a fumble recovery, or just ripping it out of the other guy’s arms.  To make these things happen, the typical strategy is to overpower and body slam just about every player in an opposing uniform until you render the ball available. If that doesn’t work, you prevent a first down and get the ball back from a punt.  That’s defense.

This all requires a certain level of self-sacrifice.  Because football is a rough, physical game, effective defense demands tough, physical players.  It demands that these players have the strength, speed and knowledge of the game to anticipate offensive strategies, and pre-emptively or reactively meet force with overwhelming force.

The major advantage the offense has over the defense is presumably, the offensive players know where the ball is going in advance.  The defense doesn’t.  This means that the defense must commit completely with 100 percent adrenaline-powered exertion on every play.

A simple thing like a tackle at the line of scrimmage is a major victory for a defense.  Pittsburghers know this.  They can relate.

So, why are Pittsburghers so sophisticated in their appreciation of good defense, something people across the country, including Notre Dame fans seem to lack?  The answer is simply Chuck Noll.

The game has a long and storied history in Pittsburgh.  It didn’t take a Chuck Noll to teach the region about the game and why people should embrace it. The region had already contributed favorite sons Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas and Mike Ditka to the national football stage even before Noll arrived here.

But when Noll took the helm of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, he set about building the organization around good defense, and in the process, he created an entirely new relationship between the region and the game, and the glue to that relationship was defense.  Or more particularly, a defensive mentality.

He showed Pittsburghers what defense could accomplish on the field.  He showed Pittsburghers defense in its highest form.  In the process, his defenses held a mirror up to the region.  Through those defenses, Pittsburghers saw themselves.

Tough. Ruthless.  No excuses.  Play through pain and injury. Get knocked down and get back up, and knock the other guy down harder.  Win through dominance and force.  Not finesse.  Inertia.

Pittsburghers saw players play defense the way they would if they could. Chuck Noll found prototypes of the Pittsburgh mentality, and their names were Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Homes, Dwight White, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell, Jack Hamm, Mel Blount, Mike Wagner, Donnie Shell.  This group comprised the "Steel Curtain" defense.

These men took the field and took no prisoners, and in doing so, they met the expectations of their coach, Chuck Noll, who had a plan. They fit into it. They executed it, and no other team has matched their level of success before or since.

The region’s football brand merged with its character and created, or perhaps amplified, its tough steel town image.  Even when the steel mills closed and the region’s service economy took over, there was always a blue-collar work ethic just beneath the surface.  An honest, unapologetic, can-do spirit that may have always been there, but people were never more conscious of it until after the Chuck Noll defenses came to epitomize the Steelers and the region.

Ever since the 1970s, there has been little confusion about the region’s brand.  We are a lot like a good defense.  Anticipatory, opportunistic, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to win. And the roots of this attitude go all the way back to the hiring of a relatively unknown football coach by one of the most under-performing NFL franchises up until that time.

The rest, as they say, is history.  It’s not an overstatement to say the region owes at least a little bit of its brand evolution to Chuck Noll and his Steelers' defenses.  In a much more obvious way, however, the region owes him its gratitude for helping instill a tradition of passion for the game of football that transcends what happens on the field a few Sundays in the Fall.  Thanks, Coach.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Some Father's Day PR Wisdom

In the week before Father’s Day, I thought I’d theme some of my social media posts in the spirit of the holiday, using the moniker: “PR tip your dad would have said.”  Here they are:

  • If you can’t look people in the eye, you don’t deserve their trust.
  • An apology means nothing without a solution.
  • Show respect by not cursing, demand respect by not tolerating it. 
  • The best reputations are built when no one is looking.
The tips are pretty self-explanatory. Dads are funny in their common lack of subtlety. 

While I can’t quite attribute the actual phrasing to my dad, and I certainly can’t take credit for the concepts, the focus here is simply to showcase some common wisdom we get from our dads in one way or another, and then attempt to translate that into a PR application.

As simply stated as they may be, they represent some of the fundamentals of effective PR.

When my kids were young, someone gave me a small book of tips on raising boys called Father to Son: Life Lessons on Raising a Boy.  I really enjoyed this over the years for any number of reasons. Here are a few gems, some with PR relevance, from the book:
  • “Show him how to eat an Oreo.  This is a skill that will serve him his entire life.”
  • "Ask him what he did today. Listen.”
  • “Display his artwork in your office. Even that weird ashtray thing.”
  • “Let him hang out with you. Remember, he has a need to be around you, to learn what being a man is all about.”
  • “Give him responsibility.”
  • “Don’t let the TV be a babysitter.”
  • “Don’t let him quit out of frustration. He won’t learn anything.”
  • “Make him carry his own athletic bag.”
  • “Celebrate after every game.”
  • “Remember, if you can’t talk to your son about God, you’ve never really talked to him.”
  • “Teach him to give anonymously.”
  • “Teach him nothing is free.”
  • “Let him fail.”
  • “Teach him the only way to conquer fear is to walk through it.”
  • “Teach him the secret to solving even the most complicated problems is to just begin.”
  • “Buy him deodorant and the whole house will smell better.”
  • “Teach him the world will judge him by his actions, not by his intentions.”
  • “Teach him to treasure his friends.”
  • “Teach him that appearances do matter.”
  • “Tell him never to give up.”

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Heaven’s Newest PR Guy

My friend and former boss at Ketchum, Larry Werner, died yesterday after a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

During the time I worked for him at Ketchum and ever since, Larry was many things, but one thing that stood out is that he was known, not in a famous way, more of an interpersonal way.  Chances are if you knew him, he knew you.  He seemed to know someone just about every corner of Pittsburgh and well beyond.  It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

Spend any amount of time with him out and about, and you would have been interrupted by old friends, new friends, acquaintances and business colleagues.  If restaurant staff members had name tags, he used them, and while he had a charming way of sometimes forgetting certain things, I don’t remember him forgetting people’s names and little details about their families.

As a boss, Larry made mistakes, usually little ones and he knew how to laugh at himself when he did.  But at the same time he never made excuses for or even forgave himself for those mistakes.  He expected the same from those who worked for him.  We took pride in meeting his standards.  His standards became our own.  And when we no longer worked for Larry or with Larry, we took his brand of professionalism with us, and many of us continue to do things the Larry way wherever we work.

Larry had the human touch.  This carried over to the principles and ethics that make doing business the right way possible.  He didn’t preach to do the right thing for the sake of ethics, and certainly not for appearances.  Ethical public relations counsel was just an offshoot of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.  The Golden Rule.  How would we like to be treated?  How would we want to be informed?  Would we feel respected or insulted if we were in the other person’s place?

Looking back, I realize what a privilege it was to work in a number of situations with Larry, seeing how he balanced all of the hard and soft variables that go into managing, into decision-making, client counsel, strategic development, credible messaging, and ultimately, in delivering the highest quality work for clients.

But while all of this is true, so true, there’s something else that goes beyond the Xs and Os of public relations and business.  Any time I’ve been with people who knew Larry, it wouldn’t be long before we’d find ourselves laughing.  The stories of many times with Larry are always memorably funny.

He had thick skin and a self-deprecating wit.  He invited barbs and oftentimes had a great comeback.  And through it all it was honest and done with sincere affection for others.

Larry was liked.  He was trusted. He was respected.  He was admired.  In no short measure he was loved.  Heaven just welcomed its newest PR guy.

On a personal note, over the years I’ve been fortunate to have made many genuine friends through my work.  My friendship with Larry was one of the special ones for me.  As for Larry's perspective on this, well, here's how he put it as only he could: “Of all the people I know, you are one of them.”   So with that, Larry, here’s to you. Until we meet again.