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Interning from My Bedroom: Lessons Learned While Working Virtually

By Maisey McGinnis

Pre-pandemic, I always pictured what my first internship experience might look like: commuting to a fancy office building in downtown Los Angeles or Century City, sitting around a big conference room table at company staff meetings, and maybe even attending a lunch or two with local reporters, investors or clients. My vision never included working from the comfort of my apartment, sometimes even from my bed.

Instead of commuting during the morning rush hour, I get to sleep in a little longer. The big conference room idea now is me at my desk joining meetings via Zoom. And although I do sit in on meetings with reporters, investors and clients, it is always behind a phone or computer screen.

My experience working remotely will likely continue, at least for the time being. Interning from my bedroom during the last seven months has not come without its challenges, so I thought I would share a few lessons learned:

PondelWilkinson’s Maisey McGinnis at home with her dog Crosby.

1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you need to clarify three or four times.

For me, the most nerve-wracking part about working remotely was being on my own without anyone at my side to guide or direct me. In my previous in-person jobs, I always had a boss or co-worker in the same room or close by that I could easily ask questions if I was confused or unsure of something. Working virtually eliminates that, so having clear communication becomes even more important. Asking questions – and lots of them – has been crucial in my understanding of what I need to do and how I need to do it. Virtual communication, whether that be phone calls, emails or texts, can often cloud meaning and intent, so making sure you fully understand what you are doing before you start is the key to avoiding unnecessary work.    

2. Check your email often. More often than you think you will need to.

Working virtually takes away from the natural connection people have with each other in person. A co-worker can no longer come to your office or desk and ask if you got their email. Even as an intern, I receive and send what seems like hundreds of emails a day (a few dozen is more likely). With all the work activity, it is easy to glance over and forget to reply to an important email, check the spam folder or hit send on a draft. When email (aside from the occasional Zoom meeting or phone call) is the primary method of communication with co-workers and clients, I don’t think we can check it enough. Refreshing the inbox every 10 minutes or so seems to work well for me.

3. Try to take a lunch break away from the computer.

Since the start of the pandemic, I have invested in several pairs of blue light glasses. Whether they actually make a difference is still unclear (no pun intended), but the amount of daily screen time from remote classes, remote work and general phone usage was concerning enough for me to take action. One of the most important lessons I have learned throughout this experience is the importance of taking lunch – or a break – away from the computer and the blue light. This may include eating lunch on my balcony or taking my dog Crosby on a walk. Breaking away from the computer has been a huge part of maintaining my well-being while working and attending school remotely.

4. Don’t put off your work just because you can.

Since I am not in the office, I can work on various projects at my leisure unless they have specific deadlines. I can start at 8 a.m. on Monday and noon on Tuesday depending on what I need to accomplish for the day. This flexibility is great when running an errand or attending to an appointment. The flexibility, however, also can have a negative impact, especially when I put off updating a calendar or media list and realize it’s 7 p.m. Not having the office space to distinguish between work and home blurs the lines for knowing when to be working. Just because we can do our work at unconventional hours doesn’t always mean we should. Maintaining a work-life balance has been one of the harder lessons learned.

Despite my initial expectations, I have learned more than I could have ever anticipated and believe my experience at PondelWilkinson is allowing me to grow professionally in my public relations and investor relations career. Interning from my bedroom may not seem like the most glamorous experience, but I guarantee I have learned just as much, if not more than I would have in one of the fancy office buildings I originally pictured. 

Maisey McGinnis is currently interning remotely at PondelWilkinson. She is a student at the University of Southern California studying communications, public relations and advertising. When she’s not working or studying, Maisey enjoys hiking, traveling, reading a good book, and taking her Maltese, Crosby, on walks at the park. After graduation, she hopes to put her new found skills to use in Los Angeles or New York.

Protecting Your Brand in an Age of Social Justice

PondelWilkinson’s CEO Roger Pondel was among the speakers of a panel discussion hosted by the Association For Corporate Growth – Silicon Valley that provided keen insight on the impact of social justice movements on corporate brands and reputations. Click to watch the full discussion below.

Take a Break from Stress: Add a Little Music to Your Life

Having days of ups and downs? Divisiveness and polarization causing the blues? You are not alone.

A national survey we just commissioned on behalf of a client that provides tele-counseling to hundreds of anxious and stressed-out people each week shows that nearly 8 in 10 Americans are worried about the country’s future. The survey also showed that the mental health of 52 percent of American adults is suffering because of the election, to say nothing about COVID and other maladies.

“Americans need to be mindful of their mental health and find relief, otherwise, symptoms will only get worse and could lead to more serious health problems,” said Marianne Callahan, Ph.D., clinical and program director at The Maple Counseling Center.

Even if you think you can handle it on your own, we can all take a tip from my long-time friend and communicator extraordinaire Howard Kalt, who says, “Add a little music to your life.”

Studies have shown that music can lead to increased levels of dopamine in our brains. This is the same chemical that floods our noggins, making us forget about pain, mental or otherwise, and allows us to feel “high” when certain drugs are ingested. Jane Collingwood, a longtime contributing journalist to Psych Central, recently wrote, “Listening to music can have a tremendously relaxing effect on our minds and bodies and can act as a powerful stress management tool in our lives.”

Music releases endorphins. Shortly after the pandemic began, Howard launched a daily, endorphin-releasing music blog for his friends, SPEAKERS UP! Every morning, he dutifully issues a post on a different musical topic and genre, along with several relevant musical links.

I grew up in a musical family with a brother who is an accomplished jazz artist. This background does not mean I am never stressed or anxious. But when I saw the results of our client’s study, along with so much that has been written about the healing effects of music, combined with Howard’s daily music blog, it triggered my idea for this post.

And in true keeping with the mission of only posting articles on PW Insight that that relate to communications and investor relations, I am happy with this post to emulate Howard’s idea.

Relax, take a listen, and enjoy:

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

If …

Do you remember any of your elementary school teachers? Think back for a moment if any remain in your memory.

My kindergarten teacher at Bateman Elementary School, on the north side of Chicago, was Mrs. Hart. I only remember her because it was kindergarten, and she was my first teacher. No one went to pre-school in those days.

The next teacher I remember was Mrs. Castle, third grade, at Laurel Elementary School, in the heart of the borscht belt, near Melrose and Fairfax, in Los Angeles. I only recall her name because we just moved to LA, mid-semester, and I was the new kid in class. She was nice to me, even though I was a little behind in my knowledge of cursive.

Then we moved again when I was in the sixth grade, also mid-semester, and again I was the new kid in class at Lankershim Elementary School in North Hollywood. Not easy when you are painfully shy and eleven years old. But this teacher, Irv Sherins, was different.

Mr. Sherins paid lots of attention to me. He even assigned one of the kids, Dennis Gass, to be my buddy and show me around the school. (Dennis and I remained friends through high school. He enlisted in the Army right after graduation and died in Vietnam.)

You might be wondering what my memory of Irv Sherins has to do with investor relations and strategic public relations, which, after all, is what this blog is supposed to be about.

I so vividly remember Mr. Sherins – not because he treated me well and made me feel comfortable as the new kid in class – but because of a two-letter word he wrote on a corner of the blackboard, that was never erased. It was a word that has relevancy for our clients, our staff and corporate executives, among others, everywhere: The word is “If…”

Between today’s political stress, the coronavirus, and yes, the steep stock market decline, impacting valuations and business conditions worldwide, the meaning of that one small word written by Mr. Sherins more than 50 years ago, and never erased, can help all of us now. It was the first word and title of a famous Rudyard Kipling poem circa 1895. It’s interpretation by Mr. Sherins:

If you can keep your head while others around you are not…

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Celebrating 50 Years

As our firm celebrates its 50th anniversary year, we thank our clients for the trust they have placed in us, and for allowing PondelWilkinson to help enhance value, build businesses and protect reputations.

It has been our privilege to work side-by-side with stellar management teams and boards of directors of companies big and small, established and emerging, global and regional.

When our firm was founded in 1968, it was done with a business philosophy based on four simple tenets: apply sound thinking to meet unique client challenges; attract the best talent, regardless of position; deliver quality, responsive service; and always operate in a respectful and ethical manner. That philosophy has endured.

Today, we pride ourselves on long client and staff tenure, with a collaborative, professional team that is the best in our business.  We are grateful to our referral sources for their confidence in recommending us.  And we extend deep gratitude to a vast network of wonderful people with whom we work every day on behalf of our clients, from investors and analysts, to editors and reporters, lawyers, accountants, and so many others.

Technology has transformed much of what we do, but our core competencies and the scope of our services remain highly focused, grounded in relevant experience: investor relations; strategic public relations; and crisis communications.

Aside from our day-to-day client work, in 2018 alone, we have been privileged to arrange highly successful investor days; stage business/financial media events and NDRs; develop communications for several mergers and acquisitions; and craft delicate, reputation-defining messages regarding a number of highly sensitive matters.

Tooting our own horn is not generally our style. We fully believe it is our role to be the rock, the secret sauce, the foundation behind the scenes, and have our clients shine brightly, center stage. But hitting 50 is a pretty big deal, and we know you will understand and share our exuberance.

So, to everyone we know, thanks for being there for us. We look forward to being there for you for decades to come.

Making the Grade for a Reg A+ Offering

Evan Pondel wrote a story in the May/June 2018 issue of IR Update on Regulation A+ offerings and what they mean for investor relations professionals. You can download a PDF of the story here.  Following are some IR tips for companies pursuing a Reg A+ offering:

  • Ensure that you are telling a story that individual investors will understand
  • Align with experts in public relations and digital marketing
  • Millennial themes tend to generate the most interest with respect to Reg A+ offerings
  • Answer investor questions via live phone conversations, email and FAQs
  • Exercise patience when speaking with individual investors
  • Apply Reg FD and consistent communication whenever telling the story
  • Under promise and over deliver

Lying to the Media is Never OK, Never Was, Never Will Be

A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, “Who is Hope Hicks, and What’d she do?” by Virginia Heffernan has struck a chord among PR pros.

Newly appointed Hicks, 29, is the third director of communications for the current White House, and the youngest in history to hold that position.

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Hope Hicks followed by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Photo credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times

While news of her relationship with former Trump Staff Secretary Rob Porter was not the subject of Heffernan’s editorial, the author’s portal of Hick’s job as a “flack” is what’s sending shockwaves throughout the public relations industry.

For those unaware, a flack is a pejorative term sometimes used by journalists to label less-than-scrupulous public relations people, not to be confused with a “hack,” which connotes a security breach or taxi driver, and is a term occasionally used to label a “sloppy” journalist. Both have negative connotations.

According to Heffernan, Hicks was born into a “family of high-level flacks, whitewashing the unsavory practices or grave misdeeds of Texaco, the NFL, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump,” a reference to her family’s work as crisis communications counselors, and now as the White House communications chief, potentially deceiving the public regarding an obstruction of justice charge.

Right, wrong or indifferent, op-eds are opinion pieces. And the author of this one certainly got it wrong when she wrote, “lying to the media is traditionally called PR.”

No, it’s not. It never was and never will be.

Ironically, the PR industry at times may grapple with its own image problem. However, references to spin doctors and flacks only perpetuate a stereotype.

PR pros are essentially spokespeople, not always necessarily quoted in stories, working in the background, assisting reporters to help them do their jobs. Whether representing a brand, association or publicly traded company, PR practitioners are usually the first point of contact between reporters and clients. Building meaningful relationships with journalists based on trust is paramount to effective media relations, and to the livelihoods and careers of many public relations executives.

Although the percentage has slipped from 2016 to 2017, PR practitioners are still the third most important sources of information for journalists, behind subject experts and industry professionals, according to the 2017 Global Social Journalism Study.

One can agree that it takes a certain skill to effectively navigate any crisis communications situation, especially in a hostile media environment. Reporter deadlines coupled with mounting pressure only adds to the stress of providing timely, accurate, and credible information. But that is what makes the PR industry so specialized.

Every profession can have bad actors, or those on occasion that make mistakes, but the PR industry abides by a code of ethics, values vital to the integrity of the profession as a whole. It’s not fair, nor appropriate, to single out one instance to characterize an entire industry.

Lying to media only gets PR practitioners shunned as ineffective communicators, which often leads to loss of clients, loss of jobs, and the end to careers.

— George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

 

Building Better Media Relationships

Media relations are an integral component to what we do at PondelWilkinson, whether a public relations or investor relations engagement.

Crises aside, generating media awareness of corporate entities, their brands, products and services, among readers, listeners and viewers is critical to the success of any communications program.

Shrinking news departments, fewer beat reporters, and an increasingly tighter news hole, however, are making it harder to get reporters’ attention.

Another caveat to these challenges is that only 36 percent of journalists prefer to get their information from PR/IR sources, press releases, and newswires, compared with 42 percent last year, according to the 2017 Global Social Journalism Studycision-global-social-journalism-study

The good news is that experts and industry contacts remain key sources of stories for U.S. journalists. For example, while a reporter may not write about a new app or the latest software version, he or she may be more inclined to interview an executive about key technology trends, such as artificial intelligence or cybersecurity.

Media relations 101, right? Maybe not. According to the same study, only 19 percent of reporters say PR professionals provide high quality content, and just 37 percent are reliable.

Learning what’s important to reporters is vital to establishing long-lasting media relationships, essentially, helping them make their jobs easier.

Follow these simple rules for building successful media contacts:

  • Do your research, learn about the reporter and his or her area of coverage.
  • Customize your pitch, conveying why it’s important to the outlet’s audience.
  • Do not blast pitches.  Just don’t do it.
  • Provide value, such as proprietary content or a unique perspective or point of view.
  • Call first, if possible, especially since reporters are constantly inundated with e-mails.
  • Be transparent to foster credibility.

There’s no easy way to building better media relationships. It takes time, effort and a good sense of news, coupled with knowing what reporters want and need.

— George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

Read This Before Posting

I was listening to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast the other day when he equated the word “content” to corporate detritus that clogs up the Internet and bombards people with useless information. I don’t think you can make a blanket statement and say that anything deemed “content” is rubbish, but I do agree that there is a glut of content on the Internet that lacks substance.  It is also becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish “sponsored content” from content that is published without strings attached.

For example, a story that runs on WSJ.com about the virtues of an organic diet could be defined as content, although a journalist most likely synthesized the information to present an objective sequence of thoughts about this particular subject. Juxtapose a WSJ.com story with a sponsored blog post on the Huffington Post about the merits of an organic diet, and the word “content” takes on new meaning.

But is there truly a difference between paid content and content that isn’t sponsored?

The unsponsored content found in mainstream media and trade publications has often been influenced by the very advertisers (or sponsors) and subscribers that pay for the content to be produced in the first place.  And yet, I have to agree with Maron that the word “content” is beginning to smack of something manufactured, manipulated, and ultimately, unworthy of a read.

At PondelWilkinson, we are often in a position to create content, whether it is writing a press release, posting an image on a blog, or publishing a tweet. We strive to ensure that the content we create is substantive; to do that, we think obsessively about every single detail, including word choice, the audience, and the best way to deliver the content.

To help encourage the publishing of quality content, following is a list of items to consider before hitting “post.”

  • Know your audience. The best way to ensure your content is connecting with its intended audience is to know who you are targeting.
  • Write with intention. Writing a blog post with a goal in mind, a thesis to prove, a point of view to express will help ensure the content resonates with readers.
  • Pay attention to detail. Word choice, grammar and focus matter when asking someone to read something, even if it is 140 characters or less.
  • Provoke interest. Let’s face it, anyone can write or publish something on the web. Ask yourself if what you are writing is provocative or original.
  • Review analytics. Almost anything published online leaves a footprint. Understanding what analytics matter and whether you are hitting the right target audience will help you know if your content is worthwhile.

— Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com

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