Thank you for your patience

Patiently listening while being thanked for my patience.

“Thank you for your patience.”  When I see it in a letter or hear it from a customer service representative, I often think, “Hmmm…but maybe I’m not being patient.”

As a homeowner and business owner in Houston, Texas, I’ve seen and heard this more than usual in the past months.  That’s because we are living in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, when recovery and other services are in high demand and not always readily available.  As a result, so many affected by Harvey’s flooding are routinely thanked for their patience – or understanding, or cooperation.

Out of curiosity, I conducted some informal research.  I asked a few friends how they feel about being thanked in advance for their patience.  I also searched online.  Both friends and the online community reveal the same thing:  phrases like this can be perceived as presumptuous, even insulting.

In an effort to be polite, the person communicating these platitudes may actually offend the customers they are trying to communicate with.  They are thanking the customer for something over which he or she has no choice.

This is a seemingly minor communication faux pas, but it’s now endemic in our culture.  The internet server is down, the flight is delayed, an urgent service call is put on hold for an inordinate amount of time – these are all cases where you can gain or lose a customer simply by how you communicate.  Thanking someone for their patience when they cannot communicate with clients, reach their destination in time for a meeting, or have sewage leaking into their home can seem insensitive.

Is there a better way to handle these situations?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Indicate that you know how inconvenient the situation is and that you will keep them updated.  (Then follow through.)
  • Apologize for the inconvenience and assure the customer that you are working to resolve the problem as quickly as possible.
  • Give the customer a time estimate when the problem will be resolved – or if they are on hold, what the “wait time” is.

Many companies are already doing this, and customers do appreciate it.  Most people understand that “stuff happens,” but when it affects important aspects of their lives, they just want as much information as possible about what’s going on and when things will be resolved.  That’s how a company shows respect for its customers.

Posted by Lisa Dimond Vasquez

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Questions Top PR Firms Ask Their Clients

At the first meeting with your new PR firm, you may find yourself answering a lot of questions.  In the following post, our guest blogger, Lucy Siegel of Bridge Global Strategies, says there are five crucial questions you should be asked – and why they are important.

PR firms offering the highest quality of service ask their clients a lot of questions.  That’s the only way they can understand the best approaches to meeting their clients’ PR goals.

This blog post will focus on some of the questions a PR firm should be asking a client.  First, though, I want to emphasize that no questions should be off limits on either side.  We ask our clients a ton of questions in order to do our jobs as well as possible, and we expect and encourage clients to ask us anything they want to know.

1. What’s the background and history of your company, your founders and your CEO?  Some clients don’t understand why this question is relevant, especially when the assignment involves public relations for a product and not corporate PR for a company.

“Just focus on the product; you don’t need to be concerned with the company’s background,” some clients will say.  But PR involves piecing together a compelling story about a product or service that will resonate with the company’s various audiences (potential customers, communities, employees, suppliers, etc.).  Sometimes the story about the company can enhance the product story.

2. What are your goals for PR?  This question should always be asked by agencies and is crucial for starting any PR program.  Your goals may be simply to raise visibility as a precursor to brand building and sales.  Or you may be looking for a way to increase sales leads directly, to position the company in a new market, or address negative impressions of your company or product.  Getting media coverage, increasing the number of likes and followers, increasing the number of shares of company blog posts and articles, etc., are not goals for PR; they’re a means toward reaching the goal.

3. What do you picture as an ideal outcome of the work we’ll do?  Your answers to this question reveal a lot to your agency.  Sometimes company executives have unrealistic expectations about what PR can accomplish.  It may be highly unlikely that the PR team can get your product written about by the Wall Street Journal or any other top-tier media.  This is an issue that should be discussed at the beginning of a client-agency relationship because it’s very important for you to have realistic expectations about what to expect.  Unfortunately, some agencies deliberately mislead potential clients about their ability to deliver that type of outcome.

There may also be a disconnect between the outcomes you’re looking for and the goals you’ve expressed, which a good agency will point out and discuss with you.

4. Who, what, when, where, why and how?  These are the basics to any story, and the elements that public relations depends on.  They’re the questions journalists and bloggers will ask the PR agency staff working on your account and the focus of content marketing, social media and search engine optimization.  For example, here’s a vital “what” question:

  • What makes your product or your company different from your competitors’ products? If you’re looking for media coverage from your PR team, this is a crucial question.  The media is geared to gathering and reporting news.  If there’s nothing much to differentiate your product or company from others, it will probably be very difficult to get interest from the media in covering your story.  Other methods of PR may be more effective in those circumstances than media relations.

Just as parents think their own child is special, companies are often too close to their own stories to be objective.  Sometimes what the company feels is unique is really not a big enough difference from the competition to qualify as a true differentiation from a news viewpoint.  Trust the feedback your PR agency gives you.  The agency is able to be a lot more objective than your company’s staff, who are living and breathing your business day in and day out.

If a PR agency knows there isn’t a lot to differentiate you from the competition, the agency team can focus on creating news.  This can be done in many ways, including establishing new and different corporate initiatives within your community or for your employees, developing new data through a company-sponsored survey, or developing a news-making company-sponsored event.

For more on the definition of news (something that’s hard for many people to grasp), you may be interested in the this post I wrote some time ago, which directly addresses what the media consider to be newsworthy and what they don’t.

To better understand the challenges of getting media coverage in today’s media environment, you may also be interested in this blog post:

Clients must be forthcoming and honest in answering these basic questions, even if some of the answers don’t put the company in the best light.  If the agency doesn’t know the truth, all of the truth, it puts the agency’s PR team in a very bad position to work effectively.  Journalists will probe for answers and do research on their own.   If they’re given dishonest answers to their questions, they’ll think less of the company the agency is representing, as well as the PR agency people.

Sometimes internal corporate staff feel that it’s better for the PR agency not to know negative information so they won’t be able to spread it around.  But knowing honest answers doesn’t mean the agency PR team will provide that negative information to the media unless the client and agency have agreed that’s the best approach.  Some questions don’t have to be answered directly.  When a company just provides a rosy picture of the company and/or products, and leaves the PR team in the dark about the actual situation, it’s a recipe for PR failure.  One reason why:  the best approach for answering difficult questions from the media is to plan ahead for those difficult questions to come up and how to answer them.  PR professionals are well-prepared to help with those questions and answers, but can’t be helpful unless they know the whole truth, both negatives and positives.

5. What’s your budget?  This is a question that every PR firm should ask before preparing a proposal for you, and one that you should answer honestly.  Many potential clients tell us, “we don’t know what the budget is – we want you to tell us what we need to spend.”  What’s wrong with that picture?  The size of the budget will determine how fast your goals can be reached, and a PR program can be tailored to cover different levels of work.  An agency is put in a difficult position when that question goes unanswered.  If the agency makes an assumption that the budget is more than what the company can actually afford, it’s a waste of the agency’s time.  If the agency guesses on the low side, the proposal may not include as much PR activity as the client needs to meet PR goals.  Frequently we’re told, “Just give us a few different budget levels to choose from.”  That entails a lot of work with no compensation, all of which is in vain if the company decides on another agency or chooses not to move ahead with PR at all.  While developing proposals is part of the cost of doing business, asking for multiple proposals for the same project isn’t fair to PR agencies.

The reason many companies don’t like to reveal their budgets is the fear that they will be taken advantage of.  It’s a common corporate assumption that the agencies bidding on PR work will spend the maximum, whether it’s necessary or not.  However, in asking about budget, most agencies simply want to have information that will help them decide the type and scope of PR program that will work best given your budget.

Some of the questions PR firms ask clients and potential clients can only be answered by top management.  That’s one reason why PR professionals (internal and external) need access to clients’ top management executives.

Every company wants a top PR firm, one that can deliver results.  However, PR Professionals need a lot of information to be successful.

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Lucy Siegel is president and CEO of Bridge Global Strategies, based in New York City.

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What does your front desk say about you?

There is one client I always look forward to calling or visiting.  The receptionist, who also handles all incoming calls, is unceasingly cheerful and professional.  She is a valuable – and no doubt valued – employee.  I hope she realizes how much she contributes to the success of the company she works for.

The people who are in charge of your front desk and answer your telephone play an extremely important role.  They are the “public face” of the company – often creating a lasting first impression. They should be treated with respect, paid well and know how important you think their job is.

What does this have to do with public relations? PR is essentially reputation building and reputation management.  “Perception is reality,” we often say.  It’s difficult to see how much an executive really cares about his or her company’s image when the first – or even second or third – impression people receive is negative.

And don’t forget to keep your front desk people informed.  You may get a call from a reporter wanting to do a positive story on news your PR person has sent out, but if you never communicate with the person who answers your phone, the reporter may get transferred all around the office and finally give up because no one knows what’s going on.  (That’s why our firm does call list instructions for clients to distribute to their office staff, by the way.)

Smart company managers know this, but sometimes we all get so busy we forget to become objective observers of our work environment.  To quote Scottish poet Robert Burns:  “Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”

Posted by Margot Dimond

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Protecting Your Reputation: No “Spin” Involved

Mark Twain is said to have coined the phrase,  “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”  Twain died in 1910.  One wonders what he would have thought of a world dominated by social media because his comment is truer today than ever.

Just a decade ago, it was a much different situation.  Public relations counselors would occasionally get calls from potential clients who needed to dispel a bad reputation – mostly earned, unfortunately.  This is not the best time to contact a PR firm.  It’s much easier to begin a PR firm-client relationship with a company that already has a good reputation – or even a reputation that is essentially a blank slate.

The problem isn’t that a company’s bad reputation cannot be turned around; it just takes time and is often hindered if a company doesn’t want to change its practices – just the negative perception its practices have generated.  In these cases, the PR firm ends up spending a lot of time trying to convince company executives that there are no magic wands that can make reality disappear.  The company actually has to change the way it does things.  Perhaps due to the overuse of the word “spin” to describe what PR people do, these company executives expect a miraculous turnaround.

But now, it can be even worse for companies who are not prepared.  Disgruntled former employees, disappointed customers, and competitors can fill online “review” sites with negative comments – earned or not.  Damaging blog posts, photos and videos can spread to literally millions of people before their content can be disputed or explained away.

Entire businesses have sprung up to deal with online reputation management.

And yet, the basic PR approach still applies:  Build a positive reputation to begin with, and it will be easier to control any attacks on your reputation down the road.  No “spin” involved.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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Don’t let this happen to you!

In a recent Twitter campaign, McDonald’s sought to promote the fact that the chain bought fresh produce from farmers.  First came the #MeetTheFarmers hashtag on Twitter; later in the day, the company launched #McDStories to generate positive stories from consumers.  Almost immediately users began tweeting stories about food with worms, food poisoning, and other such appetizing fare.  The large number of negative tweets caused a flurry of press coverage, embarrassing the company.

McDonald’s is not alone in experiencing a social media disaster.  Australia’s Qantas, car-maker Honda, and clothier Kenneth Cole are just a few more examples of corporate social media marketing plans gone awry.

Social media offers a great new venue for widespread exposure – especially for companies selling to consumers.  But it’s a double-edged sword that can also offer an opportunity for widespread embarrassment – as disgruntled employees, disappointed customers or professional gripers vent their frustrations in a very public way.

Understandably, seeing campaigns such as McDonald’s fall apart may make a marketing executive shy away from using social media to promote his company’s products or services.  But this type of unintended consequence can be avoided by remembering two important things:

1.  Have a Strategy.  As with any other public relations/marketing tool, you should know why you are doing the campaign.  Does it advance your brand?  Is it a good fit with your marketing goals?  Does it reach the right people with the right kind of message?  All of these questions should be asked before any campaign – of any type – is launched.

2.  Be an Emergency Manager.  A big part of emergency management takes place before the crisis happens.  Good emergency managers think, “What’s the worst that could happen?”  If there is a good chance your brand could be hijacked and trashed, you may want to try something else.  Even if you can’t think of a worst case scenario, have a crisis plan ready for handling any negative fallout.

Finally, monitor your campaign on a regular basis, so you will know how it’s going, and be ready to spring into action if things go awry.

There are always risks when doing social media marketing, but if well-planned and monitored, it may be well worth it for your company.

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Reputation Management 101

Reputation managementReputation management is an important part of public relations.  It’s many times more difficult to repair a broken reputation than to maintain a good one.  So it would seem obvious that company owners and executives would keep reputation management as one of their top agenda items.  If only that were the case.

Ideally, company executives will consult with their public relations team on a regular basis – to make sure their actions are well-conceived and communicated accurately.  After all, the best communication is not solely from a company to its publics.  It’s important as well to facilitate communication to a company from its publics.  That’s why most PR pros work hard to stay in touch with public opinion on behalf of their employers or clients.

Often, however, company executives charge ahead without giving much thought to how their actions will be perceived.  If things do not turn out well, that’s when they bring in their PR people, expecting them to fix a public perception that by that time has already been sealed in concrete.

You rarely see PR disasters with companies or organizations that have been around awhile.  Their management has learned to head off any unpleasant reactions to what they do by including their PR staff in the decision-making process.

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