Start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start

5 Keys to Building a Brand

Clients have high hopes when they first engage a public relations firm. Building a brand will mean interviews with the Wall Street Journal! Blogs that go viral on Facebook and Twitter! Appearances on CNN! And well they should. After all, clients are paying good money for marketing and PR services, and they should get results.

But unfortunately, what many companies—either young startups or more mature companies hitting an inflection point such as an acquisition or new product launch—DON’T have is a clear message they want to convey. And that is the first building block for any brand.

In fact, we find with many clients, simply launching an intense media relations and content marketing campaign is like starting in the middle of a race when you don’t know the course. Companies will reach that finish line—an effective PR strategy—sooner if they begin at the starting line with a clear understanding of the race course and where they are going.

Here’s some advice for companies looking to create or hone their messaging for a precision brand-building strategy.

  1. Begin with a brainstorming session

A good PR firm can lead your team in exercises that will help fine-tune your messages for each product and for each audience you hope to target. This could include efforts to name a new product or to determine which concepts resonate with consumers versus potential investors and/or partners. We find that at some companies there may be a significant gap between the messages the CEO wants to convey and those advocated by the head of marketing or other important stakeholders. By engaging in a brainstorming session, those differences will be revealed and can be mediated by the PR agency to help guide the team toward the messages that will resonate best in the marketplace and show the company to its best advantage.

  1. Develop messaging documents

An investment of time upfront to create comprehensive messaging documents will save a tremendous amount of time down the road. Individual documents for each product are advisable. These should include a one-sentence descriptor of the product, a list of differentiators, customer pain points and gaps in the market addressed by the product. The product messaging documents should also include relevant context, including the competitive landscape. In addition, companies should develop a few versions of the overall value proposition and mission of the company, geared toward different stakeholders including investors, partners and customers. Developing these messaging documents will likely require interviews of key subject matter experts at the company to make sure they correctly reflect the most current features of the products. These documents could also include a company FAQ to either be posted on the website or used internally. CEOs should sign off on all messaging documents before they are finalized.

  1. Use messaging documents as “already approved content”

Once messaging documents are completed, they can form the basis for content marketing assets including blogs, bylined articles and company whitepapers. While additional input or interviews may be required, this work will be cut down significantly by having agreed-upon messages as a common backbone for all content. This will also streamline approvals for each new piece of content and preempt messaging differences among team members since all stakeholders have already agreed upon the key messages.

  1. Use messaging documents for media interview prep

The appropriate product messaging document, the overarching company messaging asset and the FAQ can all form the basis of media interview prep for CEOs or other company spokespeople. Your PR agency can come up a list of targeted talking points and sample questions based on the outlet, audience and angle the reporter is pursuing. But ultimately, every interview should circle back to the company’s core messages which are contained in the documents. Using the messaging documents as “lane bumpers”, as in bowling, will prevent a passionate CEO from running afoul of investors, partners or customers by veering off-message. Combining a message development program with media training, which high-quality PR firms should provide, is the best way to ensure that CEOs and other spokespeople take the best advantage of every media interview opportunity.

  1. Periodically update the messaging

A common challenge in developing consistent messaging for clients is when a member of the team, often the CEO, is out a step (or two, or five) ahead of the company’s current capabilities, size or product development status. Visionary CEOs are a tremendous asset for companies seeking to advance their brands, but risks abound if the CEO promises things the company can’t deliver. One way to overcome this obstacle is to commit to messaging as a dynamic process and not a static set of documents. A quarterly review to sync up messages to goals achieved is a great way to make sure that customers, partners, investors and the public are continuously reminded of the company’s forward march. Companies may also want to consider adding a “future goals” messaging document which can be added to as goals are achieved and moved into “current messaging” status.

Start at the very beginning…

It’s a very good place to start, as Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music. And it’s great advice for companies who are newly engaged in building a brand.  Your PR firm will start by making sure everyone is on the same page regarding the company’s key messages. Then they’ll get it in writing via messaging documents you can leverage again and again to develop a consistent, memorable brand for your company. Even if your company is well-established, your key messages may need a refresh to help take the company to the next level in its maturity.

Trump’s Twitter Tricks

Last March I wrote a blog entitled, “PR Tips from The Donald.” At the time, no one really believed Donald Trump would have the staying power to win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. Obviously, he proved us wrong.

President-elect Trump continues to be a PR machine and shows no sign of slowing down on his use of social media to spread his message of the hour. He’s deftly created the President Trump Brand via social media, while spending far less than his competitors for paid media opportunities. In fact, Trump claims his effective use of social media helped him win the election. Trump has discovered that social media is the way people – especially Millennials – communicate and receive information. He’s using it to his advantage, much in the same way FDR did with his fireside radio chats.

Trump seems to enjoy creating his own rules and doesn’t mind being provocative and pushing the envelope. His Twitter use in particular is like nothing we’ve seen from any world leader, which is one reason it fascinates so many of us. Trump loves to Tweet and he seems to believe it’s the most convenient and effective way to let the world know what’s on his mind. It’s a hard point to argue when you compare the time it takes to send a 140-character Tweet versus the time and logistics required for a press conference or extensive TV interview.

Here are some fun facts about Trump’s use of Twitter. Since establishing @RealDonaldTrump in March, 2009, Trump has sent 34.1K tweets and amassed 16.5 million followers – and continues to add more than 30,000 new followers every day. Interestingly he only follows 40 accounts, 16 of which are either family members or represent a Trump property or company. The rest of the people or companies he follows are primarily with the conservative media or affiliated with the Trump campaign. Curiously – at least to me – Trump also follows golfer Gary Player.

While Trump does enjoy making up his own social media rules, some of his Twitter practices are worth imitating if you’re interested in building your own Twitter following, creating support for a particular issue, or reinforcing a persona.

For example:

Regular tweeting. Trump tweets daily – and often dozens of times in a single day.

Retweeting of relevant content. Trump retweets content he deems relevant and/or of interest to his followers, plus engages in conversations with both his fans and his critics. He also quotes other Tweets (rather than simply retweet) and adds in his personal commentary. Having one’s tweet amplified by another Tweeter – especially someone with Trump’s reach – is flattering, as this recent Saturday Night Live spoof suggests; it also implies the Tweeter (Trump) is paying attention to what other people are saying. It also benefits Trump because it increases the number of times his @RealDonaldTrump shows up in different Twitter feeds.

Regular use of hashtags. Trump created his own communities using hashtags, such as #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. His regular use of hashtags helps other Twitter users find his tweets on specific topics, even if they don’t follow @RealDonaldTrump.

Strong and consistent messaging. Trump’s consistently clear and concise messages has allowed him to build a persona that resonates with his target audience. His tweets leave little question as to his position, and when he finds a message that has legs, he will tweet the same core message multiple times to reinforce his point.

Tags others. When Trump wants to call out another Twitter user, he includes that person’s Twitter handle to ensure they notice and possibly engage him.

Original, informative and inspiring messages. Obviously, Trump’s messages aren’t “inspiring” to everyone, but they do rally his followers. His tweets are certainly unique when compared to others in the political arena, and leave little uncertainty about his position on different topics.

What I find to be the most genius aspect of Trump’s tweeting is how he has used it to establish what the public is talking about on any given day. Case in point: Trump recently started a (controversial) conversation about flag burning and how flag burners should be arrested or even lose their citizenship. Not surprisingly, the statement ignited heated conversations and drew critics from both the left and the right. Meanwhile, consider all the topics that the public – and the media – were not talking about: possible cabinet picks that were controversial; potential conflicts of interest between his business holdings and status as the country’s soon-to-be president; or even his wife’s decision not to immediately move into the White House following the inauguration. By starting a conversation as controversial as flag burning, and by taking such an audacious stand, he effectively snuffed out any other conversations – at least for one 24-hour news cycle.

The media is still trying to figure out if Trump’s every Tweet is newsworthy and deserving of coverage. Isn’t that argument in and of itself proof that Trump’s Twitter tricks are working and keeping the public talking about him and his every 140-character utterance?

Politics and healthcare PR don't often mix, but sometimes you do have to talk about the elephant in the room.

The Elephant in the Room: Policy and Politics in Healthcare PR

The Day After
Wednesday, November 9, about 6am. Bleary eyed, I throw back a couple cups of black coffee and start collating and reviewing my notes, observations and potential talking points on the election results and their affect on healthcare PR before making phone calls and firing off e-mails to clients.

The GOP had captured the White House and retained majorities in both houses of Congress. From now until Inauguration Day political and policy reporters would be laser-focused on the agenda of the incoming administration, the Senate, and the House—and the impact it could have on the country.

Healthcare—specifically the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Medicaid expansion and even accountable care—is near the top of that list. Reporters and editors would be turning to the industry for their perspectives, hot takes and prognostications.

The Elephant in the Room
Many vendors and healthcare associations, especially those who work to some extent in areas of policy or advocacy, decline to publicly speak on political matters because they have to work with whichever party controls the executive and legislative branches. The increased intensity of partisan rancor also makes healthcare companies reluctant to comment on any hot-button topics for fear of losing customers or causing internal turbulence with key staff.

Industry leaders can certainly decline to speak—and have legitimate reasons for doing so. But it’s critical that their public relations executives prepare them for that eventuality anyway.

There’s an old adage that says that politics and religion are the two forbidden topics at the dinner table. However, the former is not always an option for healthcare PR pros and their clients. Let’s face it: no matter your political affiliation, the results of the 2016 general election will likely have a significant impact on the healthcare industry,

Don’t believe me? Take 60 seconds to check out your news and social media feeds.

An Approach to Message
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, I had explored with my clients potential frameworks for how to respond to the priorities of a new administration and Congress. The differences between the two national parties on healthcare are both well-known and famously divergent. Democrats favor modifying and improving the ACA. Republicans campaigned on the law’s repeal and replacement.

I recognized a few potential hazards for my clients who chose to go on the record. First, much of today’s politics is personal and personality-driven. I felt that as a PR executive, my job was to frame the issue of healthcare policy in a way that was factual and focused on the policy and its potential ramifications.

The second major hazard is the perilous nature of predictions. Yes, non-partisan agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office had outlined potential impacts to healthcare based on candidates’ statements and plans. However, the political process is filled with too many twists and turns, too many procedural tricks and local political considerations to make any prediction a sure thing. In addition, speculation is often peppered with bias (any prime-time cable news panel is evidence enough of that).

Through my own research and discussions with clients, the overarching theme of nearly all perspectives was uncertainty. Campaigning is wholly different from governing. Nobody really knows what is going to happen. The healthcare plans of the two parties could not be more different. But how would political realities alter those stances?

For payers, providers and patients—all of whom have invested incredible time, resources, and money into the implementation of the ACA—uncertainty became a story unto itself. All of the information I had collected began to take shape as a narrative my clients could use as industry thought leaders while avoiding the volcanic clickbait statements that dominate today’s political discussions.

Lessons Learned
I wasn’t always in PR. I cut my teeth in journalism, and admit to viewing PR as a profession more focused on obfuscation than clarity. My 18 months working in PR has certainly changed my perspective—and this first major election of my new career has offered me some critical lessons.

  1. Spin is Dumb. A general election is unique in so many different ways. A grueling 18-month campaign focused primarily on scandals and gaffes sometimes feels as if it is something to be endured rather than an opportunity to understand the principles and policies supported by the candidates. “Spin” is a major driver in the paper-thin evaluation of political candidates and their policies. I see my job as an opportunity to raise awareness and educate. But even honest assessments and insightful thought leadership requires calibration and planning.
  2. Messaging Matters. Even if your company is not interested in speaking to the press on any political matters, it’s smart to at least talk about it. We live in an omni-channel world. Everyone, it seems, has four or five social media accounts. Understanding how to approach your narrative will help you navigate the murkier swamps of policy and politics.
  3. Prep is Key. I’ve worked in healthcare for more than 12 years. Many of my clients have been in the biz even longer. And one of the reasons we are all successful is that we realize that we can always learn more. Collect as much information you can. A lot of it you’ll already know—but seeking out a variety of perspective can help you shape how you tell your story.

There’s no getting around it. Reporters from national publications and healthcare trades are turning to the industry’s thought leaders for their perspectives on what the next four years could look like for the healthcare industry and the millions of people it serves. It’s critical that we present ourselves as knowledgeable and responsible sources of information.

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