Recently, PRWeek featured a list of "50 game changers" in the field of public relations. As you can imagine, communicators from high-achieving companies with enviable positioning occupy the list. Within the top ten, two are pure-play energy companies (ExxonMobil, Chevron) and two companies have major business lines devoted to energy efficiency and energy infrastructure (GE, IBM). In addition, Comcast, also on the list, has entered the home energy management area with its Xfinity Home offering.
Why is it notable that half of the top ten game-changers are firmly in and around one industry sector?
It demonstrates something we believe is central to corporate reputation for any company: energy. Whether your company is in the business of providing it, enabling it, or helping people live better with it, a commitment to using energy more efficiently and productively is something that no one can argue with. Energy topics permeate nearly every aspect of our lives today: consumer and environmental issues, legislative policy and business performance. It’s everywhere. And, as consumers need and use more energy, they also become more educated about making smart energy choices, and playing an active role in that decision-making process. Consumers are no longer passive on this issue. They will demand that brands they buy, companies they choose to work for, and live near, do the same and lead by example.
It’s no longer just a nice add-on to a corporate responsibility program to mention responsible consumption of energy and “looking for opportunities to reduce the carbon footprint”. How well an organization manages and sustains energy, in its facilities, distribution, transportation and logistics, use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, is fundamental to corporate reputation and CSR efforts.
Recent data from Bloomberg show that investing in renewables and smart-energy technologies increased 155% in the second quarter of 2013 in the U.S. It’s clearly where people want to be. These five game-changers are leading the charge to communicate on these critical issues. That’s quite an accomplishment for industries often viewed as outmoded, bureaucratic and slow-moving to be alongside major consumer and innovator brands. Everyone should listen to these game-changers because they’re driving important conversations. Why not follow their lead and join them?
By Meghan Gross and Erin Del Llano
By Meghan Gross on July 25, 2013 12:29 PM
As transparency, responsibility and the authenticity of a brand’s communications take on greater importance in today’s marketplace, brands need to get out of the selling business and into the business of improving lives. Today, it’s about purpose-led marketing. In the past, having a purpose may have been considered “nice,” but it is now crucial to winning in business. Brands are realizing that it is no longer just about what you sell, but also “what you stand for.” As such, purpose is taking its rightful place as the fifth “P” in the traditional marketing mix – along with product, price, place and promotion. Global companies and leading brands are seeking to identify their purpose and communicate it in ways that enhance reputation and drive emotional points of difference among competitors.
Within purpose-led marketing, a company’s support of social issues remains a critical component to help bring that purpose to life in real time for stakeholders. This may include cause marketing, NGO partnerships and corporate responsibility practices. In fact, 68 percent of consumers expect companies they do business with to support causes according to MSLGROUP’s 2011 Social Purpose Index.
The research also revealed that despite lofty expectations for corporate responsibility, consumer skepticism is at an all-time high. While we know stakeholders want companies to support causes, and will reward those that do it well, many believe companies only do it to sell more. Almost 75 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed say there is a disconnect between the causes brands support and the products they sell. Fifty-four percent claim that it seems like every company supports a cause, and 78 percent find it difficult to follow who is doing what. In addition, Americans are dealing with uncertain economic times. As unemployment remains high, and gas and food prices continue to rise, 79 percent of consumers agree: “I care about societal issues, but times are tough and I am worried about ensuring my family has everything they need.” This slice of socially conscious consumers represents a big opportunity for companies to more deeply engage targets in their purpose, and it does not have to mean supporting causes buyers care most about.
Gone are the days of simply putting pink ribbons on packaging to stand out or sell more products. Gone are the days of safe, status quo, or short-lived cause efforts. Rather, in order to garner attention, corporate causes should extend from a well-defined purpose and make a meaningful, memorable, credible link to brand values, products and services. And, to more deeply engage consumers’ hearts, minds and wallets, companies must not only connect to a meaningful purpose, but go beyond that purpose to deliver on a deeper promise for society.
By Heather McIntyre on May 23, 2013 3:13 PM
Driving in to work this morning, I heard the news that GE Capital has announced that it has stopped financing gun retailers. It was reported that the company, based in Fairfield, Conn., made the move in a sign of solidarity with its neighbors in nearby Newtown, where Adam Lanza senselessly killed 27 people, including 20 children, just before Christmas last year.
"Wow," I thought. "Way to take a stand!" Until the story went a little deeper... It turns out GE Capital's new policy affects only retailers that exclusively sell firemarms and doesn't affect retailers—such as Wal-Mart—that sell guns in addition to a variety of other products.
In fact, the decision affects less than 75 retailers, which USA Today quotes GE spokesperson Russell Wilkerson as saying was "an immaterial part of our sales volume."
Oh. So what's the point of the big announcement then? Well, the point is mostly symbolic. GE Capital is essentially sending a not-so-subtle message to its employees, its customers, investors and the community at large that things need to change. We need to figure out how to get a handle on gun violence in this country and put an end to tragic events such as what happened in Newtown.
Are they sticking their necks out for this? Not really. But they are drawing an (albeit faint) line in the sand. What's more, they're keeping the conversation going, with media outlets reporting on it from coast to coast this morning (and even a mention in this humble blog). At the end of the day, we're all going to remember that GE Capital acted on principle. We're less likely to remember it was a mitigated risk in the first place. And, that's what they hoped to achieve.
It got me thinking about my clients and even the company I work for. What can each of our businesses do to put a stake in the ground -- to make good business decisions that are also based on principle and the kind of companies we want to be? How can we use these decisions to position ourselves as thought leaders and inspire others to follow suit?
By Christine Milligan on April 25, 2013 2:55 PM
When January rolls around, resolutions are top-of-mind: eat healthier, work out more, watch less TV. The first few weeks of the year pass in a flurry of activity. However, surveys often show that by March, most people have abandoned their resolutions and slipped back into old habits because they haven’t set realistic goals, and also haven’t integrated them into their lives in a manageable way.
That got me thinking about work. How many times do we all go through this mantra in January or at the beginning of the fiscal year: stay on strategy, stay on message, measure results. But it’s easy to get distracted as the crush of daily business comes at us in the first quarter.
It’s March, and maybe it’s time to take a look: is your PR program on track or has it become the unused gym membership? If it has, here are a few tips to get it back on track.
- A first step is stop trying to be all things to all people. While we need to be mindful of tailoring messages to our most important stakeholder groups, it shouldn’t turn into positioning du jour. Once a year (why not first quarter?) review your messaging platform. Is it resilient? Will it work as well on an upswing as it will when your company is facing a tough road? Can it be customized yet maintain its integrity?
- Try not to bite off more than you can chew. Experts say that we stick to resolutions better when they’re small, manageable and we can see progress quickly. Similarly, many organizations have layers and layers of performance plans, management objectives, strategic priorities and special initiatives. Pile on one unexpected crisis or one new project and you not only face more work than your team can handle, but you may also face competing aims: one seemingly innocuous press release contradicts something else that was planned, and you’ve got to make a tough choice. While it can be difficult, say “no” occasionally. As PR people, we have to make those tough calls in order to make progress.
- And finally: stick to your plan, no matter what comes your way. By April or May, you’ll already be thinking about how to handle that big fall sponsorship, filling in for your colleagues’ vacations this summer or planning a new series of internal communications. Your colleagues could be launching similar initiatives and you could be asked to support them. Resist “shiny object syndrome” and do your best to keep the commitments you put on paper regardless of what comes your way.
Reputation management is a tough job. PR practitioners are on the front lines juggling a lot of important stakeholder communications. It can be difficult to stay on track with so many competing priorities, but with diligence, discipline and a few reminders along the way, you can make your corporate communications program a resolution success story.
By Meghan Gross on March 20, 2013 12:42 PM
During the post-Superbowl, pre-Hollywood awards television schedule I was flipping channels one night and stumbled on an episode of Undercover Boss. For those of you who have not seen it, the CBS show features company CEOs from organizations like 7-11, Waste Management, Choice Hotels and Modells who disguise themselves, pose as newbie recruits, and go out in the field with rank-and-file employees to job shadow and train for the new position.
For a moment, let’s suspend what we know about reality TV’s partial scripting. If this were true reality, the employees believe that the person is a new colleague and is there ostensibly to get training from the seasoned veteran. As a result, the CEO usually gets the unvarnished truth, whether it is one employee’s (usually negative) take on corporate culture and policies, or a very personal glimpse into that person’s individual work-life struggles.
The end of the show results in the CEO summoning the three or four employees to headquarters and personally addressing their struggles and concerns by announing an overhaul of corporate policy and often, showering them with bonuses. It’s often a feel-good moment and ostensibly, good visibility for the company. Or is it?
As a lifetime student of corporate reputation, I’ve become intrigued by the gradual shift we’ve seen in employee engagement over the years. Whether it is fueled by changing workforce or social media, employees know when companies are walking the walk and talking the talk. So what does it say when a leader is so unrecognizable throughout the enterprise that he or she can pose as a new employee with no more than a wig, baseball hat or makeup to disguise his appearance? It suggests to me that these leaders have not been as engaged with the employee base as they should have.
It’s true, no one person can carry a corporate culture. It takes years to create, and diligence to maintain. But it can be strongly influenced top-down: so if the C-suite isn’t visible to the employees, I wonder whether the rest of the senior managers are? And are the front-line managers in on the joke?
Whether this is typical reality TV and everyone behind-the-scenes is in on the joke or not, the premise of the show does bring up an important point and that is how, when and where the C-suite engages with the employees. To create a truly engaged workforce, leaders should make a regular point to get out from behind their desks, put down the tablets and the smartphones, and live the brand for a day. It’s those employees behind the cash register, cleaning rooms, and stocking shelves who create the brand promise for the consumers. It should take more than a baseball hat or makeup or a different haircut for them to not recognize the CEO.
By Meghan Gross on March 4, 2013 4:02 PM
If you’re like me, you drive around with a car emergency kit in the trunk of your car. I noticed mine the other day and took stock of what was in it: flares, a flashlight, an emergency blanket…All useful things to have in an emergency. And, though I hope I never have to use it, it’s good to know what I have and that it’s there in case I need it.
I was recently reminded that the same is true for business. You always want to be sure you’re prepared with a plan to handle any predicament…It’s something we remind our clients of regularly.
Nobody likes to think about bad things happening. But the truth is, you are more likely to be able to successfully weather a sporadic challenge if you have spent time preparing before it occurs. If you take the time to think about how you will communicate before it happens, when you are not under the stress of the moment, you will more likely be able to reach your employees, customers and other key audiences effectively, and even handle potentially negative media attention.
At Schwartz MSL we provide our clients with an in-depth review of the issues most likely to make them vulnerable in a precarious situation. Then, we work together to put a plan in place to help our clients respond should those issues develop into events.
But anyone can write a plan, put it on a shelf, and forget about it. The key element of any emergency reponse plan is putting it to the test before you really need it. It’s the testing that helps identify any gaps, and regular drills help familiarize a business team with the response plan so that they have practice and confidence.
Schwartz MSL recently conducted such a drill with one of our largest clients, a power utility. We gathered every communicator in one room, including those responsible for media relations, employee communications, customer relations, government relations and so on, and we took them through a simulated scenario in which a major Nor’easter crippled the entire east coast. Every communicator in the room took the drill seriously and responded just as they would in a real life situation. As the day unfolded, we continued to throw new simulated developments at them, including simulated customer issues, reporter inquiries, rumors and pressure from government officials. All of these needed to be responded to in real-time, while still ensuring that the team stayed on track with their original plan.
After the conclusion of the drill, we worked together with our client to assess:
- Were they able to prioritize responsibilities and respond accordingly?
- Were there any gaps? Did they have the appropriate tools to respond effectively?
- Were they able to stay proactive despite the unfolding situation, or did they become too reactive?
- Were they able to follow their existing response communications plan, or was it forgotten in the heat of the moment?
- Did everyone take responsibility for communicating with their own jurisdiction or were any audiences forgotten?
As a result, our client was more prepared than ever to communicate in an emergency. Little did we know, they would soon be put to the test with the arrival of Superstorm Sandy, one of the most catastrophic storms our country has ever seen.
While it’s true that not all of our clients have to worry about severe weather events, it’s also true that any company’s reputation is much too important to leave to chance. That’s why an integrated emergency communication plan, along with simulation drills to put it to the test, is the best way to ensure you and your organization will be able to respond efficiently and effectively.
Just like my trusty car emergency kit, you hope you’ll never need it, but you’ll be glad you’re prepared in the event you do.
by Christine Milligan
By Wait A Minute on January 9, 2013 3:12 PM
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a swanky business networking event in the city. As many of these types of events tend to go, upon arrival you scope out the scene to see who you know and then after collecting your adult beverage you make your way to find the ideal spot to chat and meet new and interesting people. Once my colleagues and I found our prime real estate, we started chatting up two young professionals in the IT consulting business. As we got to talking and exchanging business cards and professional resumes, etc. one of them asked me a question that I realized, I’ve never been able to answer all that clearly. The question wasn’t anything too earth shattering actually, but it crystallized in my mind that not too many people outside of the PR world understand what it is that we actually do.
Upon explaining to the lovely blonde woman that I am a PR communications professional, her response was one that I’ve gotten for many years from my friends, parents and, dare I say, even my husband! And that is, “You’re in PR, so you write press releases, right”? As the words came out of her mouth, I started thinking about my answer and thinking to myself “ugh, here we go again.” Well, “that’s part of it, but there’s so much more to it.” Then it dawned on me, the PR world is still somewhat of a mystery.
I started to explain to her that writing press releases is simply one small part of what PR communicators do. I started to tell her that in addition to writing press releases, PR pros are strategic advisors to our clients. That means we not only help to spread their news, but we also advise them as to when, where, how often and through what communications channel to spread their news. As I continued, I realized I still wasn’t doing the profession the justice that it deserved and I was also getting exhausted!
This got me thinking about all of the work that PR pros do on a daily basis in addition to writing press releases. Then, my mind started racing “tell her about media relations, message development, event planning, strategic communications, oh and don’t forget, issues management and internal communications.” When I started to tell her about all of it she seemed almost surprised.
After that exchange, I realized that perhaps the reason the PR professional remains a mystery to others is not because we don’t know how to do it justice, but instead, because we are more focused on driving business forward for our clients. We are behind the scenes operators and we like it that way. Then a calm peace came over me. Satisfied with my answer, we moved onto another topic.
For those of us who work in this profession, we know what we do every day and to heck with the rest of the world if they don’t quite get it. When we’re ready to do a PR push around the PR profession, you’ll be the first one to hear about it!
By Carla Brennan on September 13, 2012 2:05 PM
Traffic is on the roads and school supplies are flying off the shelves. That means one thing: it’s September. For some people, it’s back to school and for us PR practitioners, it’s back to business.
Regardless of when your fiscal year ends, September is always a good time to revisit your plans and see what needs a refresh.
If that’s the case, then what things should PR people be reviewing now?
First: your news pipeline. Do you have enough fresh, substantive, relevant content to sustain you through a cluttered media environment? Remember: this year, in addition to the usual competition for space, you're also vying for mindshare in an election year. Spend time now to analyze your content for its “newsworthiness” and that will optimize timing and placement of each news item moving forward.
Next, what does your social media policy look like? Do you have one? By now most companies allow and many encourage employees to use social media. But platforms, not to mention habits, change so quickly these days, it’s always a good opportunity to review any governance you’ve set around employee use of social media and be sure that your employees can follow best practices without stifling the terrific dialogue that social media should encourage.
Let’s not forget crisis plans: in the next few months we’ll face a busy holiday shopping season, inclement weather, and likely some economic challenges too. Regardless of the industry sector you’re in, the spotlight is always on your resources, your technology, and your people. How nimble you are in responding to adverse events can make or break your company’s reputation to key stakeholders. Be sure that you’ve planned for the possibility of every potential scenario with a good crisis plan on the books, and a good team in place to manage it.
And finally, don’t forget CEO media training. Your CEO is in the spotlight a lot already. He or she is used to speaking in public but even the most seasoned presenters can use a refresher. Try to schedule a yearly training with your top executives to be sure they’re poised and ready when the cameras roll.
With all the innovative techniques at our disposal, it’s really easy to forget where we started with content, messages, and plans. September is a great time to get back to the basics!
By Meghan Gross on September 12, 2012 1:52 PM
If you’ve visited Schwartz MSL’s other blogs, you’ve probably seen our “Wait a Minute” video blog series. My recent post about working with lawyers and the inherent difference in the way we’ve both been trained got me thinking about a frequent challenge I faced when working in-house at law firms. Without fail, most Mondays I would arrive at the office with a fresh list of thought leadership topics culled from various sources; the Sunday paper, the radio during my morning commute, random Internet surfing.
Professional services firms are brimming with raw materials for thought leadership. For the most part, at a general practice (law, accounting, consulting) firm you can find a way into nearly any story on the front page or the top of a Google news search. With that in mind, I’d shop around my ideas to everyone; corporate, labor and employment, life sciences and litigation usually based on what had happened and then how to prevent it from happening again. Most often, I would find willing participants, but as I made my rounds, inevitably someone would say “Why would I want to capitalize on someone else’s misfortune?”
Here’s why: because it’s not capitalizing on someone’s misfortune. It’s doing the rest of the business community a big favor.
Let me repeat: it is not capitalizing on someone’s misfortune. Let's reframe it.
Here’s what I think is one of the best things about professional services thought leadership. What lawyers, accountants, and consultants know is how to protect companies from exposure or how to maximize their competitive edge. It’s hard to explain that without pointing to a tangible example of what worked or didn’t work in a previous situation. It’s no different than an academic case study brought to real life. Without it, advising on the issues of the day seems a little esoteric.
Good thought leadership needs a few things. Topics need to be:
- Current, if not ahead of, the curve
- Full of teachable moments so readers can understand how to apply the principle to their world
- A bit provocative to keep people thinking
But it also needs to be diplomatic. It needs to be done with a respect for the entities involved in the issue of the day, and not in a way that criticizes their efforts. It can be done – it’s the art of identifying those teachable moments and then using them for the good of the business community that makes the thought leaders true experts in the industry.
By Meghan Gross on August 16, 2012 5:13 PM
As a former marathon runner, I can’t help but follow-on to our first On Your Mark blog post with another analogy.
I also couldn’t help but watch with rapt interest at the last mile of the 2012 Olympics Women’s Marathon as a pack of four runners headed toward the finish line. While all four were close, three runners from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Russia were clearly were battling it out for the gold, silver and bronze medals. As the fourth runner, Mary Jepkosgei Keitany of Kenya (incidentally a pre-race favorite), fell increasingly behind in those final moments, she soldiered on with a relatively calm expression on her face which I can only imagine hid her disappointment.
While some people might find fourth place the most frustrating and disappointing of positions, particularly after logging more than 20 miles on foot, I actually find it a place of inspiration. Why? Because of all the runners in the field, it’s the position most poised for success from this point onward. There’s no medal to defend, no reputation to diminish, no critics to silence. There’s a solid foundation of achievement with only an upward trajectory, and that’s inspiring.
This got me thinking that thought leadership is not much different. Just like running a marathon, thought leadership can’t happen overnight. Thought leaders are cultivated and developed. For anyone who does it, you’re well aware that it takes a long time, a lot of effort, and some disappointments along the way.
However, like runner #4 heading toward the finish line, every thought leader eventually reaches that place: you’re not quite there yet, but your position is strong enough to compete with the elites and with a little more effort, you just might win.
For every struggling thought leader who wants to be on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, watch Mary Jepkosgei Keitany and remember her tenacity. Keep agreeing to those background briefings, write your blog posts, accept every speaking opportunity and jump on the rapid response programs. When your competitor gets the profile article, study it, dissect it, and do some thorough self-assessment on what you might need to make it there. Do you need a more provocative point of view? Do you need to showcase some innovation before it’s completely ready? Do you need to engage more deeply with your social media communities? What else would drive your success?
With time and effort, you too could be on the podium in 2016.
By Meghan Gross on August 8, 2012 11:19 AM