February 2014

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-grimy-old-football-closeup-white-image23514167Most people – even those, like me, who don’t follow football – have heard about NFL draft prospect Michael Sam announcing that he is gay. It caused a bit of a stir in the football world, but that seems to have died down quite a bit. Now, apparently some lobbyist is working to have gays banned from the NFL. (Really? Aren’t we so far past this kind of limited and outdated thinking?) I have to admit, I was surprised that this would really matter. But I also have to remember that I live in a region that is not just known for tolerance and acceptance, but also for equality and diversity when it comes to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and a range of other areas important to human beings as a whole. So I had to put my personal opinions (we’re all human beings – equality is a right and we should celebrate diversity) aside and look at this as if it could be an issue.

Below are the PR lessons that can be learned from Michael Sam’s announcement.

Lesson #1 – Work with a professional who has expertise and experience in the areas of publicity, public relations and/or communication.

Mr. Sam hired a publicist (Howard Bragman), a communications professional with experience in helping high profile individuals to live (and speak) their truth, to represent him. Mr. Bragman has helped several well-known individuals to publicly “come out” and has expertise in this area.

Lesson #2 – Get out ahead of the story. If you don’t tell your story – someone else will.

Mr. Sam – with Mr. Bragman’s assistance – got out ahead of the story; they broke the story on their timeline. They didn’t have to react to the threat of a media outlet or someone else taking this news public before they were ready. They decided to announce it.

Lesson #3 – Timing is everything.

The timing of the announcement was a smart move – after the Super Bowl, before the NFL Scouting Combine, and months before the draft. The media response will have played itself out by the time the draft comes around. I mean, really – how long can they talk about something that has no impact on how good a player Mr. Sam will be?

Lesson #4 – Support the message by creating a human connection, and then get out of your own way.

One of the strategies that Mr. Bragman used was to show Mr. Sam as a human being. He made this a human-interest story and presented Mr. Sam as a well-rounded individual and created understanding and support for him. Mr. Sam made his announcement and then he stopped giving interviews. Brilliant. He stopped being a part of the story after he said what he needed to say. This story has now become about how the NFL is going to deal with sexual orientation diversity in its players.

Lesson #5 – Support clients to live their truth.

One of the key statements that Mr. Bragman made when explaining his strategy was: Release your statement, make your peace and get on with your life. Mr. Bragman has helped several high profile individuals come out and “live their truth” – and that is the most effective (and compelling) lesson we can learn as communicators. Nothing is as engaging as authenticity. The discussion – and maybe even some controversy – can swirl around Mr. Sam but, the fact is, he lives his truth and he had the courage to step into it. Not only do you have to admire him for that, but also respect him.

My sense is that there will be a smart NFL team out there that sees not only the football value of Mr. Sam, but also the PR value. There has been talk about his announcement as being “a distraction” for the team that drafts him. There isn’t a football team out there that hasn’t dealt with controversy before – and I would place odds that there are a dozen teams dealing with actions by players that are far more negative than someone coming out and saying he is gay. It’s 2014 people – step into the real world.

A smart PR move for the team that does draft him would be to step forward and identify themselves as a team that chooses their players based on their athletic ability and what they bring to the team overall. Their positioning should be that his sexual preference is none of their business, and that they stand for equality.

They will gain more fans than they lose by taking this approach. Putting your team out there as standing for equality is not just a good PR move, it’s the right thing to do. The Brooklyn Dodgers stood up and put Jackie Robinson in their lineup to end racial segregation in baseball. What will the drafting of Mr. Sam do for professional sports, as a whole? We have to stop identifying people by their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other elements that chip away at the basic human right of equality that we are all entitled to.

We all need to stand up for equality – especially those of us who have lived a blessed life and not had to face the kind of ugly hatred that comes from ignorance, bigotry and bias directed at us.

Time magazine had a great article on Mr. Sam’s announcement and you can read Mr. Bragman’s post on lessons learned.

As an aside, I have to say that the strategy that Mr. Brag developed for this announcement is as close to flawless as I have ever seen. It may be that he authentically believes that his clients need to live their truth and he is committed to working with them to facilitate that opportunity. We all deserve to live our truth.

There is PR gold for whatever team drafts Mr. Sam. They have the opportunity to raise awareness of the fact that we all deserve to live in a society that treats us as equals and to bring a talented football player onto their team.

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Olympic FlagHere at AHA, we’re big Olympic watchers (well, Paul is and he updates us… a lot). A few days ago, he missed the live coverage of the Opening Ceremony so he watched it later in the day on CBC’s Olympic website. The CBC coverage of the ceremony was hosted by Ron MacLean and Peter Mansbridge. At one point, Paul came into my office and said that something was weird – it seemed like the hosts’ microphones were live during what would have been the commercial breaks on television.

A little bit later he came in and said, “I don’t think they know the mics are hot during the breaks.” That really caught my interest. As communicators, we have all heard the horror stories of people who said things they shouldn’t have when not realizing that the microphones were still on.

I immediately went to see what was happening. With the exception of a couple of mild comments about Russian President Putin not receiving much applause, there wasn’t much to report. But it did get us talking, in the AHA office, about hot mics – along with conversations that happen in public that are overheard – and similar challenges that we face in the world of public relations and corporate communications.

Sure enough, as Paul watched further, at one point Mr. MacLean appeared surprised when he was advised through his earpiece that the mics were live during the breaks. Mr. Mansbridge also sounded a little taken aback by this news and responded – sounding mildly concerned – that he wasn’t sure what he had said during the breaks.

The fact is, they didn’t say anything shocking or negative during the commercial breaks, but they could have and many would have. If not knowing that the mic is on – and carrying all your conversation – can happen to professional broadcasters who have decades of experience, it can happen to you. (We tried to link to this video, but the Opening Ceremony’s full video appears to have been removed from the CBC Olympic site.) Maybe a producer or someone else made a mistake and left the microphones on; maybe they just forgot to tell the hosts. Whatever the reason, it was clear that the hosts didn’t know and that could have been an issue. PR professionals have lots of horror stories about clients not realizing their mic was on and picking up their comments.

On the other side of people hearing things they shouldn’t, there have been times when I have overheard incredibly private or confidential conversations in restaurants, pubs and even on airplanes. These were conversations that should have been kept behind closed doors. I have to admit that I eavesdrop a little when in public, but it isn’t hard to overhear a lot of things that should be kept private, even if you aren’t trying. It’s important to remember to have no expectation of privacy if you are in a public place. And whispering just makes me pay more attention. And I have great hearing, just saying.

We always speak to our clients about this – especially during an issue or crisis. You never know who is beside or behind you when you are in public. In this day and age of smartphones with video cameras, you don’t know if you are being recorded. It pays to be a little paranoid. If something is confidential, it should be fully treated as such. If you tell even one person outside of the core circle of individuals that should/need to know, you are risking a breech of confidentiality and it could cause you grief. We all know the story about author J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym (when she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling) being disclosed by a friend of her lawyer’s wife.

When we remind clients about microphones at events, we also bring up the fact that if they are being interviewed on camera or on the radio, they should assume that they are being taped, even if they think the interview is over. Sometimes it happens that the microphone is left on and everything you say, even if the journalist has left the room, is being recorded.

It’s important to think about what you are sharing in public and, if you are “mic’d up,” to act like that microphone is on until you get into your car and leave the event or interview. Sometimes, the walls really do have ears.

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strategyAt AHA, we have just completed and submitted a strategic communications plan for a start-up organization client. It was clear that this client has many opportunities to use marketing communication and PR to raise awareness of their service and engage their target market and stakeholder groups. However, it’s a small organization and they are in start-up mode. Their ability to implement had to be seriously taken into consideration in the development of the plan.

This is something that we are aware of with every client – from large global corporations to local companies to government agencies and everyone in between. We have worked with some companies that have large budgets and we have worked with those that are financially challenged. No matter who (or how big) the client organization is, it is crucial to ask: What are their resourcing (human and financial) limitations?

Developing plans with clients is one of our favourite things to do and we’re really good at it. And, I have to admit, there are days when I wish that the magical client, with an unlimited budget and who is ready to take calculated risks, would appear and we could see every great idea that could be brought to life. I am starting to think that client is a bit like the myth of the unicorn, Bigfoot or desserts that don’t make you gain weight. They are nice to dream about, but they really don’t exist.

One of the interesting and exciting challenges that we, as communicators, face is how we can create a great plan that generates measureable results and can be implemented within the budget. Everyone who knows me gets that I love a good challenge and, as a PR agency, we have become really good at digging in and developing effective plans that work within identified resources.

Getting a client to talk about the barriers they face during the plan development stage can be difficult – but it’s important. Does the client have the right people in the right roles with the right skill set or do they need to budget for a contractor or consultant? Is the client capable of doing what needs to be done, in house, to meet the deadlines? If not, something needs to be adjusted to accommodate these issues.

Start-ups are often focused on big ideas; there is excitement and energy and inspiration in the room. Sometimes, they look at what others in their field have done and they want to emulate their initiatives, and that’s not always the best approach. Even taking a best practices approach, it’s important to understand what resources it took to achieve those outcomes and if they authentically fit with your stakeholder group, objectives and goals.

We always provide a measurement component in plans. When presenting the draft plan to the client, that is where I start – measurement and its importance. How the elements in the plan will be measured – including the return-on-investment – always leads back to budget. Putting it all into context is important before you can showcase the tools, tactics and technologies that will be implemented.

It’s much easier to develop an exciting plan when you don’t bring resourcing into it. A blue-sky plan is fun to write; there’s nothing holding you back. A realistic plan takes a lot more research and effort, which is why it works when it is implemented. There are no surprises or detours that take the client away from their strategic road map – they just keep moving forward, measuring the return-on-investment and experiencing success.

Most blue-sky plans don’t get implemented because the resources necessary aren’t available. They are just nice stories on pretty paper.

What would you rather have?

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