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You & Your Brand

‘Make the truth fascinating’

Mickey Nall, national chairman and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America and managing director of Ogilvy Public Relations worldwide, in Fairbanks in August.

Mickey Nall, national chairman and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America and managing director of Ogilvy Public Relations worldwide, in Fairbanks in August.

© 2013 Julie Stricker

Listen. Do you hear that? It’s your co-workers and employees talking. Do you know what they’re talking about? Their jobs and the company they work for. In short, you and your brand. And they’re not just talking to their spouses at the dinner table, they’re sharing it with their one thousand friends on Facebook and tweeting it to the world. 

Social media has changed many things about doing business in the twenty-first century. Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms are the modern equivalent of the office water cooler, only the stories get passed farther and faster. 

Do you know what kind of messages your employees are sending? That’s the kind of question keeping company and organizational leaders awake at night, and it’s one that public relations specialists are ideally equipped to handle in such a way that the company can benefit.

In short, a business can’t control the message, but it must participate in the conversation, says Mickey Nall, managing director of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, based in Atlanta. He is also national chairman and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, the country’s largest organization of public relations and communications specialists. Nall has worked with clients ranging from the White House to Coca-Cola to United Way of America. He is accredited in public relations and a member of PRSA’s College of Fellows and has won many industry awards. 

“Word of mouth is much more powerful than advertising,” Nall told Alaska public relations professionals during an August trip to Fairbanks and Anchorage.

With the rise of social media bringing more and more channels through which people are seeking information, it makes it hard for public relations specialists to keep up with rising expectations. Communication is key. And the best way to get your brand’s story across is to tell a story.

“We have to become better storytellers,” Nall said. Public relations professionals are “the people who can put a subject and verb together and put together a narrative on what we want to do.”

Storytelling isn’t the most accurate term he’s looking for, Nall acknowledges. “I would rather call it truthtelling, because storytelling can be construed as fiction,” he said. “Our job as public relations practitioners is to make the truth fascinating.” 

His presentation, “Storytelling, Media Relations, and Reputation: Putting it all together for your brand” is full of anecdotes from his years in the public relations business. 

Social media offers big opportunities for companies if they can follow four steps: 

 

  • Focus on your reputation
  • Create your own content
  • Become a storyteller
  • Have your employees become advocates for your company

 

“Brand is the promise, reputation is what we deliver,” Nall said. Looking at it another way, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: “Character is like a tree, reputation is like its shadow.”

 

Reputation

A company Nall likes to use as an example as one with a long shadow is Starbucks, which has a reputation that goes far beyond feeding his caffeine addiction, he said. 

Starbucks is omnipresent and is known for having a consistent product across the country, Nall said. Beyond that, the company focuses on what it sees as its social responsibility to help provide clean water in Africa, a campaign that reverberates through everything Starbucks does. 

“They need water to make coffee, to grow coffee, for the people who pick coffee to grow their crops,” he said. “It all fits within the supply chain of getting that four dollar cup of coffee into Mickey Nall’s hands.

“There’s a story in that.”

Starbucks tells that story on its website, as well as prints it on its cups. Companies that tell stories on their websites in a visually appealing manner are effective in adding to their reputations.

On the other hand, not telling a story effectively can result in backlash. A bad report spread through social media, which is then picked up by the mainstream media, can do serious damage to a company’s reputation, whether there’s a real problem or not. 

When Netflix announced it was more than doubling its subscription price, it lost eight hundred thousand customers in a thirty-day period. It wasn’t so much their pricing change as the fact that it was perceived as a callous, short-sighted move by Netflix that resulted in a backlash of angry comments on its blog and thousands of tweets. Its stock price plummeted. 

“Thousands and thousands of people can hurt you through word of mouth,” Nall said. “Not that you did anything wrong, you just didn’t explain yourself well.”

 

Mickey Nall presenting “Storytelling, Media Relations, and Reputation: Putting it all together for your brand” to the Alaskan public relations professionals.

© 2013 Julie Stricker

Create Your Own Content

Companies can also control their message by becoming their own media company, which means good writing and good content. There are three kinds of content: paid, such as advertising; earned, word of mouth about a brand; and owned, content that a brand owns such as its website, flyers, and brochures.

Encourage customers to tell their stories. In the aftermath of deadly tornadoes in Alabama, the customers of one power utility started spreading the message that their power was back up. The message got around about the good work the company was doing, a much more effective, much more powerful, and much more real message than anything the utility could have done, Nall said. 

Brands need to build direct relationships with their customers via Facebook and other social networks. 

“The currency of that relationship is content,” he said. 

“Newspapers are dying, but there’s a rebirth of journalism in social media,” Nall said. Facebook is a powerful communication tool and companies can use it to forge direct relationships with their customers. That means public relations specialists are the new citizen journalists for their brand. They can’t wait for newspapers to come to them looking for a story, they have to create the content and get people talking about it. The more friends, the better. 

“We’ve moved from the age of deference to the age of reference,” Nall says. People are far more interested in what their friends are saying is important than what professional media tell them is important. 

Some become aggregators of content related to their business. For instance, DuPont gathered all the best content on risk management and put it in one place. The content is authentic and valuable and effectively makes DuPont the thought leader on the topic. 

“They went from zero to something without having to write all the content,” Nall said.

Demographics matter. Ford, trying to reach younger consumers, used an online game to launch its 2013 Ford Fusion because young people it was targeting don’t consume traditional media. 

Good storytelling gets to the heart of the story, without impediments and with a clear narrative. It makes the abstract concrete so the audience “gets it.” That story should be on the company website, on its Facebook page, not buried in corporate jargon in the annual report. 

If the story of a company is compelling, it becomes part of the brand. 

“Every employee at Nike knows the story of Nike,” Nall says. The company was started by a guy who liked to run and wanted to create the best running shoe possible. He made the shoes and sold them out of the back of his car to his friends. The company grew from there. Today, it’s a multi-billion-dollar, international company, but the story of its humble beginnings is what resonates. 

 

Employee Advocates

A company’s employees are one of its strongest resources. They are tuned in to what’s happening around them, and they’re talking about it to everyone. The boss may say he doesn’t want his employees to talk about work, but that’s not likely to happen. 

“What’s going on in your business is out there,” Nall said. “If you say employees can’t do social media, they’re going to do it anyway, and a lot of it will be negative. You want your employees to be advocates.”

Communicate with employees about the company’s goals and message. Support their endeavors and celebrate their successes. One bank featured its employees’ good works around town, creating a website that shared the real stories behind the real people who worked there: The effort resulted in positive coverage for the bank as well as rewarding its workers. 

When a crisis occurs, address it in real time using real people, not an automated reply. Even in the digital age, it’s the personal touch that matters the most. Remember, people are talking.

Julie Stricker is a journalist living near Fairbanks.

This first appeared in the November 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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