Podcasting Celebrates Newfound Popularity

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A funny thing happened to podcasters over the past few months.

We’ve become popular.

For those who have been podcasting for business (or even personal) reasons over the past decade or so, the intrinsic appeal and marketing value of podcasting is nothing new. Podcasts offer high production value at a relatively low cost, compelling content, easy delivery and consumption, and a level of intimacy with the audience that just can’t be matched by other media formats.

However, for some reason the world has begun to take notice. Witness the following:

What’s really going on here? To my mind, it’s several factors coming together at once, a perfect storm of technology and content that is transferring energy to the podcasting world. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Smartphone explosion. Prior to the advent of the iPhone, consuming podcasts required some connection to a web-connected computer. You could play episodes on your PC or laptop, but if you wanted to go portable you needed to connect your MP3 player to your computer, download episodes and then go. A time-consuming process (which, of course, I repeated again and again).

Today, with the advent of the iPhone, Android devices and the like, podcasts can be selected, subscribed and downloaded on the go. There are numerous apps available to do this, so podcasts are now as convenient as radio. In fact, moreso, because you can listen to podcast episodes whenever you like. Radio shows air when they air.

Mobile networks. This ties into the smartphone boom. The improvement of mobile networks to current speeds has made it possible to download podcast episodes on these devices without the use of Wi-Fi. Even though MP3 compression, which reduces audio file size and originally made podcasting possible, shrinks files dramatically, just a few years back it was still a slow process to download a 20-50MB podcast file onto a phone. Now, it’s trivial.

Content acceptance. Years ago, consumers were skeptical of any content that did not come from major media companies, and content from brands was universally reviled. Times have changed. Nowadays, perhaps inversely proportional to the reputational decline of mainstream media, other forms of content have come into high demand. Brands that produce compelling content are rewarded with eyeballs or, in the case of podcasting, eardrums. Individuals who have something interesting to say these days can find sizable audiences.

The really special thing about podcasting, of course, is its ability to go narrow. Whereas large media outlets with high costs need to generate big audiences in order to be economically viable, individuals and brands with very specific areas of expertise can own their chosen spaces by creating great shows that really connect. Just look at iTunes or Stitcher Radio to check out the large number of interesting podcasts on a variety of topics as broad as you can possibly imagine.

The result of all this can be seen in the most recent podcasting data provided by Edison Research:

  • An estimated 39 million Americans have listened to a podcast in the past month. This 2014 number equates to 15% of the population, a record.
  • One in five weekly podcast users consumes six or more podcasts a week.
  • Podcast listeners spend 25.9% of their audio consumption time listening to podcasts, nearly tied with their AM/FM radio consumption (27.5%).

On a personal note, I’ve seen podcasting work effectively for many folks in many different circumstances – both as a producer and a consumer. Audio-based content adds something special that blogging, or even video, cannot. When you’re listening to a podcast, particularly using headphones, there’s a connection with the voice of the hosts and interview subjects that’s very powerful. It seems clear that advertisers and new listeners are recognizing this, too.

That’s OK with me. It’s nice to be popular.

Even Presidents Mess This Up

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A story just popped up at the top of Google News with the following headline: Bill Clinton on Hillary and wealth: ‘She’s not out of touch.’

Yikes.

Bill Clinton, former president of the United States and as experienced a media hand as you’ll find, had just made a rookie mistake. I listened to the video, which was a Meet the Press interview, and there was a palpable thud when he said it. As if everyone knew he’d slipped.

When answering questions, it’s imperative to never, ever repeat the negative. If someone calls you a jerk, do not respond by saying “I’m not a jerk.”

State the positive: “I’m a nice person.”

Why? When we repeat the negative we emphasize it. We make it real. We assure the everybody’s heard it, even those who have not.

In the case of President Clinton, the headline saying Hillary was not “out of touch” simply reminded voters that there was concern in some quarters that Mrs. Clinton was, indeed, out of touch. Instead, the president could simply have said, “She’s well in touch with ordinary Americans.” No bad headline would have come from that.

I’ve written about this before but wanted to use the Clinton headline to point out just how easy this is to do. After all, if a seasoned interview subject like President Clinton could mess this up, anyone could fall into this trap. And a trap it is.

The best way to avoid this is to be alert for it. If you are giving an interview and there are negatives abound, be aware of them and practice before you do your interview. You can write out the potential negative questions and script answers that do not repeat the negative allegations.

With a little practice, you can learn to avoid making this painful mistake.

PR Must Play on Both Sides of the Chessboard

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As a chess player, I study the games of grandmasters to understand exactly what they are doing to win. One of the things that jumps out at me is they often play on both sides of the chessboard.

They may be attacking on the kingside (where the castled king is hiding in safety), but just when the pressure is greatest, switch to the other side of the board where there are no defenders.

In public relations, we should do the same. We must have a sound strategy and if the plan is to be active on the traditional media side of the board, we should be willing and able to play on the digital/social media side, too. Modern PR campaigns increasingly must be able to both influence content produced by the mainstream press and create their own content to be distributed via digital and social means.

To create a campaign or program that only utilizes one side of the board is like walking out of the house with only one shoe. You’ll probably get where you’re going, but it will take longer and you may end up with a broken toe…

Relationships Are Still the Bedrock of Good PR

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This post was originally published on MBS Insights, the blog of MBS Value Partners.

Don’t be fooled by the proliferation of Twitter handles and hashtags in the media these days. The bedrock of solid public relations remains the personal relationships developed over time between companies and the journalists who cover them.

Hearing this, you might figure I’m some kind of Luddite who never liked the bloggers, podcasts and i-literati who have become such an important part of our media landscape. Not true. In fact, I’m very much one of them, launching my first podcast as far back as 2006.

I do feel, however, that unbridled belief in the social conversation has led us down the garden path toward the belief that developing real relationships with reporters and editors is passé. That we can effectively publicize our ventures without ever picking up the phone or stepping out from behind our computers. I’m here to say that’s just, plain wrong.

Building solid relationships with reporters is one of those core components of good PR that never falls out of favor. We may use different tools to manage and interact with these individuals, but the idea remains comfortably old-fashioned: treat these folks like you would any other business relationship. Here’s why:

  • Journalists respond to the familiar. This should be obvious, but let’s go ahead and say it. Reporters are more likely to take your call or read your email if they know you. That’ doesn’t mean they’ll listen to your pitch and then write every word you tell them. No way. But it does mean that you at least have a chance to deliver your pitch. Your relationship gives you a leg up in breaking through the noise,
  • Reporters like knowledgeable sources. No reporter wants to spend time on the phone listening to neophyte publicists pitch them stories they barely understand themselves. Sadly, this happens all the time; I remember it un-fondly from my own days as a reporter. But the flipside is true as well. Journalists are generally happy to hear from individuals who provide real information at appropriate times and don’t overdue it. This, to them, adds value.
  • Newspeople need access to newsmakers.  A journalist with no sources at the companies he or she covers is not accomplishing much. Good reporters know this and cultivate sources within their beats so they have access to the people they need, when they need them. And this can be as little as a moment’s notice. Given that reality, reporters will be receptive if you can deliver this type of access, to both yourself and your senior executives, on deadline, time after time.
  • You’ll be better positioned in a crisis. When everything goes wrong and your company is in the early stages of a major crisis, reporters who know your organization will seek you out for information. And they’re usually willing to listen to what you have to say. This is far, far better than the alternative, which is the journalists writing their stories without company input because they simply don’t know whom to call. Relationships are a major crisis-planning tool.
  • Companies need to know their own audiences. To effectively communicate our stories to the media, it’s important to understand the particular needs of news organizations that cover us and the journalists within them. You may know that one reporter is always under pressure to get the story first and another has an editor who cherishes CEO access. Understanding these needs can help you tremendously. It’s hard to meet your journalists’ requirements if you don’t know what they are in the first place.

This list is by no means scientific or exhaustive. There may be another bullet or two you can come up with. But being exhaustive was not my intent.

I simply want us all to remember that while we have never had more exciting tools with which to do our jobs, the core skills of networking and relationship building are still to be highly prized in the modern mediascape. They are at the very core of what we do.

Did Marissa Mayer Screw Up?

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Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has violated one of my key rules of corporate communications Q&A. She repeated the negative. In a big way.

In her Tumblr post about Yahoo! agreeing to buy Tumblr, she addressed the major concern of Tumblr users, Yahoo! followers and online analysts everywhere:

We promise not to screw it up. Tumblr is incredibly special and has a great thing going.  We will operate Tumblr independently.  David Karp will remain CEO…

Mayer repeated the very negative assumption that Yahoo! would “screw up” the popular blogging platform, which of course is based on the company’s history of doing a bad job with prior acquisitions. For example, Yahoo! acquired Flickr in 2005 and has been widely criticized for its handling of the once-beloved photo-sharing site.

The reason I urge clients not to repeat the negative is simple: It makes it stick. If someone asks if your company’s performance is “awful,” you don’t want to answer by saying it was not awful. Why? Because you’ll end up being quoted in a news story with something like, “Our performance was not awful,” said John Smith, CEO of Sad Corp. This sounds defensive and reiterates the charge, whether fair or unfair. Better to state this another way without the loaded term.

So, what do we make of Mayer’s decision to repeat the negative? It did have exactly the result I suggest. The Reuters headline, which showed up prominently on Google News:

Yahoo buying Tumblr for $1.1 billion, vows not to screw it up

I’m unwilling to write off Mayer’s decision so quickly, however. Mayer is, according to everything I’ve seen and read, a very smart woman. So, did she err? Or was her strategy deeper?

In some cases, the negative is so widely believed that it’s accepted as fact. The sense that Yahoo! is a company that simply cannot find its way and is a place where acquisitions routinely go to die is so pervasive that it’s hard to believe repeating the negative could cause any more damage. Which creates an interesting possibility.

What if by violating this rule and repeating the negative, Mayer did something so shocking that it really captured people’s attention? Rarely do CEOs do this and Mayer has already proven herself to be a bold leader. Just, witness the Yahoo! work-from-home scandal.

So, perhaps Mayer’s declaration that Yahoo! would not screw up Tumblr will have the desired result: demonstrating that the new CEO is aware of the problem and is addressing it.

Of course, the pressure is now on Mayer to make good on her promise and assure the Tumblr acquisition is a success. If she can, then her bold communications approach will have been validated and she will have set Yahoo! up nicely to approach other entrepreneurs. She also will have taken a big step toward raising her own stock as a turnaround CEO.

Great Presenters are Made, Not Born

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There has always been this belief that great communicators — writers, actors or presenters of any sort — are simply born with their outrageous skills. That the right words simply jump from their lips with no effort. That their work is hardly work at all.

In truth, communicating well is a skill that takes training, practice and hard work. The better you get, the more effortless it seems to the audience. But it only seems effortless.

Any businessperson preparing for an investor meeting, roadshow, board presentation, speech, media interview or internal event needs to understand that the skills required to be a compelling presenter must be learned before they can be deployed. To think that presenting your company’s story is as simple as reading a set of slides is completely erroneous. In fact, I guarantee that if you try to simply read each slide to your audience, all you’ll succeed in doing is developing yet another cure for insomnia.

With this in mind, I thought I’d provide some thoughts on just how great presenters are made.

Secrets to Becoming a Great Presenter

  • Start with good material. This is sometimes out of your control, as I noted in my last post about presenting bad slides well, but in a perfect world you’ll have a slideshow to present that has the right number of captivating, easy-to-present slides. It’s not enough that the story itself is good, like a presentation about financial results that exceeded expectations, The materials you actually use have to be good. Imagine going into battle with a rifle that misfires. It really doesn’t matter how good a shot you are, does it?
  • Learn proper technique. A set of skills exists that you simply must know to present well. There’s nothing so illustrative as watching a video of your presentation practice with someone who knows what they’re doing. Little things like body language, pacing, the use of props and even how you are dressed can impact the overall feel of the presentation. Everything matters when you’re in front of an audience. You need to know your technique cold.
  • Practice with proper technique. It’s often been said that practice makes perfect. Not true. Practice only makes things permanent, as an old friend once told me. In order to be perfect, you have to practice the proper technique. This means that presenters should practice by rigorously applying the skills they’ve learned to their own materials until the performance is smooth and natural. And don’t stop with the slides. Rehearse the Q&A, too.
  • Recognize you’re on stage. This is one remarkably easy mistake to make. When you’re in front of a large audience, it’s obvious that you should have your game face on. But what about sitting in your own conference room on an earnings call? Or in front of your own management team? Or board of directors? Or your own employees in a conference room you’ve used 100 times before? When you’re presenting your story to an audience, any audience, you’re on stage. Period.
  • Learn to watch your audience. How are you doing? Your audience can tell you, if you’re paying attention. Great presenters know they’re not speaking in a vacuum. If your audience is looking down at their iPhones, Galaxy S3s and Blackberrys, you need to do something. They’re bored. If they look puzzled, you’ve lost them. Figure out what you just explained and do it again in simpler terms. If you’re trying to be provocative or funny, watch to see if it’s working. You need to know.
  • Get feedback. The last thing most people want after a presentation is honest feedback. Because our egos are wrapped up in our presentations, we just want to hear how well we’ve done. Even if we haven’t. My recommendation is to have someone in the audience who will tell you honestly what worked, and what did not. You need this information to improve for the next time. If you spoke too fast or shuffled nervously on stage, you absolutely need to know. The truth can hurt but it will also make you better.
  • Look for opportunities to present. The more you do, the better you will get. This is absolutely a universal truth when it comes to presentations. You don’t need formal invitations to major events in order to present. You can work on your technique when running your team’s weekly meeting or when talking to clients about new ideas. If the opportunity arises to do a lesser conference or a media interview that’s not terribly important, jump at it. Consider it training and prepare as you would for when all the marbles are on the table.

Having read this far, I’m fairly certain you’ll have one of two thoughts. The first is, wow, these are great tips. I can apply some of these. The second is, wow, this sounds interesting but I really don’t have time to do it.

To the second, let me simply says this. For senior executives and entrepreneurs, presentation skills are terribly important. They can represent the difference between success and failure, between getting that investment or having to shut down. How you present adds a critical, personal element to the business case you are trying to make. The slides may have all the right details, but how you present them will either build confidence or erode it.

Investors don’t put their money behind slides, they put them behind people. Turn yourself into a great presenter and success will surely follow.

How to Present Bad Slides Well

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It happens all the time. You’re given a set of PowerPoint slides to present, whether for a roadshow, investor day, board meeting, management presentation or something similar. You are not given the opportunity to edit them. You must present them as they are.

And they’re bad.

You could sit and sulk. But the reality is this: It is your responsibility to find a way to pull off a great presentation even if you have slides that are awful. Sometimes, they’re all bad. Most often, however, there are just a few slides in the presentation that are a problem. Either way, you’ve got to make the best of it.

The good news is there’s always a solution. With this in mind, I’m going to review the key issues that make slides bad and address how to solve each particular problem.

6 Ways Your Slides Can Be Bad

  • Too much information. This is the most common problem I see with slides. The author, either striving to be complete or uncomfortable editing out information, gives you a slide that has far too much data. This makes the slide: 1) unfocused and 2) impossible to present in the time allotted. The solution in this situation is you must be selective, deciding which information in the slide will be presented and what will be ignored. There’s no requirement that you must hit every point on a slide. So don’t. Pick the most important points and present them. Your audience will see the rest and your emphasis will guide their thinking.
  • Busy, busy, busy. This issue is similar to the one above but not identical. In this case, the slide’s design is poor with too much on the page to draw the viewer’s eye clearly to the relevant information. The solution is to guide your audience through the dense woods. You could simply point to the particular line or graphic you are talking about using an electronic or physical pointer. Or, you could guide the audience verbally. For example, something like: “Let me draw your attention to the graphic on the upper right of the slide titled ‘Revenue up 300%’.”
  • Throwaway headlines. As a former reporter, this one drives me nuts. Journalists know the critical role headlines play in drawing readers into a story and distilling the key point of an entire article in a handful of words. But this is hard to do, for slides as well as news stories. As a result, many slides simply have summary headlines. A slide about a company’s 200% increase in earnings over the prior period might have a headline that just says, “Financial Results.” This isn’t the story. The solution is to figure out what the story is for each slide, regardless of the headline, and focus on that verbally.
  • Poorly positioned elements. People tend to read slides as they read their native language. In this part of the world it’s top to bottom, left to right. Therefore, the order in which you present information on a slide ought to reflect this. Start at the top left, move to the right, then to the bottom left, then the bottom right. Sometimes, however, slides will be created where the key information is not at the top left. This can be challenging, so you have to make a decision. Can you get away with presenting the slide top to bottom, left to right, despite where the information is located? Or do you need to guide viewers, either physically or verbally, outside of the natural order? The answer depends upon the specific slideshow. But know that if you need to guide them outside the natural order, it will be confusing for the audience so take your time and be very specific.
  • Wrong slide order. This is the most difficult problem to overcome. Sometimes, slides will not be in the optimal order for your presentation. If you can’t reorder them, you’ll need to find a way to present them in the order you find them. Jumping backward and forward is simply too disruptive to allow. The answer in this case is being very aware of ordering problems and making sure you present enough information on each slide to properly set up the next slide. Don’t be afraid to bring in information not on the current slide if you need it to set up the next one. It’s on you as the presenter to make the slides work in the order in which they come up.
  • More slides than time. Another common problem, this one is easy to solve. Typically, you should budget about 2 minutes to present each slide. So, if you have 30 minutes, that’s about 15 slides. Ever get 30-plus slides for a 30 minute presentation? The solution is to skip some of the slides entirely or simply touch upon them for a very short time. If you try, instead, to do each slide in 1 minute or less, you’ll just present every slide badly. Therefore, you must spend some time in advance figuring out which slides are critical so you can spend an appropriate amount of time presenting these.

There are certainly other problems you can run into with your slides, but these are the ones I see all the time in my training seminars. And, as I’ve noted, they can all be overcome. The key to all these challenges is to spend enough time preparing that you can identify the problems and come up with solutions.

A well-presented slide show can be compelling and provide a great deal of information. Present your slides well and you’ll be rewarded with a truly captivated audience.

If Lance Armstrong Were a Corporation

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The swirl of attention around Lance Armstrong’s upcoming interview with Oprah is approaching a frenzy, with word already leaking about the content of the interview.

In short, he admits it.

Oprah’s couch has traditionally started the road to redemption for celebrities who have failed to live up to the public’s expectations. And an apology, which is apparently forthcoming, is almost always necessary to the process.

This, of course, got me to thinking. If Lance Armstrong were instead Lance Armstrong, Inc., a Delaware corporation, he’d have additional tools at his disposal for the reputation-saving campaign he is embarking upon. So, let’s explore just how the crisis communications plan would be different for Lance the corporation vs. Lance the celebrity.

What Lance the Corporation Might Do

  • Re-branding. This is a tried and true technique for companies and other organizations that have been ensnared in scandal: Change your name. It’s been used by tobacco companies, airlines, and many others that want to get away from the past. Lance could pick something modern sounding, maybe with its roots in classical Greek. Of course, he’d then have the challenge of investing to build up the new brand. But companies do this all the time.
  • New management. Oftentimes, when a corporation makes a mistake, the executives responsible have to fall on their swords. This has the public value of cutting ties to the errors of the past and letting the company move forward with reset expectations. The problem is, Lance would have a hard time finding someone to fire, as it’s really a CEO-level issue. If he could fire himself, that might help.
  • Divestiture.  When a business line becomes so toxic that it threatens the entire corporation’s reputation, sometimes the best thing to do is divest it and move on with the remaining businesses. We saw something like this recently with Cerberus’ decision to sell a gun manufacturer in its portfolio. If Lance could find a way to remove his cycling self from the rest of his being, that might just do the trick. The advantage of this approach is there’s no need to re-brand.
  • Address liabilities. From an accounting perspective, Lance the corporation would want to move quickly to address all outstanding liabilities. He’d need to take a charge against earnings in the proper amount and then reach an agreement with regulators that calls for a cash payment but stipulates that he “neither confirm nor deny any wrongdoing.” Celebrities generally need to admit their mistakes for the public to forgive them. Companies do not.
  • Lay out steps.  Lastly, when a corporation goofs, it’s important for shareholders and the public to know that it will not make the same mistake twice. Thus, it lays out a plan to address its shortcomings and puts a high-profile person or team in charge. Sometimes, it’s even necessary to add independent directors to the board to assure the company will take the proper steps. Lance could actually do something like this if he stays involved in the sport of cycling.

Of course, it’s fun to speculate on this sort of thing, but in the end it’s going to be necessary for Lance to execute his communications plan, whatever it is. This will begin with how he handles the Oprah interview.

If one thing is clear, it is that the American public is very often willing to forgive. So he’s got a shot, even if he can’t rely on all the tools available to corporations.

Farrell Kramer Communications Merges with MBS Value Partners

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After 10 years as a stand-alone firm, Farrell Kramer Communications has found the perfect match.

Late last year, I began talking with MBS Value Partners, a leading investor relations and financial communications advisory firm in New York City, about merging our operations to create a combined firm with greater resources and a deeper bench than I could muster alone. On Jan. 1, we officially completed the merger and Farrell Kramer Communications is now a part of MBS Value Partners.

This is great news, particularly for our clients, who will now benefit from a firm that can accomplish even more. Farrell Kramer Communications had done some work together with MBS Value Partners in the past and I’d always been impressed with the MBS team. They are not only smart, skilled and extremely professional but they’re good people, which I value highly.

With the addition of Farrell Kramer Communications, MBS Value Partners will offer a broad suite of services ranging from financial communications, strategic communications and investor relations to podcasting, social media, publicity, media and presentation training.

Lynn Morgen, one of MBS’ founding partners, had the following kind words for us in today’s press release announcing the merger:

Farrell and his team have been doing top-level work with major and emerging companies and well-known brands for a decade, including some projects together with MBS. We are enthusiastic about the growth potential this merger brings to MBS as we move forward into 2013 and beyond.

In terms of logistics, client work has continued uninterrupted. I am now based out of MBS Value Partners’ New York City offices and Sharon Bially is working for MBS out of Boston.

Our Farrell Kramer Communications website will be replaced shortly at the farrellkramer.com URL with this blog, where I’ll continue to explore issues in public relations, media and technology. I will also continue to be active on social media, sharing my posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

If you want to reach me, please feel free to use this blog’s contact page. It will always be a great way to get in touch quickly and directly.

Apple, Er… Google Fixes iPhone Maps

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Apple, caring deeply about the satisfaction of its iPhone customers, rolled out a fix for its awful Maps application to wild acclaim from commentators, who praised it as the best in the market… Or, not.

Actually, the real news is Google rolled out a Google Maps app for the iPhone today that does everything Apple should have done, but didn’t.

The irony, of course, is it was Apple that wrecked its own Maps app by firing Google as its mapping provider and deciding it could develop a superior product. That product, of course, was badly flawed and resulted in a major PR black eye for Apple.

So Google, after being fired, has swooped back in to rescue those iPhone users who care about actually getting where they are going. Weird, but true.

The really good news is that following my “extensive” testing of the Google Maps app, I can report that it solves the Map apps problem. It does everything the old Maps app did — using Google data — and more. It even gives turn-by-turn directions. The critics are raving.

The New York Times’ David Pogue said:

Today, Google Maps for the iPhone has arrived. It’s free, fast and fantastic.

What’s left to say after that? Just go ahead, download it and forget the Maps app fiasco over occurred. Although, I’m sure it won’t be that easy for the folks who work at Apple.