Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Train Wrecks, Crisis Communications: Then and Now

Nearly 20 years ago on a snowy February Friday night, I was leaving my office as a Montgomery County, Md. public information officer, when the phone rang and a TV reporter who I often dealt with called and asked what we knew so far about this “train collision” in Silver Spring.

I thought he was messing with me after a full day in which I had been doing relatively routine, snow-related press interviews. But, unfortunately, he was not joking. The sad reality was that a Maryland commuter train (MARC train) had actually collided with an Amtrak train. Eventually, but not before many long hours, when the dust finally settled, we would learn that 11 people were tragically killed on the MARC train and dozens aboard both trains were injured.

When the reporter first called, I knew absolutely nothing. But from that second on, suffice it to say that we who handled media relations and emergency communications in our county – and especially our valiant first-responders and government leaders who handled the public safety crisis itself – spent the next few days dealing with one of the worst disasters imaginable.

This week’s tragic derailment of a Washington-New York Amtrak train in the Philadelphia area sparked an immediate flashback to that surreal weekend back in early 1996, which rocked our little world and turned us into “ground zero” for worldwide media coverage. It also got me thinking about how much has changed in regard to communications and crisis communications, in particular, since that time.

CNN's homepage following Tuesday's tragic derailment.
THEN: Cell phones were still not something everyone carried. They definitely weren’t fully reliable (certainly not in snowstorm conditions), were clunky and often required full carrying bags (definitely not iPhone sleek). And they certainly weren’t “smart” (no Internet and absolutely no camera or video capabilities).

NOW: Virtually every passenger on the Amtrak this week was carrying a smart phone. As a result, most had a built-in camera and videotaping capability. Many instinctively captured the terror of the incident by snapping photos or rolling video and instantly filled social media with live tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts. Many of those tweets and posts made it on national news reports, almost immediately afterward.

THEN: Back in 1996, in the absence of social media, the media mainly captured its information through what I like to call “traditional interviews” with authorities and first-hand accounts from witnesses and/or passengers. Television, radio and even newspapers were still king – web reporting was an infant; social media did not exist. CNN and dozens of other national media outlets converged on the scene and camped out for days.

NOW: The first several hours of reporting on this week’s incident – especially with the most critical rescue hours happening overnight – were heavily influenced by the live tweets that were coming out from train passengers and others in the vicinity of the accident. And oh, yes… CNN and dozens of other national media outlets converged on the scene and will be camped out for days. (Some things haven’t changed.)

THEN: In a somewhat more “innocent,” pre-9-11 environment, when news first broke out about the Silver Spring train collision, the media and the public did not immediately contemplate the possibility that terrorism may have played a role in the incident. That’s not to say that investigators were not fully exhausting all of the possibilities, but back then, the possibility was far less “top of mind.” 

There was no such agency as the Department of Homeland Security and no existing National Terrorism Advisory System, complete with color codes to notify the public on risk levels.

NOW: In the wake of terrorism incidents far too numerous to mention over the past two decades – including a recent plane crash in the French Alps when the co-pilot himself executed a suicide mission and took hundreds of passengers down with him – how many people this week did not immediately consider the possibility of terrorism?

Even though it was less than 20 years ago, we live in a far different world today than we did “back then.” Still, some things haven’t changed. Despite today’s rapid-fire, 24/7, world of instantly transferable online communication, it will take time to get clear answers about exactly what happened on the rails and on that passenger train to New York this past Tuesday night.

And it will – yes, despite our expectations now for almost instant information – take time for the media and the public to get all the facts straight.

-Steve Simon is vice president of Van Eperen & Company and was previously a longtime public information officer and spokesperson for Montgomery County, Md. government agencies. He can be reached at

Monday, May 4, 2015

Sponsored Content: The New King in Town

We’ve all heard that content is king. But nowadays, sponsored content — also known as native advertising ― is the new, reigning king. What is this trend that is popping up everywhere and gaining increasing traction?
While terminology varies depending on who you talk to, sponsored content is generally defined as content an organization writes and pays to have placed in key outlets, outlets with which their audience engage. Think of an advertisement in the form of content versus a display ad.
But unlike advertorials of the past, today’s sponsored content tends to be more factual, with less of a marketing or sales bent. Sponsored content may serve to bring awareness to an issue or a cause, or inform or educate the public about a topic. It differs from true journalism because it tells the story from one side, the content creator’s viewpoint.
Sponsored content is everywhere. It appears in national news publications, such as The Washington Post; it appears on internet content platforms, such as Outbrain or Taboola; and it appears on internet portals, such as Yahoo.
From left: Kelly Andresen, Washington Post; Matt Bennett, moderator; Joan McGrath, Atlantic Media Strategies; Jonathan Rick, the Jonathan Rick Group; and Jeff Pyatt, Outbrain.
From left: Kelly Andresen, Washington Post; Matt Bennett, moderator; Joan McGrath, Atlantic Media Strategies; Jonathan Rick, the Jonathan Rick Group; and Jeff Pyatt, Outbrain.
When done well, sponsored content can be a highly effective way for organizations to engage with their audiences, according to a panel of speakers at the April 22 PRSA-NCC workshop, “Going Native: How Sponsored Content is Shaping Advertising, News and Messaging.” The 70+ attendees heard from leading experts about why sponsored content is here to stay and how major news organizations, such as The Washington Post and The Atlantic, have jumped into the fray, many of them launching in-house agencies created specifically to capitalize on this trend.
WP BrandConnect, for example, was launched by The Washington Post two years ago and has seen enormous growth in popularity, said Kelly Andresen, director of ad innovations and product strategy. “We are looking at how to best integrate content across all of our various platforms,” she said.
Joan McGrath, who oversees The Atlantic magazine’s in house agency, Atlantic Media Strategies, said nowadays it’s all about building digital strategies that engage readers.
Jeff Pyatt, head of global PR, direct response and local initiatives for Outbrain agrees, observing that sponsored content has overtaken banner ads in terms of how organizations are communicating with their audiences because people are suffering from “banner fatigue” and view sponsored content as “more authentic and engaging.”
But sponsored content is not cheap. The minimum buy for BuzzFeed, a highly popular content publishing company, is $100,000, according to Jonathan Rick, president of The Jonathan Rick Group, a local firm that specializes in content strategy.
However, there are less expensive ways to produce sponsored content. Both Andresen and McGrath said their organizations work with clients, such as associations and nonprofits, that have more limited budgets.
But before an organization jumps into sponsored content, panelists offered some parting advice.
“Content creation is really hard,” said Andresen. “There’s a reason The Post has 600+ journalists in the newsroom.”
“The quality of the content is critical,” said McGrath, who noted that The Atlantic does not accept all sponsored content that is submitted.
“Balancing between advertising and journalism – it’s a tricky thing to balance,” said Rick.
But, noted McGrath, quality sponsored content goes back to the fundamentals of good writing, something all panelists agree serves only to strengthen and solidify the need for PR professionals in the future.
Karen Addis, APR, is Senior Vice President at Van Eperen & Company.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The "Lunch and Learn"

Once a month, we like to have a “Lunch and Learn” with our team, which just happens to combine two of my favorite pastimes — eating and learning. Team members bring and eat their lunches (sometimes lunch is even provided!) while another team member educates the group about a specific subject within their area of expertise.

These lunches cover topics related to public relations, digital marketing, social media and new trends in our industry. Some of our past topics have included:
  • Google Alerts and Media Monitoring
  • Digital Paid Advertising
  • Research and Boolean Searches
  • News Writing and Editing

We have a diverse team of professionals with different backgrounds and expertise. These lunches are a win-win because they give us a chance to socialize and develop professionally. Lunch and Learns only last for about 30-45 minutes including questions and answers — quick, easy and fun!

Benefits of Lunch and Learns include:
  • Feeding the mind and stomach
  • Reinforcing our company culture
  • Boosting employee morale
  • Developing and motivating employees
  • Promoting appreciation of each person’s job skills and area of expertise
We have a fantastic team of professionals who thrive off one another’s enthusiasm and passion for public relations and marketing. Each and every one of us brings something worth sharing to the table every day, and setting aside time for Lunch and Learns solidifies us as a strong, compatible team that produces great results for our clients.

Nancy Zombolas is Operations and Marketing Director at Van Eperen & Company.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

How to Get Your Story on the Air: Working With Broadcast Media

If you want to know how to successfully pitch stories to television and radio reporters and editors, there is no better way than to go right to the source. Add to the mix some experienced PR professionals with years of experience in working with the media and you’ll have the tools you need to get your story on the air.  Advanced technology and social media have irrevocably altered the news-gathering landscape but one of the most important factors in successful pitching is personal relationships – there is no substitute for that.

I recently hosted a panel of distinguished broadcast media professionals and PR professionals to discuss how PR pros successfully earn broadcast media coverage for their stories and what producers or editors are looking to cover.  I was lucky to learn some new things – I always do during PRSA-NCC events – and was able to reinforce many other knowledge points I have picked up along the way in my more than 15 years working with the media.

Here are some of the key tips shared by my panelists –
  1. Get to know a reporter. Wendy Bailey, executive producer at WUSA9, says that building a relationship is key for PR pros looking to get coverage.  Most producers and reporters get hundreds of pitches a day – they are more likely to pay attention to your email if they know you. Many reporters are also happy to go out to coffee or lunch with a PR professional.     
  2. Know the station’s audience.  Jennifer Vasquez, content producer at NBC News, shared that she responds better to pitch calls when the stories being pitched relate to her audiences.  “Help me help you,” she notes.
  3. Start with an email.  Ms. Vasquez recommended an initial email and if you do not get a response within several hours, follow-up with a friendly phone call. If something is time-sensitive, indicate that in the subject line. Make sure to personalize your pitch (“But don’t stalk!”).
  4. Think like a consumer.  Key for local news is how to tell a story differently than anyone else.  It is harder now for local news to compete with social media when it comes to breaking news.  “Take your PR hat off and put on a consumer hat, and know what the audience will want to watch,” shared Ms. Bailey.
  5. Offer industry experts.  Many reporters are looking to add to their stable of industry experts on a rolling basis so they have someone to call quickly when a breaking news story hits. They are usually open to a call or coffee with an expert they can reach out to for a story later. 
  6.  Offer a seasoned spokesperson.  Provide an on-air source with strong relevant experience and one who producers will remember as being media-trained and able to provide good talking points.
  7. Work with multiple platforms.  Use a combined strategy of traditional and social media. As you get to know a reporter, find out if they are open to being contacted via social media – some are and some are not. Consider how you can use social media to raise the profile of a story you are itching, which you can leverage to add an additional layer of interest to your pitch.

I’d also like to share some things I have picked up along the way that I always keep in mind when I’m pitching to broadcast media: 

  • Remember the visuals.  When pitching broadcast, always try to be thinking about the visual opportunities you will have available.
  • Refer to past coverage. “I saw you covered X and thought you’d be interested in this.”
  • Lead time is usually short for local media (and sometimes for national).  Most news outlets have a morning planning meeting for their day, when they decide what will get covered that day.  Sending a calendar item a week ahead can be good to get something on the radar of an assignment editor, but make sure to circle back to the producer or reporter a day or two ahead of time. Better yet, said Ms. Vasquez, email her a follow-up before 7 a.m., since story ideas are being discussed and assigned by 9 a.m.
  • Time your pitch. Since the morning planning meeting is usually at 9 a.m., it is usually best to call after 9:30 or so.  Don’t call too late in the day as that is when stories are being edited and tied up for the evening news.

Ailis Wolf is Director at Van Eperen & Company

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Examining Public Shaming Through Social Media

A few weeks ago, I read Jon Ronson’s New York Times article “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” and was reminded of the 2013 story on Justine Sacco that left established and aspiring PR professionals alike shaking in their boots. After Sacco sent out a few distasteful tweets on her way to Africa, she was sacked from her job as senior director of corporate communications at IAC. Some of Sacco’s tweets, like the one questioning the hygiene of a fellow passenger, were relatively harmless and frankly relatable. But the Twittersphere found one in particular (below) outright offensive and it cost her. 

By the time Sacco landed in Cape Town, she was an international laughing stock. Tweets demanding her dismissal and mocking her assumed ignorance dominated feeds, as the hashtag “#HasJustineLandedYet” trended worldwide.

While many thought her subsequent dismissal from IAC was warranted, others raised eyebrows. Sacco was a warning to all with a loose filter: put your phone away before you hit the airport bar.

And then, after all the hype and anger, we forgot about Sacco just as quickly as we found her. All of us moved on with our lives and left Sacco’s “abhorrent” tweets behind us, which begs the question: Was it really that big of a deal in the first place?

I forgot about Sacco too – until I came across Ronson’s article a few weeks ago.

Ronson also recently wrote the book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” which explores modern public shaming on social media. He conducted a series of interviews with Sacco and found that she, unlike the rest of the Twittersphere, did not forget about that fateful tweet. She lost her job, tainted her reputation and now lives in total fear of screwing up again. She can’t be found on any social media, and quietly, after months of searching, she found a job in communications at a company she won’t name.

Stories of modern public shaming not only act as a reminder to watch what you tweet, but depict a society eager to shame people we find offensive – even before their plane lands.

While public shaming is a centuries-old practice, it now holds direct implications to public relations practitioners, both for ourselves and the clients we represent.

I think Ronson’s book may offer some insight into this phenomenon that may help us better navigate our social media practices. I’ll be picking it up this weekend. 

Gautier Lemyze-Young is Assistant Account Executive at Van Eperen & Company.

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