April 27, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Media Bullseye Roundtable 2014.10 with Guest Co-Host Jen Phillips

Media Bullseye Roundtable 2014.10 with Guest Co-Host Jen Phillips

In this episode of the Roundtable, we welcome Jen Phillips of 4L Strategies back to the table to discuss several hot topics:

— The controversy around the hiring of Common Ground PR to help the City of Ferguson during its current global crisis. 

— The suggestion that bad metrics cause PR pros to get less respect than they deserve, according to measurement maven Katie Paine.

— The new research that shows that 99 percent of organic social media posts get almost no engagement.


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Please review the audio before quoting to confirm accuracy of this unofficial transcript.

Chip Griffin: Hi, this is Chip Griffin from CustomScoop with another episode of the Media Bullseye Roundtable. I am very pleased to have as my co-host today, Jen Phillips. Welcome back to the table, Jen.

Jen Phillips: Thank you so much, Chip. Good to be back.

Chip Griffin: Jen, of course, is a very frequent contributor to this and is the founder of 4L Strategies. So with that, let’s jump right into the topics today because we’ve got, I think, plenty of things to chew on.

And the first one is a piece from ragan.com that takes a look at the Ferguson situation. And it doesn’t look at it in the traditional sense that everybody on TV is talking about. It’s not looking at who’s right, who’s wrong, from a legality perspective or anything like that. Instead, what they’re looking at here is the hiring of a firm called Common Ground PR. And the city hired Common Ground to provide some short-term help with their public relations.

And this is something that has generated no small amount of controversy in the PR community as people have jumped out and said, “Why are you working for these guys?” And in particular, “Why would the city hire you because you are effectively an all-white firm? And really, you need to have a firm that has a substantial number of minorities.” Or at least, I guess, some people would say any minorities in it.

So this really has created some healthy debate. And I thought this would be a great topic to discuss here with you, Jen, because in addition to all of your PR experience, you actually spent a fair amount of time in the St. Louis area. And that’s, of course, very relevant to this particular conversation.

So what was your take on both what Common Ground did, how they responded, and basically the whole picture?

Jen Phillips: The whole picture, okay. Well, yes, I did live in St. Louis for a number of years. And it’s been heart-wrenching to watch all of this unfold. But specifically to this issue at hand, my first response, I read the piece quickly and thought, “Well, probably they’re looking for advice and stuff like that. It probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea to look for a minority-owned firm or something similar.”

And then I went back and read the piece a little bit more closely the second time and realized that, you know, they hired these folks to stem the tide of media calls. Period. Full stop. They were there to jump in and help with the media onslaught. And I get very concerned when I see things like this. It seems to me to be the flipside of gotcha journalism. It’s gotcha PR. They try and take down anyone who’s involved in anything like this and it’s distressing. Because if you’ve ever been, and I have, working on a client dealing with a major crisis, the volume of media calls that comes in is, it can be absolutely stunning. And clearly, Ferguson was not equipped to handle that on their own.

Common Ground according to the way that the statement from, I guess, the president or the CEO – and I’m not familiar with this firm – I don’t believe that they were around when I was living in St. Louis – basically said flat out, “We offered to assist and help with the media calls.” And then she goes on to explain that “they actually have connected with the City of Ferguson and St. Louis County is working with the nationally certified minority-owned firm to handle the public relations and long-term needs.” So to me, this is much ado about nothing in my personal opinion.

I think that in stepping back, the PR industry doesn’t just have a diversity problem. It has a gender problem. I mean it’s mostly, let’s be honest, white women who are involved in PR. My work in public affairs was a little bit more gender balanced because we were pulling from the political realm. But that was fairly unusual. There were an awful lot of women that work at Fleishman-Hillard, and I think that’s still probably the case in point.

And then you have the issue with the city of Ferguson needs help, they can either do a long search for a small minority-owned firm to help them stem a tide of media calls, which they didn’t really have that kind of time, I don’t think, or they could go to a local St. Louis firm that is huge and does have quite a few minorities working for it like Fleishman-Hillard. But the pay that’s commensurate with hiring a very large firm is going to be significant.

So I think they did what they needed to do with the time and I really think that – I don’t know. I’ve babbled on long enough. I’ll let you jump in. I do have more to say on this though.

Chip Griffin: Well, yeah, and I thought you might, which is why I specifically tried to target you as my guest co-host this week. So I think you’ve made some absolutely fantastic points. And I agree with everything that you said. I think that, in addition, I have two additional real concerns here. One is that the criticism effectively sets up the notion that only minorities can talk to other minorities. Only whites can talk to whites. To me, it perpetuates some of the underlying problems that I think are present in the Ferguson case.

And that to me goes to the larger point which is that as PR professionals, we are constantly engaging with audiences that may not be like us. Now, in this particular case, it happens to be around race. But I mean how many times has someone at a PR agency worked with a pharmaceutical company? How often is it that that PR professional actually understands the science behind it or has ever used those drugs? There are so many times where we are out there helping people to communicate about things that we may not initially have understood, but had come to learn. And part of being in PR is learning. Part of it is partnering up with others in the community. In this particular case, they were partnering with a firm that’s certified minority-owned or whatever the particular verbiage they used was. But it may be that you do it with another firm. It may be that you just bring together folks from the community and start working with them. To me, the whole thing, it’s a very short-sighted bit of criticism and completely undermines what the PR industry at its best does.

Jen Phillips: Agreed. And I think that one of the things that also frustrated me is this idea of making the PR firm an issue in and of itself is a little silly. And some people who are in the comments on the Ragan piece for criticizing her for issuing statements and saying that essentially that this second, you’re the issue. You failed the client and that sort of thing. I think that 10, 15, 20 years ago that would have been a valid argument. But in this day and age, the second that something starts bubbling up, this criticism starts bubbling up, getting out on top of it, issuing a statement saying, “Look, we were hired to help stem the tide of calls. We’re not providing the advice that you guys are even referencing here. We did this to help our city. We believe in this city. We want this to be a solution to be found.” I think she did the right thing by issuing the statement. I think that that was another one of the criticisms that was levied here. And I don’t fault her for saying this.

Chip Griffin: No, not at all. I mean when you become the issue, you then have to figure out. And obviously when you’re a PR agency or any other kind of consultant, it behooves you to do it in consultation with your client that’s stirring up the discussion. But in general, you need to treat is a crisis yourself and try to figure out what the best way to deal with this. Sometimes, it is best not to respond.

I think in this particular case, given the level of attention that it was getting, I think it was absolutely appropriate to respond. We might quibble over some of the actual wording in the response and all that, but I mean to me that’s of minor consequence in the whole scheme of things. But this really is where we’ve come to. I mean on stories like these that are this controversial, this much in the news, any PR firm that becomes engaged is going to face some degree of criticism. And I think that we can’t expect that even if it had been a minority-owned firm that was doing this that that they would have gotten off scot-free either. I mean they likely would have been criticized just from a different angle.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve been involved either as an employee or a consultant with probably a half dozen different PR firms including some that I’ve owned. And at one point or another, virtually every one of them has become the target in some controversial story. This is just the way we do things now. And there’s also an element of the public and the media that is generally distrustful of firms that are engaged in crisis, PR, public affairs, those kinds of things. You become the easy punching bag for these kinds of things.

Jen Phillips: Which is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate.

Chip Griffin: It’s absolutely unfortunate, yeah.

Jen Phillips: Because if there is one area where people should understand the absolute and unequivocal need for public relations help, it is in a crisis situation. A company, an organization, a city is not going to have the staff on hand necessary to handle the onslaught of media attention. And again, I say this as someone who’s gone through this. When you are getting hundreds and hundreds of calls in an hour, all you can think of is, “Boy, we have a whole firm with X number.” I think at one point during the crisis that I’m referencing which was I believe 14 years ago this month, we had 50 or 100 people just dedicated to answering calls as they were coming through. There’s no way the company behind that could have handled that. Most companies have a PR staff of maybe three to five people, even large companies.

One of the things that shocked me during one of the Yankee Chapter PRSA – totally doing a sidebar here but – was how small the Dunkin Donuts PR team is. It was under a half a dozen, I believe, because they worked with outside partners. They had PR firms that worked with them in different areas. And that is how an awful lot of companies are set up. So when you have a crisis hit, you can pretty much guarantee that that company is not going to be handling and managing all of that work on their own. They have to outsource some of it. And so criticizing –

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. And there’s no way –

Jen Phillips: Yeah. It’s just baffling to me. I don’t understand it.

Chip Griffin: I mean there’s no way that any crisis communications plan that they put together in Ferguson involved having worldwide attention –

Jen Phillips: Exactly.

Chip Griffin: – to something that took place by their police department. I mean that is not – when you’re sitting down word gaming, here are the reasonable things for us to contemplate might happen. That’s not even on the list.

Jen Phillips: Exactly.

Chip Griffin: You didn’t even have that discussion in the conference room. And so when something of that nature comes up, you have no choice but to try to find outside help. I mean if they had sat there and tried to handle this all on their own, it might even have been worse. It’s hard to imagine how could it have been worse, but it may well have been.

Jen Phillips: It would have been worse because the news story then would have been “and we can’t get anyone to answer our calls – and we can’t get any answer from them.” It would have morphed into making it appear as though they were hiding. When in reality, they just couldn’t respond to everything because they couldn’t handle the onslaught.

Chip Griffin: Right. And the reality is they probably could have used more PR help rather than less over the last week or 10 days to try to help them understand the perception of some even of the basic things that they were doing in response to handling the media. We saw obviously the reporters get arrested. And again, we could debate the merits of that. We’re not going to because we’re already way over time for this particular segment. And there were other things that I saw on TV as far as how reporters were treated at various points. And if they had good PR council that was able to break through to the leaders there and explain to them how to handle this, I think there are many things they could have done to provide a more hospitable environment for the media. And as we all know, if the reporters themselves are happier and more comfortable, they’re likely to show that through in their reporting as well.

Jen Phillips: Agreed.

Chip Griffin: All right. So let’s jump onto the next topic here so that we have a fighting chance of coming in under 30 minutes since I’ve already had one show this month that went over my magic 30-minute timeframe. This one is another one from ragan.com. Again, I’m doing my very best, Shel and Neville, to support your main sponsor for the FIR Podcast Network. And so this is one by someone from New Hampshire, a good friend, Katie Paine. And she goes on – I’d say it’s a productive rant about ad value equivalency. But really in broader terms, she’s really looking at why it is that PR pros don’t get as much respect as they really deserve.

And really she dives into the key point which is bad metrics. Obviously, she’s the queen of metrics, a measurement maven, and whatever you want to call her. She is someone who wholeheartedly believes in the importance of PR measurement as a way for explaining your effectiveness and your success. I would go a step further. I think it’s also really important to helping you to figure out how to adjust your strategies going forward. And I’m not saying that Katie doesn’t believe in that. But to me, I believe in the power of measurement even more for what it can do for your future than just what it says about your past. I don’t think you and I are going to have a debate over AVEs, Jen. I think we’re both of the same minds up there. In fact, I know we are. But what was your take on this piece? How do you think that PR pros can ensure relevance in an age of data?

Jen Phillips: Well, I read this piece. And as you note, I agree with what Katie lays out here. She’s absolutely right that it’s a matter of finding the right metrics and putting those forward.

I guess I stepped back and looked at it and thought, “You know every time I read a piece like this, I keep thinking. So we know what the problem is. When is it going to change? Like what do we need to do to make it change?” And I guess I’ve gotten a little, I don’t know, pessimistic on that realm because I just don’t see other than a few bright spots out there of people actively using metrics and pushing them and demonstrating what the positive results were and how they use it. Most people, I think, just don’t want to have – and I don’t mean that PR people don’t want to have to do the work.

I think that a lot of companies would love to see these metrics, but they don’t want to have to spend the money that it takes to get there because it’s not an inexpensive process because it takes time. Time is money. And if you are interested in having really good metrics behind your PR programs, you’re going to have to invest in those metrics. And the way that PR budgets get crunched and cut back, it makes it very hard to – it seems like to me it’s a catch-22. PR people know that good metrics are going to do a better job in bolstering their arguments for good outcomes. But that cost money and they are not going to get the money until they can show good outcomes. It ends up being a problem. Am I being too pessimistic here, Chip?

Chip Griffin: No, I don’t think you are, unfortunately. But I think it’s even more of a problem than simply the investment. I think if it was a problem where companies could just write checks, I think it would be more likely to be solved. I think the larger problem is that to truly measure what matters, to measure outcomes, it requires not only an investment, but it requires internal collaboration. It’s not something that you can just write a check to an external vendor and they can do all the work and in a nice little package present it to you. I mean that’s the benefit of AVE, right? I mean you can just pay someone and they will give you a pretty report with lots of colors and properly bound. I mean I used to do these 20 years ago and provided these things to clients and they loved them. And then they would have collect dust for the rest of the year. But, today, in order to get the kind of data that you need, you need to be working with your marketing team, with your sales team, with folks who control buckets of internal data that you don’t have direct access to in most cases as a PR department.

Jen Phillips: And IT.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And IT. I got it. I shouldn’t have left them out because IT is always part of the solution, right? So, all of these things conspire against doing it in an easy way. So I think, ultimately, PR folks need to try to figure out how do you get as far as you can with the data that you have relatively reasonable access to. And the other unfortunate thing is that means that there’s no one size fits all solution. There’s not something that you can just go out there and say, “Okay. You’ve moved from P&G to Exxon. So you can still use AVE. I mean it’s going to be different in each place. The metrics are simply not going to be the same. So it really means that we need to be working as an industry to think about more the strategy behind how you do PR measurement. And the logic behind how you do the measurement and pull those things together and that should be the body of learning as opposed to some specific formula that has the magic answer.

Jen Phillips: Exactly. And you and I both know from having a background on the tool side of this is that that’s the hardest thing to try and explain to people. They want a magic tool that they can just punch a bunch of things into and it gives them the other end. And every time I was faced with this question, it was, well, you know it depends on what your objectives are and what do you see as the outcomes. And you need to set up your monitoring program to fit the metrics that you’re looking for. You can’t do it halfway through. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of setup. And it’s not going to be easy. And I think that it’s just one of those things that I guess we just keep plugging away and highlighting those that are doing it well and hope that eventually they can turn this around and have people focus on the right things.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I mean now despite all our pessimism, people can still do better than they are doing today without breaking the bank, without breaking down the walls to IT and sales and all that. So there are things that you can be doing. You can be taking a look. Instead of looking at purely impressions, look instead at how well are your messages being adopted by reporters when they’re writing about what you’re talking about? How are these things all coming together? And those things, I think, you still can do. They can be done largely externally obviously with some close collaboration. Is it the best answer? No. Is it a better answer than doing nothing or using AVE or something like that? Yes. So I think we need to look at this is a progression as well.

And depending on your own individual circumstances, you can do better at measurement than others. I mean if you’re a small company like CustomScoop, we have access to all the data we need. We probably don’t have the time and resources to do the measurements in as fancy way as we might be able to otherwise. But we’re able to capitalize on that data because we’re smaller. Larger companies, you might have the budget. But you might not have the access. In each case, you just need to figure out which pieces of the puzzle will work best for you in order to get some insights out of what your PR activities have been producing and what they can do in the future.

Jen Phillips: Agreed.

Chip Griffin: All right. Well, let’s jump onto our last topic which comes from the stat of the week on Media Bullseye. And that is a little bit from Social Flow that found 99 percent of organic social media posts generate almost no engagement. Nada. Zip. Zilch. So does this mean that 99 percent of what’s out there is garbage? Does it mean that there’s 99 percent too much stuff? What does it mean? And as a PR pro, how do I react to this?

Jen Phillips: Well, I read this. And my first reaction was not that there’s 99 percent of junk or anything like that out there. To me, it just says that people should have a social strategy, but it certainly shouldn’t be their only strategy. Clearly, you are going to have times when you hit the right notes. And somebody gloms onto something and shares it and it’s absolutely hitting the right chord. But between Facebook’s constant tinkering with its algorithm and reducing the reach of organic posts, it’s not a smart idea to put all your eggs in one basket, I guess, is my instinct or my gut reaction when I read this. It also doesn’t surprise me. I’ve noticed that people just in my circles seemed to be engaging less and less. It comes and goes during the year. We’re heading towards back to school and I see all the parents kind of dropped off after they post their first day of school pictures because they’re getting back into a different swing of things. I guess when I read something like this, I think, you know we’ve kind of hit that maturation level in social media where maturation of saturation, I guess. Try to say that five times fast.

Chip Griffin: No thanks.

Jen Phillips: There’s so much out there that it’s hard for people to see everything, and you don’t want to see everything. So keep doing what you’re doing, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket, I guess.

Chip Griffin: You raised a really good point that I haven’t thought of. And that is, is this a trend? In other words, has it always been 99 percent? Did it use to be 75 and now all of a sudden it’s 99? And this particular report, to my knowledge, didn’t look at it. Certainly, the article that I got it from didn’t explore that. But that would be interesting to see if it’s just a matter of as much as you increase the volume it will still stay at that percentage. Or is it because there’s such volume now that people just that they don’t have the ability to respond to it? But all of that really feeds in a little bit to our last discussion, which is finding the right metrics. And so, folks who are looking at, well geez, this was retweeted by someone with 47,000 followers. Although this doesn’t mean that only 1 percent saw it, it’s 1 percent engaged. But still you can expect that it’s a pretty small percentage that even saw it in order to have the opportunity to engage.

So I think we all need to be mindful of the fact that whether it’s from a measurement standpoint or just an excitement standpoint just because we see something that might have gotten to a lot of people doesn’t mean that it did. And not everybody is paying attention to things perhaps in the same way that you and I are. I mean if CustomScoop puts out something on the Twitter feed, hey, I see all of those, right. And so I’m very focused on those. Chances are, most of our customers, most of our prospects, didn’t see them. They’ll see them once in a blue moon as things go flying by. But this is not new, right? I mean this is something that we saw in the old days of PR. When you and I started out, we weren’t dealing with social networks. Heck, when I started out, there was not even e-mail. So we would look at a story in the newspaper and we’d either get excited or angry over something, and then we’d realize it mattered not because none of the target audience really saw it and certainly didn’t have the same reaction that we did because they weren’t as invested in whatever the topic was.

Jen Phillips: Exactly.

Chip Griffin: So I think social networking, social media, just magnifies that. But I don’t think it’s really a fundamental change in communications.

Jen Phillips: I agree.

Chip Griffin: Okay.

Jen Phillips: We have a week of agreement here.

Chip Griffin: We have largely reached agreement here. Despite my constant effort to be cantankerous on this show, we’ll have to end this one with absolute agreement on this final topic and mostly agreement on the other ones as well. Jen, it’s been a pleasure to have you back here at the table. I look forward to having you back again soon. I am very excited that we managed – I think once everything is edited – to come in under 30 minutes. So for those of you who are upset that I went a little over two and a half minutes over last week, my apologies. And if you’ve made it all the way here, thank you. I appreciate our two listeners that we have. And I look forward to another episode of this next week.

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About The Author

Chip Griffin is the Founder of CustomScoop. He writes and speaks frequently about data-driven public relations. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.

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