Public relations is a serious profession. We are entrusted with the good names and reputations of our employers and clients, and if we bungle the job, the results can be catastrophic.
So it’s worth doing right. But what is that, exactly? It’s just a matter of good people skills and common sense, right?
Not really, no. Much of what we do can be downright counter-intuitive, and it often goes against what untrained people are certain they know. When this is the case, we may have trouble getting our clients and employers to do our jobs right.
One approach is to take the easy way out by compromising the principles of sound public relations, and telling our clients what they want to hear. Go along to get along, as it were. Over time, we may even forget (if we ever knew) that there is really a right way and a wrong way to “do public relations.” We ignore the profession’s body of knowledge, and thereby diminishes what we do.
The APR designation addresses the two critical needs we all have: (1) knowing the right way to do things, and (2) gaining the confidence of our employers/clients so that we can do a proper job.
It’s been my pleasure over the years to play a small role in helping fellow professionals earn the APR. Over that time, I’ve found that the biggest obstacle is (wait for it) the failure to take it seriously. I’ve heard older non-accredited colleagues advise others, “Oh, you and I could pass it without even studying,” and wanted to start throwing things. I’ve seen candidates show up for a readiness review with no visible sign of having been mentored or trained. I’ve seen some jump in too soon, before they logged any real experience in the profession, treating it as some sort of entitlement or automatic step, like walking across the stage for their diploma. I’ve seen others procrastinate and have to rush up a Readiness Review in order to get to the Computer Based Exam before the clock runs out. (Aside: When you do this, and three accredited professionals drop everything to sink a half day or more in an expedited Readiness Review and you show up unprepared, you’re not scoring any points.)
And I’ve seen others who worked hard, took sound advice, studied and passed the examination. They wear their APR pins proudly, and use the designation at every opportunity. More importantly, they have earned credibility. They’ve taken themselves and their profession seriously. As a result their clients are more likely to listen to them and take their advice.
They have the knowledge and the professional “weight” to stand firm when their employers want to pursue a course that could be damaging to their own best interest. They refuse to lie, work through “false fronts” and offer payoffs, because they know the Code of Ethics and understand why it matters.
So here’s my challenge as we move into the holiday season: Take yourself and your career seriously. Take your profession seriously enough to do it right, and earn the respect it takes to make that happen in the real world. Your colleagues will appreciate it, because you represent them as well. Some of us get downright mad when you mess things up and bring a bad name on the profession to which we have devoted our lives.
You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.
So let’s do it right. If you’re at the right time in your career (I recommend at least five years of full-time experience, though it’s no longer required), talk to one of your accredited colleagues about pursuing the credential. I’ve never known an APR who would turn down a colleague who would say no to helping you.
Barring a write-in vote, I’ll be serving as Alabama PRSA co-chair for accreditation in 2015, along with Ashley Fulmer, APR. We haven’t nailed down our plans yet, but I know Ashley shares my passion for the program, and we’ll be doing whatever we can to help our colleagues advance their careers — and their profession — by earning the APR. I hope you’ll feel free to call on either of us.
I dumped my cable company. I no longer get ESPN, CNN, FOX or MSNBC.
A couple of years ago, the very idea would have been unthinkable. But when I wrote my check to the cable company last month (about $100 for 300-400 channels, of which I watched two or three), I began to review how my wife and I actually consume television.
At the same time, I saw that a new crop of digital antennas had dropped in price to around $40. I picked up one at Costco as an experiment and hooked it up to the TV in my den. It scanned the channels and picked up all the local channels (affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and Fox). Within just a couple of minutes, I had the antenna in a position (well out of sight) where everything came in with clear HD signals. I already had Roku boxes on all my sets, giving me access to Netflix, Amazon Prime and plenty of channels for news, sports and weather.
Then I remembered that my cable package included a promotion that was about expire, and my bill was about to go up $30. The idea of paying $130 a month for three or four channels seemed insane. Could I afford it? Sure. But it hit my choke point, at which something inside me rebelled.
I called my cable provider and asked about downgrading to a lower package. They said if I did, I’d lose my promotional deal and the price would actually go up $15 a month. I posted something snarky about it on social media, and a surprising number of friends told me they’d already been living happily without cable. Contrary to what you may believe, these weren’t just Millennials, but also middle-aged professionals.
If you do a Google News search on “cord cutting,” you will quickly find a lot of recent articles from Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, among others. Most agree that the cable TV model of bundling – forcing customers to buy hundreds of channels rather than just allowing them to buy what they actually want – is living on borrowed time.
By most accounts, the cable companies are losing customers. As reported by Bloomberg, the total number of cable subscribers dropped for the first time in 2013. Cable advocates counter that the numbers of those leaving cable are still small. However, we have to count not only those who cut existing cable service, but also those (primarily Millennials) who never had it in the first place.
There is evidence that some of the content providers are getting restless. HBO has announced that it will sell directly to users soon, and CBS has begun offering its programming for a few dollars a month over the Internet.
But the big thing people can’t give up is sports – ESPN in particular – and we’ve seen no movement on their part. Bob Iger, CEO of Disney (which owns ESPN) has said that marketing directly to consumers is a good concept, and Disney’s prepared to do so.
But he’s in no hurry, because once ESPN goes, cable users could begin to drop out quickly. For now, Disney/ESPN gets $6.04 per month per subscriber from the cable companies, and Disney will milk that cash cow as long as it can. (To get an idea just how big a factor ESPN is, compare that with the runner-up, for which the cable companies pay $1.48 per subscriber per month. The WSJ estimates that the median is a meager 14 cents, which gives us a good idea of how much junk there is in that 400-channel package.
In short, Disney has the cable providers by the throat. They could break up the entire system. On the other hand, they could also simply double their charges to the cable companies and probably make more money.
Despite all this, I’m not convinced that the entire cable system is on the verge of collapse. The inevitable isn’t necessarily imminent. My guess is that we’ll see some movement by the cable companies to offer smaller packages, ratcheting down to preserve as much of the revenue as they can for as long as possible, while continuing to plug the technology holes.
On the other hand, if Iger and Disney pull the plug, things could deteriorate very quickly, and cable companies could end up allowing us to pick and choose our channels, paying only for the ones we actually want.
This article ran in the June/July issue of Auctioneer Magazine. Used by permission.
Imagine walking up to a bidder and saying, “Hey, let me tell you how we’re going to make you pay more today.” Or pulling a seller aside and saying, “We’re really going to sell your stuff at rock bottom prices. Bidders are going to have a field day.”
It rarely happens, for reasons that are obvious to every auctioneer. It’s just common sense to tailor what we say to the person to whom we’re talking.
But when it comes to our advertising, web site and other mass communications, common sense often goes out the window. Instead, many seek to be efficient. They want to save time and avoid duplication. They give everybody the same message.
It’s a mistake that can torpedo an otherwise effective campaign. It can cause prospective bidders to lose interest in an auction, or a prospective seller to look for another auctioneer (or another sales method).
A better approach is one that goes by many names. In some circles, it’s called audience segmentation. During the 1980s, we fancied it up and talked in terms of stakeholder communication.
In plain language, I usually call it targeting, and it comes down to this: Knowing who you’re talking to.
We pretend that a “one size fits all” message will work for everybody. So we create expensive corporate brochures and web sites that throw around high blown terms like “state-of-the-art” capabilities and “experienced staff” but add up to little or nothing.
We even do it in advertising for upcoming auctions, using the same copy and photos for use in very different venues. I’ve often had the challenge of promoting a group of properties with a wide range of diverse assets. Occasionally, I’ve seen an auctioneer use the cringeworthy phrase, “something for everybody.”
The people who are looking for nothing in particular are generally the ones you find at garage sales and flea markets. They may be good bidders at a low-end personal property auction, but they tend to be bargain shoppers. So if they’re buying much, your sale probably isn’t going well.
The reality is that different groups need to know and hear different things. Let’s say you’ve got a house to sell. Someone looking for a “starter home” might be interested in knowing that property values in the area have consistently risen for years, but he might be turned off by knowing what homes are renting for. That’s the kind of stuff an investor wants to know. A flipper probably is looking for things that can be easily upgraded to bring a higher price at resale.
So we need to have some idea what “market” a given advertising medium is reaching. What is the newsletter, magazine or web site about? If it’s full of tips for homeowners and handymen, your best pitch may be aimed at the flipper or the guy buying a home for himself. But if its focus is on investments, you may do better by focusing on rents, cash flow and taxes.
You can’t do this on autopilot, and we all have to be learning constantly. It’s common to have transitional land of one sort or another, such as farmland that might eventually be used for development, or recreational land that includes a great site for a new retail property.
Hunting and development don’t mix all that well. Maybe you need to choose to market the property to one or the other. Or maybe you need one set of ads for publications reaching hunters and another for potential developers.
The need for such audience segmentation comes up constantly. When you’re buying space on websites or in newsletters, it’s pretty easy to target. But what about the lists you use for mailings and e-mail blasts? If your lists are typical, they’ve been compiled over the years from numerous sources – call-ins for previous auctions, previous bidders, or purchased lists.
Imagine (with the benefit of hindsight) how much more useful those lists would be if, long ago, you had added a field or two further segmenting their interest. Then your e-mail blast could emphasize the assets – or the aspects of the property – specifically of likely interest to those.
Maybe there’s not much you can do about your old lists, but it’s never too late to get better targeting data on those you continue to add. And you can always ask them. Send them a very short poll asking them to check their areas of interest on a postcard if you’re using traditional mail and via a polling website for those you’re reaching out to via email.
Improve your aim. Trust me, it’s worth the trouble.
This article was originally published in Auctioneer Magazine, April 2014. Used by permission of the National Auctioneers Association.
By Carl Carter, APR
Let’s talk about “that seller.” The one who nitpicks everything you do and micromanages the marketing campaign for his upcoming auction.
Or “that bidder.” The one who shows up without meeting the requirements to register for a sale. Or who pays no attention to the terms and conditions, then balks at the buyer’s premium. Or who bids recklessly, then wants to retract his bid.
Maybe it’s “that agent,” or “that vendor.” You know the one I’m talking about. The one who seems to be begging for a piece of your mind, if not a lawsuit. The one who gets under your skin in a way that makes you want to scream – or, at the least, fire off a hot email.
And listen to the words of counsel I received decades ago from a respected mentor: The Relationship Comes First.
I’ve received a lot of public relations advice over the years, but none better than that. It’s some of the hardest advice to take, because it runs counter to our basic instinct, our pride, and our desire to appear strong and inconsistent. We fear being perceived as weak, or losing the respect of our associates, our clients or others. We worry about setting a precedent that allows others to run all over us.
People around us see what’s happening and tell us not to take it lying down. When this happens, keep in mind that the people goading you probably aren’t going to have to deal with the reputation damage. Their names aren’t involved. Yours is.
And don’t get me wrong: There are times when you have to deal with a difficult person – or a problem – head-on. Sometimes you may even have to go to court. You have to get paid for your work and protect yourself from thieves, cons and deadbeats. There are people with whom you can’t have a relationship.
Putting the relationship first simply means that you make a serious effort to resolve problems in a way that makes a future relationship with the other person possible. It’s largely a matter of counting the costs and benefits of a confrontation:
The potential revenue from continuing business with the person.
The risk of losing that person’s business – and possibly the business of others in his or her sphere of influence. (Keep in mind, in these days of social media, an unhappy customer can do a lot of damage.)
The potential expenses for collection costs, court costs or lawyers.
The possible reputation damage resulting from a flap or a lawsuit.
Remember that if you get drawn into a public fight, your reputation will be hurt even if you turned out to be right. And a year from now, nobody will remember or care who was right and who was wrong. What they’ll remember is the stink, and it sticks to you.
Now that we have to deal with social media and the Internet, that can happen in particularly annoying and troubling ways. An unsuccessful bidder at an auction suggests that he was treated unfairly, suggesting that maybe the auction company did something underhanded. A reporter or blogger writes a negative article. Court documents get into Google’s search engines. Before you know it, people who search on your firm are seeing negative stories. Sure, you can explain them to those who ask. But what about the ones who don’t ask? The ones who called another auctioneer instead?
If you’re still not convinced, look at it this way: How many times have you shied away from doing business with somebody because there were question marks about their character or business practices? You can’t put your finger on it, but you heard or read something.
Others are doing the same thing. Play it smart, and put the relationship first whenever possible.
ATLANTA — CNN announced today that the network will roll out a series of commercials and billboards with a new slogan, “All Guesses, All the Time,” beginning April 1.
Network CEO I.M. Unser said the network is responding to recent ratings patterns and focus groups, which reveal that viewers are more likely to stay tuned to the network nonstop when analysts are attempting to predict the future.
“Without viewers, we’re out of business. Once we give people an actual fact, they simply disappear, and advertisers won’t continue to pay us to talk to nobody. We had a major spike during the conclave to elect a pope, for example. We brought in every priest and bishop we could find to talk about the backgrounds of the various candidates, their qualifications, and what changes they would likely implement if they were elected. People couldn’t get enough of it. Once we got white smoke and everybody knew who the new pope was, it was all over, and we were left sitting there with nobody watching. We’re simply not going to let that happen going forward,” said Unser.
He acknowledged that the mysterious disappearance of a Boeing 777 Malaysia Airlines jet served as a catalyst to the new campaign. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Unser said. “It’s been two weeks now, and we can put anybody with a pilot’s license in the chair and folks will stay glued to the set. I really hate to see it end,” he said.
Note: This post is strictly parody. This didn’t actually happen, exactly.
Originally published in Auctioneer Magazine March 2014. Used by permission.
By Carl Carter, APR
You got stung. You lost a big deal you would have sworn was in the bag. Or you’ve watched in frustration as a competitor has racked up a series of big auctions while your own pipeline seems clogged.
You have to do something fast. You huddle your staff. What went wrong? Who’s to blame? You feel a need to do something dramatic to regain your lost footing. Fire somebody. Rename the company. Hire a consultant. Crank up a national ad campaign.
First, take a deep breath. What’s the longer term perspective? An occasional “wake-up call” can be healthy if it forces us to look at our own businesses realistically. So let’s start there.
- Get better at measuring. I’ve seen very few auction companies that do a great job of collecting and analyzing data beyond calls, bidders and web visits. Why not measure the efforts that go into those numbers? How many sales calls did we make last year? How many visits? How many web meetings? Speaking engagements? If you’re not out there pitching, you’re going to get beat. That has nothing to do with technology and major trends. It’s just a reality of life.
- Identify rationalization and excuses in your self-talk. This is a subjective, messy and painful process, and sometimes it helps to have a friend without an ax to grind who’s willing to challenge you. One “red flag” is if you find yourself saying, “I know this is the way things are being done by most folks, but our market and customers are different.” Sometimes they are. But even if that’s the case, they may just be lagging the rest of society. It’s generally safest to assume your market reflects the rest of the universe.
- Don’t be in a rush to identify the cause. In our quest to make sense of things, we may see a cause-effect relationship between things that may just be a coincidence. The other guys are advertising in a certain magazine, and they just booked an auction you wanted. Maybe it’s a factor, or maybe they just out-hustled you!
- What are we doing that’s working? You’ve obviously been doing some things right or you wouldn’t be where you are today. Identify those, quantify them as best you can, and look for ways to build on your success.
- Broaden your “database.” Be wary of relying too much an anecdotal evidence. By all means, use “straws in the wind” to guide you in your quest to improve, but don’t stop there. Check industry and demographic data. Keep an eye on trends through such sources as Pew, Gallup and others. But be discriminating. I’m leery of “studies” from companies that sell the products they’re reporting on.
- Review your own marketing materials. This is a good time for a “gut check” on your own brochures, proposals, slides, sales pitches, web site, advertising budget and other factors. You could be wasting money on media that aren’t working for you any more while missing opportunities elsewhere.
- Evaluate your core marketing message. This is a tough one because a lot of us aren’t clear on what our core message is. Many point to their slogan, which is fine, but it doesn’t hurt to ask yourself what it actually means. I had a client (not an auctioneer) who used the same tagline – “A New Attitude” – for 15 years. None of us knew what it meant in the first place, and it had nothing to do with its products or customers. In truth, a new slogan might help, but that alone won’t fix your problem.
Sometimes you really do have a crisis. You really might have to do something big. But don’t start there. A little tuneup will probably produce faster results at a much lower cost than a major overhaul.
Carl Carter, APR, president of NewMediaRules Communications, has provided public relations, marketing and related services to auctioneers nationwide for 18 years. He can be reached at email@example.com, or 205-823-3273.
This column was published in Auctioneer Magazine. Used by permission.
By Carl Carter, APR
Once in a while – if you work hard and have a little luck – magic happens. You get into a profitable market niche early. You establish the right contacts, hold a string of great auctions, and gain a reputation as the go-to firm for a certain type of asset. Or a specific region. Or a seller profile.
Sales come in as fast as you can handle them. So you do the smart thing and make hay while the sun shines. You target your sales and advertising at the hot market. And while you know it won’t last forever, you go with it, because you’ve worked your whole life for just that kind of market.
In other words, you play it smart. But if you’re not careful, you can step into the “good times trap.” You focus so exclusively on what’s working that you forget to hedge your bets. You stop doing things that have worked for you over the long haul, assuming that the current run will last forever. But it may not. I’ve seen companies disappear virtually overnight because the conditions that made fed their success disappeared. You probably have too.
So here are some things you can do during the good times to avoid that trap. By all means, you want to focus on what’s working. But it’s also a good time to look ahead and be ready for the changes that almost always come. Here are a few things you can do to make the transition easier, just in case the good times don’t roll forever.
Increase your marketing savvy. Good times are the ideal time to get creative with your marketing. By all means, do what you know is working. But this is also a good time to test some new ways of promoting your auction company, because you have less pressure to go for the quick payoff. Sign up for some seminars on marketing techniques you haven’t tried yet. Educate yourself on Internet-only auctions if you haven’t already. Bring yourself up to date on the current media landscape. Who’s going where for their information?
Look for logical extensions to your current success. Who has assets similar to those you’re selling now but isn’t using the auction method? Get in the habit of reading news from different types of businesses and see who’s having problems liquidating what. Where are the clogs in the the supply pipeline? Who has idle assets and needs cash? Who’s looking to cash in?
Expand your marketing reach. The time to start reaching out to new markets is when you’re enjoying success in existing ones. Maybe you have a newsletter that gets you a lot of compliments. Great! So build on that by expanding the distribution list. Identify an industry where you don’t have a presence and start reaching out to prospects there. Identify the leading trade publications and web portals for that industry and begin reading them, if possible. Join an association or two. Attend a trade show or expo in an industry you’ve never penetrated.
Keep your foothold (and reputation) in cooler markets. You never know when a dormant source of business might heat up, so it’s a good idea to keep pursuing auctions even for properties that might seem marginal compared to your current bread and butter. People quit thinking of your firm for an asset you haven’t sold in recent memory. I’ve heard many an auctioneer say, “Oh yeah, we’ve sold a lot of properties like that.” But not lately. So nobody remembers the good work they did before. They watch helplessly as the auction goes to somebody who’s sold more properties recently in that market space, and the auctioneer faces an uphill battle to re-establish a reputation for that asset.
Be lots of places, lots of times. I have a friend who – still in his early 30s – had built and sold two very different successful businesses and was enjoying a lot of success in a third. One day I asked him how he managed to do it. “The only way I know to be in the right place at the right time is to be lots of places, lots of times,” he said. It made sense. He was constantly on the phone, out at social gatherings, and busy with events and groups around town. He got in front of people. He listened. When he saw an opening, he moved boldly. While most of us are better served by a strategy of building one business for the long run, I couldn’t help admiring him, and I learned a few things as well.
Ever since Facebook rolled out its last set of tweaks in early December, folks have been trying to figure out how those changes affect marketing strategies. This has led to a lot of hand-wringing about how Facebook is trying to force marketers to start spending money on paid ads.
Get over it. You had a free ride for years, and it was never an entitlement. You didn’t earn it or pay for it, so there’s nothing to be gained from a conversation about how you’ve been done wrong, or what Facebook should have done. Instead, here are some constructive ways to respond – things that will work in pretty much any environment.
- Generate content. By content, I don’t mean just Facebook posts. Beef up your website with informational articles, advice, announcements and other content, then provide links to it on Facebook and other social media.
- Become a groupie. What’s going to do you more good, shouting something on a street corner or getting into a roomful of prospects to exchange ideas and build relationships? Invest a little time and effort in finding and joining Facebook groups where people in your target market gather. Resist the temptation to jump in and start posting in a group you’ve just joined. Hang around and listen for a few days. Learn who the “players” are, and figure out the unwritten rules of the group. Then gradually join the conversation. In short, use the same judgment you use in “real life” social interactions. (Note: While my focus in this article is mainly Facebook, this is true of LinkedIn as well.)
- Segment your “friends” and limit who sees what. Like a lot of people, I have a “friend list” that spans a number of different worlds – auctioneers, journalists, PR colleagues, people I grew up with, and family. There is very little overlap of interests between them. By using lists and segmenting, you’re just using the same sound judgment you do in your face-to-face conversations. You tailor what you say to the setting and your audience.
- Scale back the trivia and controversial stuff. When you waste people’s time or make them mad, they tune you out. You don’t even have to do it directly. Let’s say you’ve been posting a bunch of fluffy kitty shots. That’s fine, but remember that lots of others are doing the same thing, and your friends know how to “hide” posts on a specific topic. (See screen capture.) If folks are worn out with kitties and you’ve posted more than your share, you could disappear from some people’s feeds altogether.
- Focus on one-to-one communications. This may be the most productive thing you can do. Stop thinking of Facebook as a stage and start thinking in terms of individuals. Identify prospects or people you’d like to know better, and send them a private message. Make it specific to something they’ve posted.
Above all, manage your expectations. If you have 700 “friends,” don’t expect your posts to reach 700 people. Don’t buy into the delusion that the world is waiting for your next outburst, bit of feelgood philosophy or strategic insight. There’s no magic. There never was. It’s just that it’s easier to realize that now.