A Game of Catch—A Father’s Day Reflection

The week before Father’s Day, my 18-year-old son Nick and I went on a hike on a wooded trail in St. Charles County out to the Missouri River bluffs. Nick was diagnosed with autism when he started kindergarten after a four-year period during which it became increasingly clear he was not developing appropriately—delayed acquisition of language skills and other missed benchmarks were the primary indicators. 

While I surely have an important role in teaching my children, through example and good old-fashioned advice, I learn from them almost as much, if not more. 

We made our way through the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the flat forest path gave way to a series of climbs and descents. It was at times a challenging hike, but he didn’t complain. He never does. A lifetime of hard work in school without the level of communication and reading comprehension that his peers take for granted has prepared him for challenges. 

He walked behind me as we climbed up rocky ascents and crossed fallen trees and dry creek beds, and I could tell from the sound of his footsteps on timber or rock that he was copying my movements over these obstacles. I began to think of the things we take from our parents and pass along to our children. 

My love of baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals undoubtedly started with my parents, as well as my tendency to yell at the TV during games. My daughter, Laura, now on the verge of 25, is herself a Cardinal fan, and Nick enjoys going to games as well. 

In the year following my divorce, not long after my mother’s passing from Alzheimer’s, I lived with my father and learned a number of his quick and easy meals during that time. Our favorite was penne noodles mixed with canned chili and marinara sauce. The dish took on the name Mosta-chili and later, courtesy of Nick, Monster Chili. Today, Monster Chili is in the regular rotation of our meals at home. Laura took it with her to college and hooked her roommates on it as well. 

Nick began running with me several years ago, and when he started high school, we asked him if he wanted to run cross country. Of course, he did. He embraces every challenge that comes his way. He competed with the team all four years, adding track and field in sophomore year, eventually becoming much faster than I ever was. He reveled in the company of his teammates, who embraced him as one of their own. After his senior season, he was awarded his team’s spirit award, which goes to the runner who best exemplifies the spirit of the team. 

In presenting the award, his coach said, “If everyone went through life with the attitude that Nick has, the world would be a better place.” 

The honor was not lost on him. He recently had to fill out a questionnaire which asked what one item he would take with him if his house were on fire. He selected his spirit trophy.

While I surely have an important role in teaching my children, through example and good old-fashioned advice, I learn from them almost as much, if not more. Laura, now an occupational therapist, a career she selected because of her brother, inspires me with her intelligence, her compassion, and the simple joy she derives from performing music and listening to it being performed. She makes a difference every day working with children who have been dealt a hand like the one her brother got. 

And Nick—he teaches me every day about courage, goodness, and hard work, not to mention the importance of living in the moment. Without my asking, he tells me when he is happy, and he tells me this a lot. I have never heard him say a mean or critical thing about anyone. 

Parenting is very much a two-way transaction in that manner, like a game of catch. We throw the ball to our kids, and then it comes back to us—back and forth, over and over, exactly like that. We are fools not to play along. 

Media Pitching in Interesting Times

In the current media landscape, we have a multitude of means to distribute messaging to our constituents, including email, texts, our websites, and a vast and growing array of social media platforms. Even so, pitching to mainstream media outlets is still an important part of any good communications strategy. 

Regardless of what is going on at the time, PR professionals need to honestly assess whether their story is relevant to the broader community.

Earned media placements allow us to reach a larger, broader audience than our more targeted efforts, and they serve to credibly reinforce what we put out to our followers on the web and social media. My initial plan for this post was to walk through the elements of a successful media pitch, but I’d like to frame that discussion instead in the context of the current situation—a global pandemic and a national discussion of racial justice. 

During normal times, a successful earned media strategy requires public relations professionals who know how to construct a strong release and, more importantly, understand the news media, what approaches will capture their attention, and how and when to distribute to them. PR professionals know the best times of day to pitch to broadcast media outlets, that Friday is generally a bad day to distribute a release, and that right after Christmas, media are hungry for stories that have nothing to do with Christmas, among other things. 

In that vein, distributing a release about an organizational announcement or achievement in the middle of a national catastrophe is ill-advised. The media’s attention, as well as the public’s, is elsewhere, so your chances of it getting picked up are small. 

What are you to do, then, when the national catastrophe goes on for months and is then joined by daily nationwide protests over the issues of race and police practices? The first question to ask when considering a media pitch is about relevance. Regardless of what is going on at the time, PR professionals need to honestly assess whether their story is relevant to the broader community or to more granular pieces of that community. This typically determines whether the media can be expected to pick it up and which media outlets to target. A story that is typically relevant becomes less so during times of crisis. 

Surely, some stories are so important they will always resonate, regardless of what is going on, but they are rare. That doesn’t mean you must go dark at times like this. In the midst of the pandemic, my previous employer, a local university, donated thousands of units of personal protective equipment to SSM Health to help address shortages of those items in the healthcare community. We wrote and pitched a release on it with pictures, and it was picked up by multiple news outlets in the St. Louis area, including three television stations. 

If you have stories that strike at some aspect of these larger issues, then by all means, send them out. Otherwise, take a quick scan of a couple major news sites; the number of stories you see that are unrelated to the big issues at hand is a good indicator of their openness to your release. 

In the meantime, don’t stop communicating directly with your constituents. They need to hear what you are doing in response to the pandemic, and they want to know where you stand with respect to support for the African-American community. It is no coincidence that many major brands and organizations have recently released statements supporting the black community and opposing racism. In fact, at this time, not releasing such a statement is itself a statement. 

Don’t worry. While I am not sure we will ever entirely return to what we used to consider “normal,” we will arrive at something similar to it, gradually. Until then, in the grand scheme of things, not being able to distribute your media releases in the manner you’re used to is a minor inconvenience. 

What are your thoughts on this? Please let me know what you think in the comments.

What is Your Story?

Everybody loves a good story. Stories compel us. They inspire us. They move us. They can prompt us to take action. 

In the communications industry, we spend a lot of time talking about branding, a broad term that encompasses everything from the look of an organization to its mission and philosophy. I like to think of branding as an organization’s story. Through advertising, promotional pieces, earned media placements, social media, and other means, communications professionals build that story.

Many things contribute to our story, including some we do not intend, such as negative news items, public controversies, and the like. My previous post on crisis communications addresses how to keep those things from defining our story. In this post, I’ll focus on how to use storytelling to build that narrative for our constituents. 

Let’s consider Subaru as a good example of a brand that has used storytelling to effectively build its image. We interact with Subaru primarily through its national advertising. Subaru’s tagline speaks not to quality, but love, and the company’s television advertising strings together a series of small narratives, often told in first-person, that explain how love implies attributes like quality, safety, and reliability. 

My favorite of these, “Making Memories,” depicts a father cleaning out his Subaru and removing items from under the seats that evoke memories of his young daughter riding in the car over the years. At the end of the commercial, we discover he is cleaning it to pass it along to the daughter—an act of love, made possible by Subaru’s reliability and longevity. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Subaru has also donated millions of meals for the needy. While this act has nothing to do with cars, the company has publicized it because it builds that broader story about the company philosophy and lends credibility to the rest of the Subaru’s marketing narrative. 

In our own organizations, as we craft taglines and marketing strategies, we should think comprehensively about what story they tell, and on the PR side we need to seek out real stories that build up that narrative. In short, reinforcing our story with organic content affords all-important authenticity. Conversely, we can spend all the money and creative energy we want to on flashy taglines and marketing assets, but if that story is contradicted by negative exposure and our constituents’ personal experiences, it will quickly backfire. 

In a well-executed marketing and PR strategy, organic stories that reinforce our marketing messages find a home on our websites (and hopefully also get picked up by media outlets). They also drive your social media posts, which expands the audience for that content and pushes traffic back to your website, building search engine optimization (which basically means that when people search for us or our category online, they see our content first or close to the top). 

Over time, visitors to your website’s news page should see in the stack of releases there a consistent representation of the story you are trying to tell with your marketing assets. More importantly, if your marketing and PR strategy is working well together, that story will be in your constituents’ heads, too. 

In Good Times and In Bad

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, there has been no shortage of negative storylines for businesses, schools, public figures, and other organizations. This has me thinking of principles of crisis communications in general.

Every organization or public figure can count on having to address a crisis communications situation at some point–that is a circumstance that has the potential to impact your brand in a negative way. Admitting this and planning beforehand is the first step in managing these circumstances. The following are some tips to navigate the perilous waters of a PR crisis.

Think about the crisis from the perspective of each of your key constituents: current and prospective customers, employees, board members, neighbors, outside groups, etc… Make a complete list of these constituent groups, so that when a crisis occurs, you can think clearly about how it lands among those groups.

This can help you to select the communications vehicles you will use to address the crisis, as not all groups consume information in the same way. Ask yourself what information they will want and provide the answers; if possible, create a web page or some other device with comprehensive information about the crisis. Draft specific messaging for your key constituents and send it directly to them.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations are acknowledging their customers’ concerns and are sending out detailed messages indicating the measures they are taking to protect them. As noted, they also have placed this information in highly visible locations on their websites.

Some crises occur in the first place because an organization did not think about how a particular action would play for all groups and then finds itself responding to backlash from an audience it had not considered. In the era of social media, these reactions can quickly escalate. Ask yourself the hard questions so you are ready when those reactions occur, or reach out to those groups before going public with the action.

When bad news lands at your doorstep and the media come calling, don’t waste time on the illusion that you can simply wait for it to blow over. This can be tempting, especially with the ever-shrinking news cycle. To begin with, not responding to media requests takes no skill; it is also horribly ineffective. Even after the media stop calling, you still have your constituents to contend with.

Our job as public relations professionals is not to make a story go away. Assuming we have a reason for everything we do, our job is to make sure our point of view is out there on equal footing with the criticism that is being leveled at us.

“We (cut that program/closed that facility/cancelled that event) for the following reasons. Here are the numbers to support our decision. Our community is important to us, and here is what we are doing instead.”

Don’t surrender your side of the narrative.

Finally, if you did do something inappropriate, running from the story only prolongs the agony. Explain that you made a mistake, along with how that mistake occurred. Then, talk about how you are going to keep that from happening again. Suppose you cheated on your spouse. It’s bad either way, but is it worse for your spouse to find out from you or from a mutual friend?

This, of course, is a mere surface-level discussion of crisis communications. Here are the key take-aways:

  • Behave as if crises are inevitable and plan for them ahead of time.
  • Look at your activities from multiple perspectives and plan for all possible reactions.
  • Don’t run from a negative story; get your point of view out there.
  • If you do mess up, own it and tell how you are going to keep it from repeating.

I hope you find this helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or thoughts about any of this.

The Write Guy’s Blog

I’m Chris Duggan, and I’ve made my living as a professional communicator my entire adult life, including journalism, public relations, writing, editing, and marketing. I have run a newsroom, managed teams of marketing and communications personnel, and worked on my own as well. I have been a writer for as long as I can remember. My bachelor’s degree was in English (yes, I wanted to be a high school English teacher at the time), and I have two graduate degrees: a Master of Arts in mass communications and a Master of Fine Arts in writing.

In this blog, I will write about issues in the communications industry, such as communications technique and philosophy and media literacy. We’ll also touch on creative writing, a big passion of mine.

The way we consume information, possibly more than any other aspect of our lives, has changed dramatically over a short time with the advent of new technologies. With these advances in technology, the basic components of good compelling communication are no different.

We’ll discuss all this and more. Welcome.