Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Additional Thoughts on -- On Thursday the podcast company Stitcher and the University of Chicago are launching a new podcast, "Pandemic Economics," hosted by Eduardo Porter and Tess Vigeland and exec produced by Ellen Horne...

We're living in uncertain times due to a terrifying pandemic that continues to raise questions that healthcare professionals can't answer (like do you develop immunity from it if you've already recovered from COVID-19 -- or could you get sick again from it?) combined with economic chaos that's reshaping our economy while creating huge numbers of unemployed workers. 

Against that backdrop, two questions we've been hearing are: "Should businesses conduct marketing and PR campaigns?" and if so, "What's constitutes an effective campaign now?" 

We recently set to answer those questions in a blog post entitled, "9 Tips and Considerations for Conducting PR When It's Not Business-As-Usual" that appeared in CommPro.Biz.  

But after that article appeared, we came across a couple of additional thoughts we wanted to discuss.

For example, one colleague wrote on LinkedIn: "The biggest challenge for companies, IMO: Being relevant while not appearing predatory." 

We think that's right, that getting the balance right -- between letting their customers know they're open for business while also being sensitive to what we're all going through, and that this is far from business-as-usual -- will be a big challenge.

For example, we've seen a lot of ads that tout the heroism of their employees. But in our article, we advised companies that their marketing messages need to match reality. That may be a problem because some of those companies don't have a great reputation for how they treat their employees, unfortunately. They need to watch out for articles such as this from VOX: “'I did not sign up for the military. I signed up for Walmart.' What grocery store workers say they’re facing during the pandemic." We think there could be more articles that highlight the discrepancy between messaging and reality, and that could be a problem.

And according to CNN's great "Reliable Sources" newsletter, "Kantor Media held a webinar about 'TV & video consumption in 'the new normal.'" One of the findings was there's been "an even more pronounced surge in YouTube consumption than Netflix, and a relatively small decline in 'co-viewing,' or people watching together. That means increased TV/streaming consumption mostly consists of people scattering to watch, as opposed to a major bump in shared or family viewing."



But to our perspective, what's important are the implications for advertising. Kantor's "researchers found that people don't feel that brands should stop marketing during the pandemic, but that companies need to be careful not to appear as if they're exploiting it -- a 'fine line,' as media division CEO Andy Brown put it....But the findings generally reinforced some key points about increased consumption, acceleration of streaming and the hunger to return to some semblance of normalcy whenever that's possible..."

We do think the desire to return to normalcy among consumers is important to keep in mind. Marketing functions should keep that in mind when considering how to approach their marketing efforts.

We also expect there to be long-term changes in how we work (more will continue to work from home afterwards) and live, and how we pursue leisure and entertainment. Companies that can anticipate how this will play out should start developing campaigns to address that.

Let us know if you have additional thoughts about how to navigate this crisis from a marketing perspective. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

9 Tips and Considerations for Conducting PR When It's Not Business-As-Usual

For businesses and nonprofits, as for all of us, the world shifted dramatically with the arrival of COVID-19. 

It's certainly far from business-as-usual. 

Yet business continues, and organizations need to continue to operate and keep in communication with their employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

This article will offer some ideas of steps to take during the crisis. But before we get into that, we want to thank: healthcare workers who are taking care of others, EMTS and oher first responders,  along with everyone who work in supermarkets -- those who stock shelves and the cashiers -- and other always-essential stores that remain open, including restaurants -- and everyone in the kitchen -- now offering take-out food. We also want to thanks all those who deliver and transport the things we need as well as cable and phone technicians who are maintaining our Internet capabilities, while we're sheltering in place. 

Here are some ideas:
  1. Understand that the media's focus has changed. This is important, especially if you're targeting consumer or national business media (as opposed to trade media): every reporter now also covers how COVID is impacting their regular beat. This is true for trade media, too, since they continue to cover their regular business but they are likely to ask questions about the impact of COVID.
  2. Recognize that COVID-related layoffs have shrunk a lot of newsrooms. A lot of businesses are suffering -- we're not trying to minimize that. But for PR and marketing functions that work with reporters, it's important to realize that a lot of local and trade media have initiated significant cutbacks on staff. That means that newsrooms may not have the resources to cover your story (even if they did just a few weeks ago).
  3. Re-evaluate your communications and marketing objectives, strategies, goals, announcements and product roadmaps. Whatever you planned for 2020 may no longer be relevant, starting with launches and trade shows -- especially launches at trade shows. While we don't know yet when the general economy will reopen, you should like at key themes, plans, announcement and goals and adjust them given current conditions. It will require being more flexible and more sensitive to context than usual. 
  4. Stay relevant. Look for ways to support and contribute to your community because they need that support. For a software development client, we suggested offering tips for programmers working from home -- and found some interest among trade reporters. Make sure you and your messaging stays focused on employees and customers (and not on the company itself unless its how the company is taking specific new steps to help employees and customers).
  5. Postpone unnecessary announcements. Not all announcements are equally important. Those that aren't should be pushed back or dropped. A potential client asked us about issuing a press release to announce a new CEO for a small, international healthcare product company. We told them to hold off on that press release. While trade media continues to publish, it seems like it would be better to wait. For one thing, the news might get lost or overwhelmed amid the COVID news. Please note: some announcements are absolutely necessary; those should go forward but make sure you understand the context of when and how you issue the release. Also keep in mind: your news may not get the coverage it would have just a few months ago.
  6. Don't try to generate coverage because you're doing something about COVID. Every organization has had to shift its operations to adjust to the current crisis. So doing something to fight COVID isn't enough. You need to have something special to stand apart from what everyone else is doing. There's a lot of COVID messaging. ads, content (including this blog entry) and spam so you need to find ways to break through the clutter. Keep in mind:  Jumping on the COVID bandwagon risks making your organization look desperate. 
  7. Find a way to stand out by doing something unexpected but that fits with your brand. This won't work for most brands, but Steak-umm's social media experimented has paid off, according to the Wall St. Journal: "Steak-ummEmerges as Unlikely Coronavirus Misinformation Watchdog: Processed-meat maker encourages Twitter followers not to trust everything they read; ‘peak irony’ for a brand builder." 
  8. Content remains important. Trade media remains interested in bylined articles; we've been in touch with a couple of editors in different sectors who have been requesting content for May, June and July. They’re thinking ahead but some of the planning is taking place now. For the short-term, you still need content for your blog and social media if only to show that your organization is active and current. 
  9. Think long-term. There's still work to be done, even during a crisis. After the dot-com crash and in 2007-8 financial crisis, we used the down time to develop new processes and content for when we came out the other side. We're working with clients to continue to develop relevant content (some of which will be posted after the crisis is over), and we're doing that for ourselves, too. 
We're going through something that requires the sensitivity of the post-9/11 era and the post-financial crash of 2007-08. And it may be weeks, if not months, before we're able to get back to some sort of normalcy. (Unfortunately, our guess is that this will happen later rather than sooner.) And we think that once we're on the other side of the crisis, there will be significant changes to how we live, work, shop, educate, and entertain ourselves. Companies need to start thinking about what that future may look like. In the meantime, it's an opportunity to re-evaluate what your organization does and how it approach and update that.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Pew Research Validates Fragmentation As An Ongoing Trend


According to a new Pew Research Center report on media polarization, Americans place their trust in two nearly inverse news media environments.

According to Pew, not surprisingly, 65% of Republicans and those leaning toward the GOP trust Fox News. By contrast, Democrats and those who lean that way, 67% trust CNN, 61% trust NBC, and 60% trust ABC. 

Again, without taking a stance either Republican or Democratic, this is not surprising but provides some context for what we predicted back in January (which feels like a different era): further fracturing and fragmentation of the media and the country. This Pew report confirms our prediction that Americans are divided by news sources, and that further fragments our country.

Companies need to find ways to talk with both sides. Not to be cynical about it but to be successful, marketing functions will need to be able to tell their stories in two ways, to tailor the story to appeal to two different sets of news teams to reach people on both sides of the aisle.

That's not always easy to do, of course. But it does speak to developing customized pitches (as opposed to sending out a single generic pitch) to the media. It takes more time but could expand coverage of your story.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

New York Times & Wall St. Journal Validate Predictions about Facial Recognition, Robots, Retailapacolpyse and More

Some trends move more quickly than others.

We predicted that privacy would be a big issue this year — this, after years when people said Millennials aren’t concerned about privacy. We’re seeing a lot of articles that raise concerns about privacy. We also said that facial recognition would get a lot of attention this year.

The New York Times recently wrote “Facial Recognition Moves Into a New Front: Schools,” noting that, “A district in New York has adopted the technology in the name of safety. Opponents cite privacy and bias concerns.”

Part of the reason for putting facial recognition in schools is a topic we didn’t identify: the need to improve safety to prevent mass shootings in places that didn’t have or need much security before, including schools, churches and temples. (We do expect to see a lot more coverage about protecting these kinds of locations this year, as these organizations, often nonprofits or otherwise under financed, have to figure out a way to protect the people who visit those locations without keeping away people who need their services.) 

In addition to reporting on facial recognition, the Times also wrote about robots, which we said, “Robots won’t take over in 2020 but will be more commonplace. ” The Times recently published an article, “The Robots Are Coming. Prepare for Trouble,” noting that “Artificial intelligence won’t eliminate every retail job, an economist says, but the future could be grim unless we start planning now.” First, it says that “robots are coming,” not that they are fully here yet, which aligns with our prediction. 

The article also looks at AI and how it’s used in retail — which correlates with another of our predictions! The article notes that the impact of robots and AI in retail has led to more than 6,000 store closings in 2018. Interestingly, the growth of e-commerce is strong, growing at nearly doubled but over the past five years, it went from 6% to 11%.
 (You’d think from all the claims of Amazonification or the coming of the Retailapacalypse, that the percentage of e-commerce as a share of the overall retail market would be substantially higher.) Just wait, we guess.

But the article also mentions how AI is being used to “figure out what customers want and to get it to them quickly,” which is another point we made. 

Meanwhile, more bad news the retail sector. Bloomingdale’s is shutting down its fur boutiques — but that seems like being the victim of fashion trends. But Macy’s is shutting down 125 stores over the next three years and approximately 2000 corporate jobs. The impact is that Macy’s has “served as a backbone for America’s shopping malls.”


This is our final validation for this blog: we had said that food delivery apps are going to face challenges this year, due to completion from other apps and from restaurateurs realizing that they’re not making enough money, maybe even losing money, and that this is not sustainable. Here’s the latest on this from the Journal: “Grubhub Spends to Draw In More Diners: Tight competition is pushing food-delivery rivals to experiment, adapt to industry in flux.” The costs for consumers will have to increase in order to make it sustainable for apps DoorDash, GrubHubs, Uber Eats, and Postmates as well as for the restaurants themselves.

Grubhub said it will sacrifice profits to compete — the challenge is how long they can operate before generating a profit. With an expected $100 million in profits for this fiscal year, we guess they have some runway to reach sustainability. 


We're living in an interesting time: there is a trend for people to spend more time cooking for themselves, with organic ingredients, even with food selection and recipes delivered to your door for you to cook at home. At the same time, we're seeing a strong appetite (pun intended) for food delivery services for people who don't want to prep, cook and clean. We guess that means you can have it your way. 


Which is our way of saying: consumers will have more choices for how to approach meals, and they seem willing to pay a premium for convenience. How much of a premium has yet to be answered.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

More News For Retail That Validates Three Predictions

There’s been a string of bad news in the retail sector: 
  1. Pier 1 Imports — which one late night comedian (accurately) described as “that store where you bought that pillow one time” — has filed for bankruptcy. The bricks-and-mortar retailer plans to close nearly half of its 940 stores, according to the Wall St. Journal.
  2. Wayfair recently announced the layoff of 500 employees, per the Wall St. Journal, while Walmart laid off 200 employees from an online furniture retailer it owns. 
  3. Victoria’s Secret has been sold to a private equity group, with the Wall St. Journal noting that: “Les Wexner’s decision to part ways with Victoria’s Secret is an admission that the 82-year-old billionaire couldn’t revive the fortunes of a troubled lingerie brand he had built around shopping malls and sex appeal.” 
So we’re seeing ongoing weakness from both primarily mall-based as well as online retailers. 

That’s a real problem, and a trend that we’ve been predicting for some time. We’re not happy to be right, especially because we don’t have any recommendations or solutions.

But AdWeek has some suggestions for brands — which is not the same thing but shows that even brands that do well selling online are fearful. Check out “How Brands Are Battling Knockoffs on Amazon: With a proliferation of third-party sellers, fighting copycats can feel like a never-ending game” and “How to Protect Your Amazon Listings From Copycats.”

Meanwhile, validating another trend that retailers will use technology to improve the customer experience, in an article entitled, “Grocers Wrest Back Control of Shelf Space,” the Wall St. Journal reports that, “Retailers are relying on their own proprietary research to decide where to shelve products, dealing another blow to large U.S. food companies that are already dealing with increased competition and shifting consumer tastes.”

Finally, we’ve predicted that there’s a renewed push for profitability and financial discipline among apps, particularly pointing to food delivery services as a sector that would need to raise fees and change their business models to stay in business. That prediction has been validated by yet another Wall St. Journal article: “Food-Delivery Firms Put Mergers, IPOs on the Menu: DoorDash, Grubhub and others are weighing tie-ups or looking for funding.”

American consumers still seem fine spending their money, but spending patterns are evolving. And other than Amazon and Walmart, retailers don’t really knows how to survive. So we expect ongoing turmoil, unfortunately. We're not economists but it seems hard to believe this is not going to impact employment rates and the economy at large.


9 Questions to Consider In Preparing to Be a Thought Leader


Recently we got a PR question from a former marketing colleague -- a designer who used to work at an ad agency with whom we collaborated on a range of projects.

She's now running a small rental property business, and asked: "How do I generate some PR about what I'm doing?"

This is someone who's a terrific designer and is smart about marketing. Her website is great, and the properties she manages look wonderful.

But that's not enough to generate media coverage.

There's no story there.

At least not yet.

To get media coverage, we told her she needs to think about the following things (see, list, below), and we thought these questions may help others, too:
  1. What story can I tell? We know she (and others have a business) but that in itself isn't necessarily media-worthy. So what insights and experiences can you tell? What advice can you provide? How do you help solve a problem that your customers have? What are you passionate about? These days, providing support for a cause that's important to you can help reach your key audiences, and can be the lens through which you become a thought leader. (A German client has embraced diversity as a core value; part of it commitment includes holding an annual job fair that helps more than 4,000 refugees get jobs. Through their dedication and experience, they've become a thought leader about diversity.) 
  2. Who are your customers? Where are they located? If they're local and they're looking for additional rooms for out-of-town wedding guests, the media she needs to go to is different than if most of the renters are from within the state or from another region entirely. What brings them to the area? What are they looking to do? She can find out some of this by asking the renters when she books the rentals or if that's done online, by asking if they'll fill out a survey after their stay. Companies of all sorts need to have a clear understanding of their customers -- and a surprising number don't have a firm grasp.
  3. What do customers want to hear? Her potential customers are looking for short-term rentals, so what may interest them beyond good location, nice furnishing and amenities? Perhaps its tips about things to do that only a local might know: the best restaurant, the best shopping, the best place for a walk or scenic vista. If she conducts a quick survey, she might have a better idea of what customers are looking for.
  4. What influences their purchasing decision? Is it price, location, amenities, availability? What is her competition? Is it Airbnb? Is it local inns or B&Bs or hotels? Again, the better understanding she -- or any company -- has of its customers, the better she can deliver to her customers.
  5. Based on her customers, what media should I target? Again, if most of her customers are coming for out-of-town events like weddings or bar mitzvahs, then local media is the ticket. If from outside the area, perhaps she needs to target travel publications. Understanding the type of media will help answer the next question.
  6. What stories will interest reporters? What type of stories are they looking for? A local business reporter might be interested in local business trends, and her insight into her customers can help tell a story about the local economy. A local broadcast reporter may be receptive to a story that has a compelling visual element. A podcaster may want tips or advice for small business owners, for example.
  7. What do I need to do to present that story? Do I need a blog and social media? (We'd say, "absolutely," to that. You can't just say, "I'm a thought leader" without being able to show appropriate content.) Do I need video? Does my website tell that story and is it a compelling and current story? (We've found that if it tells a story, the websites of many small companies still tell the story that was appropriate when the company was launched -- but that several years later, the story on the website has not evolved.) Reporters will check websites and if they don't see the story or something interesting, they may not respond to any media outreach, either email or phone. So the website needs to tell your story.
  8. What are resources do you have? Take a look at your budget (Do you have enough money to produce a quarterly video -- for example, with the rental property, February and March in New England may be tough times to get short-term renters so perhaps she could produce a video highlighting fun things around town during winter.) Who is heading up this initiative? Do they have the time, resources and expertise to focus on this? 
  9. What are realistic goals? What key performance indicators are you measuring? Is it traffic to your website? Engagement on social media? Inquiries, either online or via phone or email? In terms of media coverage, do you have a sense of what's a home run? What kinds of news or stories you are likely to have that's worth sharing -- just because it's good news for you doesn't mean a reporter will find it worth writing about, unfortunately -- and will interest your target media? 
These may not be the only questions to ask but we think they form a good foundation from which to strategize next steps. We think they're useful whether you're trying to generate media coverage or position yourself or company as a thought leader. If you're interested, please check out are other blog articles about developing PR programs and being thought leaders. Or contact us by emailing us here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Retailers look for tech to improve in-store expeiences; validates our prediction

We've been following the retail sector for a couple of years because we think it is important contributor to the local economy and to a community's sense of well-being. And that when an area has too many for-rent signs on empty store fronts, it can hurt the community's sense of self, and drive people away.

Some seem to think that the "Retail Apocalypse has been averted," per a recent Wall St. Journal headline, based positive results announced in Q4 2019 by Target and Lowe's.

But we keep reading about additional store closings. And in one team member's town, two mainstays, including a coffee shop and a bookstore, shut their doors suddenly in late December, leaving signs of thanks for the decades of being able to serve the community. They join several other now-for-rent store fronts.

Not all of retail's woes are due to Amazon. After all, you can't -- at least not yet -- have Amazon Prime deliver hot coffee, chai tea and baked goods.

So one of our predictions is that in-store retailers would turn to technology to improve the experience and selection.

And that is what the Wall St. Journal has started to report: "Retailers Hope In-Store Tech Will Keep Shoppers in Stores: Old-guard retailers are looking for technology systems that can make visits to physical stores better or more relevant." The article reports on new back-end systems as well as new customer-facing technology that is designed to improve the in-store experience.
The Journal also ran another article that specifically looked at updating department stores: "Department stores were once the cutting edge of retail. Can they reclaim some of their old magic?


We hope that retail does fix itself just as we hope that the news business does.