Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Last Lecture: Storytelling when it's inconvenient for you and when it matters most

Randy Pausch is what most writers and story-pitchers look for in a subject. He has an inspiring story to share that benefits others but isn't easy for him to tell. For difficult stories and times like his, doors regularly slam in reporters faces when they try to talk to someone who's lost someone in an accident or actually has something to lose if their story goes to print.

Dying but writing how to live
But not Mr. Pausch. This is probably the worst time for him, but he's writing. He's dying of pancreatic cancer, but wants his three young children, to someday read about how he truly felt about them. The book is called The Last Lecture and is based on life lessons, references to his children from a lecture he did at Carnegie Mellon University.

Telling your story when it isn't convenient
For now, Pausch and his wife don't want their children to know he's dying. Watercooler talk says experts have told the parents that it's easier on children to not know a parent is dying until he or she actually appears seriously ill. As Pausch makes the media rounds, TV and newspaper interviews, I wonder how he shields his children from the news and from blabber mouths at school and daycare.

Anyone have other examples?
OK, writers, when has someone told you a difficult story for print at a bad time in their lives? What was the story?

For the USA Today story on Pausch, visit http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2008-04-07-pausch_N.htm. This is about a month old. I recently heard about it from a fellow book club member. And I hope it's our next read.

For a day to day update on Pausch's progress:http://download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/news/index.html

For the video of the "last lecture" he gave his students at Carnegie Mellon University about living a good life, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Talking through a glass wall: Serving you and the people who want to know your business

Is it a new thing at banks to use thick glass walls with slivers of air as security between the customer and the teller? They need to find an easier way for us to talk to bank tellers without shouting embarrassing details that make everyone blush a little.

What about a phone on both sides of the wall? It works at the jail. Or maybe there’s this thin material with a pending patent at NASA that you can speak through but no weapon can break.

But this security measure and communication obstacle glass wall does work for the nosy ones of us who can be astonished at the embarrassing details of me overestimating my financial success.

If you’re in the room you might hear comments like these at the window (not necessarily coming from me):

-“I need you to write out a money order. The rental place won’t take a check from me.”
-“No, I can’t make more of a payment. I’m broke. You see?”
-“I received a warning in the mail that you’re getting ready to repossess my car. What’s the minimum amount I can give you, so the repo man doesn’t come?”
-“What the hell?! I didn’t withdraw that money!"

And as for the cavalier bank teller who thinks you can't read lips:

You say: "I'm sorry, did you say you were going to kick my *&&? Where's your manager?"

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to get my mouth so close the money drop opening that I could have licked the bottom of the window, just to say something to the teller I didn’t want everyone to hear.

You could say these blushing customers could be more mindful and organized and they wouldn’t have to say these things at all. But why make life harder than it already is?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Pope’s refining his image

Some media applauded Pope Benedict XVI for his mass Sunday at Yankee Stadium. He acknowledged the child sexual abuse scandal and “voiced deep shame” on behalf of the Catholic Church. Just acknowledging the scandal and praying with abuse victims made him more real for people; whereas he was mostly viewed as a academician of theology.

Compassion and acknowledgement of hurt and a wrong goes a long way.

Check out the story in the New York Times yesterday here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/21/us/nationalspecial2/21pope.html?em&ex=1209009600&en=53b2266cb445daca&ei=5087%0A

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The things reporters hate about us

After a small town news conference years ago I headed straight to the organization’s director as she left the podium so I could ask a few questions. It was late in the day and I was ready to get back to the office and file my story. This happy, smiling woman with perfect hair and makeup comes from the side and blocks me. Yes, it's the organization’s PR woman. She wants to help me and give me the most generalized information possible while her boss glides away. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to talk to her. That’s “news blocking” just like a jock stealing a dance from the geek.

I asked a couple of my news friends if they would help us understand what not to do. Here’s what they said. I won't reveal their names because they don’t want YOU do be mad at them. Shhhh….see, they need us too:

From a Georgian photojournalist:
“I hate it when after an event the PR person calls or emails me and EXPECTS the rights to the photos I took, to use for marketing. That drives me crazy. Not only do we not release the photos (which are the property of the newspaper) for use in other publications, but even if a person or organization wanted copies of the photos they still have to pay for them. Our paper uses an automated system for archiving and selling the photos, but it seems like the PR people never believe me when I tell them that!”

Pet peeve highlights from a southern daily newspaper editor:
“1. Please do not send me the same e-mail six times OR one that has 10 jpegs attached to it. This clogs up my inbox and makes it hard for me to send you an e-mail telling you as much.
2. I understand persistence and follow-up, but please do not call me every day or have someone else from your agency call me every day to ask if we are going to come out and cover something. If I told you we will consider it, I mean it. But calling me everyday makes me consider it less.
3. Learn how to take no for an answer. It is not that we don't want to help your organization, but sometimes it's a manpower issue. Also, if we have done three or four features on your group in the same month, then it is likely that your fifth request will be denied. We have to make sure that no one group is getting more coverage over another, and frankly, that is what your newsletter is for.
4. Don't call the publisher. Nothing makes an editor madder than when someone goes over their head to ask the publisher if a reporter can come out and cover something in hopes of getting a "yes" answer. Would you like it if I in turn called your boss to tell him/her that since you didn't call me to ask for coverage (especially when you know I am your contact), I will now only deal with them?”

PR people, tell us your horror stories or tell us what worked for you. News people, what grates your nerves?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

If I could turn back time: Damage control when constituents are hurt

This week, records of 71,000 Georgia families who are considered poor or working poor through the health insurance program, Wellcare of Georgia, were accidentally uploaded on the Internet for at least several days; exposing personal information such as home addresses and social security numbers

I hope that with the fear of identity theft and the difficulty of fixing that damage, that Wellcare will give these folks some help in managing their personal problems. The article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution says Wellcare has offered to pay for one year of credit monitoring for the people affected.

Here’s another instance: A couple of years ago, a North Carolina university accidentally put out hundreds of acceptance letters to rising freshmen who were not accepted. Another letter went out to the would-be students apologizing, the administrative person was fired but none of the students were admitted.

What do you think the PR people Wellcare of Georgia should do next? What should the CEO do?

At a recent media/PR roundtable discussion, Atlanta newspaper editors said that when poop is about to hit the fan, PR people should go ahead and e-mail a statement to a trusty media contact (because exclusivity rules).

But maybe not everyone would be interested. So how do you know when to keep it to yourself and when to call the newspaper?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Group think at a hockey game, a guilty pleasure

It would be so satisfying to have a voice recording of fans behind the visiting hockey team Saturday night at the Gwinnett Arena inside a little “applause” box to take with you in a confrontation you don’t want to deal with yourself – on your worst day, of course.

My favorite from Saturday’s hockey game was “Ay—ers, Ay-ers… You suck!”

In this case, Ayers was a pretty boy Charlotte Checkers player who let four pucks get in his net. After every point scored and every miss, our Gwinnett Gladiators’ fans (Gwinnett County is about 30 minutes from downtown Atlanta) would reassure him -– and it sounded like it was most of the pack -- he really did suck.

It made my friends and I laugh every time. There was no huge jumbotron telling fans what to yell. It’s not like basketball, when the mascot holds up the D- and fence sign to cue fans. The cheer must have started with one person, as if someone had signaled the wave, and everyone caught on.

The cheer continued even when the announcer reminded fans to watch their language and that there were children in the arena as well. It didn’t stop there. It was just too tempting when poor Ayers made an error. What an example of group think.

This is a team that plays dramatic scenes from Russell Crowe’s Gladiator on the big Tvs and has instant replay of the fights and special clips of highlight brawls of the season. See, the Gladiators’ big wheels know what their fans want!

I don’t know if all hockey is like this. But I loved it. I knew it was a little bit wrong to laugh and cheer on the profanity, but it was just too fun.

And the players are the scrappiest I’ve seen. In two fights, the referees stood aside while the players ripped off their helmets and traded punches. Are they really that angry? There were all kinds of tripping with the hockey sticks and slamming the other player against the wall while a Gladiator pulled a puck out from under him.

We cheered!

Kudos to the community/fan relations folks. They know how to entertain their fans without anything fancy and hold on to their fans. I’m going back for more.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

PR Lesson for us: Listen to mama especially when it comes to customer service

Mom was right all along. You make mistakes. That’s OK, everybody does. What really matters is how you deal with the repercussions and how you react.

Someone ran into my new car parked outside my home this weekend and didn’t leave a note. That was upsetting. But this isn’t about my reaction – it’s about a corporation’s response to a problem.

Problem number 1: It takes two weeks to get the insurance company’s check cut to the police department for the police report of the accident, and eight weeks total to have your claim updated, which affects my out-of-pocket expenses. And I didn’t want to take time out of my workday to go to the police department. But I did. (They were very nice by the way and run a tight ship in the records department.) With this particular lengthy procedure, the company was saying to me it didn’t care about me, because their response time is extremely slow. Don’t they know I’m out there trying to make a difference in this world just like everybody else and I need my car!?

So I make a call to complain about the company procedure of getting police reports. Yes, I’m a ferocious. Here comes problem number 2. I get transferred back to the claims department where someone tries to provide an alternative, when I’m already 10 minutes from half way remedying the situation myself. The next rep tries to interject to clear something up on the company’s side. Then at the end he says in a defensive tone he will address some of the points I brought up. No. All I wanted to do was make an official complaint about their procedure. It was poor customer service and I wanted them to know.

Risk communication expert Peter Sandman’s paid very well to help corporations, such as Exxon with the Valdese oil spill in the 1980s, get out of sticky situations with the public.

He says that the public’s perception of a wrong can create as much damage as the wrong itself. He gives the following advice to companies in error:

- Be responsive.
- Own up to what happened. Tell the truth.
- Have apologetic humility and acknowledge the prior misbehavior.

Basically, don’t be a jerk when someone in the public brings up a wrong they feel caused them harm.

Let’s say someone calls your company to make a complaint and you are the poor soul who answers the phone. You don’t have to say anything but maybe the following sentences. (There are other ways out there -- but here's one way to handle it.)

-“Yes, sir. Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying.” Then repeat in a slow, calm voice what the person told you. It doesn’t matter what you think at this point.

-Then say “I have your information and I will turn this in to the ___________ department.”

-“I am sorry this happened. Thank you so much for calling us and letting us know about it, so something like this doesn’t happen in the future.”

No matter what, do not interject or try to address issues at the end. The caller does not care what you think or even if they got something wrong. They just want someone to write down what they say so they can be heard.

The person might get so angry they give up and hang up on you. I did today. Those darn turkeys.

What’s the worst thing you’ve heard a customer service rep say? Or, if you find yourself in the reps shoes, what helps you in these tense situations? We all could use a little help.