Beyond Pathetic

It's hard for any public relations pro not to see the BP oil spill as a case study in crisis communications. Which is sad, because this is a disaster of monumental, historic proportions that will severely damage the environment and the ecosystem of a good portion of the United States for years to come, and will have a very negative impact on the livelihood of millions of people. An entire way of life may be wiped out.

Everyone feels bad and everyone involved, from BP to federal, state and local officials is determined to work as hard as they can to limit the scope of this disaster. Unfortunately, if you live anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico, that determination is not enough to sooth your oil-soaked feathers.

In a crisis, the first step is to show compassion. BP did that well. Company executives sounded sincere when they accepted responsibility and promised to do whatever it takes to stop the leak, clean up the mess and compensate the people and communities that have been affected. Step two is action. Again, BP did a good job of explaining the steps they would take to solve the problem, from robotic subs to plugging the leak by pumping it full of mud and cement.

It was in step three that BP came up short. That's where you put things in perspective. As the CEO of a multinational company in an industry that rakes in billions in profits each year and is used to getting anything it wants rubber stamped by the government, it is easy to understand how Tony Heyward might be dismissive of people who question his decisions. And he is certainly under an enormous amount of pressure. Even so, when your company’s slogan is "Beyond Petroleum" and when you've just caused the biggest oil spill in history, it is not a good idea to explain that in the big scheme of things, this spill is relatively "tiny". Or as Heyward explained to the media, "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean,"  Not good Tony, not good at all.

So here we are over a month after the rig blew and BP is just now getting around to trying a few things that may or may not work. Each day as more photos of brown beaches and oil coated pelicans hit the Internet, people are demanding to know just what the hell is going on at BP. Even the anti-government crowd wants the government to step in.

If I were advising BP right now, my advice would be to just shut up and plug the leak before it gets any worse. You've said enough already Tony. The Congressional hearing was bad. Please stop listening to your lawyers. Don't let your people dance around questions about what exactly you mean by a "legitimate expense." Just plug the leak, clean up the oil and then worry about how much this is going to cost you. Do it now or whether you like it or not, BP's new slogan will be Beyond Pathetic.

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Service with a smile

Denver is a friendly town. Visitors are impressed with how nice people seem and how clean the city looks. And that's good for Denver public relations. Service with a smile is the best PR we could ask for.

Good customer service is so fundamental that it makes you wonder why some businesses don't seem to get it. It creates a lasting, positive impression that builds word of mouth and increases the value of their brand. Bad customer service annoys you, frustrates you and makes you swear you will never do business with them again. From a PR perspective, that is not very smart and yet it happens every day.

Who do you think of when you think about bad customer service? The cable company, the phone company and the airlines come to mind. Long hold times stuck in a nightmare of voice activated hell. Customer service reps that don't seem to care about solving your problem. They don't even seem worried that you are getting more and more upset.  You could get the same response talking to a brick wall.

So let's look at three companies that get it.

This small, independent Denver auto repair shop sets the bar. Even if you just need an oil change, they treat you like their most important customer. They shuttle you to work and they phone you with regular updates. After your first visit you get a personal call from the owner asking if everything was OK, then they follow up with discounts on your next service. They are friendly, they explain everything up front, and they talk to you like you are not an idiot. They want you to be a lifelong customer and you find yourself liking that idea.  

Imagine a positive car buying experience. This auto broker takes the hassle out of buying a vehicle. Just tell them what you want and they find it for you. Then they take care of every detail, from the sale to the trade-in to the registration. You never feel pressured or worry about getting swindled. They speak your language.

No other brand understands brand loyalty like Apple. The Genius Bar is a stroke of genius. The stores are fun, like a playground for grownups. Let’s say you want to switch from a PC to a Mac but you are not sure about how difficult the learning curve is. You make an appointment with someone who will answer your questions, soothe your fears and find you exactly what you want. Then they make learning how to use it enjoyable. They never make you feel like a stupid PC moron. 

So the next time some underpaid customer service rep at the rental car company tells you they don’t actually have the car you reserved last month or you are standing in a 10-deep line while one bank teller takes 10 minutes on each customer, remember that good customer service is like playing an instrument. Anyone can do it, it just takes practice. Lots and lots of practice.

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Seven keys for solo PR pros

The other day I ran into a journalist I used to pitch. These days newspapers and TV stations are shedding reporters like my dog sheds fur in the spring, so it was no surprise she decided to get out of the media business and get into PR. It is also no surprise that in Denver and around the country, many former journalists find out that landing a gig at a public relations firm is not so easy. 

In many cases, they decide to set themselves up as independent practitioners, which is the case with the woman I ran into.  She knew that I opened Pushkin Public Relations years ago (this year is the firm’s 13th anniversary), and she wanted to know the secret to staying in business over the long haul. That got me thinking about what advice I might offer to someone just starting out as an entrepreneur. What advice did people give me when I started out? 

So here are seven keys for solo PR pros:

1.  Your brand is your reputation. Don't screw it up. Don't let the pressure of paying the bills tempt you to do something unethical. The damage to your reputation will cost you much more than the loss of the contract. Maintain your integrity. Say what you mean and back up what you say. It's better to walk away than to work a client you have doubts about.

2. Don't panic. Business is cyclical. You will have good months and bad ones. The trick is to enjoy the down time and try not to stress out when things get really busy.  That is easier said than done but it is something you should constantly remember.

3. Find a mentor. Someone you trust that you can turn to with questions or concerns. When I started out, someone told me that I should spend one-third of my time serving my clients, one-third on administration, and one-third of my time developing new business. That was great advice for someone who knew nothing about running a business.

4. Network your butt off. I know, everyone says this but not everyone is comfortable doing it. The Denver public relations community is close and collaborative. Our business depends on referrals so network with others in your field as well as clients in the industries you want to build relationships with. Join PRSA or another professional association. Join social media clubs or leads groups. Participate in online communities through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

5. Stay hungry my friends. Put yourself out there in a metaphysical sense. Be open to landing new business. Be ready for the next opportunity that comes along. Stay positive and focused.

6. Build collaborations and virtual partnerships. This is a great way to compete for business, expand your expertise, learn from other professionals and get out of your box.

7. Get a closed sign for your door. Repeat after me: "I am not a freelancer I am a business owner." Don’t let the freedom of a home office become a trap that keeps you on the job around the clock. Close up shop when you are done for the day and don't open up after hours unless it is a critical emergency.     
What tips do you have for new solo practitioners? What questions do you have if you are just starting out? Leave a comment and let me know.

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