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For PR, does AP Style still matter?

February 23, 2015

Starting about the time Noah sent out his, “Ark 1.0 Offers Hope, Segue to Earth 2.0,” one of the basic rules of press release writing has been to adhere to AP Style.

The thinking has been two-fold: First of all, doing so would promote consistency. No more arguing about how to use commas in a series, no more debates about who gets a “Dr.” before his or her name. Check the Stylebook. End of debate.

Second – and perhaps most important – doing so would put our releases in the style preferred by the people receiving them. Most newspapers are pledged to AP style, and reporters and editors who see our releases have tended to be pretty darned dictatorial about the best way to abbreviate states and whether “statehouse” is one word or two.

In other words, adhering to AP Style allowed you to write with confidence.

Lately, though, that confidence has been shaken. These days, a quick read of daily newspapers reveals not only style deviations from paper to paper, but also inconsistencies within a single publication. What once would have been considered a gross violation of the sacred AP Style now seems to be shrugged off as inconsequential nitpicking.  What once would have earned a rookie reporter a smack on the knuckles with a pica pole now is ignored.

Why? Let us count the reasons:

  • Centralized copyediting, which takes copy review from a local desk to a remote location.
  • The rush and hurry of today’s journalism, which requires not only copy for print editions but also blogging, Tweeting, posting and commenting – not to mention video appearances, radio shows, etc.
  • The dumbing down of writing in general, which seems unlikely to recover from the everything-is-OK style of the digital world.
  • And … well, you get the point.

So, with all of that in mind, should PR types give a darn about AP Style? I, for one, argue that, yes, we should. It still will help us remain consistent with what we deliver. It will allow us to be confident that, should our copy fall into the hands of some copy desk dinosaur, it will appreciated. It will allow us to be assured that, should our releases simply be reprinted as submitted (a once-unthinkable event now considered routine), they will be readable.

And, finally, it will give us the satisfaction of knowing that SOMEONE is upholding high standards.


Speed Wins

February 11, 2013

When Jacoby Jones took off for a 108-yard touchdown run to open the second half of Super Bowl XLVII, we couldn’t imagine that his display of speed and cunning would be matched a few minutes later by a group of marketing communications pros in a “war room” in Manhattan. But it was.

When the stadium lights went out in the second half of the Big Game, a crew of social media types scrambled for only four minutes before posting a promoted Tweet that drew thousands of retweets and “likes.” A photo of an Oreo cookie in a half-lit, half-dark frame, the Tweet read, “You can still dunk in the dark.” Although Tide was close on Oreo’s heels with a Tweet that said, “We can’t get your blackout. But we can get your stains out,” and Walgreens was quick with, “We do carry candles,” Oreo scored the most attention.

It didn’t hurt that Oreo’s ad agencies – 360i and MediaVest – were ready for action. They had set up a “war room” and manned it with social media types to seize opportunities that might come along during the game. They couldn’t have imagined the opportunity that flickered into sight during the second half, but that’s part of what makes the response so impressive.

Of course, you can’t always (or perhaps ever) afford to pay big-agency types to sit around just in case an opportunity presents itself, but that doesn’t the Oreo Super Bowl reaction has nothing to teach you. Here are some things any of us can learn from Oreo, big ad budget or not.

  • Embrace speed. Oreo had established itself as a fast-moving, topical Tweeter with its “Daily Twist” campaign, a celebration of its 100th anniversary in which it responded to daily news. As 360i put it in a description of the campaign, “From the momentous Mars Rover landing to the rapid rise of Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ video, Oreo was in the thick of it.” This mindset – which is available to anyone who’s willing to adopt it – created an attention-getting campaign.
  • Create an infrastructure. To make the Daily Twist possible, Oreo built a team and the technology to go social with events as they happen. While you probably won’t be able to create a war room dedicated to breaking-news Tweets, you can make sure you have the pieces in place to move quickly when opportunities arise. Even one person assigned to each potentially newsmaking event presents opportunities.  
  • Condense the approval process. Here’s how the approval scenario too often plays out when a media team tries to act fast: Someone sees an opportunity and creates a response. Then he or she sends it up the ladder. At Rung One, it might get blessed and forwarded to the next level. At Rung Two, someone calls in a couple of others to discuss it. They ask for more information, and scrutinize every word and image. (Meanwhile, precious time ticks away). Finally satisfied, they push it up to the next rung – where the decision maker can’t be reached (tick-tock), or doesn’t get the message. When that Big Boss finally sees it, he/she ponders and stews, asks for more information (tick-tock), calls a quick meeting (tick-tock, tick-tock) … and so on. If subjected to this process, Oreo’s Super Bowl Tweet might still be languishing, in draft No. 15, in some middle manager’s email, slowly dying a death of irrelevancy.
  • Have fun. Clever works. When the lights went out in New Orleans, even stodgy old Mercedes Benz tweeted that it was “sending some LEDS to the Superdome right now…” Don’t be afraid to stick your tongue in your cheek. People remember funny.

How LIVESTRONG has survived

January 15, 2013

The way things are going, by the time the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah airs, most of us will already be tired of hearing about it (if we’re not already). Goodness knows, it’s a story that’s been months in the making, with most folks in the cycling world  – including recreational/fitness cyclists like myself – having long ago accepted the dark truth.

But there’s another world – a more important world – that’s also sent into turmoil: the world of the cancer fighters and survivors who found in Lance the inspiration they need to carry on. And that world hangs on one word: LIVESTRONG.

So what happens to a brand when its founder and living icon falls from grace? How does an organization manage such a situation? As it has many times, LIVESTRONG created an example for other organizations to follow.

Over the past few years, there’s been no avoiding the incredible marketing machine that is LIVESTRONG. Its quick mastery of social media alone demonstrated an ability to leverage resources and opportunities quickly and wisely. Nothing was done carelessly; everything was done with a consistent message and strong brand presence.

So what becomes of all that now? Probably very little, because in recent months LIVESTRONG has undertaken a steady and focused program to prepare for this week. And that’s the example other nonprofits (or any organization) facing a crisis can follow. Let’s take a quick, simplified look at some lessons LIVESTRONG can teach those of us who lead or communicate for nonprofit organizations.

  • Prepare. Lance never won a major bike race without a well-designed, long-term and strategic plan for preparation (yes, that plan apparently including cheating, but, even in that it appears, Lance was incredibly methodical and disciplined). In dealing with this crisis, LIVESTRONG appears to have followed that example, preparing and following a plan that probably has been more than a year in the making.
  • Shift the focus. LIVESTRONG used to be focused almost entirely on Lance Armstrong. Over time, however, that focus shifted, and over the last couple of years Lance has been remarkably absent from much of the organization’s marketing. No doubt, he was still involved, but the public face became less and less associated with Lance and more focused on the brand itself.
  • Disconnect. Lance long ago handed over daily leadership of LIVESTRONG to CEO Doug Ulman. In October he stepped down as the organization’s chairman, and in November he resigned from the board of directors. We’ve long believed that an organization’s reputation rests in large part on the reputation of its leaders. LIVESTRONG recognizes that and, as a result, has distanced itself from Lance and his reputation as a cheater.
  • Master the message. Everybody at LIVESTRONG sings from the same song sheet regarding the whole doping issue, but more importantly, they continue to push the focus onto the organization’s work helping survivors. You’ll never see a LIVESTRONG interview or blog post that doesn’t somehow refer to the many people LIVESTRONG helps and the number of people who need its services.
  • Press forward. No one has ever, for even a moment, given any hint that LIVESTRONG might “go quiet” during this crisis, or that it might slow down its work to take a lower profile. No: The organization has pressed on, publicizing its mission and work without pause, which simply serves to show the effectiveness of the points I noted above. Having asserted the brand as something apart from Lance, the organization has no need to step back. It can do its good work regardless of what becomes of its founder and one-time icon.

Will LIVESTRONG emerge from this crisis unscathed? Probably not. But the organization has minimized the damage and will certainly survive. Why? Because it followed a clear-eyed and well-defined process to this day. And that’s what it always takes to succeed, in good times or bad.

Jolly Old PR: A holiday case study

December 21, 2012

A couple of years ago, we shared the following special “case study” with our clients. Maybe you’ll find something in it that can guide your business to new success in 2013.

You might have noticed the success enjoyed by our longtime client Santa Claus Ltd. While we can’t take all the credit for the firm’s perennial achievements, we are proud to have played a role … and we wanted to share a few of the communications strategies and tactics we’ve employed on S.C. Ltd.’s behalf, just in case you see something that could help drive your organization’s success in the years ahead.

Case Study – Santa Claus Ltd.

 Communications Objective: Raise profile of organization in order to enhance spreading of joy.

Sampling of Implemented Strategies:

1.      Literary brand support

  • Tactic: Published book to push brand into marketplace

o Result: “Night Before Christmas” a worldwide best-seller

o BONUS RESULT: Visions of sugar plums dancing in heads

 2.      Buzz campaign

  • Tactic: Promoted word-of-mouth peer marketing among “believers”

o Result: Pervasive use of the phrase “What’s Santa bringing you?” drove brand recognition to new levels

3.      Multi-location meet-and-greets

  • Tactic: Secured sponsorships with local malls to place S.C. Ltd. representatives wearing distinctive red-and-white uniforms in highly visible public locations

o Result: Long lines of fans waiting for photo opps

o BONUS RESULT: 1-on-1 surveys allow collection of data with audience wants

4.      Co-branding with firm’s surveillance division

  • Tactic: Made “Santa’s Watching” a recognized tagline

o Result: Parents report increases in good behavior

5.      Product placement

  • Tactic: Place images of CEO in motion pictures

o Result: See appendix list that includes A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Clause (1,2 and 3), and Santa Claus versus the Zombies

6.      Barter for professional goods and services

  • Tactic: Traded access to firm’s “Nice” list for PR services

o Result: The opportunity for JTPR to work with the nicest clients  and collaborators possible

@searscares needs a dose of @searsfollowsup

October 24, 2012

A few weeks ago, after a frustrating customer-service experience, I blogged about Sears’ attempts to use social media to address the problem ( While Sears was quick on the draw – they responded almost immediately to my complaints posted on Twitter – the company was slow on the real-world follow-up.

Bottom line? None of the promises suggested by the social media attention had any impact on the overall experience.

I probably would have let the issue die with my blog post, which ended with this message: “… let’s face it, no matter how good your marketing and communications team might be, they’re discredited – and your firm is, too – if the actual customer experience is a bad one.”

However, Sears added insult to injury by responding to my blog via its @searscares Twitter account: “@johnbthomas I will forward this tweet to your case manager and request that you be contacted.” And then, guess what? No one contacted me … but they did prompt me to once again mull over the experience, and to offer up a list of lessons Sears might take away from this experience.

Connect social media and real-world service. Clearly, Sears wants to use social media to improve customer relations, and the response from the Twitter team was impressive. But the real-world service didn’t match up to the brand promise suggested by the Tweets.

  • Do what’s best for the customer. A 10-minute repair shouldn’t take two weeks. Period. For smaller, easier repairs, find some way to keep it local, get it done quickly and get the customer issue resolved.
  • Take responsibility for providing good service. Never tell the customer to call a few days before the expected completion date “to see if it gets done early.” Why should I call you? I’m the customer. And why should you waste the opportunity to call the customer and say, “Hey, great news! We got the work done faster than expected!” This would be especially good form in a case where – supposedly – the “executive office” is involved.
  • Call back. Never, never, never fail to call a customer back when you say you will.
  • Deliver the good news. Never, never, never fail to call the customer when the work is completed. My mower sat in the local shop for four days before I knew it was back in town. As a result, Sears missed an opportunity to make a good impression by having it back early AND made me angry by not letting me know it was back at all.
  • Let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Despite promises that actions were being taken and calls were being made, at no point did the folks at the service center acknowledge any awareness of this. It would have improved my attitude if someone at the repair center said, in an informational, non-judgmental way, “Oh, I see you’ve been talking with our corporate folks about your experience … ,” And I certainly would think that, if the corporate folks REALLY were checking on things, my mower would not have been sitting a few blocks from my house for four days.

I close by repeating what I said at the end of my previous post: “… if Sears’ actual service had lived up to the promises implied by @searscares’ quick response and warm assurances, the company might have reclaimed some of the credibility it has lost with us. As it is though, our opinion of Sears went from bad to worse when actions did not match words.”

A timeline of unfortunate events

May 23: Bought mower

May 30 (roughly): Son announced that mower sucks

June 14: (roughly): I secretly agree

Late August: Mower ceases to push itself along. A few days later, I discover broken cable and call Sears to explain situation, ask about possibility of returning mower. Am told that the mower was covered by a 30-day return policy, so I am out of luck. I ask about getting it repaired under warranty. No problem: I’m directed to take the mower to the Sears repair facility in Castleton.

Sept. 3: I load the mower into the back of the van and, having misunderstood where I should take it, I take the mower the Sears store in Castleton, where I’m told I’m in the wrong place. And the right place is closed for the day. My bad.

Sept. 4: I take the mower to the Sears repair center in Castleton. Am hopeful a simple broken cable can be replaced quickly. Am told it will take until Sept. 16th, because the mower will be sent to an out-of-town facility to be repaired. However, I am encouraged to give them a call a few days before that deadline to see if maybe it came in early.

Sept. 4: I come home and post the following Tweet: “frustrated with @sears. Lawn mower under warranty needs simple repair. 10 minute job. Told it will take 2 weeks. Will they offer a loaner?”

Sept. 4: I get the following response: “Sorry for the problems with your lawn mower. Plz DM your contact info and we will contact you to help. Thx, Dianne cc:@sears”

Sept. 4: Impressed, I send my contact info. Then I receive the following Tweets: “We received your information and we look forward to speaking with you within 24 hours. Thanks, Dianne cc:@Sears.” And “We have forwarded your contact info and a dedicated case manager will call you within 24 hours. Thanks, Dianne cc:@Sears”

Sept. 4: Further impressed, I post the following Tweet: “To their credit: Heard from @sears minutes after Twitter complaint. Promised a call w/in 24 hours. Quick, smart social media awareness.”

Sept. 4: No call.

Sept. 5: No call. Jen gets involved, posting this Tweet: “24 hrs+ later, @sears hasn’t returned hub’s call.” She gets a Direct Message saying help is on the way.

The following days: I miss a call from Sears. The gentleman on the voicemail seems to make a big deal of saying he is calling from the “executive offices.” I think I must have really shaken some things up. When we finally connect, I am told by fellow who is clearly NOT a c-suite exec but who is likely reading from a script that Sears is sorry for the inconvenience. After getting the details, he says he will check on the situation and get back to me. HOWEVER, this is a Thursday, he has to give the service folks 48 hours to respond to a question, and “Friday’s don’t count” (!?) so I should hear from him by the middle of the next week. If not, I should call him back.

Sept. 13: I post the following Tweet: “Hmmm. @sears and @searscares jumped into action last week when I Tweeted about a problem. Since then, a little phone tag & not much more.”

Sept. 13: @searscares posts the following Tweet: “We are sorry for the communication issues. I will pass ur post onto ur case manager and request an update. Thx-Misty cc:@Sears” Shortly thereafter, I get another call from the “executive office” telling me they’re checking on things.

Sept. 17:  I call local repair shop. Mower’s been in since the 13th, they tell me. I can pick it up any time. I post the following Tweets: “@Sears service rant update. Mower is ready. Actually, was ready Thursday; they didn’t tell me till I called them.” Oh, and by the way, they also rebuilt the carburetor and replaced the spark plug. No charge, which is good, but it makes us further question their quality … should a mower that has been in action for only been a few months need those repairs? I Tweet: “@sears makes point of mentioning repair under warranty at no cost: Expected. Doesn’t call customer when repair is done: Odd.”

Sept 17: I receive the following Tweet in response. “Again, we’re so sorry for the trouble. We can help, but do need you 2 DM us w/ contact info –Thanks, Dianne cc:@Sears” Hmmm. Shouldn’t they have my contact information from the last time they asked me to DM it to them? And, really, what could they do now? I respond: “@searscares: Thanks. If I have any issues, I’ll DM. Candidly, your team seems to be on top of things. It’s the “exec office” follow-up that lacks.”

Sept. 17: Meanwhile, Jen Tweets: “Never buying from @sears. Wouldn’t return 2-mo-old broken mower. Repair’s taken 3+ wks & they didn’t call when it was ready. #grassiswaylong” She gets an apologetic Tweet in response, and replies:  “We’ve been in contact w/ your dept but not to satisfaction. Sorry, but Sears’ cust service end of the SM effort stinks”

Sept. 18 and thereafter: The mower works as (unsatisfactorily) well as ever. Got a call from my friend in the “executive office” telling me he considers our case closed.

Oct 8: Get another Tweet from @searscares: “@johnbthomas I will forward this tweet to your case manager and request that you be contacted. Thanks-Mike cc:@Sears”

All (social media) talk, no action

October 8, 2012

When my son informed me the self-propelled featured on our three-month-old Craftsman lawn mower was no longer self-propelling, I thought maybe I could fix it.

I looked under the mower and saw a slack cable. Aha: The culprit. Hoping it had slipped off a pulley and I could easily guide it back to its appropriate place, I pulled on the cable and was surprised to draw out three inches of silver wire with a frayed end. Uh-oh. This is more than a simple fix.

To say I was frustrated would be an understatement. I had bought this mower after much web research and price shopping. Our much-loved Toro had died, and we needed a replacement. I wanted to find something comparable for less money, and the Craftsman name had credibility with me. We ordered online, picked up the mower at the mall and put it to work.

My son – who does most of the mowing around here – hated it immediately, saying it was a poor substitute for the Toro. I argued that he was simply resisting change, that it would be fine once he got used to it. Secretly, I also thought the mower fell short of expectations, but, having picked and paid for the darned thing, I was determined it would prove itself over time.

And then, at the tail end of a summer that, thanks to a record-setting drought, had required far less mowing than usual, the mower offered up this mechanical failure. Aaarrgh.

Well the mower’s under warranty, so no worries, right? I figured I’d take it to Sears, get it fixed and get my son back to cutting in no time. And, OK, I wanted to see if it would be possible to simply return the mower for a refund.

And thus began a lesson in the dangers of social-media brand promises not supported by real-world action. A full timeline of events is offered below, but here’s the quick version:

  • When I called a Sears 800 number, I was informed that the three-month-old mower was beyond the allowable return period. I asked about getting it fixed, and was directed to a local service center.
  • I took the mower in for what should be a quick fix. Was told it would take two weeks … but I should call a few days ahead of the scheduled return time ”in case it comes in early.”
  • Frustrated, I Tweeted complaint.
  • Heard quickly via Twitter from @searscares. Praised Sears on Twitter for quick response.
  • Entered into a period of frustrating Twitter and phone conversations, including calls from “the executive office.” Promises implied on social media are not matched by actual service. In other words, a few Tweets and phone calls, but no change on the repair front.
  • The day the mower is due to return comes and goes with no call from Sears. The day after the scheduled return date, I call the repair center and am told mower has been available for pick up for four days.
  • More venting on Twitter. More @searscares responses. Too little too late.
  • Edward from Sears left voice mail message to make sure repair was satisfactory. Ignore call.
  • Another phone call with a customer service survey. Wife takes automated survey and says we are “highly unlikely” to buy from or recommend Sears again.
  • Bottom line: Companies and organizations must synchronize social media and customer service efforts, or they lose.

The truth is, if Sears’ actual service had lived up to the promises implied by @searscares’ quick response and warm assurances, the company might have reclaimed some of the credibility it lost with us. As it is though, our opinion of Sears went from bad to worse when actions did not match words. Because, let’s face it, no matter how good your marketing and communications team might be, they’re discredited – and your firm is, too – if the actual customer experience is a bad one.

Lessons in waitressing

June 27, 2012

Throughout my professional life, one thought has lurked in the back of my mind: If all else fails, I’ll go back to waitressing. You see, when I was at IU, I was a server at Macri’s in Bloomington, and I loved it.

It wasn’t my first restaurant job, but it was the first one where I earned tips, and that made it my favorite. I’d always been motivated to excel; at my first job I worked at a busy McDonald’s where the manager timed our counter service, and the speediest register workers got prizes. I appreciated (and still have!) my Mickey D’s-branded cooler, but the immediate gratification I got from good tips was even more invigorating.

What does that have to do with running a public relations firm?  A lot.

Good service means happy clients. At Macri’s, an ice-cold beer and a piping hot sandwich served on time and with a smile were important. In my PR experience, clients have similar expectations: meet deadlines, deliver what you promised, and do it in a way that’s low-hassle, stress-free and even fun.

Results are everything. You can have the best wait staff in the world, but if the customer doesn’t like what comes out of the kitchen, he or she never comes back. Same thing in the agency world. Show me what you did for me today.

Collaborations are key. If the kitchen got backed up and food came out slowly, my service and reputation were affected. In other words, sometimes I was at the mercy of others’ performance. As a two-person agency, we rely heavily on collaborators – and we choose those collaborators carefully because our reputation relies on their work as well as ours.

Don’t just take orders. When customers ordered the Macri’s BRT, Old Chicago or other popular sandwiches, I knew they wouldn’t be disappointed. But I also knew when a customer needed help making a menu selection, and I’d be honest when I suggested something. Clients today want that same kind of service: educated and experienced opinions. Most of the time, they even appreciate it when we push back and or play devil’s advocate. Why? They’re paying for expertise, and they want to hear it.

Like people. One of the best parts of being a waitress was simply interacting with people and helping them get what they want. And that’s one of the best parts of what I do now, too. I help people and their organizations reach their goals, and I have fun along the way.

What about you? What was your first or favorite job and how has it prepared you for what you’re doing today?