I'm the managing partner of a $15 million strategic communications firm that represents huge consumer and business-to-business brands, maintains offices in New York, San Francisco, and London and routinely wins all sorts of awards and accolades.
Let's just say it hasn't always been that way. I began my business 16 years ago when I washed up on the doorstep of my business partner's squalid, one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. As a recent refugee from the global holding-company world, I had no clients and no income. What I did have was $15,000 in seed money from my brother and mother-in-law (yes, my mother-in-law), a Rolodex, and a burning desire to prove the big agency guys wrong.
As I began building Peppercom, I committed many classic mistakes along the way. Mistakes that I still see my peers making (and, mistakes that any entrepreneur should take pains to avoid repeating). They include:
Thinking one size fits all. I was an early believer in blasting out any and all news about my fledgling business. I was wrong. While I believed my new firm was the greatest thing since sliced bread, very few journalists agreed. In fact, as the media silence grew ever more deafening, I realized that I first needed to read what subjects were pertinent and then figure ways in which Peppercom might fit into those sorts of articles. That was a huge learning experience that I continue to refine to this day. I always make sure I'm completely conversant with a reporter's brand, the hot buttons she covers and, critically, what her audience is interested in learning (or at least what she and her publication think they are interested in learning). I then tailor my pitch to fit precisely within those parameters.
Using corporate-speak. My initial pitch letters, press releases, and bylined articles were filled to the rim with buzz words and industry jargon that I understood—but the average journalist tuned out. So, once again, I had to re-evaluate what I was communicating and re-shape it for the audience (in this case, the business press). Corporate-speak exists in every conceivable line of work. I see it all the time with my law firm and accounting firm clients. It's also pervasive in health care and, above all, in the technology sector. Consider this recent headline that crossed my desk:
"Qliktech Announces New Salesforce Chatter Integration for the Qlikview Business Discovery Platform; Enables Collaborative Decision-making by Leveraging Chatter Connect to Deliver Social conversations to Qlikview Business Discovery Apps." I think there might be a hidden message embedded in that headline intended to activate a terrorist sleeper cell.
Compare that headline to the one I recently used in a blog: "The Lindsay Lohan of Public Relations."
My lead sentence read: "There, have I gotten your attention? Good, because that was my intention. I wanted to demonstrate how powerful a good headline can be and why you and your employees need to avoid corporate-speak." (Note: while I was sorely tempted to reveal the identity of PR's Lindsay Lohan, I opted for discretion instead).
Underestimating the value of silence. I cannot tell you how many CEOs have called me in a panic demanding I develop an immediate statement for a fast-breaking crisis. Not understanding the subtle nuances of image and reputation, many executives—particularly entrepreneurs—believe a thermonuclear response to a product recall or ethics scandal is the only way to go. It isn't. Not by a long shot. The key to crisis management is understanding the magnitude of the crisis, its potential implications, and the real effect it could have on the organization's brand. By issuing an immediate response or rebuttal to news, a company may be inadvertently escalating a crisis that would otherwise slip silently under the airwaves.
Saying "anything you say, sir." I've observed a fascinating phenomenon in the few weeks since the untimely passing of Steve Jobs. In the immediate aftermath of his death, the mainstream media seemed intent on painting Jobs as a combination of Thomas Edison and Mother Theresa. Now that time has passed, however, we're reading more and more about his horrific management style that included terrorizing employees and categorizing them as either heroes or bozos. We've all worked for horrible bosses and too many of us, myself included, have cowered to the boss's whims when news and information were being disseminated. The best public relations executives are the ones who push back on bullies and counsel them on the importance of authenticity and transparency. Stand up to the boss. And, if the boss won't take your counsel, find another one. Life is too short to work in a culture of fear and retribution.
Hitting the "Send" button too soon. I may be the poster child for publishing the wrong blog at the wrong time. Once, I thought I'd written a rather witty take on a new charity to support families of journalists slain while covering the news in war zones. Knowing the long-standing love-hate relationship that exists between the media and PR types, I suggested that, were the roles reversed, journalists would never start a fund for families of PR executives killed representing their companies in battle zones. Based upon the reaction of one industry trade editor, you'd have thought I'd joined al Qaeda. He blasted my blog on the front page of his newsletter two weeks in a row, demanded an apology and insisted I make a significant contribution. I caved, but only because I was losing in the court of public opinion and didn't want to see my firm's brand damaged. I've seen countless executives, celebrities and others get in serious as a result of tweets, posts, and blogs.
The best advice I've ever heard is some 150 years old and comes from Abraham Lincoln. He said whenever he felt the need to write an angry letter, he always slipped the correspondence into his desk, went to sleep and re-read the letter the following morning. Lincoln ended up destroying 99 percent of the letters he would have otherwise sent.
I've been following Lincoln's advice of late, and suggest you do the same before hitting the send button. The image, reputation and, indeed, career you save may be your own.