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10 Things Your Publicist Would Do if S/he Ran Your Company

All of the below suggestions are offered by experienced publicists in the B2B arena, including myself and several colleagues at Amendola Communications. While we fully get that a public relations program is just one of many important contributions to creating a successful company—along with a whip smart product development team, a terrific product, turbo-charged salespeople, and savvy marketing, to name a few—each one of our recommendations below helps fuel these crucial moving parts even more. So here is what we’d prioritize if we had a few months in the driver’s seat…

Item #1: Create a customer success library—and keep it continuously restocked. Nothing will give you more credibility with prospects, investors, your own employees, and of course, the media, than the testimonials of thrilled customers. So as an established company with a solid customer roster of your own, why don’t you have more of these stories to broadcast to the world?

Most likely, it’s one of two primary reasons. Either your employees are too nervous to ask customers to participate in a case study, or there’s no real process in place to develop these strategic assets. And it does take a process. The next few items delve a little deeper into both of these challenges.

Item #2: Incentivize your employees to get customer success stories. Here’s the deal. The main reason employees aren’t going after customer success stories is out of fear that the customer will decline to participate. The product’s not fully in use yet…they’ve run into some issues…you get the idea. There is always a seemingly legitimate reason for putting off the request.

But what if getting customer success stories was part of the job description? And what if the pressure to obtain them was considerably lightened with the right tools and handsome bonuses?

One of our own most successful clients has made obtaining customer success stories part of the company’s official bonus structure. At last count, this client had more than 170 customer success stories! Money is a great motivator, people. We know this.

But money alone isn’t enough to create outstanding, detailed customer success stories…

Item #3: Formalize and launch a customer adoption program. All good success stories have tangible results to report. And a customer adoption program is a terrific opportunity to establish with your customer what the metrics for success will be. From there, you can organize your efforts around seeing that the customer fully and productively adopts the appropriate components of your product to reach these targets. Typically these efforts include regular communication, benchmark reporting, and always available support. In person, on the phone, via email…a combination of all three will be part of most top tier customer adoption programs.

And within a relatively short period of time, you should be able to have some successful results to report in a customer story. Oh, and a couple of other significant benefits…like increased customer satisfaction and  retention.

Item #4: Create a “Customer Reference program.” My colleague Stacy State, a senior account director at Amendola, further advises making best use of customer testimonials by creating a spreadsheet or other document that houses:

  • Clients who can provide quotes (organized based on product/location/benefit/challenge solved)
  • Clients willing to be references (organized based on location, product/s, account manager, etc.)
  • Clients who are willing to speak at trade shows—and who will have the necessary presenting skills to do so
  • Clients who allow onsite interviews of how your solution works in their setting

Item #5: Have talented storytellers on hand. Whether they reside in your in-house PR and marketing teams or with your agency partner, it’s essential that you are telling your product, company or customer story in human, attention-seizing terms. Identify and utilize those people who will be fearless at doing just that—a surprisingly rare resource, by the way. Many people are intimidated by writing for corporate/business needs, and inevitably revert to “safe” corporate-speak and industry jargon.

But please listen to someone who has spent her entire career crafting stories for newspapers, companies, non-profits and others. Nothing will snuff the life out of a good story faster than peppering it with phrases like “ensure” and “going forward” and “operational efficiency.” So don’t do it! Invest in great writing. It will pay off for you, I promise.

Item #6: Develop a stable of charismatic thought leaders. There are some solid benefits to doing so. According to another colleague, Amendola senior account director Michelle Noteboom, “Once executives have established themselves as credible industry experts, media outlets will seek their opinions and be more receptive to covering company news.”

To make sure no single thought leader is stretched too thin, you’ll want to cultivate multiple spokespeople within your organization. But please don’t base this on their expertise alone. An effective thought leader is personable, warm, as good of a listener as he or she is a speaker, is eager to share knowledge, willing to participate in media training, and of course, is quickly responsive.

You can start cultivating potential thought leaders early on. My colleague and senior account director Philip Anast recommends: “Include external communications in an executive’s performance requirements, i.e. actually making it part of one’s job requirements to make oneself available for media interviews and garner media coverage.”

Item #7: Stop putting social media on the backburner. This recommendation comes courtesy of Amendola social media guru, Margaret Kelly. “In this day and age, don’t underestimate the impact of reaching clients in 280 characters with a clever phrase or video. The trick is to know your audience and social platforms. Messages on LinkedIn, where you’re likely to already be connected to C-suite members of other companies, may have more impact than messages on other platforms. If you’re trying to put sales in your pipeline, for example, LinkedIn is the best platform to engage your decision-makers,” Margaret observes.

No matter your platform, a social media program must be consistent to be successful. You can’t just flirt with social media—it’s either all the way or not at all. But it takes time to see results. Viral sensations are usually the umpteenth attempt…not the first, second, or even 50th.

Item #8: Break down the barriers between executives and the rest of us. Personally, I see a flatter hierarchy as the future of corporate business, but there will always be identified leaders within an organization. They need not be walled off as if their work is top secret. Account director and Amendola colleague Brandon Glenn has a great suggestion here.

“Conduct quarterly executive Q&As with employees. My old company used to do this every time quarterly earnings were released because we were public, but this could apply to any company. The idea is the executives get up in front of the company, deliver some prepared remarks about how things are going with the company financially, key business highlights, what was good about the last quarter, what they’re looking forward to in the next quarter, and so on. After, it’s opened up for employee questions, which can be asked live verbally or pre-submitted in written form,” Brandon explains.

Depending on the size of your company, consider also making everyone’s weekly work schedule transparent. Here at the agency we share our weekly projects on a common online document. It gives us all a sense of what our coworkers are working on, and is just a more helpful way to organize and be accountable for how we spend our time.

Item #9: Break down the barriers between sales and PR. Even quarterly meetings between sales and PR can make a big difference in the substance and quality of your PR messaging. My colleague Philip Anast notes, “Salespeople especially can give invaluable information to PR. They’re on the front lines of prospect interaction, so can bring a lot of the industry challenges to the fore, providing good fodder for thought leadership.”

Item #10: Break down the barriers between YOU and PR. Of course, there’s no need to micromanage PR if you have effective people overseeing it. But make time for media training and schedule monthly calls to touch base with your PR team. I’m actually surprised by how many CEOs are removed from their company’s public relations. While this demonstrates two important positives–trust in the people who oversee PR and a willingness to allow others in the organization to develop into thought leaders–a CEO who isn’t engaged in PR much at all can find herself or himself caught flatfooted at the most inopportune times when a good response is essential.

With that, my tenure running your company is over. Which is fine with me, because with these recommendations now in place, I can’t wait to get back to publicizing it!

Content Calendar: A Key Component to any Strategic PR Plan

Content Calendar: A Key Component to any Strategic PR Plan

Oftentimes public relations professionals think of content calendars as a tool for marketing communications programs. Having an internal editorial calendar is absolutely important for any content program.  Since an integrated public relations campaign has evolved from just media relations, PR pros should also consider a content calendar as part of their overall strategic PR plan.

Knowing your audience(s) is one of the primary tenants of public relations, and the purpose of any good content is to engage, educate and encourage action. Therefore, it is necessary for us to identify those people who really are influential and approach them through high-quality content rather than corporate or product blurbs.

It is also essential to make sure that a content calendar is developed based on your overall marketing goals.  What do you want to accomplish this year? What new products will be announced? Are you a start-up just entering the market or are you positioning for an IPO, other investments or hoping for an exit strategy? Positioning your executives as subject matter experts and/or thought leaders is always a good strategy in any PR Plan.

So, what should be incorporated into a public relations content calendar to reach appropriate audiences and support marketing objectives?

Events

Events are one of the best opportunities to make your public relations strategy successful, whether it is through external trade shows such as HIMSS or other health/medical conferences or internal events such as webinars and user groups. Listing upcoming events in your content calendar allows you to develop content that strategically targets potential buyers as well as current customers, and position executives and thought leaders, all based on the timeline for the events. You can tie press releases and customer case studies to events, announce executive speakers or even blog about your giveaways at a trade show.

Press Releases

A well accepted strategy in PR is to average one press release every month.  This allows you to keep your name and messaging top of mind and fresh with reporters.  Scheduling your press releases in advance of industry events and around product launches helps your PR team coordinate with your marketing team to make sure the news is ready to be disseminated at the right time.

Articles/Case Studies

Thought leadership articles and case studies are excellent tools in the arsenal of any PR professional to demonstrate your knowledge and experience. Planning to develop these types of articles in your content calendar and then pitching for placement in key media outlets is the kind of valuable coverage many organizations desire. Compare the articles you plan to develop to the next category – editorial opportunity calendars – and you’ve got a head start on content that can be published.

Editorial Opportunity Calendars

Years ago, editorial opportunity calendars were the bread and butter in any PR campaign. With the move towards online media, many publications no longer publish or adhere to editorial calendars.  But some still do and researching those calendars and adding key opportunities to your PR content calendar allows you to develop content in a timely basis to pitch to those media outlets. Make sure, however, that you build in lead times into your calendar.  Another benefit to editorial calendars is they give you an idea of what topics the media is interested in covering and can help you develop a list of content ideas for the year.

Other categories that can be included in an integrated PR content calendar are blogs, customer newsletters and social media outreach.  There are plenty of free tools on the web that you can use to develop a content calendar.

In the end, it all works together. Having a calendar of events, press releases and editorial opportunities allows a public relations professional to strategically plan to develop content that meets deadlines, achieves marketing goals and engages, educates and encourages action from your key audiences.

customer talking at business meeting

Customer Spokespersons: The Path to PR Success

For companies looking to breathe new life into a PR or marketing campaign, product launches are exciting, as is news on awards or other recognition. But, nothing is more powerful than an advocate who can praise your company without sounding like an insider – yes, I’m talking about customers. Customer spokespersons are the special sauce of any PR campaign.

Like it or not, they are often more credible than any internal research, or any executive on the payroll. A customer is a seemingly unbiased source who used a solution, found success, and is now telling their story.

To many journalists, there is no better evidence of a product or service’s effectiveness than the testimony of a user. Here are a few ways to leverage customers to effectively enhance your company’s marketing and messaging through shared storytelling.

Write a case study.

This is an easy one, right? Case studies are powerful tools for pitching journalists and getting a message out to the media, but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about them. For starters, some case studies make the mistake of NOT being as customer-centric as they should be. Many will focus too much on the solution and the product, when the goal of a case study is to “soft sell” through a real-world example of the solution being used. Marketing for the product can happen at another time.

A case study is your customer’s story, and it follows a proven formula: outline a problem they had, the solution (your solution!) the customer used to overcome the problem, and the specific results the customer achieved. Add in a customer quote or two – a very genuine customer quote that doesn’t sound sanitized – and you have yourself a legitimate story.

As much as possible, a case study should stick to these facts and include as much data and numbers as you can muster to really make it feel like a journalistic endeavor. Once published, case studies are perfect for handing out at conferences, sharing on social media, and scoring expanded coverage. Case studies can also be living documents with many chapters: A single case study can be expanded upon as a relationship with a customer evolves and new improvement numbers make their way into the mix, making them a powerful tool for ongoing content-driven PR.

Include customers in press releases.

I’m personally a big fan of press releases. And keeping the media (and other potential customers) up-to-date on any partnerships and relationships is usually a good idea. If your company signs a new customer, announce it in a press release with some details on the relationship. When they adopt a specific solution, or when you write a case study, announce the results with another press release. Keep the media apprised of the relationship to the best of your ability as a feeler for future promotion. For maximum success, include a quote from a customer in press releases whenever possible, and be sure to include a media contact and information on the customer, as they should be the primary focus of any such release.

Keep quotes at the ready.

I like quotes. Having customer quotes on file for marketing and PR to use while pitching media and developing promotional material is valuable to add credibility and context to virtually anything. These quotes are also good to post on your company’s website. Remember, to many journalists, there is no one more reliable than a customer, and what a customer says can be as good as gold.

Ideally, a customer would draft their own quote. But writing a quote for your customer – and getting their approval – is a great way to save them some time and stress. Be up front about how the quote will be used and make sure they are OK with it. Openness and honesty is the key to maintaining their happiness into the future. Remember, a customer is best served as an independent voice, not a calculated company mouthpiece.

Ask them to present at an event with you.

This one is a bit of a challenge because it involves a major time commitment on part of the customer, but if it’s possible without straining any relationships, having a customer speak at trade shows and other events is a great way to put a spotlight on both them and your solution. It may be nice to offer to pick up travel expenses, hotel, and even meals if it’s within your budget and acceptable within the customer’s corporate guidelines. Also, be sure the customer spokesperson you choose is personable and able to deliver a message clearly. Doing so will benefit everyone, most of all your audience.

“Goodwill” coverage is good for everyone.

As mentioned above, customer stories are great to pitch to journalists – in fact, many journalists will only speak to customers. There’s no secret that getting a customer to namedrop your company or solution is always a win. But, some outlets won’t allow company names to be mentioned. Further, sometimes a line of questioning can make it challenging for your customer to naturally squeeze your name into a conversation with a journalist.

But, that’s OK. First, allowing your customer to take the spotlight is good for relations with them – coverage on their story is as much about them as anything else. Secondly, this “goodwill” content is still perfect to share on your company’s social media outlets and website. A relationship with a customer is a partnership, and their testimony and participation should never feel forced. Let them be the central focus, and don’t be afraid to promote your customers (with their approval), even if your company isn’t getting a mention.

This brings me to an important final note: Respect your customer’s time as if it’s the time of your own CEO. Never, ever abuse a relationship with a customer by coaching them heavily on what to say, making too many requests for media interviews, or linking them to PR campaigns without their permission.

Make sure to have discussions about time commitment limitations up front, and always respect a customer’s wishes if they decline to speak as often as you’d like them to. A constant, open line of communication is the path to success, and keeping a customer spokesperson happy will naturally push them to speak on your behalf and tell their story.

Great case studies start with great stories.

A Case Study on How to Get More Case Studies

They’re effective, trustworthy, and prospects actually read them–but marketers can encounter surprising resistance in securing case studies from their customers. Here’s how to overcome the three most common challenges standing in the way of compiling a great collection of customer success stories.

CHALLENGE #1: Your company’s sales reps keep blowing off your requests to schedule case study interviews with customers. And much to your irritation, you’re starting to sense they don’t want the PR or Marketing teams anywhere near their accounts. What gives?

I put this problem first because it’s more common than many marketers realize. Salespeople are indeed protective of their painfully won customer relationships – and live in fear that marketing will do something to screw them up. So, they put you off with different excuses. The customer’s still having some issues with the product…they’ve only recently signed up…they’re on the verge of buying an additional solution/service that will make for a better case study…you get the idea. You’re going to have to walk over the sales rep’s dead body to get to their customer.

Solution: First, keep in mind that these excuses may very well be legitimate concerns, although if there aren’t any good results to report within a few months of implementation, your company could have a larger challenge to address. As for the fairly new account, almost an entire case study can be written that focuses on what led the customer to your company in the first place, why the customer ultimately chose your company over the competition and the solution itself.

So all that said, how do you deal with the sales person who won’t budge? What else: a bribe. These people, even more than most, are driven by rewards…so be sure to make this a contest that everyone can win. The reward for securing a case study can be anything from a gift certificate for a hot new restaurant to cold hard cash. I recommend the latter. A generous amount of it. A good customer case study can deliver priceless returns to your marketing, public relations and sales programs.

Even better, make it an ongoing program with new and increasingly desirable rewards for each subsequent case study agreement secured. Any investment you make in prizes will be more than worth it if you end up with an impressive library of case studies.

You will, of course, need to assure sales that you won’t ruin their customer relationships. I try to handle most of the case studies I write like this: send a questionnaire to the salesperson or account manager so he/she knows what questions I’ll be asking the client; have an initial call with the salesperson to get background; then invite the salesperson to be a part of the client phone conversation. I know firsthand these steps go a long way in showing the sales rep that the customer will be treated in a professional, respectful manner. Getting both the salesperson and client’s perspectives also makes for a more layered, contextual customer success story.

CHALLENGE #2: Your customers state that proprietary reasons prevent them from participating in a case study.

This one comes up a lot for companies that sell to notoriously secretive government agencies and Fortune 500 companies. And candidly, it’s the toughest nut to crack. Not even a juicy bribe, like a discount for add-ons or at contract renewal time, will always persuade the customer to agree to a case study – although I have seen this tactic work before.

But in my experience, more than anything it requires a solid working relationship between people in your company and the customer’s.

Solution: Time and again, your company has gone beyond the call of duty for this client and you’re fairly certain there’s considerable gratitude and appreciation for it. Well, now it’s payback time. Don’t be afraid to remind the customer of all that’s been done – but in a way that makes the customer see the value in publicizing it.

Have the person who’s the most “in” with your customer do the asking, something along the lines of, “This partnership has really solved some persistent challenges for your target market– particularly when we solved problem a, b, c, etc. I think more widely promoting this breakthrough to others struggling with the same problems could make a big impact. Can we collaborate on a case study together? We have very skilled writers on hand to craft it, and of course, you’d have final editorial approval.”

Important note: This conversation should also present the case study as a marketing or public relations asset for the customer, not just for your company. Which, by the way, is exactly what a well-written customer success story should be about: how the customer is doing great things for their customers with your product. In short, it should be the customer’s story – always.

If they still won’t do it, then ask if you can write a case study without using the company’s name or other obvious identifiers. By now, they may be feeling guilty enough about saying no that they’ll agree to an interview under this caveat.

No, it’s not as desirable as using the actual customer’s name, but a deftly written case study can overcome this limitation.

And you can add some credibility back in by noting at the top of the case study that it’s about a real customer experience, with the customer’s name omitted for proprietary reasons. And do show it to the customer one more time—if it’s well-written, they may like it so much they’ll agree to put their name on it after all!

CHALLENGE #3: Your company or product is new and you don’t have customers yet to agree to a case study.

This seems like the most impossible scenario of all, but it’s actually the easiest to get around!

Solution: Do what a mid-sized client of mine from my past life as a freelancer did with a new line of handheld scanners: create a series of “industry use studies”. In this type of case study, you have zero restrictions on how your product or service performs, as you get to make up whatever setting you want it to perform in – for example, how your software saves time, money and patient lives in a community hospital. Or a large health system. Or a skilled nursing facility. It’s your story, and you get to create every detail of the plot, including your ideal setting.

Important caveat: Just be sure the plot is indistinguishable from your target prospect’s real world. And I trust you’ll avoid the credibility-ruining temptation to claim outrageous results, like a zillion dollars in new revenue generated within the first week of implementation!

Worried that a use study won’t be as effective as a case study based on an existing customer? Consider this–if your prospects already know your solution doesn’t have customers yet, and they’re still communicating with you, a use study that depicts the solution in a setting much like the one they work in everyday can only proves that you “get” what they do and need.

Of course, if you have case studies about other products in your portfolio to share, all the better. To get more of those, refer back to Challenges #1 and #2.

Lastly, be sure to check out my colleague Matt Schlossberg’s post on how to prime your customers to participate in your public relations efforts. He’s got some great strategies, as well, to make the most of your most important asset–your customer.