Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How will you communicate with your customers in a crisis?

A denial-of-service attack at an online service I use reminded me of how important it is to have -- and follow -- a plan for communicating with customers during a crisis.

In this particular situation, the Web site providing the service was down for hours. With no explanation from the company about what was going on, frustrated customers like me could only make assumptions about the reason for the outage and when service would be restored. The next day -- a full 24 hours later -- the vendor sent an e-mail explaining the situation. The message noted that during the crisis, the company was posting updates to its Twitter account. Oh, so going forward, I can learn what's going on through your Twitter account? And that account name is . . .? Whoops -- you didn't include it!

It's obvious to me -- and by now, to this company, I hope -- that sending this "Yikes! We've been attacked!" message would have been more helpful to puzzled customers while the company was working to fix the problem. It doesn't need to be long -- two or three sentences is enough -- put it does need to be sent. And that message should inform us that we can stay current on the status of the problem by going to the company's Twitter page -- and giving us that complete, clickable URL.

It's likely that customers weren't informed about the cause of the problem until after the fact because the company wasn't prepared for a crisis. Not smart. Regardless of the size of your company, you're probably going to have a crisis of some sort at some point -- and you're going to have to communicate about it. Even sole practitioners are at risk -- what if you were in an accident and incapacitated or had a death in the family and had to leave town (and your projects) quickly? On the other hand, some companies are well-prepared to deal with the media when there's a crisis, but their crisis communications plan overlooks one of their most important audiences -- their customers. They focus on damage control with the press, assuming that it's okay for their clients to learn about it from the news. It's not.

Take the time to write down the procedures you need to follow during a crisis -- and make sure everyone involved in executing those steps has a copy of the plan. Imagine the various problems that could occur, and prepare accordingly. In the situation I've described here with my vendor, there was no need to communicate with the press, but what if the outage had been caused by an angry employee who not only sabotaged the company's operation but took employees hostage and was threatening violence, too? You'll want the police involved and you'll have no choice but to communicate with the press, as well. Do you know today how you would handle that? And does everyone else in the company?

You can find lots of good information about crisis communication planning on the Web. There are also several helpful books available, including Crisis Leadership Now and Keeping the Wolves at Bay. The size and depth of your plan and the level of detailed involved will depend on the nature of your business, potential problems, the size of your company, and so on. You might be able to write it yourself using common sense and logic. However you do it, just do it. And then run your business in a way that makes sure you'll never need it. Don't we all wish BP had done that?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Want to get on The Today Show? Get in the Wall St. Journal first

As I've noted before, "The Today Show" on NBC gets segment ideas from The Wall Street Journal, so if you want to be on the TV show, get into the newspaper.
Case in point: Yesterday's WSJ ran the article, "Kids Quit the Team for More Family Time," and the morning TV program piggybacked on it for this story today featuring the family in the WSJ. This happens regularly. Publicity begets publicity.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Booklets make great publicity generators

I see many entrepreneurs and others creating free and helpful booklets or special reports to drive traffic to their Web site, distribute in stores or at events or trade shows, or to help them build a marketing mailing list. But I don't see many of them using these free booklets to generate publicity for their businesses -- and that's a lost opportunity. Offering a freebie through a press release sent to on- and off-line media outlets is a quick, easy, and cost-effective way to reach people (and potential clients and customers) who wouldn't otherwise find you.

How do you use publicity to extend the reach of your booklet? Here's how.
  1. Make sure your booklet is truly helpful, not just a company brochure disguised as a booklet. The press won't share your offer if it isn't worth sharing. (Don't have a booklet yet? Get advice on how to create one from Paulette Ensign.)

  2. Write a press release announcing that you're offering the free booklet or report. Keep it short and sweet. Announce it, describe what's in it, tell people how to get it.

  3. E-mail the release with a link to your booklet online to your media list. (You can also attach a PDF of the booklet to the message, but many are reluctant to open attachments from people they don't know.)

  4. You're done.
Pretty easy, isn't it? As with all publicity efforts, there's no guarantee that your announcement release will get used and you won't be able to predict or control when it's used. Still, if just one outlet shares your offer with people who could become customers, the minimal effort involved has been well worth it.

If you sent out a press release about a free booklet, could you trace or track the results?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Are you sure you want to reject that interview opportunity?

I've been hearing from journalist friends lately about "the one that got away" -- more specifically, the article sources who passed on interview requests because the national publications involved were "too small."

Um, Mr. or Ms. Well-Known Enough to be Considered but Not Exactly Famous Either, are you sure you want to do that? Do you really want to communicate to journalists who write for multiple publications that you are, as my little nephew would say, "specialer" than those who agreed to do interviews? Perhaps you don't know that the journalist you rejected today with the "your publication isn't important enough to me" explanation could be someone in a position to interview you for your dream media outlet next week, next month, or next year. You've burned a few bridges . . . and what did your mother tell you about that?

We all need to be conscious of how we use our time so that we put our energy where it will have the greatest impact on our businesses and careers. But I'm not sure this applies to interview requests from the press. You can find your biggest client through exposure in a small-circulation magazine or newsletter. You can also be discovered by your dream media outlet through interviews in local, regional, or niche publications or outlets. Publicity does beget publicity while arrogance with the press can, quite honestly, keep you from reaching your goals.

Think twice before turning down that next unexpected, "you're not on my target media list" interview opportunity. You won't know what you'll miss out on when you say, "No thanks," but when you respond with, "I'd be happy to talk to you," you'll discover more possibilities than you might imagine.

Did something good happen to you after you did an interview with a media outlet that wasn't on your target list?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Get more publicity by including your competitor in your press releases

It's counter-intuitive, but referring to your competitor in a press release can help boost the pick-up of your news or information. Why? First, it gives the impression that you might actually be objective -- not usually the case with press releases. Second, when your press or news release is built around a list of the "top" this, the "best" that, or the "most popular" something else, it can be hard to leave them out.

How does this work? One of the best ways to get media attention is to offer a "best of" or "most popular" list. A list must include products or services that aren't yours -- otherwise, the list has no credibility. If you chose them carefully for reasons based on retail geography, product features, cost, or something else that's relevant, you can position your brand appropriately while boosting your pick-up by offering to the press what appears to be fairly objective news and information that is actually useful.

Here are a few examples of how this might work:
  • The maker of a product such as BlindWinder, which stores dangerous blind cords, can send a press release on "the most appreciated baby shower gifts." The list could include BlindWinders, the enormously popular What To Expect When You're Expecting book, the new Pampers designer diapers getting lots of publicity right now (and why not piggyback on that?), or anything else the manufacturer uncovers in research on this subject.
  • A private school looking to boost enrollment can offer advice on how to select a private school by focusing on its strengths while comparing itself to competitive schools that stand out in other ways. For example, if your school has no athletic program, emphasize the athletics of a competitor because you're not going to attract the family looking for a top athletics program anyway. If one of your school's strengths is its affordability, make sure the most expensive private school in the area is on the list, with its cost emphasized.
  • The author of a summer grilling book can offer a list of the best new cookbooks for outdoor chefs. The list will include the author's book first, followed by a flattering critique of four others, all selected because they emphasize foods or cooking styles not covered in the author's book.
Be strategic about the other products or services you select to include in your press release that offers advice in a list form -- chose a competitor who doesn't necessarily share your specialty or is on the other side of town and won't draw traffic away from your business. But do include them. You'll enjoy far more success that way.

Have you used this tactic before? What was the outcome?