Among the many tactics public relations professionals deploy on behalf of clients is the pitch letter. And in the ideal scenario, a pitch letter e-mailed to a newspaper reporter or TV producer translates directly into news coverage favorable to said clients.
But getting the job done right – well enough to deliver the right results – is hardly easy. A survey recently highlighted in the Harvard Business Review shows as much. It looked at obstacles the pitch letter typically encounters, plus offered clues to achieving success.
To wit, only 11% of the 500-plus digital publishers surveyed “often” wrote a story based on a pitch letter, with 45% doing so “sometimes” and 37% “rarely.” No big surprise there, though. After all, the publishers polled are pitched a lot – at least 20 times a day for 40%, 50 times a day for 11% and more than 100 times a day – wow! – for 8.4%. And most reporters do no more than one to two stories a day.
How to break through this firewall? The survey, conducted by Frac.tl, a digital marketing agency, lends some guidance – and, with it, a welcome dose of hope. The perfect pitch should contain at least one of three elements: 39% of reporters prefer “exclusive research,” 27% “breaking news” and 15% “emotional stories. Pitch notes should also be short: 45% want fewer than 100 words, 43% want fewer than 200 and only 12% want as many as 300.
The survey touches on other valuable points, too. The findings recommend developing personal connections with the media members approached; using newsy, headline-like subject lines; and ensuring that pitch letters are free of grammar and spelling errors. The research even advises about the best time of day to e-mail a pitch.
My take on all this: in a word, Amen. I’m a big believer in the pitch letter. If the pitch letter ran for office, I would vote for it. Over the decades, I’ve written thousands of pitch letters for hundreds of clients. A fair percentage have led to media hits, whether in The New York Times or the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin (circulation 21,000).
Tomorrow, based on my own experience, I’ll suggest my own three quick tips about the pitch letter.
For some of us, election season brings back a flood of memories. We see TV ads, speeches, op-eds, yard signs and debates, and it brings us back to our own personal experiences on the campaign trail. Campaign communications are rigorous and demanding, a type of communications boot camp with all-or-nothing results.
What can our corporate, nonprofit, foundation and, particularly our executive clients, learn from this experience? I consulted my colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, to share their wisdom from years of campaign communications:
Get personal, be authentic
No matter what you think about politics, elections demonstrate the power of storytelling. As an executive, be willing to expose your personal side. Your personal stories are the gift you provide your audience in exchange for their attention. Find an opportunity to connect, share your passions and life experiences and how they relate to your work. Maybe you have a child with a disability? Perhaps you’re a weekend bee keeper? Making a personal connection builds trust. For example, Richard Branson is a top Influencer on LinkedIn, and his personal stories touch everything he writes.
Have you heard the standard campaign 3-step plan speech? Did Martin Luther King share his 3-step plan for combating injustice? He did not. Instead, his words were poetic, evocative and inspirational. In a word – visionary. The best campaigners learn not to talk about policies, but about the impact of policies, on the local economy, on personal freedoms, and on people’s day-to-day lives. Great ideas must have both a rational AND strong emotional appeal. As conveyed in the book Made to Stick, “sticky” memorable ideas must also be unexpected, concrete, and credible.
Just keep repeating
Candidates quickly realize the value of repetition. It feels a little strange in the beginning, repeating oneself over and over and over. But just because the candidate and the staff have heard the same message 5 times a day for weeks, doesn’t mean the target audience has taken it in. For staff and the candidate, a campaign may feel like the center of the universe, but it is a very small universe. The same can be said of business, nonprofit and foundation campaigns. Find new and interesting ways to say it, but just keep repeating.
The old adage remains true: all politics is local. The best campaigners learn to use local expressions, make local references, even enjoy local foods. Many organizations aim for national attention, devaluing local or regional coverage. However, local markets are sometimes significantly easier to target, when compared to an abundantly crowded national media market. And keep this in mind: local and state newspapers are often a direct link to lawmakers at all levels. Going local can elevate your voice among lawmakers, targeted customers, and supporters in that region.
There are no Wednesdays in political campaigns; it’s only Tuesday that matters. On a campaign, everything leads to one day. After that, no amount of communication, amplification, contextualization, proper framing or better preparation will make a bit of difference. There can be real value in applying this maxim to private sector communications as well. Certain business plans are already built to crescendo, whether that crescendo happens over the course of one day, one week, or one quarter. Think of a new product launch, for example. Every communication is aimed at spurring consumers to action, and garnering a positive buzz online and in the media. After launch day, every press release, post, tweet or pin is less and less relevant. Going all-in on communications efforts that build to a single moment not only helps crystalize your planning and execution, it can lead to powerful results.
Special thanks to Paul Pimentel, Crystal Benton and Joe Shoemaker. Between the four of us, we have 52 years (wow!) on the campaign trail, having worked local, state, congressional and presidential efforts.
Recently, thousands of communications professionals from across different sectors and industries convened in our nation’s capital for the annual Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) International Conference – “Leading the Way: A Fearless Future for PR.” Over the course of three days, participants were challenged to identify trends, techniques and technologies in public relations and discuss how the industry continues to evolve.
The venue for this year’s meeting – Washington, D.C. – was particularly relevant in light of the upcoming November elections. Many conversations in the sessions and the hallways had a certain Beltway twist, which was nicely complemented by a lively keynote from NBC’s “Meet the Press” host, Chuck Todd.
Through the course of the conference, one resounding theme rose to the top: how to break through the ever-increasing noise to get our message heard, especially among policymakers and policy influencers.
According to research presented by David Rehr, Ph.D., professor at the Graduate School of Policy Management at The George Washington University, there’s more competition than ever before for time and attention from members of Congress and staffers who receive an average of 134 emails a day.
This, of course, is a well-known challenge, but the solution is not static. In today’s rapidly evolving communications landscape, what worked yesterday may not work today and almost certainly won’t work tomorrow.
So how do you cut through the clutter? Panelists Jeffrey Davis, Senior Vice President of Media Relations at AARP, and Byron Tau, Reporter at Politico, led an audience discussion with the following takeaways:
- Mobilize your membership and/or employees on issues within their own communities. They can be your most valuable assets and enable you to use an approach that resonates.
- Leverage your business partners to validate messages with policymakers and reinforce that your issue is important to multiple stakeholders.
- “Local” is key so target your outreach and messages accordingly. Show policymakers – and reporters – why the issue matters to their constituents and they’ll be more receptive to what you have to say.
- Don’t be a “one-hit wonder.” Instead build a sustained strategy that creates momentum over time.
- Build relationships. Take a reporter to coffee. Learn more about what they’re working on and what they’re interested in, then tailor your pitches or “asks” accordingly.
- Social media has become the “water cooler” of Washington and the source of information for many reporters. Keep that in mind as you’re building your media outreach approach.
As PR professionals, we cherish opportunities to meet with others in our field, whether it’s to discuss the latest trends in our business or navigate through challenges we see in our daily work. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) International Conference in Washington gave us this opportunity and provided a number of actionable insights to shape communications strategies and activities moving forward.
Americans have become all too familiar with bad behavior – from the nation’s roadways and sports arenas to political campaigns and corporate boardrooms. Now, according to a new national survey, the pervasiveness of society’s incivility is driving some action among an influential consumer and voter segment: Millennials.
Their responses to incivility range from the extreme – defending a victim, quitting a job or moving residences – to the more common: changing shopping and buying patterns and writing letters of complaint.
The survey, the fifth installment of Civility in America, was conducted by KRC Research in partnership with Powell Tate. It found that Americans of all ages are more likely to do nothing in the face of incivility rather than confront it. But one-third of Millennials (33 percent) said they took a proactive measure the last time they experienced incivility, a rate significantly higher than Gen Xers (22 percent) and Boomers (18 percent). Millennials, for example, were most likely to have defended a victim of incivility (16 percent).
Of Millennials — generally defined as those between ages 18 and 33 — the survey also found:
- Forty-five percent say they have ended a friendship or other relationship because of uncivil behavior;
- Forty-four percent say they have either stopped buying from a company or advised others not to buy from one (44 percent) because of uncivil treatment by a company representative;
- Twenty-seven percent have quit a job because their workplace was uncivil;
- About one-quarter (24 percent) say they have stopped attending professional or college sporting events because of uncivil behavior on the field or in the crowd;
- One in six (16 percent) have moved because of uncivil neighbors.
Overall, the survey underscores a U.S. civility deficit. Roughly two-thirds of citizens believe that the nation has a major civility problem; seven in 10 believe that civility has eroded over the past few years; and just one in eight think it will get better anytime soon. Still, Millennials may see the glass partially-full: nearly one in four Millennials (23 percent) – two to four times the percentage of other generations – believe civility will improve.
The Internet, government and politics rank as the top causes of incivility among all generations. About seven in 10 Americans agree that the Internet, including comments associated with online news articles and social media, encourage uncivil behavior. Millennials, the heaviest users of social media, are significantly more likely than other generations to consider the medium uncivil and to have experienced cyberbullying; they overwhelming identify social media in general and individual social networks such as Facebook and Twitter as hotbeds of incivility.
Perceptions of incivility in politics run deep and across party lines and generations. Democrats, Republicans and Independents of all ages agree that government officials behave uncivilly. Politicians are seen as the number one cause of the erosion of civility in America. Further, respondents said incivility in our government is harming our future (85 percent); preventing action on important issues (79 percent); and will not improve until government leaders begin to act more civilly (74 percent).
This study prompts a key question, then: Can the tide be turned on incivility or is the damage to our society and political system irreparable? Millennials are the leaders of tomorrow and their optimism should give us hope. The power to shape the future of American civil discourse lies in their hands – time will tell.
When Powell Tate/Weber Shandwick decided to grow our global education practice – especially higher education – we were convinced that universities now have to be as intentional in protecting, sustaining and enhancing their reputation as any corporation. We knew that today, universities face international competition just as multinational corporations do. They compete globally for the best students, the best faculty, the best managers.
The “World 100” Universities Conference held this month at the University of Michigan’s famed Ann Arbor campus saw our conviction fully vindicated. Top universities from around the world – which in the realm of global university rankings generally means the English-speaking world – addressed a reputational agenda focused on “Transformation: Where World-Class Universities Have to Change to Survive."
The heads of communications and marketing from some of the leading universities in the U.S. – from Boston University to UT Austin; in the UK – from the LSE to Oxford; in Australia – from Melbourne to Monash; and from other leaders from Ireland and Denmark to Korea and Hong Kong – came to share their ideas and gather new insights from their colleagues and competitors. There were some innovative projects:
- The most striking new branding came from Australia’s Adelaide, where an almost poetic imagery centered on light – illumination as the metaphor for learning and human progress, reflecting Australia’s Southern Star – played on a theme of “Seek the Light” in various emanations;
- Michigan solved the branding dilemma of universities with famous sports teams and programs by simply adopting the golden “M” of its famous football and sports heroes as the university’s overall symbol;
- Chicago embraced its distinctively academic reputation by a compelling new mantra unashamedly positioning the university as an “Intellectual Destination” – a nice sense of journey and goal conjured from the “Destination” theme;
- Oxford (my alma mater, so I have to mention them) showed how they reached out to potential supporters and donors without the usual focus on alumni, which at least until recently has not been much of a UK tradition.
However much their Presidents and Chancellors profess to loath these lists, participants acknowledged that global rankings were never far from their thoughts. I was billed as drawing on my background heading Coca-Cola’s corporate reputation as “Creating the Fizz Factor: Reputational Lessons from Coca-Cola and the Corporate World Applied to Higher Education.” In my presentation, I deconstructed the top global rankings and divided their components into “perception” factors – susceptible to influence by communicators – and “performance” elements, more the province of Provosts and the academic leadership.
I also shared a couple of new online resources useful to university leaders.
- LinkedIn has brilliantly leveraged its vast professional data base and created its own university guide out of all the personal information we LinkedIn users dutifully provide. Would-be college applicants now just have to type in what they want to study; where (including individual corporations) they want to work and live – and out comes a list of universities they should go to.
- For my Coca-Cola time the University of Georgia (predictably) would have been good; but for my dream job writing for The New Yorker the University of Iowa surprisingly equaled the obvious Ivy League suspects. Give it a try!
- Meanwhile, UNESCO has done something useful: it has a database graphically illustrating the flows of students in and out of every country. Some fascinating results: in Russia most incoming students come from Belarus and Kazakhstan, but outgoing Russian students prefer Germany or – hopefully this will survive our supposed new Cold war – the USA...
The country’s top newspapers receive many hundreds of op-ed submissions every week. Most weekdays, each paper publishes no more than three of those in print. Clearly the long odds don’t deter many aspiring contributors (or their PR consultants) from taking pen to paper, so what can be done to improve the odds of success?
PT Insights has looked at this issue before and produced some excellent guidance on what qualities help a piece to get published. So we decided to take a closer look at the bylines and figure out who is getting published. Specifically, we looked at the op-eds that appeared in print in the weekday New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal over four weeks in July 2014.
Taken together, government officials, academics and journalists dominated the opinion pages for a combined total of nearly two-thirds of all the published op-eds. Current and former government officials authored the most pieces. But, unexpectedly, it was the Journal and not the Post that had the most in this category with 19 pieces.
At the other end of the spectrum were corporate voices. The Times printed only two op-eds by people primarily affiliated with the business world out of the 47 pieces it published; the Post ran none; and even the Wall Street Journal printed only four.
Of the two Times op-eds from corporate-affiliated authors, one was from a scientist at Microsoft Research. The other had three co-authors: Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.
Based on our admittedly small sample, it seems fair to ask whether there is an anti-corporate bias on some of the opinion pages. It’s impossible to know the answer without information about the pieces that were rejected. Did they have the persuasive arguments, news value and brilliant writing that op-ed editors say they are looking for? Or, perhaps, all the pieces from business executives were just too commercial or self-serving. As David Shipley wrote when he was at the helm of the Times’ op-ed page, “Op-Ed real estate is too valuable to be taken up with press releases.”
While that debate over bias would certainly be entertaining, communications professionals – especially those who represent corporate voices -- would be better served by accepting this reality and figuring out how best to navigate it. For starters, we should be very careful before suggesting “top tier op-eds” as a tactic for our corporate clients. For all but the most marquee names, the bar is simply set too high for this to be a practical part of most communications plans.
When we do ultimately decide to pursue op-eds in major publications, we must emphasize to our clients the need to build relationships with outside validators. Identifying and cultivating third party supporters can be challenging and time consuming, but may be the only available means to get space on this coveted real estate for a client’s point of view.
Having allies in academia and think tanks is especially important, since more than one in four of the op-eds in our sample came from those two categories, with another 5 percent from non-profits or NGOs. And if you hope to get published in the Times, find a like-minded law professor: of the 11 op-eds published by academics, six were from law schools.
Working to build relationships with professional writers clearly helps too. Thirty-two contributors were either reporters, editors or book authors.
Too often, it seems op-eds are reflexively suggested as a media strategy. But in fact, we may often do better thinking of them as tactics within a comprehensive stakeholder relationships plan.
Methodology: With the help of my colleague, Chris Hershey, who diligently tracked the daily coverage, we looked at op-eds that appeared in print in the weekday editions of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and attempted to sort the authors into a few major categories. For co-authored pieces, each author was awarded a fraction to their category. We tried to rely on the primary affiliation listed in the authors’ bios at the end of the op-eds, though in many cases we had to make a judgment call in order to fit them into just one category.
Storytelling is a critical component of nonprofit communications. And while many cause-focused organizations have compelling and exiting stories to share, they often lack the resources and staff bandwidth to do so effectively.
In order to help nonprofits better share their stories, Georgetown University's Center for Social Impact Communication and the Meyer Foundation recently released Stories Worth Telling: A Guide to Strategic and Sustainable Nonprofit Storytelling—a comprehensive set of research and best practices designed to build storytelling capacity among small nonprofits.
So what makes a story compelling?
There are five essential building blocks:
- An Effective Character - Stories should contain a single, compelling character that is relatable to the audience and who is comfortable relaying specific details, memories and experiences.
- Trajectory - Stories should chronicle something that happens—an experience, journey, transformation, or discovery—but they don’t need to be a linear, sequential recounting every time.
- Authenticity - Stories should show, rather than tell, the audience about the character’s transformation, using rich details and featuring the character’s own voice, devoid of jargon.
- Action-Oriented Emotions - Stories should convey emotions that move people to act, and marry these with clear, easy-to-find pathways to get them to take action.
- A Hook - Stories should capture the audience’s attention as quickly as possible, giving them a sense of whose story it is and what is at stake.
Effective storytelling is one of the greatest challenges facing small organizations, but resources like this can go a long way in helping nonprofits demonstrate their impact in long-lasting ways.
Learn more about the Stories Worth Telling initiative and check out their other resources, tutorials and workshops here: http://meyerfoundation.org/impact/stories-worth-telling
The Powell Tate defense team recently spoke with a number of defense policy experts and journalists and got their perspective on the impact of automatic-spending cuts mandated by federal legislation --sequestration -- and current events would have on the midterm elections.
The consensus was that next year a heavyweight bout awaits in the U.S. defense arena. A much anticipated clash between under sequestration and the demands on the U.S. military.
Sydney Freedberg of Breaking Defense declared, Congress “can’t thoughtfully address anything else — Russia, Ukraine, China, ISIL, long-term modernization — without knowing what the budget is! Strategy without a budget is just wishful thinking, and while the Pentagon CAN make cuts, it at least needs to know how much the cuts ARE.”
Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, referred to sequestration “as a particularly destructive way to save dollars that puts at risk the readiness of our forces and their ability to confront future adversaries.”
The assessment of the impact of ISIL on the election was mixed.
Kristina Wong of The Hill thinks the airstrikes against ISIL forces “Democratic candidates to choose between a war-weary base and support for the president, but also weaken GOP criticism that Obama and Democrats are not doing enough.”
Although John Bennett of Defense News believes that “other than a few 30-second ads” the impact of the military involvement will mean “very little.”
And as to which Congressional elections the defense community watching?
Megan Eckstein of Defense Daily stated that “several Democratic Senate appropriators have found themselves in tight races – Mark Begich (Alaska), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana) and Mark Pryor (Arkansas). This matters nationally because control of the Senate is at stake, but it matters for defense because their ouster would be a significant loss of institutional knowledge regarding defense spending.”
Diem Salmon of The Heritage Foundation believes that “the biggest race is Kentucky’s. If Senator McConnell wins and the GOP takes the Senate he will likely become Majority Leader and have a big impact on all legislation. In addition, two Senate Armed Services Committee members, Senators Shaheen (New Hampshire) and Hagan (North Carolina), are in a tight race, which may mean new members and opinions in SASC.”
Next year the stakes are high for the defense community, and Election Day is the first round of what is to be a long fight.
Ride-sharing startup Uber announced this month that it is teaming up with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Hiring Our Heroes project. Uber plans to recruit tens of thousands of service members, veterans and military spouses as driver partners over the next 18 months. It’s a win-win: veterans gain access to flexible, part-time job opportunities and Uber gains hard-working, service-oriented drivers.
Despite the emergence of more and more such programs, however, veteran unemployment and underemployment still exist, especially for younger veterans who face unemployment rates of over three times the national average. In their op-ed for Politico Magazine, former secretary of defense and chairman of UberMILITARY Robert Gates and Uber CEO & co-founder Travis Kalanick say this problem persists because businesses often don’t understand how service members’ skills translate to the civilian workplace.
Fortunately, that’s not the case at John C. Lincoln Health Network in Phoenix, Arizona. Staff there discovered that most readmitted patients with congestive heart failure didn’t have the social network they needed to promote positive outcomes. At the same time, they learned that many combat veterans have to repeat medical training that they have already completed while in the military in order to secure a similar civilian job. The hospital created a win-win program to recruit and hire prior military Corpsman (Air Force and Army) and Medics (Navy) to work with frail, elderly patients recently discharged from the hospital.
The result? Patients under this voluntary program are less likely to end up back in the hospital, with a less than 6% readmission rate compared to an 18% readmission rate from the same period during the prior year.
As part of our work with the Partnership for Patients, a public-private partnership working to improve the quality, safety and affordability of health care for all Americans, we identify and share model programs and best practices showcasing patient and family engagement so that others might learn from and replicate them. John C. Lincoln’s transition specialist program is one of these. It’s also a great example of how hospitals – and even non-health related businesses – can match service members’ skills with business and community needs. When done right, it’s a definite win-win.
Read more about John C. Lincoln’s story here.
Exciting news: Twitter just released their Government and Elections Handbook!
What, you’re not as thrilled as I am? You might be under the impression, based on the title, that this handbook is only relevant for public affairs representatives or politicians, but you’d be wrong on that account. While it is primarily designed for use by political campaigns, I’d venture to say it is the most thorough and up-to-date outline of every feature on Twitter and does an absolutely outstanding job of highlighting best practices in a manner that is concise and digestible for people completely unfamiliar with the platform. Think of it as the “Toy Story” of digital handbooks: it’s written from a perspective that kids (non-digital natives) can enjoy, but has no shortage of dialogue peppered in throughout to strongly appeal to adults (digital professionals).
The handbook runs 137 pages and recommends best practices on sections like:
- "Twitter 101"
- Influencer engagement
- Content strategies
- Advanced Twitter tools
- Tracking and measurement
The handbook breaks down particularly successful campaigns to explain what made them ‘pop’ and includes detailed “How To’s” for many of the newest features. The handbook features helpful data benchmarks (previously proprietary) that you can use to compare with your own -- or your clients' -- Twitter activity (ex: Tweets with hashtags indicate a 30% boost in retweets from verified accounts). While this doesn’t take a very deep dive into any particular section (see: analytics), I suspect that it will function as an extremely useful resource, both for us and our clients.
Whether you're a digital strategist or you're just getting the hang of hashtags, I’d strongly encourage you to spend some time reading through this — kill a tree and print it out, or be more eco-friendly and download it. It’s clear that Twitter’s @Gov team put an extraordinary amount of effort into this handbook, and I can’t wait to dive into it myself.
Powell Tate President Pam Jenkins (left), Sheila Tate (center) and Public Affairs President Ranny Cooper. Photo by Danny Wein.
Last night, the Public Relations Society of America enshrined two legends into its Capitol Chapter Hall of Fame. Many Powell Taters past and present were there to honor Jody Powell and Sheila Tate and to celebrate their many accomplishments.
When Jody and Sheila founded Powell Tate, they brought a great deal of experience at the highest levels of our profession. I believe that experience gave them the confidence to do things a little bit differently.
To begin with, they clearly had some very different ideas about politics. You could barely find two individuals more loyal to their respective political parties and candidates. Jody had been with President Carter since he was a candidate for governor of Georgia. Sheila served Nancy Reagan in the White House and President George H.W. Bush during his 1988 campaign. When they founded Powell Tate, they did not sweep aside their political beliefs – they were actually always front and center. But while they held their views passionately, they also modeled civility – the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. At the time, theirs was the only bi-partisan public affairs shop, and to this day, Powell Tate continues to be a destination for serious communicators from both parties.
I can still remember my first meetings with Jody and Sheila. I had come from the very hierarchal world of law and lobbying, where most of my ideas filtered up through the team, ultimately to reach the senior partner in charge, often formally briefed in memos. I was surprised and not a little intimidated when Jody and Sheila invited me to meetings and wanted to hear what I thought about our clients’ issues and problems. They built teams with diverse views and backgrounds, and they wanted to hear from everyone. Because of that cross-functional approach, I believe we came up with better solutions for our clients.
Although they were both at the top of their game, and well recognized throughout the profession, Jody and Sheila never took themselves too seriously. There was always a playful and fun spirit that infused our work. There would be innocent all-staff emails that Jody or Sheila would make a funny comment on, and they’d just take off from there. One time, a series of emails almost took on the character of a serial soap opera, with different staff adding on a new chapter here and there – and Jody and Sheila would have everyone in stitches with their witty contributions. That they could be so serious about and devoted to their clients’ causes and show their lighter sides so readily always seemed to be a part of their formula for success.
They were also unfailingly loyal. I can’t count the number of times a staffer would be facing a hardship – health, financial, relationship, substance abuse – where Jody and Sheila did whatever it took to help them. They just thought it came with the territory as our leaders, because for them, people always came first.
And when someone came to them with a new career opportunity, they always saw that for what it truly is: a vindication that others had also seen talent and promise in those they’d taken under their wing. They’d send the person off with their blessings and good wishes – and usually keep in close touch – both because that’s how they are, and because it was smart business. I can’t count the number of times those relationships have helped us. It certainly has made for a tight-knit group of accomplished alumni who look after each other and still get together frequently.
Hearing from and seeing so many alumni at the celebration last night was a great thrill. There are literally hundreds of us around town and around the world who have learned at Jody and Sheila’s hands – and who owe them such a debt. Thanks, Jody and Sheila, for teaching us and shaping us into the professionals we are, and for founding Powell Tate, which continues to grow and thrive on the solid foundation you built. And thanks to the PRSA’s National Capital Chapter for giving them a well-deserved place in its Hall of Fame.
Photo by Keith Ivey
Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen the rise of a very particular type of mass-political participation enabled by digital technology. Some deride it as slacktivism/clicktivism, while others consider it a vital tool in the digital advocate toolbox and the first step in building a ladder of engagement that organizations can build over time.
Whichever side you are on in that debate, it’s hard to see how these tools have delivered on a more aspirational version of American democracy.
This is why I was skeptical when I read that Sean Parker (of Napster and Facebook fame), with the help of some big names in tech and politics, is ramping up to launch Brigade — a startup with $9 million in the bank and a deep bench of civic tech heavy hitters —to “restore you, the voter, to the center of our democracy.” Count me as one of many people rooting for Brigade to succeed. But right now I wouldn’t bet on it. Not because they lack experience, resources, or anything so obvious. Rather, like so many of the talented civic-minded entrepreneurs before them, Brigade is too narrowly focused on a mature market and an audience that already has too many similar tools at their disposal.
In our rush to “empower” people through digital tools, we’ve forgotten that a real digital revolution in democracy requires more than arming citizens with tools for action. We need to invest as much effort into equipping our leaders and the people who run our government day-to-day with the tools to listen and respond to the feedback of citizens as we have building up our own capacity to shout at our leaders.
If you can stick with me for a few minutes of civic tech wonkery, I’ll explain why in this essay:
It’s a long one, but I hope you’ll give it a read.
by Nicole Arens and Rachael Susaneck
Motivating behavior change is a key challenge for public health communicators, especially when we want our audience to take an uncomfortable medical test that could lead to bad news. In this work, we often ask a crucial question: Does negative messaging work, and if so, does it change behavior temporarily or alter it long term?
A number of recent campaigns have used negative messaging, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Tips from Former Smokers Campaign and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Anti-Obesity PSA. While it seems logical that highlighting the negative consequences of unhealthy habits would inspire action, recent research says otherwise.
A 2014 study by economist Josh Tasoff and associate professor Ananda Ganguly concluded that instead of moving people toward action, negative messages may actually increase test aversion creating an “ostrich effect,” where people choose to stick their heads in the sand to avoid the scary information. The study found that telling people about the nasty outcome of failing to treat Herpes Simplex Virus (2) led to a threefold increase in the number of patients who refused a blood test as compared to those who were not explicitly informed. “Scaring people more about the implications [of a potential medical problem] may scare them away from getting tested,” Tasoff says.
For health communicators, reframing messages to focus on benefits has its advantages. For example, we have been working with the CDC to build a public health campaign called Know More Hepatitis, which increases awareness of and testing for Hepatitis C. In our focus group testing, it was clear that our target audience of baby boomers was not interested in recalling the past behaviors that led to their infection. However, they were interested in learning about the prevalence of Hepatitis C in their baby boomer birth year cohort (those born from 1945 -1965) and in receiving key information about the virus. From this research, our campaign leverages positive, benefit-focused messaging to provide those at higher risk for having Hepatitis C with the knowledge to make their own informed decisions and with the encouragement to talk with their doctor about testing. The messaging highlights the benefits of maintaining good health, the routineness of the simple blood test for Hepatitis C and the availability of treatments that can save lives.
While we don’t have data to link Hepatitis C screenings with our campaign, we can assess the broad interest in our messages. Our campaign video targeting boomers is the third-most-watched video on the CDC’s YouTube Channel, and we’ve tracked more than 8,000 PSA airings on television and 9,000 on radio. Altogether, the campaign has generated more than a billion impressions – evidence that baby boomers are interested in health messages that eschew the fear factor.
One of the reasons Powell Tate is frequently recognized as one of the best places to work is a culture of camaraderie among our fantastic Washington, D.C. team. While we love to celebrate one another’s great work with rooftop happy hours or enjoy performances by our house band, we recently realized that we had been lacking in the health and wellness department.
Powell Tate is full of fitness fanatics and a group of us quickly banded together to propose a Summer Shape-Up to kick off a new program, Health Beat, which promotes a healthy work-life balance and helps improve the quality and enjoyment of our work. Two months in, we’ve started a softball team (the Tater Trots!), organized a weekly running group, held a nutrition workshop, created a materials corner in the kitchen full of fitness magazines and healthy cookbooks for staff to share and instituted a weekly eNewsletter with health tips and profiles of inspirational staff wellness stories. We’re making healthier choices, too – like ordering Chop’t instead of pizza for our monthly staff lunch.
Because many of us have a passion for healthy competition, we also implemented a step challenge where we broke the office into teams and used Powell Tate pedometers to track our weekly steps. The challenge encouraged us to not only walk more but also to get up and interact directly with our colleagues instead of sending an email or picking up the phone.
At the end of July, the Step Step Revolution team of Anita Sharma, Lesley Fulop, Lindsay Shiff, Maggie McEvoy, Rachel Ryan and Sarah Braswell won the grand prize and bragging rights to the Golden Shoe trophy by walking a total of 1,831,645 steps (roughly 950 miles), which is just 100 miles shy of walking to our Miami office. In total, the office tracked a total of 18,773,353 steps (9,386 miles) and is feeling more active and motivated to be at its best each and every day.
Stay tuned to hear how our Summer Shape-Up wraps up and what we’ve got on tap for the fall. Hint: it includes yoga!
United States Capitol by Wally Gobetz
From think tanks and interest groups to trade associations and lobbyists, the Capitol landscape is crowded with diverse, competing voices. Getting the attention of a member of Congress and his or her staff requires more than just shouting the loudest; it requires knowing what and whom Congress listens to and using these realities to your advantage.
1. Show and tell
Hill staff and Washington media are barraged with information. The most comprehensively researched information doesn’t equate to the most readers and the most compelling data doesn’t lead the story. Busy Congressional staff and reporters have to prioritize what matters, so make your message relevant and show through stories and people -- don't just tell through data. Tailoring the message to demonstrate its relevance to a hot issue in Congress, its impact on constituents, or a personal interest of the representative is the first step. Proving out your assertions and data by weaving in a real constituent story is the key to showing the impact and will help your voice go further.
2. Avoid Beltway media congestion, go local
While congressional staffers’ attention may be drawn in dozens of different directions at once, the old adage remains true: all politics is local. When an issue makes an impact locally, it compels staff -- and ultimately members -- to take a closer look. By targeting the less competitive local news market in a policymaker’s home state or district, we make sure that our clients’ issues are on the radars of key officials. Local and state newspapers are often a direct line to lawmakers. Going local can not only help you cut the line, it can elevate your voice when you get there.
3. The packaging matters
If you want your message to become a representative’s talking point, pre-package it. Making your content digestible by keeping the message simple, understandable, and reusable does the work of the press staff for them – and they’ll thank you for it. Presenting your materials in formats that are particularly useful and shareable, such as infographics or fact sheets, increases the likelihood that it will be opened and looked at again.
Vice President, Executive Equity and Engagement
Executive Vice President
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