When There are No Rules: PR Considerations for Mass Tragedies
Human tragedies that involve loss, abuse and threats to public and personal safety are specialized crisis issues that do not come with a handy public relations playbook. The horrific tragedies that have occurred over the last several months, including the Lower Manhattan attack, Las Vegas shooting, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and decades-deep criminal investigations like the Harvey Weinstein abuse issue are major challenges for communicators, executives and public relations professionals who are charged with delivering the facts and managing an insatiable demand for updates as the news unfolds. There are so many variables, so many delicate points of contact, so many scenarios to suss out. In these situations, communicators and authorities face many unknowns and uncertainties – there’s no choice but to work with the information available to make the best informed decisions possible at that time.
The most crucial communications rule is to show compassion and concern for human life and those personally affected, genuinely, in both content and tone (often, delivery can be more important than content). It is critical to stick to the facts or what is known, avoid speculation and correct misinformation. Over the years, our agency developed a tongue-in-cheek acronym (PANTCHEK) designed to be instantly memorable for its users in handling business and operational crises. However, those rules (as well as any) seem blithe against the magnitude of the Las Vegas tragedy or Puerto Rico’s post-Hurricane devastation. I suspect any “lesson learned” following such an event would feel similarly flat. Inhuman events require a human response, disciplined approach, and evidence of collaboration for the greater good.
Communicators must not be distracted by peripheral chatter: Naysayers and talking heads rarely have full access to the privileged details, nor are they in the position of delicately and deftly resolving the matter in the public eye. Unfortunately, though, it is human nature to speculate and fill the void when the facts are still unknown. A rush to judgment is inevitable. Crises give the self-righteous, the all-knowing and conspiracy theorists their time in the sun.
From our experience, we know that communications dynamics change when law enforcement, regulatory agencies, and large investors are involved. The pressure from the public for answers can be crushing, and there certainly is an obligation to keep affected audiences informed. But keep in mind, you are under no obligation to respond to every media inquiry that comes your way, nor are you under any obligation to respond in the manner that is demanded. We know all too well that some news coverage will be agenda-driven regardless of the content of the information or availability of multiple credible sources. Remember: the part of the communicator is to educate, inform and keep the conversation as objective and elevated as possible.
The core approach to our practice is this: leaders and authorities who act in good faith for public safety and public interest, who communicate proactively and consistently and responsibly, stand to be remembered (and appreciated) for their strength and resilience over time.
A Tale of Two Apologies
A week and a half ago, Southwest Airlines was embroiled in an incident that was uncannily similar to the United Airlines incident just a few months ago in April. And yet, the public reaction could not be any more different. In both instances, a passenger was forcibly and aggressively removed from a flight by security officers in full view of other passengers. While the security officers’ treatment of Dr. David Dao was significantly more violent than that of Dr. Anila Daulatzai, it does not fully explain why the public’s reaction to United was fast and furious while the reaction to Southwest was more tempered and almost blasé.
What an organization says and does in the first hours of a crisis can make all the difference. Southwest defused the situation while United fumbled and added fuel to the fire.[Click on image for the full size infographic]
Surviving and Moving On
Today, as I sit somberly in the comfort of my office, I join millions of others in reflecting on and honoring those lost in the 9/11 attacks. However, last year on this day I was boarding a plane with more than a bit of trepidation. Flying on 9/11 was not ideal, but necessary. My heart was pounding as I stepped aboard but I soldiered on. This single-minded determination to overcome fear is representative of how we as Americans – and our agency as well – soldiered on with resolve and more than a little introspection after that fateful day in 2001 when our lives were changed forever.
On September 11, 2001, I was in my fourth year with Fineman PR, then already 13 years old. It was 6 a.m. PDT and I was at home, getting ready for work. Little did I know that from that hour, my life – and life in America – would never be the same.
At the time, I was commuting on BART between the East Bay and San Francisco. My husband was already out the door. During his commute, he was listening to the radio and heard that the World Trade Center in New York had “exploded.” He called to tell me to turn on the news.
I flipped on the TV and saw one of the World Trade Center towers with a plume of black smoke. It was surreal. The news reported that a plane had flown into the tower, but little else was known. I decided to quell my fears and head into work.
When I boarded the BART train, it was eerily deserted. I arrived in the city and had a spooky feeling walking downtown to our office building. Hardly anyone was on the street, and only three people showed up at the office – including me and my boss, agency founder Michael Fineman. I didn’t know what to do. By then, a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and another had flown into the Pentagon. It was suspected that a plane destined for SFO was headed for downtown San Francisco, possibly the Transamerica building, possibly BART, neither far from our office.
Like many other offices, we had turned the lights off to avoid attracting attention, so we sat there in the half light, nervously watching the news and waiting, speculating where/when another plane might strike. The uncertainty was unnerving. And the silence deafening. Like many businesses, we closed the office early.
Officials were discouraging people from taking public transportation and now that I was 35 miles from home, I felt trapped. What made the situation worse was the sinking feeling that I might be pregnant. My life was passing in front of me, I was panicked and didn’t know if I would live to see another day.
When I finally made it home we sat in disbelief, glued to the TV watching for any developments. I cried and cried, wondering how I could possibly bring a baby into a world where such horrific acts were possible.
From then on, no one felt safe. Everyone canceled travel. People stuck close to home and sought solace and comfort among friends and family. What once had seemed important now felt trivial.
Later, our agency reviewed all planned programming with a critical eye. With many in our nation’s media based so close to Ground Zero, we were especially sensitive to if/when/how we might reach out, in light of the aftermath that they were living and breathing first-hand every day.
One of our clients at the time, outdoor sporting goods retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), was on the eve of launching a holiday gift-giving campaign involving new products. There was talk of canceling any outreach because of its commercial nature, but we counseled another approach, one that got to the core of our client’s business. On the client’s behalf, we commissioned a survey to assess the services REI could provide during the holiday season and gauge Americans’ beliefs about the role the outdoors played in their lives. The survey clearly indicated that Americans value the time they spend outdoors and place great faith in its restorative powers.
Following one of the greatest atrocities on U.S. soil, we found that 70 percent of Americans said they planned to head outdoors during the holiday season, a move that nine out of 10 reported relieves stress and lifts their spirits.
We released the results to coincide with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI’s) Nov. 10-12 “Weekend of Unity, Hope and Healing” around Veterans Day, during which DOI waived entrance fees at all the federal lands it oversees. DOI also invited state and county parks to join in, and many did.
While we did not highlight REI products in announcing the survey results, we did include the finding that seven out of 10 Americans said gifts related to outdoor activities and experiences would be especially meaningful and would promote family togetherness. Sharing the results of the survey struck a chord with the nation’s media, which gave the story wide coverage. At the time, the REI Denver manager was quoted saying, “The survey confirmed that REI’s role of helping people to have great outdoor experiences was an important one at that time.” He said, “We will particularly look at our clinics and events over the next few months to see what more we can do to help people get outside.” And they did. Today, REI remains a trusted resource for outdoor activities and gear.
In 2015, for my son’s 13th birthday, I took him to New York City and we visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum. We took a guided tour and met people who were there that day. Seeing that first-hand made me truly comprehend what an awful day in history 9/11 had been, especially for New Yorkers. As painful as it was to relive that day, it was also incredibly moving to meet a survivor – now a museum docent – and have him guide us through displays of storefronts still covered with ash, people’s torn shoes and papers in the street, video of people jumping from buildings to avoid burning to death, and the staircase down which some – including him – escaped on that horrific day. To read the stories of the people lost made it more real and helped my son truly understand and feel the magnitude of 9/11 far beyond the pages of his history books.
On the professional side, looking back from the perspective of 16 years, I see even better how being mindful of our audience and timing, using tact and showing respect helped our client. Our approach was sound and principled then – as it remains today.
Five Trends and Predictions Changing the PR Industry
Our agency team keeps a close eye on emerging trends and frequently reviews new communications opportunities and needs for Fineman PR clients. I recently asked my team to share their predictions and observations as we reach the halfway point of 2017. Here are five takeaways to consider:
1) Non-Traditional Sources Are The Norm And Require Dedicated Focus (and Budget) What is it that is having the most impact on communications today?
“Social media and blogger influencers will gain even more relevance in playing a major role in consumer opinion and spending decisions and must be part of any integrated communications strategy.“
“Public Relations will evolve into a mar-com service as paid, earned and owned media continue to integrate. People are increasingly getting their news from social media and spending more time on those sites to connect with friends and family, so I think this channel will become even more important and prominent in public relations functions.“
“Non-traditional media spaces continue to increase in size and popularity. Newspapers are no longer the arbiter of what is or isn’t “news.” As social media/blogs/podcasts continue to capture and keep more consumer attention for longer amounts of time, there’s a need for professional communicators in these spaces.“
– PEW reports 68% of all American adults now use Facebook1
– Popular YouTubers are hiring PR firms when they have a crisis2
– PEW reports as of 2016, 21% of Americans age 12 or older say they have listened to a podcast in the past month3
“There will also be a continuing need for content updates for Search Engine Optimization purposes. That includes the ongoing need to have the client’s voice heard and its values promoted to the audiences that will resonate with those values.“
“For Public Relations, storytelling and communication will remain important, but the medium for that storytelling will continue to evolve with even greater emphasis on visual communication.“
“And that goes for messaging, too. Visual mediums (especially video formats and virtual reality technology) will require specialized public relations professionals who are adept at developing technical, visually compelling content with ease. Agencies today are seeing the need to amp up their own offerings in this area, both for their clients’ business and for their own marketing purposes.“
“Virtual reality will transform how our industry tells stories. As VR equipment and technology become more accessible, public relations agencies will be able to construct entire worlds for fully immersive experiences.“
3) PR Pros Need Multifaceted Skills, Including Content Development, Project Management and Coding:
“On the issues and crisis side, the industry will need to continue to emphasize the need for timely, substantive communications with tools and technology that make the process more efficient. PR agencies are embracing an even more diverse mix of professionals with specialized experience in graphic design, content development and coding, in addition to traditional core communications skills.”
“Outstanding writing abilities alone won’t cut it for the next generation of communicators.“
4) PR Audiences Are Data Driven and Demand Multiple Sources for Credibility
“As public relations pros, our future with the enduring news media will be defined and enhanced by the data we’re collecting today and how we use it. It’s intelligence that is valuable and packaged conveniently if we are doing our job. We are constantly learning more about consumers – when they’re open to new messages, what influences their behavior and how to responsibly guide their decisions. For example, we’re seeing how brands break through the incessant clutter surrounding their audiences and make consistent gains toward building trust, reputation and loyalty, as well as recover from missteps.“
“That’s an important point. I recently joined the PR profession because of its potential to grow. Mass communication is so cluttered and increasingly difficult to sort through. Consumers will want to get real information from reputable sources, and journalists will need resources to help provide for that need. As people become more and more wary of commercial advertisements, authentic stories and real news will be what they want. And crisis PR, I think, will always be significant especially as activism continues to rise and people seek consumers’ rights.“
“Corporate blunders will never end as they have their basis in human fallibility. There will continue to be a need to protect brand and organizational reputations from accidents that happen, libel, fake news and social media rants, and journalists will need resources to be sure they have both or all sides of the story.“
“It’s critical to point out that we are not necessarily talking about just press releases. I see more and more cases of journalists asking for statements, interviews, expert opinion and testimony, data and assets.“
“Often, too, there is the multicultural component that will require journalists and PR people to work in tandem. Agencies and brands are seeing the need for hiring community and cultural insiders, people who know how to navigate the social space of each diverse community. This new reality is also an opportunity for creative development, as the mainstream becomes more accustomed and receptive to multicultural imagery, flavors, sounds, stories and products. I think the key to multicultural communications in the future will be subtlety, as opposed to, for example, trying to engage Latinos with a mustachioed guy in a sombrero speaking Spanish with Mariachi playing in the background.“
5) Constant Data Collection Sources Means Measurement Capabilities and Tools will only Increase. Get familiar with them.
“Program measurement is becoming more sophisticated, accurate and meaningful as technology continues to develop. Google, for example, is using credit card transactions to track how digital ad campaigns are linked to purchases. To extend that kind of technology means that we’ll be able to track how content consumed via online/mobile/digital channels impacts consumers’ offline purchasing behavior and vice versa. So, for example, say I read a magazine article about a new product and see an ad for that same product on Instagram; then after a few weeks, I decide to buy that product in a brick-and-mortar store. Measurement technology will be able to correlate my purchase to the magazine article and the ad. We have even more ways now to measure the value of our communications, but it is just the tip of the iceberg.“
“To Karmina’s point, we’re also seeing more companies using data collection in combination with technology to measure and influence consumer behaviors in new ways. The rise of smart personal assistant devices like Alexa and Google Home have brought behavior-tracking even further into consumer home-life, but are still trying to find the balance in what kind of content they can serve to consumers before it becomes too intrusive. Google Home recently came under fire for serving unsolicited ads to consumers who had selected to have their daily news voice-read to them. While technological capabilities increase due to better data collection, its more important than ever to craft stories that consumers will choose to listen to.“
As we look ahead to the second half of 2017, Fineman PR is fine tuning our own crisis, marketing and corporate public relations programs and service offerings accordingly. Which trends and predictions do you see changing our field? Join our conversation below.
Put the Popcorn Away, Today’s Media War Means Good PR Matters
To say this has been a rough week for U.S. media would be a blatant understatement. From the resignation of three CNN reporters for reporting errors, to yesterday’s White House press briefing tirade between Sarah Huckabee Sanders and media present and generally, to Sarah Palin’s announcement today of a defamation suit against the New York Times, the heat is on for journalists, media outlets and communicators to maintain credibility and objectivity in an increasingly volatile, vitriolic atmosphere.
For PR and communications professionals, our role is becoming more essential – and challenging. Sure, we’ve traditionally served as liaisons between the media and clients, but we are now bridging a quickly widening and more contentious divide. War has been declared: on media, on fake news, on press briefings, on magazine cover authenticity, on facts. And, there are more questions than ever for all involved, from journalists and media executives, to corporate spokespersons and political strategists, as well as public relations counselors:
What are the facts? Who can we trust? Where is the backup? What is the actual impact? Who is listening/reading/watching/reacting/posting? What next?
But before we rush out for emergency disaster kits and tackle each other for the last loaf of bread at the gas station, let’s get a grip. There may not be quick resolutions to the conflict at the national level. But, there are still core certainties to how we do business as PR professionals. Our approach still has a strong bearing on how our organizations and clients are perceived and positioned in the public eye. While techniques and vehicles for communications may be changing, and while tones may be shifting nationally, our professional rules of engagement remain rooted in good faith and good sense:
7 Core Rules of Engagement for PR Professionals:
- Prioritize Substance and Strategy:
Don’t cave to the pressures of instant news or a 24/7 content cycle. Keep messages informed, backed by the facts, and guided by a long term strategy.
- Be Credible and Stick to the Facts
Assume that any message or sound bite will be fact checked in real time and plan accordingly. Provide media backup and third party resources for facts or figures. Validate the credibility of any contributing sources.
- Correct Misinformation Quickly
- Save the Flame Wars and Theatrics for the Other Guy
Your credibility (and your client’s) is worth more than a fleeting moment of instant stardom. Resist the temptation to throw a verbal punch for the sake of short term attention or emotional gratification. If you do choose a brazen approach, be armed with the facts and prepare for ensuing attention. Don’t shrink from the spotlight you’ve created.
- Manage Expectations for Media Engagement, Set the Tone
It’s easy (and dangerous) to assume that your audience shares your understanding of the desired outcome for media relations. Give clients and journalists a clear understanding of the context for your engagement and discuss in advance how the process will work to avoid potentially, derailing surprises.
- Engage Creatively
Social media content drives news and personal engagement. Period. While traditional media dukes this one out, new media and social content are driving messages home on a personal level for most Americans. Use creative content development to your advantage, and target your audience and message for higher impact.
- Embrace Diplomacy
It’s easy to engulf ourselves in heated debate, especially when traditional rules of public engagement seem to have gone extinct. Keep your personal and political assumptions at bay. Set aside conspiracy theories for your personal fans. Journalists, clients, detractors and allies will listen far more intently to a calm, objective tone than a projectile verbal assault.
Now, to diplomatically resolve who devours that last loaf of bread…
4 Myths About Wine Marketing Every Consumer Should Know
As we head into summer and begin thinking about buying wines for outdoor entertaining, let’s take a look at a few common wine marketing tactics (or misperceptions) that may be confusing and also affect your purchasing decisions.
1. Myth: “Reserve” wines are better
Fact: The term “reserve” is meaningless, and consumers should know this. In fact, there are no rules or regulations whatsoever regarding the use of “reserve” on a wine label. Its meaning is up to the customer’s interpretation. Many wineries do put their best wines in the “reserve” tier, but make sure that’s the case. If you’re visiting a winery, ask the tasting room team. Trust your local wine retailer’s input as well. Don’t spend more money, or believe you’re getting a better wine, just because the label says “reserve.” Here’s a more detailed explanation from Wine Folly.
2. Myth: If a wine costs more it must be better
Fact: While this is oftentimes true, it’s not always the case. Sometimes a wine is priced based upon where it comes from, its pedigree or scores from critics it has received for past vintages – none of which are a guarantee of quality in the wine you’re considering to purchase. There are many low- to moderately-priced wines, both domestic and imported, that are sure to please if you take the time to do a bit of research and trial. Utilize online resources that specialize in reviewing and recommending affordable wines that over-deliver on quality. Check out cheapwineratings.com.
3. Myth: Large corporate wine companies don’t make great wine
Fact: Many well-known and highly-regarded wineries are commonly owned by large wine conglomerates, and they continue to produce outstanding wines. In many instances, the founding winemakers stay on board continuing to craft the same wines that made them successful in the first place. This is the case with Jackson Family Wines recent purchases of boutique producers Copain and Brewer-Clifton. If anything, being part of a larger company affords many wineries more funding to improve winemaking facilities and, in many cases, benefits the consumer by offering wider distribution opportunities.
4. Myth: Single-vineyard and “small block” wines are always better
Fact: Certainly there are many acclaimed vineyards that all but guarantee quality, and the resulting wines bearing these vineyard names on the label command high prices. Likely the most well-known vineyard, Napa’s To Kalon, is a great example. Sonoma County’s Ritchie Vineyard and Heintz Vineyard are known for outstanding Chardonnay, both selling their fruit to many A-list producers, who also know they can charge a premium for these wines. However, many wineries produce single-vineyard wines or “small block” wines that aren’t necessarily of any higher quality (of course this is subjective) than their other wines. The “standard” wines are blended from several blocks within one vineyard or are sourced from several different vineyards. Look no further than Lynmar Estate’s Quail Vineyard Chardonnay, blended from numerous blocks (or parcels) throughout the estate’s 45-acre vineyard. The Quail Vineyard Chardonnay happens to be my personal favorite among the Lynmar Chardonnays.
Brand Identity in the Age of Social Media
I had the opportunity at a recent academic conference to present my research on the influence of social media. I co-wrote the paper with my professors and was given a central role in the study’s examination of large organizations’ control over their reputations. The study was accepted for a conference hosted by my undergraduate alma mater, at which I presented.
My presentation centered on the way social media is leveling the playing field of mass communication for nearly everyone about virtually anything. In 2017, we’re experiencing capabilities in communications far beyond anything available even 10 years ago. Brand supporters and trolls can disseminate messages as broadly as top tier companies with the most experienced brand managers. Through various communication platforms, individual opinions—popular or obscure, insightful or ignorant, owned or anonymous—can be published for all to see.
In today’s highly connected, postmodern world, easy access by consumers and critics to brand narratives can certainly provide influence. Over 500 years ago, Gutenberg’s printing press inspired the masses to read and write. People eventually learned to teach themselves and others; one major effect was religious revolution in which clergy were essentially undermined by individual capabilities made possible by the printing press. Spirituality changed forever. In at least one way, the effect of social media is behaving similarly to that of the printing press: participants of the new medium are enabled with immediate access and engagement to information. Consumers today can interpret brand identities, disperse information and influence consumer-buyer decisions like they never could before.
In addition to traditional business communications strategies, professional organizations must now also master social media and its various platforms in order to be heard popularly and to retain control of their brand. Part of that includes learning the language of social media with sufficient fluency to relate to the world online; recognizing trending pop-culture phenomena, hashtags, emoji and internet memes gives brands social credibility in an age when many consumers live online.
During the Q & A portion of my presentation, a professor asked why large organizations don’t just use social media in the same sarcastic and humorous way by which many internet memes gain virality. I answered that aside from target market and image strategies, brand integrity may be at stake. My response was unsatisfying to many of the academics in the hall. When a brand is on the receiving end of prominent, image-damaging social media posts, the natural tendency is to draft a response meant to defend reputation or correct misconceptions and gain millions of impressions and popular approval at the same time. If such communication, however, lies too far outside the organization’s brand identity and communication strategy, it is often preferable to indirectly address the issue by bolstering approved communications and brand messaging—acting in accordance with brand integrity and dignity to contradict social media hearsay.
Without a robust digital communications plan, brands are susceptible to the fickle influences and opinions shared on social. Brand managers can be prepared for this by knowing how and how not to participate; otherwise they might allow digital influencers to shape their messaging.
Developing a strong and active social media presence helps in controlling brand identity. Many brands are on social media but few develop the voice and outline the plan for an effective, well-managed social media agenda that allows them to extend brand recognition and bolster brand identity. It’s easy to be reactive on social, giving in to trolls’ negative remarks or adapting brand responses to meet the demands of others. Establishing a proactive and equanimous presence like Wendy’s and Bay Area Rapid Transit’s, which leverage trending issues in a consistent voice that invites positive engagement, is more likely to maintain brand integrity and gain positive attention.
My presentation concluded that social media not only provides value to brands by increasing exposure and engagement, it can be a very real method of solidifying brand identity and even defending it from external influences. Today this medium is as commonplace as print, radio and television, but it’s infinitely more accessible to consumers. Independent parties on social can affect brands and organizations by what they praise and protest. Recognizing that individuals can easily express these influential opinions and planning for it by maintaining a strong social media presence founded on brand integrity allows brands to retain control and further establish their values and credibility, even considering consumers’ heightened communications capabilities today.
The 3 C’s – California, Cannabis and Communication
As the mother of a teenager, it’s impossible to escape the 420 innuendo that circulates en masse each April 20. Widely known as the day to celebrate cannabis, 420 – or 4/20 – has origins dating back to the ‘70s. Last year, airplanes towing 420 banners flew above my son’s middle school (which happens to be in the flight path of two major sports stadiums), Snapchat was awash with 420 filters and, everywhere you turned, songs and memes were espousing its … ahem … virtues.
Fast forward a year, following the passage of Prop 64 legalizing adult-use cannabis in California, and we are primed for a “green rush” with the legal cannabis industry projected to reach nearly $7 billion by 2020 (according to Arcview Market Research). Major newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, have created a cannabis editor position and devoted reporters to covering cannabis – from senior citizen access to the best dispensaries and products and how the science of cannabis works. A coalition of 25 California newsrooms introduced a website, The Cannifornian, to report on “The Golden State of Cannabis” and to answer the common questions people have about its expanded legal use in the state.
This past weekend, the New York Times reported on the industrialization of cannabis and, with big industry players entering the picture, California is primed to lead this agricultural sector. According to the Times, with 20 percent of Americans now living in states where adult-use cannabis is legal, experts project that this brave new world is about to go mainstream. And, much like the food and wine industries, there is room for both specialty and mass market brands. Cannabis consumers will vote with their wallets, so if you are entering this market or have already entered, it’s important to build a brand that is unique to your value proposition and key differentiators – regardless of whether you are a boutique or large-scale producer.
1. Research your audience.
Don’t make assumptions about consumers – who they are, what they know or how they choose brands. Conduct research to drill deep into your customer base to create distinct audience profiles. To be successful, focus on your sweet spot in the market, and then target all your marketing efforts at those audience segments with whom your brand most resonates.
2. Build a solid foundation.
No brand can succeed without a solid foundation or platform to build on. The cornerstone of your foundation is a brand promise: the perception of your brand in the minds of consumers. Once you establish your brand promise, construct your brand pillars with proof points. From there, you can set your communications platform. Consistent messaging is critical when building a brand and consumer base.
3. Integrate marketing activities.
Brand expressions such as name, logo, tagline and website should work in concert with all brand communications. When you start taking your message to the public, always do so in an integrated fashion. Today’s consumer is bombarded by advertising and other marketing vehicles, so to grab their attention you’ll have to present your brand consistently across all the media channels relevant to your target audience. Before activating any advertising, make sure you have analytics set up to provide measurable data you can use to develop and refine your digital marketing strategy.
4. Build lasting community relationships.
While many experienced medical cannabis brands sought a model based on their close ties to the community, new industry players may be tempted to take a shortcut and neglect building those relationships. If you want to build a brand that enjoys long-term success, put in the work up front to build bridges of trust and support among your neighbors and community organizations (who could endorse your operation later given this new and potentially incendiary product offering). This goes a long way in the minds of elected officials, business leaders and consumers.
5. Remember the struggle.
The cannabis industry wasn’t created in a vacuum. Legalization is the result of generations of hard-won progress by people who worked tirelessly to bring it about. Respect the pioneers who helped get you here and who continue to struggle in other states and jurisdictions, including at the federal level. While legalization will rapidly expand the consumer base, core customers are aware of the unique cultural history of cannabis. Don’t forget your roots, or you may find yourself shunned as outsiders looking to make a quick buck.
6. Safeguard your brand against crises.
Lacking previous experience or operating in an industry that is still developing regulations and consumer protections is not a valid excuse in a crisis. We have already seen other states issue public health advisories for cannabis products. Consumers are familiar with product recalls in a variety of industries – food, beverages and a range of other products – and they will expect prompt, voluntary action from responsible cannabis brands. The high road is the only road to travel.
7. Stay abreast of industry news and developments.
Remember that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. Monitor news coverage of your competitors to learn from situations they’re going through (e.g., recalls, labor and regulatory issues). Identify industry trends and shifting consumer preferences, so you can respond appropriately. Attend industry events to keep up with issues affecting this the blossoming industry. The National Cannabis Industry Association’s annual Cannabis Business Summit & Expo is a big one at which EVP Travis Taylor and Chris Raniere, president of 46Mile, our marketing partner are scheduled to speak alongside San Francisco Chronicle cannabis editor, David Downs.
Gone are the Cheech and Chong and Spicoli (Fast Times Ridgemont High) images formerly associated with the cannabis industry. With the green light comes a new, green economy and some sophistication to manage it.
State of the Agency 2016
Our client base in 2016 was an energizing mix, with our team deftly handling everything from circus hi-jinks to launching donut shops, nationally-renowned museum work to promoting athletic events and venues, and from highlighting prized wineries to transformative healthcare services. It was highly rewarding, and I thank our clients for their trust and partnership.
Today, I am looking back at 2016 to pause and reflect. Many of us understand that the rapid pace and flow of business often hinders consideration of where we’ve been and lessons we’ve learned. For our current and potential clients, I believe it serves to review the comprehensive communications services we offer via representations of what we achieved in 2016.
Dale Scott & Company
It was a banner year in 2016 for voter-approved ballot measures providing crucial funding for California school districts. Dale Scott & Company, an independent financial advisor to California K-12 and community college districts, takes a win-win approach to improving schools while protecting taxpayers. We provided communications support to help inform residents of more than 15 districts about the bonds through extensive media coverage and public communications. The bonds were all overwhelmingly supported by voters.
Dunkin’ Donuts is world famous for its freshly brewed coffee and wide selection of food offerings, but, surprisingly, it had no presence in the Bay Area until last year. Brought on to introduce this blue-chip brand to Northern California, Fineman PR successfully hosted three grand openings to throngs of crowds and media, some of the latter just as excited as the guests. The ribbon-cutting ceremonies featured mayors, city council members and other local dignitaries to welcome the brand to each community. In ongoing work, we support holiday promotions, including National Coffee Day and National Donut Day with a strong social media presence.
Over the last 16 years, eHarmony has become the go-to site for singles looking for lasting and fulfilling relationships, but its general market strength did not extend to Latinos. Mosaico, Fineman PR’s multicultural division, developed a survey of Latinos’ dating behaviors and considerations to promote eHarmony Español, its Spanish-language site. The survey gained favorable broadcast and print coverage in top Latino markets, including Los Angeles, New York, Orlando and Chicago. We also leveraged a key finding of the survey to develop a satirical “psychic” character, Juanito Talismán, for social media, which resonated with the belief of one-in-five Latinos that superstitions can help them find true love, a playful contrast with eHarmony’s science-based approach.
The agency launched a highly-targeted lifestyle and food influencer marketing program, on behalf of Foster Farms, dedicated to redefining comfort food for West Coast consumers. The New Comfort Food campaign inspired fresh recipe and visual content from culinary and lifestyle insiders and earned more than 148 million impressions. The program included a Pinterest data partnership, a consumer survey discussed in Parade Magazine and analytical measurement for targeted, focused marketing outreach.
- The brand’s organic and antibiotic-free fresh chicken products were highlighted as staple ingredients for family meals.
- The brand was reinforced as fresh, relevant and in-tune with today’s consumers and trends.
- The New Comfort Food theme resonated with West Coast food and lifestyle influencers in authentic blog and social media posts.
- Compelling imagery and fresh content continue to generate engagement with customized recipes championing Foster Farms values and product quality.
- We broke through to food news influencers who hadn’t previously engaged with Foster Farms.
Fineman PR also expanded Foster Farms’ CSR program and the company’s dedication to feeding local families through expanded partnerships with West Coast food banks.
Foster Farms, 2016 Processor of the Year
Fineman PR successfully advocated for a cover story recognizing Foster Farms as the U.S. meat and poultry industry’s 2016 Processor of the Year for its advances and leadership in water conservancy during California’s epic drought; for becoming the largest producer of organic and antibiotic-free poultry on the West Coast; for rapidly expanding distribution of its frozen and pre-cooked poultry into national markets; and for the consistent excellence of the company’s comprehensive food safety program.
Foster Farms Bowl
As an extension of our work for Foster Farms, our team highlighted the West Coast brand’s offerings to a national audience in the NCAA-official Post Season Foster Farms Bowl game. This year, the Indiana Hoosiers faced the Utes of University of Utah at Levi’s Stadium. To highlight the Northern-California roots of the brand, our team devised a national anthem competition in the weeks leading up to the big play. The 2016 Bowl game kicked off to the tune of a talented Northern California student and singer who won the second annual “Oh Say Can You Sing” contest. As part of the contest prize, Foster Farms donated holiday meals to a Bay Area hunger-relief organization in the winning singer’s name.
Girl Scouts of Northern California
The local council serves a diverse membership of 49,000 girls and more than 32,000 adult volunteers in a 19-county area from Gilroy to the Oregon border. In addition to promoting digital cookie 2.0 with news development and media sampling for cookie season, Fineman PR identified opportunities council-wide to advance the positive community and individual impact of the organization’s programs. Regional broadcast, print and online feature coverage included stories and interviews for National Young Women of Distinction and Gold Award recipients, the 100-year proclamation in Sacramento with the state’s female legislatures, and the annual Golden Gate Bridging event.
Peyton Manning’s career-capping championship at Super Bowl 50 drew significant media attention last February, but HNTB’s innovative design of Levi’s Stadium earned its share of the spotlight. Amid the ubiquitous Super Bowl buzz, Fineman PR tapped into the conversation from an architectural design perspective to secure widespread national media coverage for HNTB. Highlights included features in the Associated Press, USA Today, The New York Times, Washington Post, ESPN, and more, making it one of the most successful PR campaigns in HNTB’s 100+ year history.
Habitat Horticulture at the SFMOMA
The S.F.-based living wall design firm was commissioned as part of the SFMOMA’s grand redesign. In collaboration with the museum, Fineman PR worked to raise Habitat’s profile and distinguish designer David Brenner’s singular approach. The wall, with breathtaking artistic features, is the largest living wall in the United States. Feature coverage included The San Francisco Business Times, Fast Company, Curbed, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine, San Francisco Magazine and Silicon Valley Magazine, with additional branded exposure in the New York Times, Vogue, Forbes, Bloomberg and Wired.
Fineman PR continued to support the marketing and development team for one of California’s largest community healthcare providers, originating from the merger of the historic Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic and Walden House. Executing on media strategy, expert positioning/thought leadership, event promotion, and collateral development, we secured regional and national features on critical programs and mergers underscoring the organization’s expanding influence. We also continued to promote its breakthrough Capital Campaign project.
IPREX Annual World Meeting Host
Last May, Fineman PR hosted our industry partners at the annual IPREX conference in San Francisco. IPREX is an international network of independent Public Relations firms with 1,800 staff and 115 offices worldwide working across the spectrum of industry sectors and practice disciplines. The conference had a record turnout of members from all over the world – Australia, Finland, Ireland, Prague, Berlin, Mexico City, Belgium, Dubai, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Paris, and, of course, from leading agencies throughout the U.S.
Materra Ɩ Cunat Family Vineyards has one of the newest winemaking and hospitality facilities in Napa Valley and engaged Fineman PR to build brand awareness and drive guest traffic. The agency brought a steady stream of wine media to the property and is developing the brand’s 10th anniversary event.
Quintessa in Napa Valley
In our fourth year with Quintessa, we continued to generate top-tier wine coverage, highlighting the outstanding estate wine and unforgettable guest experience. Coverage included Conde Nast Traveler, Travel Channel, the San Francisco Chronicle’s best-of-wine country guide and an Associated Press exclusive harvest story that ran in dozens of major metropolitan newspapers and electronic news sites.
Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey
Though Feld Entertainment recently discontinued its universally known circus franchise after a 100-year run due to high operating costs and a changing entertainment model, the company turned to Fineman PR in 2016 for breakout publicity in the Bay Area, a traditionally difficult market for the national touring brand. The Bay Area venue reimagined the circus experience for the 21st century with its “Out of This World” show. In turn, Fineman PR exceeded expectations for feature coverage and brand-positive tone. It was exciting, and they will be missed.
Fineman PR was called upon to help address a threat to the continuing operation of a Marin County mainstay and nonprofit organization, one that provided critical resources for homeless and low-income residents. We moved quickly to garner support through a grassroots digital campaign and editorial message development to advocate for what resulted in a successful outcome for the organization.
San Francisco Marathon
The 2016 race hosted the largest number of participants in the Marathon’s history, attracting runners from 67 countries and all 50 states. In our third year of working with the Marathon, we continued to generate momentum for its development via international media attention. Our Spanish-speaking staff worked closely with the ESPN Latin America crew to develop a feature on a local Latina runner. Our analytics team also worked closely with the S.F. Chronicle’s interactive division to develop a special report with data visualization.
Sonoma County Vintners
The agency assisted the Sonoma County Vintners with a community outreach program, called Community Connection, to address the challenges of increasing numbers of visitors to the region. Member wineries pledged cooperation to controls set by use and event permits, a compliance officer position was created to monitor events at the winery venues, and the SCV expanded its best practices member education.
Wine Institute, an advocate for California wine and more than 1,000 wineries and affiliated businesses, engaged Fineman PR for a crisis preparedness and issues management initiative. As the project continues, we are equipping the organization to prepare for crisis risks to the California wine industry and expanding the Institute’s expert resource pool to address challenging and highly technical industry issues.
Good PR: Know When You Can’t Lean on Corporate Policy
First, it was the leggings. Now, United Airlines faces the far more troubling charge of passenger abuse after the horrific video of a paying customer unwillingly dragged down an airplane runway by two security officers went viral. (The passenger refused his fate as one of four unlucky passengers randomly selected to give up their seats on an oversold flight.) Yesterday’s news is a glaring example of why companies cannot lean on corporate policy to defend actions seen as insensitive and even inhumane to the general public. Not only because the whole world is watching. Good PR (and corporate reputation) requires a company-wide system that upholds critical values – for public safety, for consumer trust, for product quality – guided by company policy.
— Jayse D. Anspach (@JayseDavid) April 10, 2017&0″ /a>
In both cases, United’s actions (dress code enforcement for non-revenue travelers and random selection of passengers to deplane on an oversold flight) were supported by corporate policy. But to the viewing public and the media, the justification for disturbing behavior is irrelevant. No corporate policy can explain away the visceral footage of a grown man on the floor, disheveled, visibly injured and tugged down the aisle to the screams and distress of other passengers. Public safety is a non-negotiable. That includes avoiding potential physical harm of an individual and preventing the escalation of customer service issues into public safety risks.
Let’s not forget that the U.S. airline industry was founded and branded as a luxury travel service, not an automated people mover or public transit in the sky. When a company’s offering to the marketplace is customer service or hospitality, highly visible customer service failures should be seen as potentially damaging as a major product recall, equipment failure or facilities disaster. Crisis planning, such as tabletop scenarios or risk management operations drills should include customer service interactions across company operations.
So what should United and other businesses facing viral scrutiny over company policy do next?
In the case of United’s immediate strategy, Fineman PR President Michael Fineman emphasizes: “A doctor wouldn’t prescribe a cure without seeing a patient and knowing that patient’s history. Similarly, there are many factors that are only known to the client, which must be considered to determine the appropriate response. However, in this case, based on what has been made public, the following would be recommended if this were my agency’s client:
Prepare a full report of the incident, identify where the situation escalated beyond reason (where it got away from them), and take full responsibility.
The report should demonstrate how the airline will make good on this with the affected passenger and, perhaps, all passengers who witnessed this brutal “act of commerce.”
Include new guidelines and policies, and new employee training programs to ensure something like this will never happen again.
Publicize the full report and plan on the United Airlines website and distribute it to the media.
Aim for genuine progress and track that progress through independent audits of the airline’s customer service, with special attention paid to on-the-ground passenger experiences.”
For airlines and other companies facing potentially high profile customer interaction:
- Evaluate public-facing policies and enforcement guidelines with an eye toward risk management, customer service and of course, public safety. Review customer service response data and employee conflict reports for a better understanding of what is working and what is increasingly raising controversy.
- Identify policy administrators for on-the-ground transactions: ensure that they are specially trained and periodically re-trained in conflict resolution and hospitality. If outside authorities must be brought in to physically manage a situation, understand that their actions will be associated with your company’s response.
- Have tough conversations internally with management and with on-the-ground policy administrators to navigate the gray area of policy enforcement. Does company policy allow specially-trained on-the-ground policy enforcers to exercise their best judgment in the case of high conflict events? If a situation escalates, who has the final say on the visible action? How can policy enforcers minimize controversial attention to a potentially-flammable situation?
- Take a look at policy enforcement visually, just as the public or media might: Does a policy that sounds reasonable on paper look reasonable in action?
Fineman Opines on Crises in the Washington Post
Because of our high profile crisis communications work, reporters looking for insight into complex organizational or reputation issues sometimes call on us as resource for commentary.
When I receive an inquiry from a reporter, I typically open the conversation with an important disclaimer: I do not propose counsel on situations that I know only from what I gather in media reports. A doctor wouldn’t prescribe a cure without seeing a patient and knowing that patient’s history. Similarly, for any difficult business or dicey public exposure situation and negative media attention, there are many factors that are only known to the client, and those factors often determine their responses. I know too well that there’s a rush to judgment without enough substantive understanding behind it.
I explained that to Paul Farhi at the Washington Post who was doing a story on how Fox News is handling or mishandling the O’Reilly news. Farhi wondered why Fox was keeping so silent about it and wanted my views on what I would counsel Fox if it were a client. Was silence the right thing?
Perhaps it was my comment that organizations should, “not get caught with their pants down” in a crisis that seemed so apropos to O’Reilly. Read Paul Farhi’s full story here: Washington Post: At Fox News, a wall of silence surrounds Bill O’Reilly
To elaborate more on my counsel, below is PANTCHEK, our handy-dandy acronym of general principles to keep in mind when managing communications in a crisis – and not get caught with your pants down. The caveat here is that this somewhat generic (yet critically important) checklist does not necessarily apply to all crisis ills.
- Public welfare is the first priority
- Assemble the facts. Once they are verified, Announce All bad news at once
- No blame, No speculation, No repetition of negative charges or questions
- Tell your side of the story or Take responsibility
- Care and Concern for those affected – express it sincerely and right at the outset
- High-level organization spokesperson – let the public see the crisis has top-level attention
- Ensure that it will not happen again with a solid plan that will generate confidence
- Keep a separate plan for moving daily business ahead
Then there is reputation recovery. Merely managing your way through is not aiming high enough. You need to rebuild or reinforce your reputation and respect for your brand, and keep your relationships intact. Diligent reputation-building is essential. Depending on the nature and duration of the crisis, success may require a long-term effort.
- Maintain open communications with media, community members, customers, consumers, investors, employees, governing bodies and affiliates via all communications channels, including social media.
- Employ awareness-raising tactics
- Differentiate your organization from the pack – did the crisis make you better and/or stronger?
- Become a category expert among your peers
- Conduct “post mortem” analysis and incorporate what you learn into future scenario planning