The Public Relations of Lobbying

Influence is the common denominator between public relations and lobbying. One influences opinion, and the other, government.

While these disciplines sometimes work in tandem, they are separate and distinct. In New York, however, that may not be the case. The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) earlier this year issued an advisory opinion that expands the definition of lobbying to include aspects of public relations.

The lobby of the House of Commons. Painting 1886 by Liborio Prosperi.

The lobby of the House of Commons. Painting 1886 by Liborio Prosperi.

Whoa nelly, says the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the nation’s largest and foremost membership organization for public relations and communication professionals, which blasted JCOPE in a statement, saying the opinion “will lead to more confusion as to what lobbying is, circumvention based on the ambiguous standards articulated, and less trust in government.”

While the current advisory opinion is being challenged in court, JCOPE’s new interpretation of the New York State Lobbying Act, ambiguous as it may be, says consultants engaged in “direct” or “grass roots” lobbying on behalf of a client must comply. Believe it or not, this includes traditional PR tactics, such as message development, drafting press releases and contacting media.

The definition of a lobbyist usually revolves around compensation. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are more than 50 versions of lobbying laws in states and territories,  ranging from definitions of lobbyists to payment thresholds for compensation or reimbursements.  New York’s current threshold is $5K annually.

Excluding media was probably a good “PR play” by JCOPE, no pun intended. Just think of how top-tier outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and hundreds of others would react if they had to register as “lobbyists?” It also would be interesting to learn how a reporter would feel if he or she was included in a PR firm’s “disclosure” for its “lobbying” activities.

The reality is media outlets frequently meet with public officials. But should a person who simply set up a meeting between a client and an editorial board qualify as a lobbyist? Common sense says no. The difference is that editorial boards have their own guidelines and choose what they cover or report on. Lobbyists, on the other hand, go directly to the source to sway opinion.

PR practitioners basically are connecting the dots, middlemen so to speak. Aside from helping point stakeholders to pertinent information, or connecting people with similar or disparate points of view, we help clients define messages and better articulate their narratives. But it’s always the client’s message, never that of a PR firm.

— George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

Is Being Too Polished a Public Speaker Bad?

Borowitz-Fact-checking-Reveals-GOP-Debate-Was-Four-Percent-Fact-1200

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (3rd from left) during a GOP debate last year. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty published in The New Yorker.

Some are born with it. Others practice a lot. Establishing a visceral connection with an intended audience is paramount to the success of any public speaker.

Watching the 2016 presidential debates can be good lessons learned when it comes to public speaking in corporate life. A schmorgesborg of styles are hitting the TV airwaves among the candidates of both parties. Some are slow talkers, others quick, and some are just loud.

So what about being too polished? Could that be a bad thing? We train corporate spokespeople to take command of the issues and the stage. In other words, teach them to come across poised, and yes, polished too. Apparently that is a bad thing, at least when it comes to politics.

It was a surprise to many PR folks that GOP candidate Sen. Marco Rubio was criticized for being too eloquent of a speaker. Some likely voters used the word “robotic” to describe the Florida junior senator. Even the New York Times acknowledged this trait in a recent op-ed titled, “Marco Rubio Is Robotic, but Not Out of It.” Many other media outlets reported on Rubio’s mechanical demeanor as well.

It’s easy to understand that not having a “connection” with an audience can be detrimental. One example of a flawless presenter is Joel Osteen. Watching the pastor deliver a sermon to the thousands in attendance of his Texas-based Lakewood Church is quite amazing.

It really boils down to authenticity, or in other words, being real. Mostly all communications, especially via social media and video, is about delivering a message that directly speaks to is intended audience. That’s the key to success for so many viral videos and posts.

Effective public speaking—to customers, investors and other corporate audiences—certainly can help business careers. A Harris survey on behalf of cloud-based presentation platform company Prezi reported that 70 percent of employed Americans who give presentations agree that presentation skills are critical to their success at work. Coincidentally, 75% of the presenters surveyed indicated that they would like to improve their presentation skills.

The work never ends, and we all agree that practice makes perfect. For Marco Rubio, he has acknowledged his machinelike nature and plans on being more “real” among likely voters. Ironically, this level of skill may require less rehearsing and more speaking “off the cuff,” which may present its own set of problems.

— George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

 

 

Hello 2016

We’re excited to usher in 2016 and looking forward to keeping you informed on this blog about all things relevant to investor relations, strategic public relations and Julia Child’s secret recipes.  Now that your ears are perked, following are a couple of interesting tidbits from PondelWilkinson.

  • Evan Pondel recently wrote the cover story for IRupdate magazine on how to think like an activist.   He interviewed Chris Kiper, founder of activist firm Legion Partners, for a rare look at his playbook.  Check out the story on page six of the issue.
  • PondelWilkinson volunteered a couple of weeks ago at Working Dreams’ Holiday Toy Event, where PW helped foster children select presents that were donated to the organization.  Following is a picture of the team.Working Dreams
  • And last but certainly not least, Roger Pondel wrote the following New Year’s resolution on transparency.

2016 Resolution: Don’t Forget the Transparency

At the risk saying, “We told you so,” 2015 proved to be a year when companies that failed to heed our mantra, Transparency Adds Value, took it on the chin.

Whether privately owned or publicly traded, in times of crisis or when all is going well, transparency always pays off…period. And the lack thereof, almost always backfires bigtime.

Probably the year’s biggest lack-of-transparency story was Volkswagen’s emission-cheating scandal that actually began more than 10 years ago, long before the news broke. I guess it’s hard to keep those kinds of secrets forever. Want to buy a VW today? How ‘bout an Audi?

In our business, people sometimes have the misimpression that it’s all about spin. (I hate that word, except when it’s part of an exercise class and done to a Latin jazz beat.)

No, it’s not about spin. It’s about journalistic fact finding, developing a communications and messaging strategy, perhaps biting some bullets a la corporate castor oil style…then telling the truth to mitigate the damage and maintain reputation.

And it’s not all about crises. Just look at what happened in 2015 to the valuations of many once-considered-hot, pre-public tech companies that lost billions in combined valuation because of lack of transparency.

Lack of transparency hurts customers, employees and investors alike. And while no one is happy to hear less than stellar corporate news, the market rewards transparency. Companies that do not practice it would do well to heed our mantra in 2016 and beyond.

Here’s to a transparent 2016 that brings peace and prosperity to all!

For The Love of Polling

think it aboutMedia love polls. Data  helps identify trends that can be turned into stories or support or debunk a particular story narrative.

Polls have become instrumental in helping shape politics. Consider the GOP debates for the 2016 presidential election. Approval ratings are determining what candidate gets national camera time and who doesn’t.

Americans love polls too, unless they are asked, “Would you like to take a brief survey?” We get to find out what is the best-tasting ice cream or coffee, what is America’s favorite color (blue by the way), and that four out of five dentists recommend Trident to their patients who chew gum.

Polling in the U.S. pretty much started in the early 19th century during Andrew Jackson’s second presidential bid when supporters conducted polls at rallies. Much has changed since then, partly because in 1932, George Gallup through a new methodology accurately predicted that his mother-in-law would win a local Iowa election for secretary of state. The rest is history.

Today we have all kinds of polls, and not just political ones. There are straw polls, opinion polls, tracking polls, exit polls, and surveys of all kinds. But can polling really influence decisions? If the majority of Americans say they would vote for a particular candidate, would that sway someone’s decisions one way or another? Many political pundits say that President Clinton was notorious for using polls, but did that comprise a desire for popularity from doing what he believed was right? Whatever the reason, he certainly was one of America’s more popular presidents as the country experienced considerable economic growth and expansion during his tenure.

Polling helps keep the media business alive, and as many PR pros can attest, helps define business stories and trends that are so vital to reporters.

There is much debate on polling in America, some even calling for banning them. General consensus, however, believe otherwise, and say that polls serve a greater good. Another important question is how accurate are polls? Most experts agree that, when done right, they are accurate, which is corroborated by modern history, including Gallup’s 1932 prediction.

One organization that is surveying the attitudes and trends shaping America and the world is the Pew Research Center. Did you know that 51 percent of people across 40 countries including the U.S. believe they already are being harmed by climate change? That number drops to 41 percent among Americans. No doubt these numbers can impact policy making decisions whatever side the climate change debate you sit on.

So, it’s probably safe to say polls are good, unless the next poll shows that they aren’t.

– George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

The Art of Apology

“I’m sorry.”

For public figures and organizations, no other phrase could be more difficult or more complicated to say. It means something went wrong or someone was hurt (or worse).

Here are the three necessary ingredients for delivering an effective apology:

  1. Honesty: Acknowledge completely what went wrong.

Popstar Ariana Grande’s first attempt at an apology is a perfect example of what not to do. Following the disclosure of a Fourth of July video in which she displayed rude and disgusting behavior in a local doughnut shop, the popstar chose to focus her first apology on her “I hate America. I hate Americans” statements and tried to unconvincingly explain that her comments were directed at her disgust with childhood obesity in the United States.

Her failure to acknowledge the other elements of her behavior during “Doughnutgate” resulted in immediate public and media backlash that kept the story in the news for nearly a week and forced the popstar to address (and re-apologize) for the childish prank several times.

In contrast, a few years ago, I worked with a manufacturer of specialized batteries that discovered that under a certain situation their products were likely to fail. By being proactive in communicating the weakness in the battery design and a solution for avoiding the situation, the company avoided being forced to do a major product recall and was able to maintain its reputation as a preferred and trusted vendor.

The first step to an apology that rings true is to openly and factually acknowledge what went wrong. Whether the circumstances are preventable, accidental or deliberate, an open acknowledgement of what went wrong demonstrates honesty and empathy for those affected by your actions.

  1. Timeliness: Apologize as soon as possible.

Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson demonstrated how a quick and complete apology can actually end up creating positive results. In June, the actor made an immediate U-turn after he accidentally sideswiped a parked vehicle. After finding the vehicle owner, Johnson delivered an immediate apology and promised to pay for the damages. Johnson’s candid, quick and sincere apology not only resulted in the vehicle owner refusing compensation but reinforced his image as an all-around stand-up guy.

Following the disclosure of a New York-consumer agency investigation that found multiple incidents of overpricing, Whole Foods issued a defensive written statement accusing the agency of “overreaching” in its investigation. Public reaction included the company’s stock price dropping to near yearly lows and consumers calling for a boycott of the company stores. Less than a week later, co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb released a video on YouTube to apologize “straight up” for the issue. By personally admitting that the company was in the wrong and quickly apologizing for it, Whole Foods leadership took the “controversy” out of the story and reinforced Whole Foods brand image as a company where “values matter.” The result: news coverage of the issue ceased and the stock price has seen a steady rebound and increase since the co-CEOs public apology.

  1. Genuine Action: Outline how you’re going to make amends – and follow through.

I once consulted for a large regional hospital that discovered not one but three problems involving sexual misconduct in the same week. While one was sure to become public (an arrest involving criminal behavior); the other two incidents did not involve any arrests but had the potential to put into question the hospital’s security and hiring practices. In addition to acknowledging all of the events that had occurred and the actions the hospital had taken to reach out to potentially affected parties, the CEO also communicated the proactive measures being taken by the hospital to avoid problems in the future.

The result was that instead of a front page headline story reading “Sexual Scandals Rock Local Hospital,” the actual story was headlined “Hospital Installs New Security Measures” and ran on page 11 of the local daily newspaper.

More importantly, by following through on the preventive measures they outlined during their press conference, the hospital and its leadership retained their positive standing in the local community.

When a crisis hits, the public will often judge you or your organization not by what has happened but by the actions that follow. When you find that you or your organization is on the wrong or hurting end of an issue or event, an apology that is delivered with honesty, timeliness and genuine action can reinforce your integrity and reduce the likelihood of lasting material damage to your brand.

— E.E. Wang, ewang@pondel.com

‘Wexting’ Etiquette

Text imageHard to believe that within the last two decades we’ve gone from a virtually email-less society to one that requires us to check an inbox every minute.  The weekend arrives and the flow of email that used to subside now beckons us relentlessly.

And just when you thought email was the end all be all for 24/7 engagement, texting in the workplace or “wexting” is becoming more commonplace.  In fact, a recent survey said that approximately one in seven millennials prefer text messaging compared with other forms of work-related communication.  And so, following is PondelWilkinson’s unofficial guide to wexting etiquette:

  • It may be difficult to resist, but avoid using emoticons at all costs.
  • Acronyms are extremely common in textville, and at the same time very confusing. Assume the recipients of your texts are acronym-illiterate and spell everything out.
  • Sign your texts with your first name. You may believe your officemate or client has your cell phone number programmed in their phone. Not so much. Sign your name, so you don’t have to send or receive the always embarrassing “who is this?” text.
  • Consider beginning your text with “Hi <insert name>”. Yes, this makes texting sound more formal, but it is much more pleasant in work-text situations than simply going full bore with “I need that press release today.”
  • Keep texts to five lines or less. If you need more space, send an email or pick up the phone.
  • Let the boss initiate the texting.   It is still somewhat of a more personal communication tool and better left for the boss to decide if it’s time to go there.
  • Spell check your texts and use proper punctuation.
  • Consider putting a bounceback on texts when you’re away from your phone more than a couple of hours. Texting requires even more immediacy than email, so better to have your guard up.
  • Make sure web addresses and phone numbers are hyperlinked.
  • Do not use all caps.
  • Turn off  notifications that you have “read” a text. If a wexter knows you have “read” his or her text and haven’t responded for hours, that wexter is gonna be annoyed.   Most iOS devices allow users to turn off receipts for iMessage.

— Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com

And the Award Goes To…

5 seconds of summerAustralian boy band Five Seconds of Summer recently won an award for “Best Fan Army” at the iHeart Music Awards. The award was not associated with any one of their songs, albums, concerts or music videos.  Instead, it was an award based on the group’s online social media engagement.

As I watched the band accept the award and thank their fans (with their Twitter moniker “@5sosFam” flashing across the screen), all I could think of was that somewhere out there was a PR pro doing a happy dance because they just helped the band win a music award.

A recent study conducted by Networked Insights found that a single tweet expressing the desire to see a film translated to the equivalent of $1,100 to $4,420 in additional box office revenue, depending upon how many weeks before the movie’s release the tweet is made.

Strategic PR employs a variety of tools to extend and expand awareness of a brand, product or person – from news releases to social media to media relations, but when was the last time you heard of a Golden Globe being awarded to an actor or director for the best original tweets or a J.D. Power award for best branded Facebook page for a car?

Social media and PR are not mutually exclusive. Engaging social media is a form of PR, and the more effective the social media engagement, the more personal and direct connection between the audience/consumer and the product idea or concept. While most older PR tools are unidirectional in promoting an idea or association with a brand, product or person, social media invites the intended audience to become an active participant in the dialogue, resulting in a multi-directional effort that can be self-perpetuating (for better or for worse). At its core, social media turns each of us into a PR powerhouse – through what we talk and post about on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media outlets.

As the Networked Insights study demonstrates, this can translate to real, measurable dollar value, and the possibility that sometime in the future, the Oscars could include an award for “Best Movie Fan Following.”

— E.E. Wang, ewang@pondel.com

Up ‘Periscope’

Periscope_033015Twitter’s launch of Periscope, which allows anybody to live stream video from a smartphone to anyone in the world with a simple click of a button, has profound implications for the communications world, creating millions of “on-the-scene reporters” and another medium to engage for the investor relations and public relations industry.  Fittingly, in the announcement of the app, Twitter said, “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but live video can take you someplace and show you around.”

With the ability to instantly notify followers that you’re live, Periscope adds an element that’s been missing with the use of video in IR and PR worlds: immediacy.  Live streaming provides for immediate action in a crisis, while also allowing for greater transparency by going beyond the 140-word character limit of Twitter.  Everything from an earnings conference call to a product announcement can now be broadcast live.

At the same time, it opens up a whole set of risks, including as PR News discusses, a “new chapter for the hot-mic problem,” not to mention a bevy of disclosure issues. Of course, it will take several years before live streaming becomes more commonplace. In the meantime, it makes sense to ponder the possibilities of how it could make your story more compelling.

— Matt Sheldon, msheldon@pondel.com

PW Clients Mistic and Rentrak Score Top Honors at PRSA Awards

PondelWilkinson clients Mistic and Rentrak recently received top honors at this year’s PRSA-LA PRism awards.PRSA awards

A client since 2013, electronic cigarettes brand Mistic® was recognized with the 2014 PRism Award for news release writing for its 2014 American E-Cigarette Etiquette Survey. Earlier this year, PR Week did a feature highlighting PondelWilkinson’s work on Mistic’s IndyCar campaign.

“This year’s award represents the second time this year that the Mistic team has been recognized by the PR industry,” said Todd Millard, Mistic co-founder and COO. “Not coincidentally, George Medici and the team at PondelWilkinson have been a key partner in working with our leadership to develop and implement Mistic’s strategic PR program, which has helped us in our on-going efforts to expand awareness of our company and products.”

Rentrak (NASDAQ:RENT), the entertainment and marketing industries’ premier provider of worldwide consumer viewership information, received the 2014 PRism Award  of Excellence for Annual Report – Corporate. The award was especially gratifying for the PondelWilkinson account team, who have worked with Rentrak for more than six years.

“It was a great honor to work with Rentrak’s talented marketing team on this year’s annual report,” said Laurie Berman, managing director for PondelWilkinson. “I enjoyed collaborating with the team to develop messaging that complemented the original report design they created in-house. Working together, we created an annual report that not only was visually impactful, but meaningfully communicated Rentrak’s corporate progress and achievements to its stakeholders.”

Congratulations to all of this year’s PRSA PRism winners!

— E.E. Wang, ewang@pondel.com

Glassdoor: Half Full or Half Empty?

glassdoorDuring the last couple of years, a website called “Glassdoor” has steadily garnered more credibility as a Yelp-like resource for job seekers, as well as a recruiting arm for employers. The former is what really drives attention to the site because you can easily search for information about average salaries, benefits, and CEO approval ratings at almost any company you can imagine.  The information is supplied by current and former employees and can be quite illuminating when formulating an opinion about a particular company.

For example, Walmart has been reviewed more than 8,700 times on Glassdoor, with 44 percent of reviewers recommending the retail giant as an employer, 47 percent approving of the CEO, and 31 percent having a positive business outlook about the company. Walmart’s overall rating: 2.8 stars out of five.

And then there is Facebook, which has an overall rating of 4.5 stars, with 89 percent of reviewers recommending the company as an employer, and a staggering CEO approval rating of 96 percent. Not sure about you, but if I had to pick one of these employers simply based on Glassdoor reviews, I’d go with Walmart. Not.

The point is, Glassdoor has become a powerful force in shaping a company’s online reputation, and it is not only job seekers who are leveraging the information – try customers, potential business partners, and, yes, investors. Think about the implications of a publicly traded company growing like gangbusters and then a former or even existing employee posts some sort of harrowing tale about the sausage being made.  So now what?

You call PondelWilkinson. OK, maybe that sounds too self-serving.  Yes, we can help put together a communications strategy on how best to deal with errant Glassdoor reviews, but more importantly, companies cannot ignore Glassdoor.  For good or for worse, it is shaping reputations faster than a viral video of a laughing snowy owl.  And it is not going away.  As of last month, Glassdoor had more than 6.5 million company reviews.

Quick tips for dealing with Glassdoor:

  • For starters, take a look at what people are saying about your company. Some of the information may be constructive and some of it, complete rubbish. Glassdoor apparently reviews all content before it is posted, but if something looks completely off, you should contact the site immediately.
  • Consider engaging in the conversation. Companies are able to respond to what is being said about them, but be forewarned, this could be a slippery slope once a precedent is set that you will actually engage with folks.
  • If you feel positive about your company and you know others do, too, post away and drive your company’s ratings up.

Interestingly, Glassdoor does profile itself on the site. The company has an overall rating of 4.7 stars, and CEO Robert Hohman’s approval rating is 98 percent.

Guess Mark Zuckerberg has some competition.

— Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com