Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Best Way to Start Every Communications Project

Write your headline. That’s it.  Come up with up to 12 words that summarize the point you're trying to make.  No matter what the project, if it’s centered on communicating something to someone, condense it all into a headline.

If that’s a bit too restrictive then perhaps think in terms of tweets.  Write your concept in up to 140 characters or less.  But certainly no more.  See if you can boil the whole message down to that.


Because no matter how long your annual report, how big the audience at that next speech, or how breakthrough the news will be in your next press release, chances are your targeted audience will come away with a single and simple concept of what you communicated.

If it’s an annual report, the reader will want to know quite simply, “Was it a good year or not?”

If it’s a speech, “What one thing do you want me to remember when I leave here today?”

If it’s a news release, “Why is this important and why now?”

Even in crisis situations, it’s worth the time and the effort to think in terms of the headlines that will come out of the situation. Think worst-case scenario first. What’s the worst headline that can appear here?   And then think in terms of the best possible headline, and work towards that.

So, as you start to scope out your next communications project, one of the most valuable exercises you can do is to develop the right headline to guide your vision and your work.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

5 PR Lessons from the NCAA's "March Madness" Tournament

It’s here.  The brackets are out and the NCAA’s "March Madness" is upon us.  Over the next few weeks, over 68 college basketball teams will compete for a National Championship, but if that’s all this is about then few outside of some hard core bettors and die-hard basketball fans would care.

But the NCAA tournament is big.  Start with the colleges involved.  Students, parents, alumni and the fan base for each of the 68 teams in the tournament will be engaged in the process as the field whittled down to the "Final Four." 

With the exception of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, the NCAA March basketball tournament is perhaps the top sporting event where the process of finding a champion is arguably bigger than the championship game.

So, what can we learn in PR from the NCAA’s “March Madness?” 

Have a Structure – Even though it’s called March Madness, the structure for the process is anything but mad.  Brilliantly, the NCAA has branded each phase of this process.  The first week, over 68 teams represent their schools and conferences in a four-day college basketball binge.  The next week, the field is smaller and is branded the “Sweet Sixteen,” out of which come the “Elite Eight.”  They will set up the “Final Four.”  This structure provides a level of consistency that is required to sustain momentum and interest. 

Have a Story Line – The tournament to select a champion has a story line.  There are “favorites” and “underdogs.”  We know each and every year a team that’s supposed to win will lose to a team that’s just lucky to be there.  These “upsets” create a story line that feeds the tournament’s drama that unfolds over three weeks.   There are missed shots, bad calls and “buzzer beaters,” all that serve to heighten the intensity. 

Have a Means for Engagement – Brackets. “Bracketology.”  Even if you’re not a fan, chances are if you go to the office this week someone will be filling out a bracket trying to make their best guesstimates on who will win at each phase of the tournament.  Some workplaces may even make it a group thing, and you can fill out your own bracket for a chance to win a prize.

I once knew someone who picked her bracket based on the team mascots she liked, and her winning percentage in the end was higher than someone else I knew who was an avid college basketball fan.

Brackets are simple. Brackets are easy. Brackets are accessible.  In the NCAA’s case, the bracket is an effective means of engagement.  Brackets feed the buzz. 

Have a Sub-plot – As the nation starts to follow the NCAA tournament, one of the most intriguing sub-plots each year is the emergence of a "Cinderella team," one that may never should have been invited to the “big dance,” but for some reason found its way.  And now that it’s there, it’s going to beat teams it shouldn’t and run deep into the tournament, maybe even reach the Final Four.  That’s a Cinderella team.  What makes these teams confounding is that they usually destroy most peoples’ predictions and their brackets suffer, along any chances they had to win a prize.  Of course, some peoples' Cinderella teams are other peoples' "bracket busters," and love them or hate them they provide a necessary sub-plot to put the madness in March. 

Tie it all Together in One Big Moment – The weekend of the Final Four is when the best four teams face off for the national championship.  On a Saturday night, there are two games.  The winners of these games will meet in the national championship.

The night of the Final Four, people who’ve invested themselves in this process get one last night of multiple games involving the best teams.  The event is a social event, not as big but not unlike the Super Bowl, where people have parties, sports bars are packed, and host cities rake in millions. 

Then there is that national championship game.  By now, people are likely ready for it to end, but not without one final crowning moment, and that is the game.

The NCAA has honed this process over the years and it is unlike any other.

In PR, we may not be able to create our own NCAA tournaments for our organizations or clients, but we can learn from it.  We can incorporate story lines, messages, structure, accessibility and the kind of sub-plots that may be needed to keep our targeted audiences engaged. 

So, did you fill out your bracket yet?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Pittsburgh St. Patrick's Day Parade Takes Me Home

Sometimes an important step in your career or life, one that transcends the traditional measures of success, is right in front of you. In fact, it may have been there for a long time, but you just weren’t ready to see it.

This was the case for me up until about seven years ago, not long before I decided to more meaningfully embrace my Irish-American roots and serve as the Public Relations chair of the Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I had many reasons for doing so, and they were all intertwined.

First, a little background on the parade. Mother Nature dropped a blizzard on it in 1993, and the show went on. Nothing stops this parade, among the largest in the nation. On a typically blustery March morning in Pittsburgh, the parade attracts an average of 150,000 spectators and 23,000 marchers – bands, Irish dancers, drums and pipes - all “Irish for the day.” When the weather has been unseasonably nice, we’ve attracted more than 350,000 to the parade.

It’s the town’s way to say goodbye to Winter and welcome in the warmer months with a citywide party. The fact that Pittsburgh – according to the U.S. Census – counts the Irish as one of its largest ethnic groups doesn’t hurt.

So it was that several years after starting my business and deep into my communications career, I had this strong urge to get back to my roots. To find a way to combine some of the things I care most about into one. This parade presented that opportunity to me.

I handle communications and marketing for the event and the growing number of activities that lead up to it. This parade is not just a three-hour march down a couple of city streets. Second, I have an opportunity to focus all of my PR efforts on a project that is mostly feel-good in nature. For this reason, the work and the planning can be a lot of fun. And third, I have the chance to work with new friends with similar backgrounds, and reconnect with a cross-section of people and families I’ve known since childhood. In some cases, the people I meet come from families that knew mine since before I was born. This dynamic keeps those who came before us alive in our hearts as we plan our annual rite.

Since I’ve been involved, I’ve been proud of a few of our PR and branding accomplishments, but also in putting a celebration of Irish heritage more at the forefront.

Before my time on the Parade Committee it had started to make a concerted effort to reposition the event as a family activity and not just an excuse to party and play to a stereotype of the Irish. The group took concrete steps to address this issue, and over time that has begun to pay off. I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the numbers of young families with strollers lining the parade route. More Downtown businesses are hosting family-friendly events to cater to this increased traffic.

Awareness of the parade and surrounding festivities starts to build weeks before the actual event.

On parade day, I have two secret pleasures. The first is to take in that quiet pause at the starting line when 23,000 marchers are lined up and ready to go as over 150,000 spectators wait. Lights flashing, marching units in formation, musical instruments all silent if just for that moment. You can feel the collective anticipation of a city, not just for a parade but for a celebration of better weather and better days ahead.

The other secret pleasure is a little thing. I like to watch the spectators more than the parade itself. The smiles and the excitement of parade-goers, whether they are one or 96 years old, are plentiful.

That makes it all worthwhile, and gives this event for me a sense of going home.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lesson from Keith Olbermann's Penn State Twitter Feud: Respect the Fourth Wall

Right about now ESPN's Keith Olbermann should be finishing up his foot-in-mouth-imposed suspension from the sports network for getting into a war of tweets with a bunch of students from Penn State.  What made this situation somewhat different than others is that the target of the sports commentator’s ire was a group of students that had just raised over $13 million for patients with pediatric cancer and their families.

What happened was, last Monday night, a Penn State alum tweeted a link to Olbermann that centered on a news story about how a large group of Penn State Students had organized their annual THON dance marathon and raised over $13 million for the Four Diamonds Fund.  That’s a nonprofit organization dedicated to pediatric cancer patients and their families.  They’ve been doing this in State College, Pennsylvania since 1977.

Olbermann tweeted back one word, “pitiful.”

All bets were off after that.  Very quickly Penn State students, alumni and then many others jumped into the Twitter fray.  Olbermann further engaged them by insulting their grammar, the quality of their education, their school and its reputation.

The next day, ESPN decided to suspend Olbermann for one week and issued a statement:

“We are aware of the exchange Keith Olbermann had on Twitter last night regarding Penn State.  It was completely inappropriate and does not reflect the views of ESPN.”

From there Olbermann issued his apology on Twitter, saying, “I apologize for the PSU tweets. I was stupid and childish and way less mature than the students there who did such a great fundraising job.” 

Breaking Through the Fourth Wall 

Poor judgment aside, from a communications standpoint, what Olbermann may have been most guilty of was breaking through the Fourth Wall of the media.  Crashing through it might be a better description.

In theater, the fourth wall is considered the imaginary “wall” at the front of the stage through which the audience sees the performance.  When an actor talks directly to the audience, he breaks through the fourth wall.  Or, on television or in the movies, when an actress speaks directly into the camera, that is breaking through the fourth wall.

As effective as this can be as a dramatic device, it can be quite dangerous in the sports or entertainment worlds where real people in real-life situations are involved. It gets real any time a comedian responds to a heckler in the audience.  Or when professional athletes let the fans get to them.

One legendary example of this was in 2004 when, during an NBA game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, Indiana’s Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson jumped into the stands and got into a brawl with some fans.  Several people got hurt, and the police had to investigate.

Fortunately for Olbermann and those Penn State students, their battle was digital, but no less real, and that was the problem.

Celebrities have many opportunities to engage with the public.  It may be at a structured public appearance, like a speech, or it could be at a coffee shop.  They usually learn how to handle these situations.

Sports commentators may interact with fans at a game.  Again, they usually know how to deal with these situations.  And for seasoned pros like Olbermann, talking to the public via a camera lens is a talent.

Given his experience, you could assume Olbermann breaks the fourth wall all of the time.  But social media is different.  The interactions are as public as they are personal.  They are as uncomplicated as a personal discussion, but can be amplified to thousands and millions in an instant.

I can’t speak for Olbermann, but demeaning a bunch of college students who reached out in the context of raising $13 million for kids with cancer, was not a proper application of that technique – breaking through the fourth wall.  For celebrities, sometimes it’s best to operate as though there really is a safe barrier between them and the public and to respect it.

The lesson here for anyone, any brand, or any other celebrity is that when you engage one-on-one with fans or strangers on social media, you’re breaking through the fourth wall.  Know this and tread skillfully.