Are we at a social media ‘inflection point?’

I must say one of the best parts of doing this blog is learning.  Without fail, the post subject always gives me something to think about, and I hope the same goes for you.  This time Rick Liebling with Coyne PR sat me back on “I think we’ve reached an inflection point.”

Rick was answering a question about where he sees social media going.  Now, when I hear “inflection point” from someone I trust and find credible, I tend to pay attention because, if they’re right, it means we’ve reached a multi-pronged fork in the road.  We, as a team or an industry, have an opportunity to shape and define a new direction.  In short, we have an opportunity to lead.

So, assuming we’re at an inflection point, who is going to step up and lead?  What does the next 5 years look like?  Will you sit back and wait for someone else to make the decision and then follow, or will you connect the right dots and lead the tribe?

McDonald’s and Target didn’t happen by accident.  Google and Facebook didn’t happen by accident.  And neither will the next wave of mega-successful brands and approaches to professional communication, to bring it back to the focus of this blog.

See!  I ask some simple questions and look what happens!  You get dragged into my mental mess.  So, if I haven’t already lost you, without further ado, here’s my chat with Rick on how PR and Marketing has changed in recent years, the future of social media (hello, inflection point), how students should be preppin’ for careerin’ and why Yoda is better than Optimus Prime.

1. As the Director of Digital Strategy at Coyne PR, what does your average day look like?

Rick Liebling

It usually starts around 8 a.m. The first thing I do is open about 1/2 dozen tabs in Google Chrome: Gmail, Google+, Facebook, Tweetdeck, PSFK, LinkedIn. Then it’s on to work email and firing up Tweetdeck. For the next hour I’ll read, do research, share content, answer emails and take care of admin items. By 9 a.m. I’m ready to tackle a whole host of to-do items. In my role I work with all 10 practice groups at the agency (plus new business and internal needs) so every day is different in terms of the subject matter. I’m helping to write decks, respond to RFPs, provide counsel to teams and clients work with outside partners like Badgeville or Traackr, and of course, meetings. Lots of meetings.

2. Since beginning your career, how has the PR and Marketing profession changed?

Immeasurably. Twelve years ago PR was really focused on generating “media impressions” and getting placements in “key outlets.” It was very tactically focused. Now, it’s much more about having a strategy that ladders up to business objectives, having a sound measurement methodology, and creating ideas that can be activated across a broad marketing mix. And of course social media now plays a significant role in what we do. From community management to leveraging mobile platforms, those are offerings we now bring to our clients. But ultimately, it’s about content – creating compelling, informative or entertaining content that helps our clients engage with the people they want to reach.

3. Did Coyne PR embrace social media quickly or was it slowly introduced as an offering to clients?

I’ve only been at Coyne since last fall, but I would say that it really differs from client to client. Some are more eager, willing or able, to engage than others. There’s really no ‘one size fits all’ approach, every client has different objectives and resources. As an agency, we try to use as many of the tools out there as we can. Whether that’s monitoring tools like Radian6, new platforms and services like Percolate and Google+, or innovative tactics like Game Mechanics.

4. Where do you see the social media world going?

I think we’ve reached an inflection point. Brands no longer can derive value from the first mover advantage of being on Facebook before their competitors. I think we’re going to see companies need to adopt a “social business” strategy that connects several areas of their brand to their customers, clients and the public. Marketing or sales or customer service isn’t enough. R&D, the man on the assembly line, everyone who is part of the process will be connected.

5. What’s your advice to peers who have clients who could benefit from social marketing and networking but are hesitant?

Don’t push them to jump in if they are hesitant. Build programs that address key business issues and that integrate very measurable social media elements.

6. What should today’s college students be focusing on to best prepare for the real world?

Being flexible, adaptable and agile. Be prepared to do understand not just PR, but all aspects of the marketing mix and how they can work together. Get comfortable with analytics. Learn how to tease insights from data and turn that into actionable strategies.

7. If you had to choose between Yoda and Optimus Prime as a partner in battle, who would you choose and why?

I was never a Transformers guy, so I’m going with Yoda. Plus, the way he pulled Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp on Dagobah, I think he could do some damage to Optimus Prime.

I agree with, Rick.  I mean look at that little guy! Focused intensity! ————————>

Sweat the small stuff

I first heard “don’t sweat the small stuff” years ago after “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” the book exploded in popularity.  While this is a great read on stress relief, the phrase is all too commonly used nowadays, with people using it as somewhat of an excuse for not “crushing it.”  For those who strive for excellence daily, sweating the small stuff is imperative, especially for professional communicators.  If we don’t sweat the small stuff, we’re useless to our bosses and clients.

While strategic communication is all the rage, strategy without effective tactics is like a vision without a mission and goals.  It’s a pipe dream. Also, most people want communication help largely due to our tactical expertise.  In other words, they hire us to get stuff done.  Now don’t get me wrong, strategy is imperative to implementing successful PR and marketing programs, and pro communicators should always push for strategy before tactics.  However, once the strategy is outlined, the true beauty is found in the complexity of managing details.

Value is found in the daily grind of executing communication plans, social media engagement, developing messages, pitching media, conducting events, training and writing all sorts of copy.  The art of communication is found in a team’s arguing over exact word choices, release timing, message tone, choosing the right visuals and so on. While most people only see the final product and take for granted the effort that led to its existence, it is imperative that those charged to produce that product scrutinize every last detail.  In a sense, the way I see it, communicators are charged to invent on a daily basis.

Those we serve don’t need to experience it with us or even witness it from afar.  They just need to know that in the end they can count on us to get it right.  And getting it right doesn’t happen during the first round.

Think about the iPhone.  I bet if you walked into the backroom of Apple, you’d find hundreds if not thousands of discarded models.  After examining the trashed hardware, you’d look to the right to see hundreds if not thousands of iterations of data display ideas.  Looking to the left, you’d see material samples stacked to the ceiling.  Then you’d hear a voice behind you say, “It took all of that to get to this.”  You’d then turn one-hundred and eighty degrees and a thin man in a black shirt would hand you the first touchscreen mobile device that, as they say, changed everything.

From the space shuttle to the iPhone to branding Geico, the process of invention is long, arduous and painful.  Most people don’t care to know about it, and that’s okay as long as we, the professional communicators, never forget that sweating the small stuff is what makes us excellent and keeps people coming back for more.

The power of simple messages

Every morning before we go our separate ways to work and before we go to sleep, my wife and I tell each other “I love you.” Because she drives to work, I usually include a “Be careful,” too.

Billions of people around the world use these same sentences daily to get a point across, to maintain or deepen a relationship, or to separate themselves from others in the receiver’s life. This is the point of messaging, right?

Well, then why do we make it easy in our personal lives and so complicated professionally?  Messages are meant to be short, to the point and memorable.  Again, we say “I love you.”  We don’t say “I have strong feelings for you that have grown over time that I wish to convey at this moment.”

We say “Be careful.”  We don’t say “When you drive the car to your intended destination, properly assess all known risks and plan accordingly for the unknown risks you may encounter along the way.”

Successful messaging cuts through the noise, is devoid of most jargon and doesn’t require inhaling half way through speaking it.  It’s not about communicating every single thing you know about a topic.  It’s not about showing how smart you are.  It IS about your audience.  And it IS about what you want them to know and remember.  Long winded, wordy messages do not accomplish this.

So, the next time you’re working on messaging, be it for a media interview, branding effort, web site or whatever, think about how you communicate to your family, friends and loved ones.  Just because you’re communicating from within or for an organization doesn’t mean it needs to sound like it.

The tortoise wouldn’t have ‘gone viral’

As many PR pros can attest to, an abundance of organizations out there want “to go viral.” Nowadays when we think of going viral, we often think of videos spreading like wild-fire online, garnering hundreds of thousands if not millions of views. It’s exciting! Who wouldn’t want that?

The problem is going viral in most instances is not what organizations need even if it could be attained, and let’s face it most products and services simply don’t lend themselves to going viral any ways.  But that’s not the point. The point is heavy, short-lived attention is no substitute for long-term, deliberate PR and marketing that is focused on building relationships.

The desire for a viral video or story in my estimation is equivalent to the I-want-to-be-on-Oprah syndrome.

Like viral videos, many people also believe high-profile media attention leads to success or will  benefit them greatly in some way. Why? Because they’ve seen it happen.

However, the vast majority of products and services sold and funds raised across the planet are not as a result of viral videos and prime-time media appearances. Rather success came from bringing something desired to the marketplace and marketing it slowly, steadily and smartly. I mean think about it? How many of your favorite possessions or causes became that because of a viral video or 60 Minutes spot? Most likely none.

What’s more plausible is the maker of your favorite beverage reached you through well-thought out product development and marketing, and in the end they added value to your life and kept it up.

I repeat…they added value to your life and kept it up.  Kind of like a best friend, right?  Well, this is probably how your best friend became your best friend. You met, found out you had stuff in common, spent time together, added value to each others’ lives and ultimately grew a great friendship. Great PR and marketing follows the same path, a path focused on the long-term that is fueled by patience, not rocket propellant.

Sure, a well-made video on YouTube may get you a lot of attention quickly, but if your aim is to grow a lasting business or nonprofit, you need to invest your time and effort into a slow, steady, and methodical communication approach, not in short-term, high-thrill tactics.

Or in other words, be the tortoise.

Will ‘The Underground’ surface? A case study in dealing with online movements

Movements originating with “the people” are nothing new. As the world remains fixated on what’s happening in Libya, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East right now, uprisings and movements are actually happening in communities all over the world. Although small in scale and less intense, they’re fueled by emotion, passion and the same desire for change that motivated the Egyptian people to successfully remove a long-time dictator from power.

The important thing for organizations or individuals to realize is movements are manageable.  And above all else, listening is key.

At least one potential movement is occurring in Alexandria, Va., right now.  Alexandria is located just outside D.C. – a city that’s seen it’s share of movements and protests.  This particular situation has all the hallmarks of classic movements only in the era of the social web, which has taken movements to a 2.0 level.  In some cases today, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other sites aren’t simply serving as communication tools for groups, they are the movement itself.  Twitter has become the modern-day Tiananmen Square.

The social web’s impact on physical movements has been so profound, it is now viewed as a major threat to governments and organizations around the world.  Shutting down the Internet is now on the list with “activate the military.” In short, the use of social media has become the norm for protest groups.  However, you’d never know that given the response to date from the Alexandria-based group in the crosshairs.

Digressing for a moment, it’s almost as if those who start movements all read “How to Start a Movement for Dummies.” As you read on, take note of the *s. They indicate the classic characteristics of movements as I see it. Also take note of the #s, which indicate classic characteristics of those being rebelled against. For those groups, it’s almost like they all read “How to Respond Poorly Publicly to Activists.” For PR practitioners, there’s much to be learned here.

Here’s what’s happening. A blog called ACPS Underground (Alexandria City Public Schools) gained much attention recently when the Alexandria Times covered it. The blog has become a popular space for teachers to criticize the school system administration and its policies and sling some mud of course. Simply put, we’re talking about teachers versus school officials, otherwise known as the people versus the government, otherwise known as the common man versus the establishment* (classic conflict). The blog creator and apparent group leader is another teacher (one of their own)* who goes by the pseudonym “Voltaire”* (identity protected) for fear of retribution* (leader protecting himself and defending against retaliation that not only could remove the leader but kill the movement entirely).

According to the Times, “‘Voltaire said the ACPS environment is not conducive to speaking out,” which is why they’ve gone “underground.”

In response to the blog and anonymity of it all, ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman had this to say in the article. “I saw it when it first came out and chose to ignore it# (disregard for opposition group’s viewpoint). They should have the strength of conviction not to be anonymous# (imposing view of what’s proper on the group), so for me it’s underground yellow journalism# (discrediting viewpoint/opinions) and that’s not how we work# (again, imposing views of what’s proper and accepted).”

While the entire article is a great read for PR peeps, this is the quote that inspired this post. My PR alarm went off immediately upon reading this doozy.  Having many thoughts about how I would advise Sherman based on what I know, I wanted to get some other PR pros’ takes, as well. Here’s what Matt LaCasse and Lisa Brock had to say.

Matt LaCasse

Matt LaCasse

“The first thing Superintendent Morton needs to do is to stop insulting the teachers behind the blog. Whether or not he agrees with their methods of airing their grievances, calling them cowards in a roundabout way paints him as unwilling to listen to his employees. I’d recommend assuring Voltaire (who appears ready to reveal his identity) he won’t lose his job due to his beliefs, and encourage an open and honest dialogue in a public forum; perhaps even a debate.

“There’s little doubt in my mind, judging from the administration’s response to the blog, that it feels it is under attack. Rather than trying to solve problems, the situation is becoming an us vs. them quagmire which no one is going to win. If teachers feel change is being implemented too quickly, ask what an acceptable time frame would be. Explain that some issues will not have a happy ending for teachers, but it is what needs to be done. If Superintendent Morton can find that middle ground between his policy changes and what teachers feel needs to be done, he’ll go a long way in gaining the trust of his employees and community.”

Matt hits on some great points, in particular the “quagmire.” As PR pros preach routinely, getting stuck in the rut of “me” makes matters worse usually. Instead, why not figuratively and quite literally open the door to Voltaire and other teachers and at least chat? In my experience, whether dealing with a protest group or a customer bashing you on Twitter, engaging them is usually a much more sound tactic to take, but this is a leadership issue as much as it is a PR management issue. Enter Lisa Brock.

Lisa Brock

Lisa Brock

“For leadership to be effective, problems, issues, concerns and questions must be dealt with in a transparent manner in a transparent environment. Anonymous letters and hiding behind web tools is not transparent or credible – but neither is ignoring a problem. This is a crisis of leadership and the unwillingness of the leadership (Superintendent & Principal) to proactively seek solutions will cause a sort of meltdown that doesn’t have to happen.

“There are a number of ‘red flags’ and the first is that the Super chose to ‘ignore’ the situation. The fastest way to diffuse controversy is to expose it. Hold open town hall type meetings, go out of your way to be available and accessible. In time, the ‘Voltaires’ are exposed and when credible complaints, constructive comments and good dialogue happen, changes can start to happen, improving the system, credibility and the culture.

“The second is “They should have the strength of conviction not to be anonymous, so for me it’s underground yellow journalism and that’s not how we work.” But, this is not about him – it’s about a problem that needs wider discussion and the voice of different constituents.

“The third is that behaving like an ostrich does not solve problems, dissipate gossip or untruths. It does not improve your organization – which is the goal of inspired management and leaders. If as the Super says, there may be some validity to some complaints, start there. Yes, it will take time, energy and of course time is money. But the alternatives don’t work. Period.

As to the underground. Imagine if someone took the time to monitor or listen to what is being said. And then responded. Even when all the answers are not unanimously received or lauded, no one can say, ‘Leadership wasn’t listening.’ And again, those on the edge of the moderate, will be seen for just that – those with more extreme views. And if leadership is truly wise, they’ll welcome that too.”

Lisa nails it here. While I’m sure there are some who applaud the superintendent’s position, there are many who clearly don’t. However, would those who support his stance and what he said in the article also support him if he responded in a more receptive manner? Probably.  Again, being limited in knowledge, I can only wonder why he doesn’t take that route.

In my estimation, Sherman represents the stereotypical leader of a group under fire, especially a government group. He holds up himself and his organization and its policies as superior and proper while marginalizing and disregarding the opposition group. Personally, I’ve never seen that be an effective tactic when dealing with a large number of disgruntled people. But perhaps that’s part of his strategy.

Also, rather than recognizing the group as, just that, a group, he describes the blog as “yellow journalism.” That alone could explain why he chose “to ignore it.” I wonder if he recognized the Underground as a movement, or at minimum, an online rallying space for like-minded teachers, would his viewpoint and public commentary differ? I wonder if he’s missing the boat here by mis-perceiving what’s happening, thus causing him to respond in a way that stokes the fires and motivates the Underground to become more vocal and active? I’ve continued to monitor the blog, and I haven’t detected any let up.  But only time will tell.

Finally, while we don’t know as much as we would if we were “in the room,” I do know this.  Movements can be managed if you listen well.  Listening leads to actions that defuse situations, builds relationships and creates common understanding even if both sides don’t fully agree with each other. The opposite approach causes you to miss key information, incites anger and frustration, destroys relationships and leads to misunderstandings.  Which route do you think will best prevent the tipping point from occurring?

Excessive, off-topic tweeting: Do you or brands you follow do it?

What the hell is he doing? Stop! I can't look anymore!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about brands over-posting and over-tweeting and how much is too much, if there is such a thing.  I teed up the question to some fellow PR colleagues on Twitter this week. The exact question was:

How can a brand prevent from over-posting/tweeting and driving peeps away?

Jeff Esposito said, “Respond when needed, don’t oversell, make it about customers, not you.”

Andrew Shipp said, “Write out a conversation calendar, Try and stick to 1-4 ratio. Only mention the brand 1 time for every 4 tweets/updates. Always add value to community. What do they want? Think about Info as currency, Here’s a post I wrote: http://ow.ly/3ZB1i.”

Allie Herzog said, “As long as you’re communicating what your AUDIENCE wants to hear (rather than what you want to tell them) you’ll avoid probs.”

Solid advice I’d put on the first and last slides of any social media presentation any day. Do you see the common thread? Make it about them, not you. For most of you, this isn’t new.  It’s Social Media 101. But do you follow this advice when it comes to your personal brand?  I don’t! And as a result, there are actions to not repeat and consequences to endure.

That said, growing up, I got in trouble a lot for talking too much.  I also got in trouble once for hitting a teacher in the shoulder with a wad of paper but we can discuss my youthful indiscretions another day.  There were plenty! Any ways, back then the penalty for excessive talking ranged from a calm “stop talking” from the teacher to a frustration-fueled scolding in front of the entire class.  Yeah, embarrassing. Today, the consequences are similar.

Now I totally agree with Jeff, Andrew and Allie.  I also agree with those who say if you drink too much Chianti Ruffino you’ll wake up with a headache the next day. But I do it anyways some times.

I use Facebook primarily for personal relationships.  It’s why I started it in the first place. In short, like millions of other users, it’s a network of family, old and new friends and some of their friends I met at a party once and politely accepted their next-day friend request. Whatever.  Even The North Face executives have some Snuggie peers who’ve infiltrated their space due to their worlds colliding at a conference somewhere.

Twitter is my conduit to PR, Marketing and Social Media pros and journalists.  Twitter is my little world that hardly anyone on Facebook is even aware of. Explaining it to them is like trying to educate my mom about the finer intricacies of “what I do for a living” when all she cares about is if I’m healthy and regularly brushing my teeth. She doesn’t really care! Realizing this, I don’t try to blend the two worlds, which is fine.

Perhaps it’s only me (I know it’s not) but I monitor the number of followers I have on Twitter.  I retweet, ask questions and tweet information myself all in an effort to connect with like-minded people who enjoy the profession.  However – here it comes – I deviate from time to time and share about OTHER topics. Why? Probably because I care about those things.  I go so far as to even engage in conversations about them!  Gasp!  When this is happening, I envision my PR peers watching the ball flying back and forth, asking their iPhone, “What the hell is he doing? Stop!”

Perhaps I’m wrong and paranoid, but when I engage in said social media sinful behavior, I swear I lose followers. Why? Well, hello Jeff, Andrew and Allie! Could it be I’m not only talking too much but about subjects my primary audience doesn’t care about? In that moment, am I making it too much about me? So much so that people eject me from their lives, wielding their phone in the their right hand, their thumbs navigating to my Twitter profile followed by a swift and decisive touch of Unfollow. (Thunder booms and fades into silence.)

I believe social media “rules” are completely applicable to all users, organizations and personalities, especially those who use platforms with a specific purpose.  As the follower of a small but highly engaged group on Twitter, I too am bombarded from time to time with tweets in which I have no interest. Some days I come so close to enacting the event sequence described above leading to an Unfollow, but I’m stopped by the thought perhaps they will share a nugget of information that changes my life or at least makes me smile.  But that’s me. Not everyone is so tolerant especially customers who, despite the social media manager’s best efforts, don’t feel overly invested in the business.

So for all of you who have come close to banishing me from your Following list but resisted the temptation for some reason, I’m sorry, and I promise I’ll try to do better! For those who follow me and have somehow avoided an off-topic tweet or conversation, just ignore this entire post except for Jeff’s, Andrew’s and Allie’s advice.  That’s the part I’m taking to the bank!

Have you stopped following people or brands because they stopped adding value to your life?

In examining your personal social media use, do you drive people away by not following the “rules?”

PR pros dish on starting PR biz, fave holidays (part 2)

I hope part 1, Doubts, motivation, advice: PR pros dish on starting biz, of this post was helpful.  If you missed it, I encourage you to read it first, unless you’re burning up inside wanting to know about those holidays!  Thanks, again, to Aileen Katcher, Gayle Falkenthal, Heather Whaling and Sarah Evans for taking the time share their insights and experience. Ya’ll rock! (Banjo fades)

5. For those aspiring to start a PR biz, what’s your advice?

Aileen: Treat yourself like a client.  Know when you need outside expert help (accounting, legal, hr) and use it.

Gayle: Determine your niche and establish strong branding. You can’t be all things to all people. I’m superb with public affairs and advocacy work, but I detest event planning. Most people like to do what they’re good at, so go with it. You’ll provide better work for your clients and create a stronger reputation for yourself. On the practical side, get your financial house in order. You need to have a real relationship with your bank – go inside and meet the bank personnel. Stop doing all your transactions online or at the ATM!  Set up business accounts and credit lines and enough cash reserves to weather the start-up period and tide you over when clients are slow to pay (or don’t pay, and don’t think it won’t happen).  Then network, network, network and don’t be shy about letting people know you are in business. A good referral or inquiry can come from anywhere.

Heather: Three pieces of advice:

1) Find a good accountant who is willing to take the time to answer your questions and help you make smart financial decisions.

2) Surround yourself with good people. Arik Hanson and I started our companies within months of each other. In the beginning, we frequently shared ideas, brainstormed together and offered each other advice. Having that “sounding board” was incredibly helpful.

3) Aspiring PR entrepreneurs need to think of themselves as a “client.” Before I officially launched Geben, I wrote a mini-PR plan for the company. That solid foundation helped me hit the ground running. (And it worked! Within the first month, I signed a New York Times best-selling author and haven’t slowed down since!) In PR, we tend to focus on our clients and forget to do our own PR. But, you have to make time. You’re a business now. If you were your own client, what counsel would you offer?

Sarah: Don’t undervalue your worth. When a potential client or speaking opportunity comes your way, don’t be afraid to let them know what your time is worth. You can always negotiate down from a price, but once you set your price, it’s often harder to go up — especially if you find out later that they were wiling to pay more.

At the same time, think about the value that conference or client might have for you — you might be willing to go lower if you’re speaking to 300 senior VPs, which could lead to future clients or paid speaking engagements.

6. During the process of starting your biz, were you ever afraid or have doubts?  If so, how did you overcome those feelings?

Aileen: I actually had planned on striking out on my own by the time our son reached middle school.  Unfortunately, as I was beginning that long-range plan (while he was in elementary school) my job as marketing director at Baptist Hospital was eliminated, so I was forced into it before I was ready. Doubts – certainly, but then I remembered that I thought my job at the hospital would be there as long as I wanted it.  And, yes, there were times when it scared me (and still are times) but in the words of my first PR mentor, I always try to move “onward and upward.”

Gayle: Maybe it’s revisionist history in my mind, but I don’t recall having a shred of doubt.

I ascribe this to two things. First, my parents were entrepreneurs. My father started his business when I was 12. My parents were extremely open and they told us kids times might be tough for a while until the shop started making money, but my father did just fine from the get-go (although he did work his ay-ess-ess off).

I partially answered this in question #2 of the original but I’ll elaborate. I mentioned that I’d been laid off three times in less than five years, and thought to myself “How much worse could it be?” I truly do remember this. Of my three layoffs, I was treated with extreme respect once, got the security guard escort out the door in another, and last endured a long drawn out one I knew about for months before it occurred.  But whether I was treated decently or not, getting laid off SUCKS. So you really can’t be afraid of anything when you’ve already taken those sorts of body blows. It was a relief not to have to worry about getting hired and then getting laid off for the fourth time.

Where I mentioned as part of question #2’s answer that I picked up clients, I see it isn’t really clear that I kept two (one each layoff) as moonlighting gigs. So by the time I was hitting layoff #3, I already had two small clients. My third layoff was from the American Red Cross, which turned around and hired me back as a consultant on a temp basis two days before my full time job ended.  This was supposed to be for just a few months, but I kept them as a major client for four years. So I already had steady monthly business, enough to just cover my monthly expenses from day one.

I have always been a “saver,” so I had a year’s pay in the bank when I went into business. It gave me a tremendous amount of security. See the question #5 answer where I talk about finances, your relationship with your banker, getting your financial house in order. Even if I hadn’t started with some clients, I gave myself a lot of breathing room thanks to this. I suppose you could say I overcame any feelings of doubt or fearfulness by providing a foundation of security for myself long before I started. I realize not everyone can do so, but it gave me the option of hanging in there for a while if I hit any rough patches. I never did.

Heather: I wouldn’t have started a business if I didn’t think it would be successful. I spent a lot of time working on the business and building my network of potential referral sources before ever going public with the fact that I was launching Geben Communication. By the time I announced the company, I was pretty confident that it was going to work. Prior to going out on my own, I had a great agency job. I wouldn’t have left that job to start Geben unless I was sure it was going to work.

I wrote about this when I first launched the company, but I had been debating for a while whether I wanted to start my own company or not. I was on a HARO (Help a Reporter Out) webinar, where Peter Shankman said, “Don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from crossing the start line.” That was an a-ha moment for me. I realized I needed to believe that I could do this, have faith in my abilities and work really hard. And, so far, so good!

That said, I think everyone has at least a few moments where they wonder if they’re making the right decision. Especially, if it’s your first “entrepreneur experiment.” If you’re a serial entrepreneur, perhaps some of those butterflies are gone. But, at least speaking from my own experience, giving up a steady paycheck and benefits to go out on my own was a fairly risky thing to do — especially because I did it in the midst of the recession. It’s only natural to have a few doubts. What separates the people who think about entrepreneurship and the people who actually become entrepreneurs is the ability to look past their fear of doubt to turn their idea into reality.

Sarah: It was never a certainty that Sevans Strategy would be an instant success. Launching your own company takes time and dedication, yet so many startups fail despite the man-hours and money spent. Before launching, I created somewhat of an ultimatum — if my business wasn’t self-sustaining, after a certain period of time, I’d fold and try a different direction. Fortunately, this has never been the case, our business model to date has been a success and new business continues to come in the door. Last year, Entrepreneur named us one of their 10 Hot Startups, and our business has only continued to grow.

7. What’s your favorite holiday and why?

Aileen: Thanksgiving.  It’s a long weekend, I get to see family and friends, get to cook (one of my favorite pastimes).

Gayle: The Fourth of July. The weather is usually perfect and there is the promise of long summer days ahead. Other than having your American flag up (I do year-round), you don’t have to decorate and you don’t have to buy gifts. There’s no real agenda other than fireworks. You can just eat, drink, and relax. Could our great nation’s birthday get any better? My own birthday is just a few weeks later. July rocks.

Heather: Election Day is my favorite holiday. My first job was for a small agency that specialized in public affairs and political consulting. Election Day was our Super Bowl. I’m a competitive person by nature, so I loved the idea of working like crazy for success or failure to be determined on that one day.

Working in politics helped me learn a lot of valuable lessons as well, like grace under fire and thriving on tight deadlines. But, most importantly, it helped me learn that PR isn’t about accumulating a bunch of clips or awards. If you lose an election, no one cares how many media clips you generated! For me, every Election Day is a good reminder that PR is about finding the right mix of tools and tactics, delivering the right message to the right audience, and inciting action (votes, sales, etc.).

Sarah: Christmas — it’s a time for me to be with friends, family and loved ones.

Doubts, motivation, advice: PR pros dish on starting biz (part 1)

I don’t know about you but I’m convinced that fear, or at minimum, feelings of doubt are natural when undertaking something very important.

According to the book “The Millionaire Next Door,” “Courage is behaving in a way that conjures up fear.” The book also says that between a person with a $5-million trust account and a self-made entrepreneur worth several million dollars, typically “…it’s the entrepreneur, the person who deals with risk every day, who tests his or her courage every day” who has less fear.

With that being said, thanks for visiting my new blog, “Public Relations and the people behind it.”  While a more lengthy explanation is available here, in short, this blog is not about me.  Rather, it is about you – the PR pro, student or wanna-be.

To kick things off, I recently asked four pros questions about starting their own businesses.  From how they ended up in PR to  the decision to breakout on their own to, you guessed it, fears and doubts along the way, their answers were so insightful I decided to publish them verbatim.  As someone in the process of “behaving in a way that conjures up fear,” I learned a lot from this group’s answers, and I wish the same for you!

So, enjoy, learn, comment and share!

Featured are:

Aileen Katcher of Katcher Vaughn & Bailey Public Relations

Gayle Falkenthal of Falcon Valley Group,

Heather Whaling of Geben Communication, and

Sarah Evans of Sevans Strategy

1. How did you get into PR?

Aileen Katcher

Aileen: I worked on the high school paper and thought I wanted to be a journalist.  Two uncles who had pursued that profession convinced me that might not be a good economic decision so I went for an English major instead.  Then half way through college, my financial situation changed, and I had to start working full-time and going to school at night.  Ultimately, my high school journalism skills landed me a series of jobs doing public relations, the most significant at a hospital.  When I moved to Nashville in the late 70s, I got a job with the PR firm for Hospital Corporation of America and have been doing health care public relations and crisis communications ever since.

Gayle: I spent the first half of my career as a broadcaster in both radio and television. I got to the point where I didn’t find it a challenge anymore and turned to public affairs work for public sector and nonprofit organizations. I decided to start my own consulting practice in February 2004, and it was the best thing I ever did. I love it. I admire and respect my clients, and most days it hardly seems like work.

Heather: Since high school, I’ve had an interest in communicating stories. Back then, that meant I was our yearbook editor. I actually went to college to be a journalist, but soon realized that wasn’t quite the right fit for me. As I explored other potential career options, PR’s role in making and shaping news piqued my attention. And, I guess the rest is history.

Sarah: As a little girl, I hosted afternoon tea parties and would invite my friends and family to join in. My love of connecting people hasn’t changed and has served as a natural progression into the PR and social media industries. Instead of hosting tea parties, I host tweetchats, like #journchat, connecting bloggers, journalists, PR pros and social media enthusiasts across the country and even in different parts of the world. Through Sevans Strategy and my role as a social media correspondent, I’ve built a business of teaching clients about engaging with consumers, bloggers, fans and other key constituents via social media.

2. Why did you decide to start your own biz?

Aileen: In 1994 I was part of a big management layoff at Baptist Hospital where I was director of marketing.  While I was looking for a job, I started handling projects for a few clients that knew me from my Baptist days.  By 1996, I reached a point that I needed some other senior level colleagues.  Roy Vaughn and I worked together when he was fresh out of college, and I knew Greg Bailey from his journalism days.  They contacted me about that time about starting a firm together, and KVBPR was born. 

Gayle Falkenthal and Mario

Gayle: After I was laid off for the third time in less than five years, I decided to take my fate into my own hands. I thought to myself, “How much worse could it be?” I’d been slowly laying the groundwork during the first two layoffs. Each time I secured client work immediately and held on to two small clients each time I went back to full-time employment. With these “test runs” I felt confident it would work out, and it did.

Heather: With nearly 10 years of agency experience, I was ready for the next challenge. For five years prior to starting Geben Communication, I was the director of PR for an agency in Orlando, where I had the opportunity to play a role in business development. I was like a sponge, trying to absorb as much as I could about the business side of agency life.

When my husband and I decided we wanted to move back to Ohio (where we’re both from), it seemed like the perfect time to launch my own company. So, in the worst of the recession, I gave notice that I was quitting my safe, steady job to move 1,000 miles north and start my own company. As crazy as it may have sounded at the time, that was easily the best professional decision I’ve ever made.

Sarah: I’m an entrepreneur at heart and wanted to use my skills in social media to help others.

3. With regard to your biz, what keeps you up at night?

Aileen: Keeping the new business funnel full.

Gayle: I sleep extremely well. I beat myself up when I make a mistake such as a typo in a client newsletter or a mistake with a quote in a news release. I fret sometimes not being able to come through for a client with good media exposure. It’s often due to forces I can’t control, for example, having to do with the news cycle. Still, it’s hard to explain that to the client who has high expectations.

Heather Whaling

Heather: We’re in a creative field, so sometimes ideas strike at the most random times! It’s not uncommon for me to wake up in the middle of the night with a new idea or a creative way to approach a project.

If you’re asking about what worries me, the answer varies, depending on what’s going on at that specific time. But, when I step back to look at the big picture, none of the “worries” are that bad. If a challenge arises, we deal with it and move on. I’ve learned not to let things fester. Communicate clearly, manage expectations, find a solution and move on. I’ll gladly trade a little lost sleep for the freedom and flexibility that comes with entrepreneurship.

Sarah: I like to brainstorm new, creative ideas for clients. On occasion, I might go to bed thinking about what we can do to improve a campaign or how can we add to what we’re already doing, and I’ll wake up in the morning with several strategies.

4. With regard to your biz, if you could do anything over again what would it be?

Aileen: We could have done a better job of planning and managing our growth in the late 90s and early 2000s.  But, we have done a great job of managing our resources and keeping up our own marketing during the great recession.

Gayle: I don’t look back with many regrets. With some of my early clients, I would have set expectations a little more firmly, which is critically important to ensuring that your working relationship is a smooth and prosperous one for both the consultant and the client.

Heather: Trust your instincts. If you have a bad feeling about something or someone, don’t ignore it. When you first start a new business, it’s hard to leave money on the table. But, sometimes saying “no” really is the best decision. Now, I’m much more particular about the types of clients I agree to take on. I want to work with people I like and organizations I believe in. I’m also committed to working with people who see our relationship as a partnership, where my team is an extension of their team.

Sarah Evans

That said, I don’t know that I’d take a do-over on anything. Everything that’s happened thus far has influenced where we are and where we’re going. I love Geben’s current manifestation and am very excited about where we’re headed.

Sarah: Work hard — but also make sure to find time to rest. With a new business, you have to give it your all, but it’s so important for your health (both mental AND physical) to schedule some down time — whether it’s taking a vacation or being selective to opportunities that come your way. Trying to take on everything might not catch up with you right away, but to stay energized and focused, you need rest to keep up the momentum.