Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The media loves experts

I’m sure you’ve noticed that each time the media does a story on rising fuel costs, they talk to someone from the local motoring association, and when interest rates move we hear from a representative of the finance sector.

The media loves experts – and whatever the topic, there’s an expert that can add some flavour and dimension to the story.

You are an expert!

As someone with knowledge about your field, you have information that is valuable to others. But is the media coming to you for comment when your industry is in the news?

If they are not, it’s because they don’t know you. Never feel you have nothing to offer, because your opinion is important to someone.

I am often asked to comment within the media in my role as a public relations strategist who is considered an ‘expert’ in issues and reputation management. I’ve provided my thoughts on issues as diverse as the Lance Armstrong fall from grace, a hospital’s legionnaire outbreak and the Malaysian Government’s response to missing flight MH370.

Maybe you’re in a field that doesn’t deal with the general public, yet your opinion may be valuable to industry or trade media.

Remember that the media must develop a story. They can’t just report the facts because this is too bland – they need more. They require the facts behind the facts, the thinking behind the facts behind the facts, and what this means for the future. They want to know how the story impacts the country, the local community and anyone else that may be affected.

When you or your company or organisation is viewed as the expert, it increases profile, credibility and often, revenue. People want to deal with experts.

If you’ve never thought of positioning you and your company to provide expert opinion to the media, here are three simple steps:

1. Summarise the areas in which you have expertise. For example if you are a law firm, make a note of your speciality areas like family law or franchising.

2. Make a list of the media that would be seen by your ‘publics’ (your stakeholders and potential markets) and find their contact numbers. These could be local, industry or national media outlets, depending on your field and market.

3. Do a short ‘media alert’ or just an email note, letting them know you are available to speak on issues that relate to your industry or product. Include a few suggested topics and some points about your background and expertise.

The fine line between pleasure and pain – staying in the pleasure zone

In this new media world, companies and organisations tread a fine line between great PR and a disaster.

Some of the world’s largest corporations have created what they thought were brilliant social media PR stunts only to see them spectacularly backfire.

In many other cases, something said or done with little thought has been twisted out of context by the media, resulting in adverse publicity.

The problem with negative media is that in today’s instant and digital media world, yesterday’s stories are no longer “todays fish and chip wrappers” – they are on the internet for all to see for a very long time!

It is a foolish organisation that has no media policy or safeguards in place to ensure that what they say and do publicly is checked and filtered to minimise damage.

Yet I am continually surprised at how many companies and organisation are in fact – this foolish.

Many PR crises or potentially damaging public issues can be traced back to a specific point that birthed the issue. If at that point the organisation had said or done something differently, they would not be trying to kill negative media stories and dealing with a cascade of abuse via email and social media.

Often they cannot see the mistake they made - considering the initial act or words quite innocuous – simply because they are not thinking a step ahead.

Now, more than ever before - because we live in the world of instant and social media where every person has the power to publicise - we must consider the future ramifications of our current actions.

Every decision we make, every comment we state, every action we take – should be prefaced by the question, “What if this was to be made public?”
Call it paranoia at your peril. It’s the new media world and smart organisations think a step ahead.
It’s this sort of forward thinking that would have stopped the infamous phone call from Sydney radio station 2Day FM to the hospital treating the Duchess of Cambridge (Read previous blog HERE).

But we only hear the high profile cases. There are countless small to large businesses, people and non-profit organisations each year that suffer due to reputational damage caused by a PR crisis that could have been avoided.

More concerning, is that many that escape the spotlight are more lucky than smart. I’ve heard countless business people make racist, sexist and just plain stupid comments in public forums; years ago these would carry no public risk, but in today’s hypersensitive media environment these comments are ticking time bombs.

While comments like these are reasonably obvious to most of us, many actions that lead to public pain are simply careless, resulting not from rudeness but ignorance.

A seemingly innocent comment in an internal newsletter, a naive response to a media enquiry, a connection with a controversial person or company, an advertising campaign that uses a term offensive to people in Uzbekistan……

It’s impossible to predict every outcome in every situation, but from my observations, most PR disasters are preventable by being aware of the new media world, thinking ahead and having a system in place to filter all outgoing public material.

Consulting with a corporate PR professional from outside your company or organisation is also an important part of the filtering process. Those on the inside are too familiar with your industry and too used to what’s said and done; they will miss the risks.

Great publicity is pleasurable – it brings profile, business and revenue. But be aware of the fine line, across which lies a world of pain, and put measures in place to ensure you don’t cross it.

Monday, 9 June 2014

It’s time for news media to rise above social media level

The reporting in mainstream media of a simple mispronunciation by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott reflects poorly on journalism.
Australian and Canadian PMs

Any reasonable person (irrespective of political views) understands that each of us – and even more so a national leader who is giving endless speeches and media interviews – will from time to time mispronounce a word.

This is not news, nor should it ever be. No serious journalist should treat it as such.

In this case, the Prime Minister had just said the word “Canadian” in the correct context, and then immediately corrected himself after the mispronunciation.

The fact that I am even explaining this is absurd. That some people on Twitter seriously drew a connection between this and the Prime Minister’s competency is ridiculous.

But most nonsensical of all is the reporting of this truly insignificant act in the mainstream media.

It has become commonplace recently to write a “news story” – and I use that term loosely – on nothing more than reporting what a bunch of people say on Twitter. This is not only lazy journalism, but a reflection of the current trend to 'dumb down' the news.

Too often, proper news gathering is being reduced to the immature level of much of social media, which thrives on feigned outrage, harsh criticism and polarising opinions.

Some media stories are nothing more than a copy and paste of people’s online remarks, with no vetting of who these 'people' even are.

Meanwhile, every day there are events, actions and comments by people, companies and organisations across the country that directly affect the lives of everyday Australians. These stories are often ignored.

My hope is that journalists will start to leave social media in that forum, and focus on mature reporting.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Australian superiority complex that suppresses the truth about Nauru

Prayers to open Nauruan Govt office at OPC
If something is repeated often enough, many will believe it, even if they have no first-hand knowledge of the facts.

Almost all of those who are vehemently criticising the Offshore Processing Centre (OPC) in Nauru have never seen it with their own eyes. Yet they speak with outrage about the horrors endured by asylum seekers and about pregnant women being forced to have babies in inhumane conditions.

Added to this is the story that asylum seekers won’t be processed properly because Nauru is in “chaos” and “crisis” – the rule of law is gone and the small island nation has become a dictatorship!

I have seen the centre personally, and the stories being told seem far from the truth.

It appears to me that these “hellhole” claims are being propagated by people with vested interests – either political or financial - but they don’t declare this or even admit to it.

So let me start by openly declaring my vested interest. I’m a consultant to the Government of Nauru – so I’m not an objective observer.

Despite this however, my views are just as valid as those being promoted by various ‘human rights’ lawyers, refugee advocates and even former workers at the processing centres who write books to “expose the truth” - because they all have agendas too.

It’s common for lawyers to work pro bono for issues that create widespread media coverage and will increase their profile, knowing the end result will be future paid work with higher fees.

And let’s be honest – anyone who writes a book wants to make money and build a name. There simply is no such thing as a totally objective voice.

When I visited Nauru a few weeks ago and viewed the OPCs, I was surprised that the conditions seemed nothing like what I had read in the Australian media.

Compared to refugee camps in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world that I'd seen on the nightly news, this was high-end. Yes they are in tents, but don’t think camping style tents - think large, insulated marquees similar to permanent structures, most with air conditioning and lots of room.

I’m not going to overstate the comfort level or compare them to western standards, but I stood in one of these structures on a day of high humidity and bucketing rain and inside was dry and comfortable. There are many people who do a variety of jobs around the world in remote locations – and indeed many people generally - that would live in conditions less comfortable than this.

There’s no denying that the transferees are in a secured facility, but equally it must be noted that security was tightened after they rioted and burned the buildings down.

Some – given the opportunity - will still go to extreme measures to try and force their way into Australia. From what I was told and observed, they are motivated not so much by desperation but because they’ve paid someone big money and they are angry. Workers at the centre talk not of people depressed, but of those with a steely resolve to get what they came for.

At the administration centre I saw countless workers from ‘Save the Children’, there to ensure the welfare of every child at the facility. They assured me that children were being looked after well. I doubt this would be the case at all refugee camps across the globe.

The next marquee housed the recreation workers who were responsible for activities for the kids. The children I saw from a distance were laughing and looked happy – something rarely reported in the Australian media.

I believe it is valid to question the conditions at the Nauru OPC, and I believe every person irrespective of race and background deserves to be treated with dignity. But when we ask a question we must be prepared to accept the answer. I wonder if some of those who are whipping up the emotional criticism just don’t want to admit that conditions are basic but humane and dignified, because it doesn’t suit their political and personal agendas.

It bothers me that asylum seekers could be used as pawns in a political campaign by people who claim to be ‘human rights activists’.

I’m not suggesting that the Nauru OPCs are five star hotels – or that the asylum seekers are happy to be there - but this is not the Australian Government’s intention; they want these facilities to be deterrents.

But let’s be candid – If these people are fleeing war-torn nations and persecution, it must feel like a five star hotel to them!

After all, they are safe and are provided with good food, clothing, medical supplies and welfare assistance while they await processing, while families take regular trips to the beach and to use the internet.

Most Nauruan people don’t live as well as the asylum seekers – and that’s an indisputable truth.

The other myth that lawyers love to spread through social and mainstream media is that Nauru is in ‘crisis’ and has abandoned the rule of law.

I saw no evidence of any crisis – and I’d suspect any Nauruan you spoke to would laugh at the suggestion. Life on the island goes on each day as usual in the typically relaxed Pacific way. The Government governs, the courts hear cases and the Nauruan people go to work and school.

While it seems obvious that some want Nauru to fail because it serves their purposes, I question why it is popular to “bash” a country with only 10,000 people who – in the main – live simple but contented lives. Why do some journalists and ‘activists’ focus on the negatives and gleefully portray another country in such an inferior light?

Why do we claim that sending pregnant women to Nauru violates human rights, without caring about the Nauruan women who have their babies at the local hospital? (A side note – even the claims around that have been misrepresented as Nauru has adequate medical facilities and trained medical specialists)

It’s easy for Australians to view countries like Nauru with arrogant superiority because it doesn’t meet western ‘standards’, yet this same bullying attitude would never be accepted against minority groups within Australia.

If we disrespect another culture based on nothing more than their differences and lifestyle, we have epitomised the very definition of racism.

Speak to Nauruans and they love the place. Many are educated in Australia and return by choice, despite being able to earn more money in Australia. They have pride in their country and value their families and upbringing.

The Nauruan Government talks passionately and sincerely about ensuring that every person in the offshore processing centre is looked after – we should believe them.

Nauru (like Australia) isn’t perfect, but it’s a compassionate country. It’s time for balance and truth in the reporting of the Australian offshore processing facilities there.

(Note - This blog was written personally and not part of a PR campaign. The author was not paid for writing this)

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Branding is not only for companies – what about you?

How are you developing your personal brand?

As many Australian students graduating high school and university plan their future career paths, there is something else they need to be working on – their personal brand.

The social and digital media age has changed the dynamics of branding. Words like marketing, branding and positioning were once associated primarily with the corporate world, though extended to celebrities and other high profile individuals.

Yet now, every one of us has a “brand” whether we like it or not. Many people have not grasped this important concept, leading to a failure to build value into their personal brand and even worse, a failure to protect their brand’s reputation.

A simple Google search will inform you of your brand’s currency. It will showcase who you are, what you’ve achieved and in many cases, what you believe. It will reveal your thoughts, your adventures and your actions in words, photos and even in video (as the new Australian senator-elect representing the Motorist Party discovered!).

Your brand is worth protecting because we have reached the stage where your digital footprint will not be easily erased by the tide of time. The way you allow your brand to be moulded now will influence your future; it will affect your road to success.

School and university leavers in 2013 and beyond have a tougher road than those of past generations. Youthful attitudes and actions haven’t changed – young people have always pushed the limits – but the level of transparency has.

Recently ‘schoolies’ on Queensland’s Gold Coast were warned that their actions, if posted on social media, could affect their job opportunities in the future. These warnings are wise, but it goes beyond missing out on a job; every photo and every post is creating their personal brand.

Your brand can determine your job prospects, your income level, your relationships, your friends – it tells the world who you are and why you are worth the time, the money, the investment and the trust.

It’s vital that personal reputations are protected, but at the same time, smart people use the tools available to them to sell their brand. A good presence on mainstream sites like LinkedIn, blogs that highlight professional knowledge and expertise, and injecting yourself into the right online forums and conversations, are smart ways to build a strong personal brand.

Conversely, those whose problems are aired publicly - whether they be political figures, business people, those charged with criminal offences or people engulfed in some form of controversy - will see their brand defined by these events wherever they go on the globe. There is nowhere to hide!

Every one of us should be aware of the value of our personal brand. Those embarking on their careers now have an advantage, in that they have time to build theirs.

Three tips to building a strong personal brand:

1. Promote yourself with enthusiasm and humility. Use your strengths and personal expertise to define your brand online, through forums, blogs and social media.

2. Stay focused on your message. This simple public relations key is just as important for individual brands as corporate identities. The more you talk about your message consistently, the more it will resonate.

3. Protect your reputation by being very careful what you post online. Ensure all settings on personal social media sites are private. If you use social media sites like Facebook for personal use, make sure you only “friend” people you know personally. Keep business and personal contacts and issues separate.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Abraham Lincoln – public relations guru

“Public sentiment is everything” – Abraham Lincoln

These words were uttered during what was reported to be an otherwise unremarkable debating performance with a political opponent in the midst of the American slavery era.

Just over 160 years later, the words still ring true, whether it be for politicians, corporations, activists, charities or anyone else that relies on public support.

The more complete quote is as follows:

"In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

Of course gauging public sentiment was a different process in the mind 1800s. There was no internet, no Twitter, no blogs, no talkback radio - not even television!

This proverb comes to mind - “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. While technology changes the way we communicate, the message – and the importance of the message to influence our ‘publics’ - remains the same.

It proves the power of public relations – the ability to relate to your public. It highlights the need to consider public reaction before – not after – decisions have been made.

It confirms the need to control the conversation, ensuring that your core messages are being heard and not drowned out.

It emphasises the link between success and good PR, and alternatively, failure and a lack of PR.

The instant and social media world of which we are a part in 2013 and beyond, makes it both easier and harder to influence public sentiment.

It is easier in the respect that there are more channels than ever before for your message. It is harder in that these channels are accessible by the masses with a myriad of different backgrounds and opinions, making controlling the message much more difficult.

There are three things every company, every public figure and even every small business must do in order to succeed in the world of instant and social media:
  1. Remember the words of Lincoln – “Public sentiment is everything” and identify your publics. Who do you rely on for your success?
  2. Actively engage your publics with your key messages, ensuring that you have a relationship with them. Don’t consider communications as an “add-on”. It should be a core part of your strategy.
  3. Be prepared when something goes wrong that could cause public sentiment to change. Be careful with what you say and where you say it, as anything can go viral globally at the click of a mouse button! Protect your reputation and have a plan to regain control of your message when needed.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Tough PR lessons for restaurants – time to rethink attitudes and service

Do you ever get the feeling that some restaurant owners act like they are doing us a favour by allowing us to dine in their establishments?

There are, of course, many successful and excellent operators, however there is no better example of how some in the industry take customers for granted than the ongoing whinging – by both restaurant owners and some industry groups - about negative reviews on consumer review sites like Urbanspoon and Trip Advisor.

Recently an article appeared in a Brisbane newspaper featuring the owner of a suburban café and his distress over the large number of negative reviews he was receiving.

The article reports that his restaurant is ranked at the bottom on Urbanspoon (in that region) with only a 21 per cent approval rating, something that would cause most business people to urgently make radical changes to the way they operate.

Yet this owner took a different tack. Instead of taking responsibility for the multitude of poor customer experiences, he blamed his customers!

“It's disgusting. I'd love to sue them,” he is quoted as saying, alleging a conspiracy by people “who want free food and other restaurants who trash you”.

This owner may better serve his cause to rethink and put on his ‘public relations’ hat. The art of public relations is to consider those who are important to you (customers) and focus on meeting their needs. That doesn’t mean customers are always right but it does take a recognition that without them, there is no business.

The practices, attitudes and service levels of some restaurants make it clear their priority is not serving their customers but looking after their own interests first. In other words – whether it comes to food choice, reservations or service standards - the customer has to fit in and take what is given.

A thought lost on some within the industry is that maybe customers are no longer willing to pay huge prices for poor service, average food, arrogance and snobbery.

But possibly the biggest reality check needed within the restaurant industry is to accept that times have changed. We now live in an era of social and instant media where everyday people – not just pretentious food writers - have the power to comment and critique.

In this new media age, the consumer is empowered and now has a forum to vent. I call social media ‘the world’s largest complaints department’ and while I don’t believe some of the results of social media are healthy for society in general, we’ve passed the point of no return.

Restaurateurs may not like it, but living in denial won’t help them. They can either adapt to the new media climate or be forced to change careers.

Of course if they were smart – and many are – they’d not only accept the changing media landscape but use it to their advantage. Instead of lamenting the thousands of people reading their negative reviews, they could consider how their business might benefit if these were replaced with positive comments.

Of course this can only happen if owners stop threatening to sue online critics and lift their game, take responsibility for their actions, stop being obsessed with their status and start to really consider what customers want.

The answer is to start to put the customers first and embrace – rather than fear - customer feedback. It’s called putting the ‘public’ back into public relations.

Six steps for restaurants to use online review sites to their advantage:
  1. Ask your satisfied customers to post online comments
  2. As your ratings rise, promote the review site and your ranking. Instead of hiding, boldly promote the reviews.
  3. Improve your service. Customer service in Australia is generally poor. Stand out - demand good rankings.
  4. Don’t allow any complaint to remain unresolved. Assume that any unresolved complaint or negative experience will be exposed publicly (because it probably will).
  5. Take negative reviews seriously and respond online. All of the major sites allow this and it shows you care and are willing to fix problems.
  6. Do what other restaurants won’t. Go the extra mile for your customers. Be flexible and don’t talk down to diners. This will ensure you’ll be the talk of the town – in the right way!