Delta Airlines: Is This Spin, Good Marketing, Or Both?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 15, 2014 – 7:44 pm

If you’re an occasional Delta Airlines customer, you’re going to find it harder to reach “Medallion” frequent flier status in 2016. If you’re a frequent Delta Airlines customer, you may find it difficult to retain the status you’ve already earned.

Delta Airlines announced big changes to its 2016 frequent flier policy late last week which, in aggregate, reduces benefits to customers. In one article, The St. Cloud Times characterized the changes rather negatively as, “New Delta Policy Further Squeezes Economy Travelers.”

Delta sent an email to customers late last week to announce the change and help control the message. The manner in which they did so caught my eye; here’s the email I received:

Delta Exclusivity

Delta had two options: They could have written a letter to customers defending and justifying their new policy (economic realities in the airline industry necessitated the change, blah blah…) or spun it as a positive.

They chose the second option. They wrapped their announcement, which would widely be seen as a negative (it’s tougher for me to accrue points!) and presented it as a positive (our frequent fliers deserve to receive exclusive treatment).  

Their email continued:

Delta Exclusivity 2

I saw right through this PR approach immediately, but I’m not sure I disagree with it. They wrapped the changes around a virtue—our best customers deserve the most exclusive service—and I suspect their best customers will appreciate being prioritized even more.

It’s a fine line between spin and straightforward communication, and the lines are often blurry. Some of this blog’s readers might view this PR approach as spin that intentionally buries the lead and ignores the bad news. And I’m not sure I find the memo entirely credible (when they write, “That’s why we’re adjusting the 2016 Medallion Qualification Dollars thresholds,” I’m skeptical—I suspect the changes were simply the result of a strategic business decision).

But in the end, I’m with the Delta PR team on this one. I support their approach of using exclusivity as the mechanism to announce these changes, and believe they made the most of a tough announcement.

But that’s just my view. What do you think?

What Do You Think Of Delta's Approach?

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A Surprise For People Who Think They Hate Reporters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2014 – 12:07 am

I’ve worked with many people who don’t trust or like the media. But one recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of the press than I’d ever encountered before. 

This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.

Given the hostility of this group toward the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.  

Press Conference

Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.

The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.

The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses, and do whatever they could to get to the truth.

The second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely bordered spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.

Microphones Over White Background

 

The “Aha!” Moment

When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up. But the group of reporters was pissed. They felt that the company was being evasive, and they resented the company’s lack of candor.

I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t always being jerks just to be jerks; sometimes, they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.

That profound realization, which reminded me of the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in the media’s reaction to their attempts at media management—and they recognized the need to begin doing things differently.

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Bad PR: A “Fun” Pitch For “National Beheading Day”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 4, 2014 – 5:07 am

The Islamic militant group ISIS released a video on Tuesday showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff.

At about the same moment, a PR team representing the Fox television show Sleepy Hollow sent out a media pitch promoting the impending release of the program’s first season on DVD.

The media pitch, as captured by the excellent media website JimRomenesko.com, is below.

Headless Day Two

From: JJ Mariani (sleepyhollowdvd@thinkjam.com)
Date: Tue, Sep 2, 2014 at 12:49 PM
Subject: Sleepyheads Celebrate Headless Day – eCards Available

Hi –

Heads will roll as sleepyheads celebrate Headless Day today, September 2. On this National Beheading Day, viewers everywhere can share in the fun as fans prepare for the release of Sleepy Hollow: Season One on Digital HD now and arriving on Blu-ray and DVD September 16.

We hope you like them and are able to share them with your readers! If you share via your social media platforms, please tag them with #HeadlessDay!

Just 90 minutes later—after realizing their bad timing—the PR team sent an apology:

Dear journalists,

We apologize for the unfortunate timing of our Sleepy Hollow Headless Day announcement. The tragic news of Steven Sotloff’s death hit the web as the email was being sent.

Our deepest sympathies are with him and his family, and we don’t take the news lightly.

Had we have known this information prior, we would have never released the alert and realize it’s in poor taste.

Please accept our sincerest apologies.

Best,
Sleepy Hollow Team

Headless Day One

Read that apology again. The Sleepy Hollow PR team is blaming the incident on bad timing—how could we have known an American journalist would be slain at about the same moment we clicked the “send” button?

But claiming to be a victim of bad timing is laughably false. Days before Mr. Sotloff’s execution, his mother released a highly publicized anguished plea to spare her son from being beheaded, as ISIS had warned he would be. And just two weeks ago, American journalist James Foley was also beheaded by ISIS, cause enough for this ad campaign to have been jettisoned.

It’s possible that the PR team wasn’t up on the news and wasn’t aware of these beheadings. But even if that’s the case—and I suspect I’m giving them and the executives who approved these ads far too much credit—anyone dealing with such gruesome material should, at the very least, have done a quick Google search before hitting send.

The PR team apologized for the wrong thing. They weren’t victims of bad timing but of their own terrible judgment. And until they acknowledge that, their apology accomplishes nothing.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Classic Post: Seven Times To Turn Down A Media Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 26, 2014 – 2:04 pm

Editor’s Note: Since August 2010, I’ve written more than 1,000 posts. Some of the most popular posts have gotten buried over time, so I occasionally unbury especially useful older posts to share with readers who missed them the first time. This article was originally published on December 27, 2010.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen my regular advice to do almost every media interview you’re offered. But there are times when turning down an interview makes the most sense, and this article will discuss the times when saying “no” is your best move.

Below, you’ll find a list of seven times to turn down an interview.

The original list comes from the IABC (The International Association of Business Communicators). Although it’s a solid list, the tips are overly-generalized, so I’ve added my own commentary to each of the seven suggestions to help make them more complete.

Hand No

1. Employees Have Not Yet Been Notified About a Specific Issue

As a general piece of advice, this is fine. But if a reporter is about to run a story with or without your input – and if you lack the logistical ability to inform your employees directly before it runs – it might make sense to participate in the story to ensure you provide the necessary context. Plus, what is the “specific issue” at play here? Announcing a new product before all employees have been notified (e.g. the iPad) might be strategically sound, while announcing employee layoffs through the press would not be.

2. Employee, Client or Patient Privacy Is Never Breached For Any Reason

Client confidentiality might be waived, for example, if you’re subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit or before Congress, especially if no confidentiality agreement was signed between the parties.

3. An Emergency Has Occurred; Next-of-Kin Have Not Been Notified

I agree you should not be the first party to announce any deaths before next-of-kin has been notified, but what happens if the media has already announced the names? Do you confirm them then, or continue to wait hours – or days – before next-of-kin has been notified? These cases aren’t always cut and dried, and sometimes confirming the names is the more humane choice.

4. Sensitive Competitive Information Would Be Divulged

In a reputational crisis, there are times you might lose more by NOT divulging a proprietary piece of information. As with any crisis, you have to analyze all possibilities, including divulging competitive information.

No Thank You

5. Security Legislation Would Be Breached

Whistleblowers aside, this is probably good advice. I assume this refers to laws already passed, not pending legislation.

6. Union Negotiations are Underway; An Information Blackout is in Effect

If both sides are honoring the agreement, this is good advice. But what about when one party breaks the agreement and is killing you in the press? You should talk to the media – if not to offer specifics, at least to remind the public that you’ve agreed to an information blackout, that you’re not going to talk for that reason, but that there’s more to the story than they’re hearing from the other side.

7. Legal Counsel Has Advised Against Communications

If there’s one thing on this list that makes me bristle, it’s this one. First, even if counsel has advised against “communications,” you can still communicate. You can almost always offer a generic statement such as, “We can’t offer specifics in this case since it’s in litigation, but I would like to remind everyone that there are two sides to this story, and we’re confident that our side will come out in court.”

Second, legal counsel often advises against communications as a kneejerk reaction, even when communicating makes the most sense. Executives would be wise to consult their attorneys and their communications professionals prior to making such decisions. Sometimes the reputational damage caused by your silence is greater than the financial damage of future lawsuits.

Editor’s Note: A grateful hat tip to a good marketing blog called IMC Intuition by Beth Ryan, on which I originally saw this list.

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As Seen On TV: What Would You Do In This Situation?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 17, 2014 – 3:42 am

The season finale of HBO’s Veep, which aired earlier this month, featured a hilarious moment that made me wonder what I would do in the same situation.

If you’re not familiar with the program, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, the nation’s first female vice president. The show revolves around Ms. Meyer and her rather colorful staff.

The moment occurred just after the vice president concludes an in-person interview with an obnoxious Boston newspaper reporter. After the reporter walks away, Meyer and her staff begin discussing a couple of their small-money campaign donors and insulting their thriftiness. They even give their low-money donors a derogatory name—GUMMIs—an acronym for “Give us more money, idiots.”

Just as they finish their conversation, they realize that the Boston reporter accidentally left his phone behind, on which he had been recording his interview with the vice president (it was still recording). The reporter, who realizes his mistake, is on his way back to the office to collect his phone.

Veep

The staff quickly realizes how much trouble the campaign will be in if the recording of their conversation gets out—small-money donors will pull their contributions, and the campaign will be seen as elitist. They weigh their options: We should destroy the phone with a lamp! We should say it accidentally fell into the toilet!

The reporter enters the office and collects his phone before they can execute their plan (and, spoiler alert, the “GUMMIs” conversation does cause unflattering headlines).

That made me wonder: What would I do in that situation? The choices boil down to these three:

1. Do nothing and hope the reporter doesn’t use that material

This is the option Meyer’s staff took—and it didn’t pay off.

2. Destroy the evidence

This would kill the negative story about the GUMMIs—but it might lead to even more damaging headlines about destroying a reporter’s phone and speculation about what Ms. Meyer said on the destroyed tape. (The phone was password protected, so simply deleting the file wasn’t an option.)

3. Negotiate with the reporter

This is the strategy I would have chosen. When the reporter came back for his phone, I would have asked him to consider all of the material included on the tape after he left the room “off the record.” The reporter would have had no obligation to honor my request—such requests are typically made prior to the interview and agreed upon in advance by both parties—but in this case, the material was gathered without the consent of the taped party (which might even constitute an illegal recording in some states).  His leaving the tape recorder behind might have even been an intentional trick, although the show didn’t address that question.

If the conversation with the reporter doesn’t go well, there could be an either implicit or explicit threat regarding future access—publish that material, and you’ll never speak with the vice president again.  (That’s the “stick” approach; the “carrot” approach of offering increased access could also work.)

What Would You Do?

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How To Change A Reporter’s Description Of You

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 13, 2014 – 6:02 am

A reader recently wrote in seeking advice about how to change a reporter’s description of her as an “opponent” of a proposed new middle school. “The label is convenient,” she writes, but “it sounds negative and oppositional.” More importantly, she says, it’s inaccurate.

“Our town is currently locked in an ongoing school bond debate revolving primarily around the construction of a new middle school. The bond has failed three times, but the school board and supporters plan to float it yet again.

A number of us in the “no, not in that current iteration” camp are consistently referred to in the media as “opponents” of the bond…it doesn’t accurately convey our position. We are in fact for the bond in that we support a new middle school. But we disagree with proponents on a number of key issues and want the board to back-pedal and revisit prior assumptions…we aren’t opponents of the bond as much as we are “yes, but let’s do this thing right” voters.

Is there a word, or handy phrase, we can use to better identify ourselves, both as we speak with people individually and as presented collectively, via the media?”

Agree Disagree

1. Speak to the reporter

Reporters might use the term “opponent” for a few reasons. First, it may be an accurate descriptor—you are in opposition to the current plan, if not the entire project. Second, reporters working under a strict word count don’t want to burn up words on your descriptor. “Opponent” takes up one word; “who opposes the current plan” takes up five. Finally, “supporter vs. opponent” plays to the media’s tendency to eliminate nuance and reduce characters to simple archetypes.

In this reader’s case, she did contact the reporter—and got positive results. “I contacted the reporter, thanking him for a well-done, objective piece,” she wrote. “I added that I’m not, strictly-speaking, an opponent as I don’t oppose a new school/alternative bond. He asked how he might better describe me in future articles.” Her non-accusatory tone was perfect.

2. Create an irresistible media sound bite

I’d develop an irresistible sound bite, such as this one:

“The supporters of this bill have consistently misrepresented our position. We are for the construction of a new middle school; we’re against irresponsible construction (or reckless growth, etc.)”

Or, if you want to be more positive:

“The supporters of this bill have consistently misrepresented our position. We are for the construction of a new middle school—but we insist on smart development that serves the community well for many years.”

These sound bites work for three reasons:

1. They oppose something most people would also be against—irresponsible construction or reckless growth—or support something people would be for—smart development.

2. The lead sentence places the blame for misrepresenting your position on the supporters of the bill, not on the media (which might bristle at the accusation).

3. The “for-against” construct of the first sound bite plays to the media’s preference for two-sided conflict, increasing the odds they would choose to use it.

Finally, if you don’t want to come across quite so aggressively (or, if you don’t want to use the term ‘supporters’ in your sound bite), you might choose more neutral language instead:

“Our position has been consistently misrepresented. We are for the construction of a new middle school; we’re against irresponsible construction.”

Thank you for your email, and good luck!

Do you have a question about public speaking or dealing with the media that you’d like answered on the blog? Please send it to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.


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In Defense Of That Cleveland PR Pro

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 28, 2014 – 2:25 pm

By now, you may have heard about a Cleveland PR pro named Kelly Blazek, whose harsh rejection letter to a young public relations professional made the rounds last week.

Here’s the summary, as reported by Mark Naymik of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:

“[Blazek] produced and distributed a popular email that culled job openings from online job sites and from her own contacts. She worked hard for 10 years building her contacts and curating the list of people who receive the email, limiting recipients largely to those with experience in the field.”

The trouble started when a 26-year-old named Diana Mekota sent a LinkedIn request to Ms. Blazek along with a request to join her email list. Mekota was shocked when she received the following reply: 

Blazek Message

After her vicious broadside went viral, Ms. Blazek offered a chastened—and seemingly genuine—apology, which reads in part: 

“My Job Bank listings were supposed to be about hope, and I failed that. In my harsh reply notes, I lost my perspective about how to help, and I also lost sight of kindness, which is why I started the Job Bank listings in the first place.

The note I sent to Diana was rude, unwelcoming, unprofessional and wrong. I am reaching out to her to apologize. Diana and her generation are the future of this city. I wish her all the best in landing a job in this great town.”

I do not and would never support Ms. Blazek’s approach. Not only is what she wrote awful—but as a purely tactical matter, it’s also dumb to risk one’s entire reputation by committing such thoughts to print.

But I do understand her frustration. I’m regularly contacted by people I’ve never met whose approach to networking similarly turns me off. 

In some cases, someone I’ve never interacted with before writes, “Hey, I’m going to be in NYC tomorrow. Want to meet for coffee and talk about how we might work together?” (No. If you’re not serious enough about a potential partnership to contact me more than 24 hours in advance of a requested meeting, you aren’t serious enough about working together.)

Or it might be a person asking me for a job via a Twitter direct message. (If, instead of putting a thoughtful cover letter together you choose to send a casual 140-character tweet, you’re too casual about something I take seriously — my company.)

If we’re going to work together, I want a little courtship. I hope you know something about my work and are serious enough about your approach to put together a serious pitch. The young woman who contacted Ms. Blazek didn’t do that. Here’s Ms. Mekota’s original message:

Mekota Message

Notice how she doesn’t express any knowledge about the Job Bank or its author? Notice how the entire message is self-focused and impersonal, with many of the sentences beginning with “I?”

Yes, Ms. Blazek’s nuclear response to a mild infraction was wildly inappropriate, but it should also be pointed out that this was not exactly the best pitch. A more humble approach from Ms. Mekota about forging a relationship with the more experienced pro would have been more effective. (I do, however, give Ms. Mekota enormous credit for her high-ground response to Ms. Blazek.)

Ms. Blazek’s approach is never acceptable. I would never treat someone who wrote to me so disrespectfully. But I do understand her frustration.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Your Responses: Is This Smart or Dangerous PR Strategy?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 26, 2014 – 6:02 am

Last week, I asked whether it is ever a smart media relations strategy to wait to return a reporter’s call until just before the deadline. By doing so in specific circumstances, I wrote, you might be able to minimize your role in the story while preventing the reporter from writing that you refused to comment.

You had a lot to say on this topic—thank you for all of your thoughtful comments!—and as I suspected, you had a wide range of opinions. Below are some highlights; you can also read the complete comments in the comment section of this post.

Many of you said that waiting until just before the deadline was bad form, as expressed in the following tweets:

Feb 2014 Tweets Question of the Week

Reader Adam Myrick agrees that waiting is bad form:

”I’ve always gone with a customer service-flavored model of media relations. I look at the reporters and editors I work with as customers. I strive to provide them with a level of access and information that is befitting of a customer receiving any other service. Providing them with information right before ‘closing time’ strikes me as bad customer service.”

Stu Opperman, APR takes a similar take:

“In my experience, reporters will often claim a deadline time that is often earlier than the actual deadline. This happens for a variety of reasons, one of which is to thwart the ’4:58 crowd’ from working the system. Since you never really know if the deadline stated is the true deadline, it has always been my recommendation to position the appropriate message(s) as you feel is best, regardless of timing. If your goal is to keep your client’s connection to the story to a minimum, keep your comments short and to the point and don’t have further conversation/correspondence about the situation.”

But other readers disagreed, arguing that waiting until just before a reporter’s deadline has its benefits. Bill Zucker writes:

“There is at least one situation in which there is little advantage in answering early. If, because of legal complications or the facts in the story, your company will not be in a position to go beyond a short statement — then there is little reason to answer early. Giving time for follow up doesn’t help you.”

But Bill smartly points out that:

“Deadlines are not what they used to be…waiting until deadline hoping to avoid a follow up question will not generally be effective for stories that are posted and updated online.”

Deadline Ahead

Kent agrees:

“I would agree with Bill that you only do it when there’s not much you can say, and would add that you only do it with a reporter you know or suspect to be hostile.”

But he shares this anecdote about a time when that strategy backfired:

“When I first started doing PR at a college, I didn’t have the information to provide a news director who called about a controversy. I pledged to get back to her when I had somebody for her to talk to, but rather than wait she sent a reporter out to talk to anybody she could find…it could…have spun out of control at that point.”

John Barnett sees both sides:

”There is a risk of being left out anyway after waiting so long, or the reporter decides you are hiding something, feels played and then adjusts his or her story toward that angle…So I call it a risk — but argue that risks are strategies.”

And he also points out that reporters use a similar tactic in reverse:

“I would also suggest it works both ways, since reporters working a juicy gotcha story can wait until the last minute to call you for a quote or information in order to put you off-message and limit your options for a reply that meets their deadline.”

Deadline Stopwatch

Finally, one reader who requested anonymity shared an interesting story about his company’s crisis communications regarding the new healthcare marketplace:

“I handle PR [for] a large health insurer, and with the marketplace enrollment issues everyone is having, local TV stations have been finding members who need coverage and using their stories as a way to attack insurance companies…

A couple of weeks ago we were contacted by a member of the local TV media — a reporter who has a history of going aggressively against us whenever possible…

First off, we solved the member’s issue, but as we all know, that was just to crack to door open for the reporter, she was filing the story regardless of the members’ outcome.

I had no intention of putting our executive on air…I had previously witnessed how other local TV stations cut and sliced a seemingly innocent interview with this executive and turned it negative…So I put together a statement from the company, but made it appear as if it was crafted specifically and only for this one reporter, and sent it to her an hour before her deadline.

I did not take her follow up calls, as she also had a tendency to use phone conversations with the PR staff as official comments from the company, and I did not want our off-hand comments to defuse the message of the statement…

The story ran, and not only did she show the statement on air (on our letterhead with logo), she actually read part of the statement in her story…To me, this was a win.”

Thank you for your great comments! If you would like to add any additional thoughts, please use the comments section below.

 

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

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