They Like You. They REALLY Like You.

Producers of the Olympic games ratchet up the emotional value of programming in a powerful way, and it’s a good lesson for PR folks and the clients they represent.

They do it by offering viewers more than what they expect to see. There’s the flabby heavyweight wrestler who improbably won Gold in Sydney against an “unbeatable” Russian opponent. He was back again in Athens, looking every bit as flabby, but that’s not the interesting part of the story.

No, what reeled the viewers into the beefy wrestler’s saga was a string of mishaps between Sydney and Athens that resulted in a lost toe (frostbite) and a fractured wrist held together with pins (basketball injury) and another close brush with death on the roadways (motorcycle accident). By the time the grappler actually took to the mat for competition in Athens, grown women (and some grown men) were given to tears of inspiration, joy and hope. He took the bronze and then retired, openly weeping as he removed his shoes and left them in the middle of the mat, as is wrestling tradition.

There’s the hurdler who watched his own father murdered as a boy, the diver who had cried during the entire Sydney games because her former country (Russia) refused to let her dive for her new country (Australia) until the day after they Olympics ended. On and on it goes.

Reporters are people, too. They become more attached to their subjects if they can relate to real, human experiences. Give them something to hold onto besides the mundane corporate trials and tribulations everyone goes through. Make them connect with you.

Tree fall on your house during that big storm? Throw your back out dancing at your daughter’s wedding? Daughter catch a 13-inch largemouth Bass using only a worm, a bobber and a prayer? Go ahead and mention these things during the “small talk” portions of the interview (usually the first or last five minutes).

Stories like these help get reporters invested in you as a person because they have experiences that are similar to yours, and therefore can relate. And, fair or not, reporters will go the extra mile to highlight the positives of your company's story if they like you as a person.

The value of your news increases when you connect emotionally with your audience. It works in Athens and it can work for your business.

"Show The Client A Scribble"

Someone recently gave me a copy of Paul Arden's little book, "It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be." Arden's an advertising exec, a former honcho at Saatchi & Saatchi.

The book contains anecdotes and advice from a creative, seasoned guy about how to stand out, get ahead, and most importantly: how to sell.

One of the gems I liked best addressed the need to involve clients in the brainstorming process. If the Agency does all the positioning work, and steps into the board room prepared to wow the client/prospect with their daring originality, then "there's nothing for (the client) to do. It's not his work, it's your work. He doesn't feel involved...It is very difficult for him to imagine anything else," so, he needs to find fault in order to feel as if he's been important to the process.

Arden says, "Show the client a scribble. Explain it to him, talk him through it, let him use his imagination. Get him involved."

That's crucial to our process at SHIFT. Rather than present ideas that are fully-baked, we admit upfront - with a chuckle - that most of our ideas are half-baked, and we engage the client to help us fill in the blanks. In the process, we capture their passion and creativity and come out of the room with ideas & campaigns that are essentially approved and fully backed by management.

Five Ring Circus

The Olympics officially kick off tonight in Athens, Greece. Much pomp and circumstance surrounds the international event, in which countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe will attempt to swim, dash, shoot and run into the gold-leafed books of history.

The competitors’ movements will be judged, timed, and ultimately assigned a grade; only the top three performers in each contest earn the right to step to the podium.

Call it the world’s largest product review.

In this case the product is people, who have toiled relentlessly to hone their skills in a bid for Olympic Gold, the standard against which all others will be judged. From a PR perspective, it’s an awful lot like the competitive landscape in which our clients ply their trades – they just do so without the pageantry or glory. The prize? Cold hard cash.

Athletes eat right, train hard, study the tapes of their competitors and steel themselves for the endurance tests that will define their legacies. Businesses must continually develop product, sell like nobody’s business and strive to define, or in some cases redefine, their respective categories.

Olympians looking for a competitive edge sometimes resort to drastic measures, namely the use of performance-enhancing drugs, known in athletic parlance as “doping.” And while this can indeed enhance performance, it’s frowned upon to the extent that those caught using illicit drugs are history – athletes with drugs in their systems don’t get to make history.

Fortunately for businesses hoping to throttle the competition, PR happens to be perfectly legal. In fact, it’s best if the whole world knows a company is “using” PR, because that means the whole world knows about the company.

But using strong PR, even the really pure stuff, is no substitute for hardcore product development. Even the most potent PR can only do so much: it can create the perception that your company is the one to beat. It can convince the cynical masses that your operation is on the fast track. It can get more partnerships and more ink in the publications you care about.

But you’ve got to pay off its promise by putting in the time to make sure your products truly outshine the competition. Strip away the PR and, just like athletes who stop using drugs, you are what you are.

If there’s a moral to this blatant attempt to tie this entry to the Olympics, it’s that even great PR can’t make your products better. At the end of the day, reviewers, like Olympic judges, will grade the performance of your products – not the performance of your publicity.

Out to Lunch

It’s amazing what an oven roasted half-chicken or a pan-seared sea bass can do for your business. Just as effective are pastrami sandwiches, Mexican tortilla soup and a cup of Starbuck’s coffee.

Liver is never helpful.

We’re talking about the magic of lunch. When two people who don’t know each other sit down for a meal, conversation can lead to unexpected places, which is the beauty of inviting an editor to grab a quick bite with you (in his/her own backyard, for the sake of convenience).

PR people are guilty of a lot of things, and among the most glaring is the tendency to over-think their pitches. They start with a little kernel of an idea and then expound with statistics, jargon and conjecture until that interesting kernel (PR gold) becomes utterly obscured by vast cornfields of wasted words. The verbal equivalent of Indiana.

Since editors don’t have time nor the inclination to sift through these insipid pitches, they calmly hit the delete key and mentally expunge from their heads the name of the company whose PR firm wasted their time.

Even if the pitch is good (concise; abstains from using the words “revolutionary” and “core competencies”), there’s no gaurantee it will even be read. So vast is the number of emails landing in the inboxes of reporters that a pitch must grab eyeballs immediately or be lost forever on the recipient.

Which is why “Lunch” is a great word to put in an email subject line. First, everyone loves to (and has to) eat. Second, it’s a much more intimate, alluring and timely proposition than is “please call my CEO.”

Some of the best ink we’ve gotten for clients came from enterprising staffers who played the “lunch” card. The beauty of this approach is that one needn’t be particularly clever, for even the wittiest sentence construction is trumped by the allure of a piping hot chicken quesadilla with mango apple chutney and an ice cold Coke.

When using this technique, the key is to make clear the executive you represent expects nothing from the meeting. “This is just a chance to get together to chat about whatever’s on your mind,” is a nice way to put it.

Now, the editor is thinking two things:

1. I won’t be expected to write a story about this clown, and;

2. What the heck is mango apple chutney?

In the end, this simple approach can pay big dividends. When the conversation takes its natural course, it’s amazing where it can lead. And if the reporter likes his lunch mate, the probability of a story being written – whether the next day or two months down the road – goes up considerably.

Unless you order liver. Liver is never helpful in such matters.

Cultivating References

In this biz, it's all about having respected people vouch for you. That whole credibility thing. Our clients need customers to verify the veracity of their claims, thereby allaying concerns of potential buyers. In PR parlance, it's called third party validation.

PR firms need to do the same thing. When engaging in the RFP process, one of the last things a company does before pulling the trigger on an Agency of Record is to check the firm's client references. If an agency can't scare up at least a couple of happy clients to sing its praises, that agency is in deep, ahem, trouble.

Now, suppose two firms are jockeying to win a company's PR business. Let's further suppose they are neck-in-neck in the race. Each firm has a great, experienced staff. Each firm has senior leadership involved in the accounts; each has an attractive billing model (flat-fees win the day over those money gobbling T&M plans); and each has plenty of relevant experience in the space.

What gives? Who do you run with?

Successful PR agencies are filled with talented achievers who keep clients happy (hence the glowing client references). But truly enterprising firms also keep the press and analyst communities happy, which can and should tip the scales in their favor.

We recently pitched a piece of biz in the online advertising space. This company had talked to several firms, most of them credible. In we marched with our team, a solid proposal, and a humble-yet-confident attitude. After all of the basic get-to-know-ya, what-are-your-services questions were out of the way, the conversation turned to reporters. Specifically, who do we know?

At this point all eyes turned toward our experience account manager, who proceeded to list all of the publications and accompanying writers relevant to this prospect. But that's not all. She also mentioned their respective likes and dislikes, their deadlines, what they're currently writing about and how to get their attention.

"You know XX personally?" asked the CEO, his eyebrows raised. "I mean, you've talked to him a few times?"

"I talk to him at least once a week," replied our Account Manager. "In fact, he'd be glad to serve as a reference."

Of course, the CEO thought this was next to miraculous, considering the reporter in question was numeral uno on his target list. That we could serve up his favorite target as a reference was a thing of beauty, and a clear differentiator.

The bad news is, we couldn't take on the new client. We discovered a competitive conflict, and decided not to walk that line. When I called to break the news to the prospect, it was clear they were disappointed, and had in fact already decided to hire us.

"Please keep us in mind if things should change," the contact said. "We'd love to have you."

There's a switch.

Having client references on hand is one thing. Having editorial references is quite another, and any firm worth its salt can offer up a satisfied reporter as a third party validation of its services.