Monday, November 29, 2010

The Company That Gives Also Receives

'Tis the season for giving. Accordingly, a vast majority of the consumer population turns their hearts toward donating and volunteering during the winter holidays. Not only do consumers act, they want to know the businesses they support are doing the same, in particular mega businesses banking in the millions and billions.

Most CEOs and business owners know this and, in keeping, factor charitable giving into their annual budgets especially for this time of year. However, during the holidays should not be the only instance of corporate goodwill. More so, strategic philanthropy should be part of a public relations strategy to create or evolve brand identity and structure corporate reputation.

When a company is in peril or even faces an issue, what they do every day is under the microscope. A solid public relations strategy should reflect what causes are important to its stakeholders—leadership employees, and customers.

Consider Belk, the nation’s largest privately-owned retailer. When they acquired Parisian in Birmingham, AL, it wasn’t an easy brand sell to the consumer market. One strategy they employed (with our help) was the bi-annual charity sale, which has raised more than $26 million for non-profits since 2007.

In a nutshell, a company that invests in “doing good” builds invaluable goodwill.

"In giving, a man receives more than he gives, and the more is in proportion to the worth of the thing given." —George MacDonald

Monday, November 22, 2010

When Social Media can Turn a Balk into a Boon

How important has social media become? Well, Cincinnati State Technical & Community College just opened a Social Media Institute, following suit many communication programs across the globe. Given its influence and reach, it’s surprising that according to, less than 40 percent of CEOs are engaging in social media.

When some CEOs think of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and other social media engines, the idea of business strategy may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, these sites can be just the tools to strategically execute brand repositioning, philanthropic, and other positive agendas.

Case in point: When Panorama was hired during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster to help reshape the image of a little fishing town on Alabama’s coast, leveraging Facebook as a communication tool was one of the first orders of business. The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate, as the town was under siege by the spill and still recovering from residual effects of Hurricane Katrina, and needed an online presence to increase visibility. Facebook was not only a means to gauge perception but a way to promote positivity near and far.

The city, which has a population barely beyond 2,700, has more than 600 Facebook fans (many
of whom live outside of the area—even as far away as European countries). It quickly became
an act of good faith in connecting citizens to city leaders (the page is accessible from the city’s main web site

When our firm posed the question, “What’s your favorite thing about Bayou La Batre?” there came a flood of responses from the food at local dives to the way the city’s name rolls off the tongue. All helped bolster a sense of community for the town.

Even more, statistics from the Facebook page could be a tool to prove there is a measurable level of investment in the community. In a public relations plan, this case is a true validation of the power of social media and proof that social media can turn a balk into a boon.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Word of Mouse: The Writing on the Wall

A recent article in Birmingham Magazine featured “Ghost Signs,” the faded advertising signs on buildings from decades ago. The business namesakes of these ads are long gone; however, their image remains. This evokes a thought about the methods companies once employed to gain customers and manage reputation.

The signs were big and bold and had great curb appeal. They likely prompted sidewalk or dinner table conversations about the establishment’s product or service experience— whether positive or negative. Then one person told another and so on. Either way, the process of passing a story from person to person was slow going, and the company likely had no opportunity to manage the message. Eventually, when the respective companies closed their doors, the signs remained, evoking an “oh, I miss [company]” or “we saw it coming” brand reflection.

Today, social media can likewise be helpful or harmful, depending on how it’s used. In contrast to the slow-paced public relations and advertising of yesteryear, many companies are now including social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and FourSquare into communication plans. Moreover, even if these mediums aren’t part of an official plan, patrons and consumers use social media, and their opinions travel at the click of a mouse. A business hiccup or misstep that could have taken weeks to travel through the grapevine years ago can be dispersed to millions in a matter of seconds via the Internet and smart phone instant messaging.

That said, social media can also be used to herald good news for a business, and when used strategically, can help a company gain loyalty or even abate a critical situation. Note how quickly a Facebook account can be closed or Tweet deleted. Regardless, social media can stir up conversation about your business, so you should pay attention to what’s being “painted” on your company’s walls!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Advertising during a Crisis: When No One Wants to See Your Ads

High product quality, ethics, good customer service—all of these components of doing business are important. When a business fails to uphold these characteristics, some consumers are turned off by the things associated with that business. Former patrons scoff at commercials and billboards and turn a blind eye to magazine and newspaper ads. Case in point: When news first broke regarding BP’s oil disaster, many shunned ads from the company and pushed a little harder on the gas pedal when passing BP gas stations.

When a company experiences a corporate crisis and is seen as “the bad guy,” it may seem the company would want to run and hide its head in the sand until the smoke blows over. However, placing strategic ads can actually be a saving mechanism when it comes to public image rebuilding customer confidence and loyalty.

How do you use public relations principles to guide advertising? The answer to this is the difference between an advertising strategy and an advertising campaign. A solid crisis communication plan includes an advertising strategy that seeks out deliberate placement opportunities to put a company in front of audiences key to influencing public opinion. For instance, a public relations firm that represents a pharmacy chain in trouble would not only place the company’s ads in medical publications but would also look for the philanthropic or “doing-good” section of such publications and place advertising opposite those stories.

This leads us to two textbook terms in creating an advertising strategy amid a crisis: inoculation and recasting. Your company must inoculate the audience by dispelling misconceptions and reinforcing the truth of the circumstances. Your company must also recast the negative in a positive light.

For example, after recalling more than two million vehicles earlier this year, Toyota began airing commercial ads stating it was taking a “pause for the customer” ( The company said it was investing “one million dollars every hour to improve [its] technology and [the consumer’s] safety.” Toyota also ran a series of ads featuring customers who testified about how much they loved their Toyotas, and engineers that explained how expertly the cars were constructed ( These ads addressed the consumer who drove the car as well as business stakeholders.

These commercials inoculated consumer sentiment that Toyota was putting out a poor product at customers’ expense. It inoculated the myth that Toyota customers no longer loved their cars. The commercials also recast Toyota from a company that made a big mistake to a company trying to rectify a mistake. The commercials worked. People watched.

Using a public relations firm to analyze a situation, draw up a crisis communication plan, strategize ad placement and follow up, manage consumer sentiment, and thus, handle damage control is paramount in getting the consumer to look your way, even during a crisis.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Politics of Public Relations: Electing the Right Firm

On Election Day, Americans went to the polls, stood in line, showed IDs, filled in circles by candidates of choice and fed ballots into Scantron machines. This may seem uneventful to some, but having an active hand in who is representing you and who is receiving your tax dollar is important. After all, when you vote for and elect a political candidate, you essentially said, “You’re hired.”

When it comes to voting, party allegiances aside, you must know your needs and what issues are important to advancing your idealisms—and you should be informed about the candidates. Otherwise, how will you know who will work toward what you envision, thus, who to vote for?

Alas, some people vote for a candidate because he or she is the only familiar name they see on a ballot. Others are influenced by mudslinging campaigns and go in with muddied ideas of which candidates will and will not keep promises. The truly engaged voter, however, does his or her research.

These same principals apply to selecting the right public relations firm for your business or organization. Say this was the PR election of 2010, and next week you were charged to go out and vote for a firm to represent your goals and fulfill your needs. Would you know who to vote for? Would you be able to pick out your best candidate among all the commercials, yard signs, and vote-for-me mailers? A public relations firm, just like a political candidate, should be a reflection of your company’s mission.

A politician’s track record speaks volumes. So does that of a public relations firm. Check out the company’s past portfolio and know what their customers say about them. A full-service public relations firm should be able to meet your marketing needs, serve to forward your brand, mediate between you and your stakeholders, garner positive media visibility, and prepare you for communicating through foreseen and unforeseen business complications.

The firm should put in writing what it can do and deliver with real, measurable results. If a politician could do that, wouldn’t you vote for him or her? They’d have our vote.