This post is part of a What Is Media series. We’ll be unpacking this idea in more depth and detail in coming posts.
For the last 10 years, High10 Media’s unofficial tagline has been “We are media.” While we never defined it formally, everyone who ever worked at High10 knew what it meant.
Representing so many of today’s greatest media brands and companies—from agenda-setting news organizations, to transformative industry outlets, to format-breaking entertainment companies, movie studios and more—we’ve become stitched into the very fabric of the media. We’ve learned to think and act like a media company, and even model the way we work after the fast-paced, ideas-driven world of the newsroom.
But as we’ve grown and developed, the idea that “We are media” has evolved in an incredibly powerful way.
In the past, when you’d speak about “the media” you’d generally mean the news and entertainment media. But those boundaries have been exploded by the digital revolution and the rise of the connection economy. Media is no longer defined by who communicates, but how they communicate.
Lifestyle brands now provide their audiences with rich content related to their lives. Forward-thinking retailers are no longer just advertising but telling stories their audiences want to be a part of. Aid organizations, artists, musicians, trade associations, governments and virtually everyone in between no longer connect to audiences through the media. Instead, they have become their own medium of connectivity.
High10’s evolution reflects this shift. In addition to our core role of connecting clients with the news and entertainment media (a role that’s still crucially important), we’ve also become a means for clients to connect directly with audiences.
We help them do the creative, thinking-heavy, problem-solving work of finding the stories that resonate, ordering them into effective narratives, packaging them into formats, and delivering them to audiences. This is exactly the description of what the media has always done, and still does.
With this still-unfolding transformation we’re discovering new opportunities and facing a diverse set of challenges. That’s what makes communications endlessly fascinating. Where once we were coaches strategizing behind the scenes and on the sidelines, today we are squarely on the playing field, where we’re moving the game forward.
How to Mobilize Your Comms Team When It Counts
A communications crisis may be many things, but it’s always unpredictable — and consequential. The Economist estimates that the eight corporations which suffered a major crisis since 2010 saw a 30% drop in their value, compared to their peer groups who didn’t see a crisis of similar magnitude.
While planning and preparation are essential — for example, getting your messaging in order, mapping a clear work structure and getting a response in place — there will also be plenty of in-the-moment decisions you’ll need to make.
Chief among these decisions is team structure. By definition, a crisis isn’t business as usual so you and your team can’t continue to work as if it is. Even when using an outside agency (usually a good idea), you still need to be able to mobilize your existing comms team to manage the crisis.
Because of this, it’s worth investing early in a team structure that can help mitigate the effects of a potential crisis before it arrives.
Here are four ways to make sure everyone is prepped and ready to manage a crisis situation, along with some hands-on insight from High10 Media Vice President Amanda
1. Use the experts on hand
As we’ve written about before [link to our piece], your first step in a communications crisis is about getting oriented, and that means understanding the root of the crisis. For example, does the crisis stem from an executive’s decision making? Or is it a content issue related to your brand or publication? Have you touched a nerve in public culture, or maybe stepped on a political tripwire?
“By unpacking core themes, you can also make quick but accurate decisions on who you need to bring on board,” says Alix. It’s generally worth taking the time up front to make those important early calls.”
2. Build out ‘reaction’ teams in advance
Danish research team Johansen, Aggerholm and Frandsen discovered that when a crisis management team was appointed, internal morale was higher. Organizations experienced “loss of motivation and engagement to a lesser extent than organizations without this strategic instrument.” Additionally, “employees are perceived to be less frustrated, they feel less insecure, and are less afraid in a crisis,” the researchers found. For example, your Crisis Team A might be a mix of colleagues primed on consumer insights, brand launches and public reaction; whereas Team B might include content strategists and social media experts.
“If you’re working within a larger organization, it may be difficult to pick and choose the best colleagues to tap for a crisis at a moment’s notice,” Alix says. “By doing the prep work in advance, you can set up different ‘crisis response’ teams before it’s crunch time.”
3. Be flexible, dynamic and open-minded
Your crisis response team member doesn’t need to include benighted ‘crisis experts’ to be effective. In fact, the opposite is often true. Rather than trying to find team members with deep experience in crisis, look for the people who can lead each tactic effectively, freeing senior members up to lead the strategic charge.
As an example, your in-house writer or social media lead could be the person that can work with you on clear, concise talking points, and your media relations teams could be ready to build lists and do some fast outreach.
“A colleague who doesn’t typically work on this type of account or brand, but is well-versed in corporate communication techniques, could be the right person to staff up a crisis team,” Alix adds.
4. Have a plan for reaction protocol
Once your teams are in place, have a plan for engagement. Given the time crunch and pressure, it’s important that your teams know what to expect once they’re called upon. Whether that’s conducting research, delving into talking points or having a step one messaging meeting, the way in which you’ll tackle the crisis shouldn’t come as a surprise. Of course, you may need to change up the way you engage with the public or press on a certain manner, but what you ask from your teams is what you can predict.
By relying on your internal team, and those that know your business, organization or brand best, you are already one step closer to coming out ahead of a crisis situation. Having the right mix of people and a reaction plan in place will ensure you can respond quickly and efficiently to the matter at hand.
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We live in a society that so often tells us that size matters, and bigger or more is better. It may be, but it may not be, ultimately it’s irrelevant when your goal is to communicate with those who matter to you, and when it comes to choosing your communications agency, it’s the thinking, the creativity, insight, contacts and relationships that really matter.
If you’ve done an internet search for a small agency, you’ve likely run across the word “boutique.” Today, a boutique agency can be anything from a one-person operation to a company with 100 employees. But why seek either a boutique agency or a large agency? The assumption that you’ll be getting the attention of the executive with a boutique agency is just an assumption. With a large agency the assumption tends to be that the results will be more exposure.
In our experience, what people really want is a dedicated team of smart individuals who can help a company take the next step and better achieve its goals. Determine whether or not your objectives and your brand have been fully understood and the strategy put before you will likely be one you instantly recognize as the right way to go. When you sign with an agency for its thinking, insight and press contacts you become a core part of their business, and your account team is going to work tirelessly to provide consistently excellent service.
When you meet with a potential new agency – big or small – you should always ask who your account team will be. Too often, the agency executive you’re meeting with will disappear and you may find yourself interfacing with more junior team members when it comes time to do the work. Junior team members are often diligent, intelligent professionals who strive for excellence on behalf of their clients, but if you want the executive to collaborate with you, it must be clarified at the outset.
The quality of your account team is a critical factor. Make sure that each team member is a highly organized, professional, articulate, results-oriented individual with a predisposition for intellectual curiosity. Together, a team with these qualities, combined with a stable of mutually beneficial professional relationships with journalists, are sure to lead you on a path to success.
Ultimately, the search for the right communications agency is an individual one – only you know what your business truly needs, and regardless of whether you choose a big agency or a small one, you should ask yourself: Do you trust the team you’re working with? Have they thoroughly understood your brand, your needs and objectives? Do you know that they have heard you? Do you believe they can get the job done? And after a several months, are you seeing progress? We hope that, whomever you work with, they deliver for and with you!
In the last month, two new colleagues have joined High10’s New York City office. Lauren Seewald has come on board as an Executive Assistant, and Paul Chronister joins as a Senior Account Executive from Kite Hill PR. We chatted with both Lauren and Paul to find out what they love about their job and this industry. We also talked all things NYC and found out about some of their favorite things to do in the city.
What do you love most about your job?
Paul: I love to tell stories, and I also love to promote the things I’m passionate about. I found PR to be an avenue where I can do both. I can help clients tell their unique stories and promote the work they’re doing to illustrate how they’re impacting the world around them.
Lauren: Growing up I always wanted a career that aligned directly with my personality and my passions. I’m a huge people person, and I love to write and communicate. I wanted to make sure that when I entered the working world I would be in a field that enabled me to do both of those things. I love that when following this career path, every day is different and you never know what to expect.
Tell us About NYC! Any favorite spots?
Paul: I love catching live shows of my favorite bands in the park, hitting up Smalls Jazz club in The Village, getting lost amongst the stacks at The Strand Bookstore, seeing the latest exhibit at The Met and just simply walking the streets of NYC, because there’s always something new to explore wherever you go.
Lauren: There are so many things I love about NYC. I love how everyone who lives here is so diverse, and I also love the whole aspect that there is always something to do. That would definitely be my favorite part. Whether you want to go to a concert, go to Central Park, see a Broadway show, enjoy delicious pizza, there genuinely is something for everyone every day of the week. It really is the greatest city in the world, and I’m so happy that I was able to have the opportunity to move here.
Welcome Paul and Lauren! We’re happy to have you on board.
There’s an interesting but subtle change occurring in the way public relations speaks about itself and, therefore, thinks about what it does. Companies, like High10 Media, which once defined themselves as PR agencies now locate themselves in the field of communications.
This shift might seem academic to most clients but the truth is that the change in nomenclature reflects currents that go deep below the surface.
This change began to manifest around the time of the Great Recession, not coincidentally, the same time High10 was founded. It was then that we saw the convergence of two enormous forces of pressure: major budgetary constraints on the part of cash-strapped clients dealing with the effects of the recession and, simultaneously, the emergence of incredibly powerful digital tools and practices.
The result was, on the client side, much higher expectations as PR firms were being asked to achieve outcomes that marketing agencies (which many companies couldn’t afford to pay at the time) were once responsible for. On the other side of the client-agency equation, PR firms found that, with digital and social media coming into their own, they were able to offer a range of new services to meet and lead the increase in a new set of challenges.
What this meant is that public relations agencies which once specialized primarily (and, in many cases, solely) in speaking to the media became adept at speaking to a diverse range of audiences. We could use social media to communicate more broadly; and now empowered with digital publishing tools to delve into a client’s brand message with a level of nuance and effectiveness; communications teams could help clients publish op-eds on open platforms where they’d be fully in control of, and responsible for, their own message. The possibilities were endless.
Nearly a decade later, communications has emerged as a kind of super-set of marketing, advertising, and PR disciplines and practices. Although the field, like so many areas touched by the power of digital, has leapt forward, it’s still rooted in the same core principle that rooted its PR predecessor: finding original and effective ways to bring an authentic and compelling message to a target audience.
Far from having achieved any kind of stasis, the field is nascent and quickly evolving. The power of online tools—used to do everything from improve efficiencies to discover new audiences to engage them in fascinating ways—is staggering. And while we’ve made enormous progress, we still have yet to uncover miles of uncharted territory in this ongoing journey.
You might call it Murphy’s Law (as we do in the US), or sod’s law (as they do in the UK), or any other moniker, but, where PR is concerned, the real question is what do you do when things go wrong?
Crisis PR is the well-honed communications practice designed to help an organization or individual navigate the rough waters of a event that can have a significantly and lasting negative impact.
When done successfully, crisis PR is about creating and implementing a nuanced, deliberate and thoughtful process that:
- Provides adequate, effective and candid responses to media and core audiences
- Develops a message that helps audiences understand what’s going on
- Offers a way forward that keeps the brand narrative on track
Doing this is difficult. It requires intensive, collaborative work with client-side teams, and a lot of creativity and decisive action on the agency side. So, how can you be prepared for a crisis situation?
There should be, at every organization, a framework or at least a plan to manage a crisis, which consists of (a) pre-crisis preparedness, (b) a crisis response and (c) post-crisis communications.
- Get Media Training Now – A designated spokesperson with Media Training can play a pivotal role in successfully addressing the media with poise and a clear control of the message.
- Get Your Messaging In Order – Solid brand messaging will play a significant role in helping you ground your response in core brand values. Be prepared with a messaging document that includes these elements, as well as talking points.
- Get Media Training Now – A designated spokesperson with Media Training can play a pivotal role in successfully addressing the media with poise and a clear control of the message.
When you’re in the thick of a crisis, even with the phones ringing, emails dropping, and social media lighting up, the first and most important principle is this: Stay calm.
In practice, this means resisting the temptation to “put out the fire” with an off the cuff response. Rather, it’s time to take a breath, make a plan and, if you’re able, consult with professionals well versed in managing crisis situations.
That said, best practices include:
- Get management on the same page, so everyone knows who’s doing—and, just as importantly, saying—what.
- Communicate honestly to your teams, which sometimes means admitting you don’t know the answers at the moment.
- Gather information so your communications team will have everything they need to respond to media, stakeholders and other constituencies.
- Refer media requests to your communications team. If you don’t have a comms team on board yet, let reporters know you’ll return to them as soon as possible.
- Maintain perspective and stay cognizant of the fact that the crisis will pass.
As the crisis ebbs, there’s always a temptation to return as quickly as possible to business as usual. But, especially in the period immediately following the crisis, it’s important to keep in mind there will be residual awareness of the crisis.
That means you need to be thoughtful about your marketing and communications so you don’t stumble across a tripwire.
Just as importantly, integrating what you’ve learned from the crisis into your communications and marketing programming will help strengthen both in the long term.
By HIGH10 MEDIA
Patience, it’s been said, is a virtue. And though it might be relatively easy to be virtuous while alone on a mountaintop, while you endeavor to grow your brand’s awareness and connect your message to relevant audiences, patience might seem like the least of your priorities.
Despite this, the ability to patiently stay the course with a reputable and skilled communications agency, especially in the first three months of the engagement, will go far in seeing you through to the results you need. The question is how to discern whether you’re being intelligently patient or foolishly naive as you wait for results to show—and what you can do to keep the process smoothly and effectively moving ahead.
To help understand this, let’s start with a breakdown of these three crucial initial three months.
Your first month will be all-important in establishing a solid foundation for the engagement. This is when you get to know the agency and, more importantly, when the agency gets to know you and your goals, your brand, company or organization.
By the end of your first month you should feel confident your agency understands your company and brand, knows your mission and vision, and has a precise understanding of the objectives and benchmarks for your work together.
On your side, you should be sure senior management understands and agrees to the strategy, objectives, and expectations of the engagement. And it is critical that your team share information that your agency needs to succeed. Keep them informed – not in the dark.
Month 1 Tip:
One way of making sure all of this happens is asking for a communications plan from your agency to outline the first three or six months of the engagement.
The second month of the engagement is where frustration can arise. The bloom is off the rose, results this early in the process might not be completely visible, and anxieties can sometimes spike.
But that doesn’t mean work isn’t being done or that progress isn’t being made. In fact, an experienced agency will by this point be deep in its process, making headway with pitches, further planning, outreach to journalists and fresh ideas for story angles.
What you should be looking for here is a coordinated and wide-ranging communications effort that’s pushing on all fronts. While landing a piece in a top-tier national outlet is always a challenge—albeit a challenge good agencies are remarkably skilled at overcoming—doing so after eight weeks of less of work makes that challenge even more pronounced. So agencies will often use this time to build a media foundation with items in more niche or specialized outlets. In addition to seeking out this “lower-hanging” fruit, these kind of efforts give your agency a chance to test, calibrate and improve the message.
In spite of such a good foundation, it is common for an organization to become restless and frustrated within the second month should media outlets not become evangelists for your message.
Month 2 Tip:
At this point the more you communicate about the engagement, the more you’ll learn about what’s going on. Ask to be part of the process to whatever extent possible; a good agency will eagerly welcome your input and feedback. Weekly calls, status reports, and in-person meetings are an excellent way to make sure this happens.
By month three you’ve ramped up, seen some first efforts in action, and (hopefully) kept lines of communications with your agency wide open. You’ve done everything right but still you might find yourself wondering if there’s any real chance the key objectives you laid out at the beginning of the engagement will be met.
In the meantime, you could be facing some internal pressure to get things moving. This is the moment where patience will play the greatest role. If you’ve gone through the steps outlined above, assuring yourself your agency is earnest, intelligent and working doggedly on your behalf, then it’s a matter of time before you see some serious results.
It’s important to bear in mind that, unlike with advertising, where billboards or air time can be bought at will, the news cycle is a wild and unpredictable beast. Editors, for example, might love items pitched about your company but their editorial calendars could call for that topic to appear only weeks or months down the line.
A major national scandal could knock a planned item about your company, and it might take weeks, or longer, to find another opportunity to place the story. This is the nature of the above-mentioned beast. We grapple with it because when things fall into place, as they always do, earned media offers advantages—like exposure, reach and credibility— that literally cannot be bought.
Month 3 Tip:
Rather than withdraw from the process, it’s time to double down on all the above: review your communications plan with your agency; speak openly about your concerns; ask questions and suggest ideas of your own. Even if you are seeing some great results, it’s still a good idea to lean into the process at this point so you can tee up the next quarter of collaboration with your agency.