Successful Marketing in Midst of a Pandemic

A question for you: Have you sent your customers a letter explaining what measures you are taking to support them during this coronavirus crisis? Good. Was the information useful? Even better. Have you emailed them more than once? Stop. Unless you have genuinely important information – to them, not to you – sending repeated emails to customers is nothing more than spam. I bravely peeked into my email this morning, only to find over 5,000 unread emails in my inbox. 5,000! Now granted, not all of them have come in the past few weeks as the coronavirus rages. I’m pretty guilting about ditching useless emails. But that’s the problem: I have that many emails in my inbox that are so unimportant I don’t even bother to look at them long enough to delete them. I spent more time with the junk mail that arrives via the US Postal Service.

Email marketing is an extremely inexpensive tool in your marketing toolbox, but as the old saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing. Unless what you have to say is important to your customers, now is not the time to be spamming your customers. I have 5,000 unread emails that attest to that. They’ve succumbed to the urge to do something, anything to try to keep their sales going. That’s perfectly understandable, but it’s sacrificing long term survival for short term sales.

You need to look at the current situation realistically, and think in terms of your customers’ short term vs. long term objectives. Right now, their short term focus is on surviving this coronavirus situation. It’s hard to think about buying new clothes when they’re unemployed because of the closure of their place of work as a nonessential business. There’s not a lot of demand for a new GPS device when you can’t drive anywhere. Increasing the frequency of your email and social media marketing isn’t going to help. Instead it’s going to turn you into annoying background noise that gets tuned out instantly: 5,000 unread emails.

So what do you do? First, take a deep breath. Now think: what can you realistically do? You may not be in a position to retool to make essential supplies like hand sanitizer, ventilators or medical masks. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a role to play. Think creatively about what you can do: Chipotle is hosting virtual lunch parties on Zoom, with celebrities and free burrito giveaways. Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium let penguins tour the aquarium, and filmed their visit. But what if your product doesn’t lend itself to virtual interactions? Doesn’t it? Get creative!

Think about all the questions you’ve ever been asked about your product or service. Can you turn that into a social media post? In the past days alone, I’ve searched topics online on how to sew my own bias tape, how to dewinterize a travel trailer, how to unplug a drain, how to make environmentally safe weed killer, and how to make sour dough starter. See a theme there? You still have customers out there, and putting together online product demonstrations is an excellent way to communicate with customers with a purpose that they will accept. Give them “behind-the-scenes” tours of your facilities. Interview employees and let them put a human face on your company. You don’t need fancy video equipment – most smartphones are more than capable of recording what you need. Back in 1966, WPIX in New York showed a looping video of a Yule log burning in a fireplace on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with accompanying holiday music. The idea was later adopted by the Home Shopping Network. How could you adapt this to your organization’s situation? It doesn’t have to be something you’re selling – the WPIX and the Home Shopping Network weren’t selling fire, but that fire generated large amounts of publicity and attention for them that reached beyond existing customers.

You don’t have to stop communicating with your customers, but do it wisely. Less marketing and more public relations. Don’t become part of the background noise like everyone else. Entertain them, inform them, reassure them in this difficult time and they will remain receptive Once lost, a customer’s attention is incredibly difficult to get back. So think before you click “send.” You don’t want to be 5,001.


The Year of the Dog(s)


Anyone who knows me knows of my dogs. Knows of my obsession with dogs. Our furry family at the start of this year consisted of five furry children: Cheyenne, Lobo, Holly, Sunshine and Bear. I say “started” because we are ending this year with only three: tragically, we lost our two “middle aged” dogs, Bear and Holly, to rare medical conditions, just three weeks apart. Bear had developed something called insulinoma, caused by a tumor that caused his body to product insane amounts of insulin, which in turn caused seizures. With Holly, we have no idea what happened, other than that something caused serious internal bleeding that could not be stopped. We don’t keep any sort of poison around the house for just that reason. Nothing was thrown into our yard by some crazed person, and nothing showed up in the multiple tests conducted by her vets. In three short weeks, we went from a boisterous house to one that is very, very quiet. Bear and especially Holly could be counted on to make the house sound like a kennel whenever we got home.


What does this all have to do with communications, or even writing this blog? Totally aside from the fact that I’ve just been too heartbroken since we received Bear’s diagnosis in early May to do any of the things I normally enjoy this year – like writing – I’ve discovered since we lost our fur kids that communicating with my remaining dogs closely parallels the work I do in developing PR campaigns to communicate with stakeholder groups. My husband grumbles that the dogs look to me for permission before doing something he tells them to do, but in reality, it’s just that I’ve learned to communication with them in a way that they understand what I want clearly. Of course, since two of them are Siberian Huskies, whether or not they do what they’re told also involves them deciding whether or not they want to make Mom mad at them. They know Dad is a softie and they can get away with almost anything, so that doesn’t worry them so much.

Think about it – the principles of training your dog work with your PR efforts as well (although I don’t equate dogs and people – sometimes I swear dogs are much smarter, and the rewards are much better with dogs than with people. After all, dogs love you unconditionally, want to make you happy and are often just more fun to be with):

  • Focus on the behavior you want – Have a clear idea on the results you need to achieve with your communication and then build your communication with that end goal in mind. Work backward from where you want to end up to to structure your strategy and tactics. When we no longer had Bear, we no longer needed to crate him and our other male whenever we left the house. But when circumstances changed, we had to deal with changed behaviors from our dogs. Lobo, our other male, kept searching the house and backyard for his missing pack members. Cheyenne, one of our females, began spending hours lying in a cubbyhole in our upstairs closet and refusing to come downstairs. Our third fur kid, Sunshine, would shake in fear whenever we’d put her collar on to go for a walk, terrified that she’d go wherever Bear and Holly went and never returned from. We had to figure out how to reassure all of them and convince  them to abandon these behaviors and return to normal.
  • Reinforce that behavior – Whenever the dogs acted in a way that we wanted, we reinforced that behavior with plenty of praise, attention and high value treats. We stocked up on a variety of what’s called “high value” treats by dog trainers – the kind of goodies they normally don’t get except rarely. Pupperonis, Beggin Strips and cooked chicken chunks showed up a lot more than they normally would. If you want people to behave a certain way, you’ve got to make it worth their while, with something they valued. Early on in my career I worked for a blood donation center, and since legally we couldn’t pay for donations we would give out small token gifts to donors, whether they successfuly donated or not. Our most popular  was an old fashioned replica toy of a small ball attached to a handle with a string. On the end of the handle was a cup, and you were supposed to flick the ball upward and catch it in the cup. For whatever reason, this became so popular with donors that when we ran out, donations declined because people really wanted that toy. When we reordered more and word got around that they were back, donations picked up again.
  • Don’t force the dog to behave the way you want – Coercion may temporarily get you what you want, but it won’t last. Initially, I had to make Cheyenne come downstairs and go outside before I left the house. But unless I put a gate at the bottom of the stairs to prevent her from going back upstairs, she wouldn’t stay. The more I tried to make her come downstairs, the more she tried to hide from me. The only thing that worked was to break out the fancy treats, and make it as loudly obvious as possible that she was missing out on some goodies that the others were getting. Before too long she couldn’t resist temptation and started spending more time downstairs. Forcing people to do what you want with restrictions on products or paywalls just drives people away. Entertain them and they’ll remember you.
  • Keep your commands clear and consistent – This is probably the most important rule: Be clear and consistent. My husband can’t remember which command he wants to use to get the dogs to do what he wants, so he ends up using 2-3 different commands at the same time, with the wholly expected result that the dogs are confused and don’t do what he wants – they wait for me to tell them what to do.  The command isn’t “get off, lay down, off!” it’s “off!” Nothing more, it’s not “off-off-off-off!” The principle for working with humans is the same. Be clear and consistent with your key messages, and repeat them throughout all your different communication vehicles to reinforce what you want your audience to do, and you’ll avoid confusion and, ultimately, inaction on your audience’s part.
  • Make the learning easy and fun – Bore a dog and pretty quickly they’ll tune you out. Bore humans and the same thing will happen, even faster these days than with a dog. Entertain your audience and they’ll be more amenable to your persuasive efforts. There’s a reason why actors and sports heroes are paid millions more than such vital professions as teachers and first responders – we as people value our entertainment. We remember and actively participate more in things that are fun.

Granted, this is an overly simplified explanation of something I was thinking about long before we lost our fur kids, but at some point I have to stop wallowing in grief and get back to the business of living a professional life, and thinking about all the richness and joy my two “office dogs” brought me made me think of the times my husband expressed his frustration that the dogs responded so much better when I told them to do something than when he did. It all boils down to structuring your communication in a way that worked for them.

Bear and Holly 2010-2018



A “They” by Any Other Name…

Their, they’re and there. Whom and whose. The Oxford comma. The singular “they” pronoun. To English language purists, them are fightin’ words! The Guardians of Grammar will fight to the death to protect the purity of the English language, and these are the battles at the forefront of the language wars.

The singular they has been around for centuries, as far back as the 14th century, according to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and I’m betting it’s been the bane of high school English teachers almost as long. It’s just so easy to use they instead of he/she, him/her or (s)he, not to mention sounding so much less awkward.

For those who insist on the proper use of the language, I have bad news: it’s not going to go away. Why? Because it solves a problem without sounding weird, and it mimics what has long been acceptable in spoken English. At this point, trying to eradicate the use of the singular they is going to be like prying smart phones out of the hands of teenagers – it can’t be done. Besides, if you’re really serious about being an English language purist, you’re living in the wrong century. You might want to consider reverting back to the language of Chaucer, as in this excerpt from The Canterbury Tales:

“Get me a staf, that I may underspore,

Whil that thou, Robyn, hevest up the dore.

He shal out of his studiyng, as I gesse.”

And to the chambre dore he gan hym dresse.

His knave was a strong carl for the nones,

And by the haspe he haaf it of atones;

Into the floor the dore fil anon.

Makes the use of they as a singular pronoun seem positively preferable, doesn’t it?


Guilty Pleasures

Some random thoughts on a Sunday morning: I’m sitting here, wondering how many more steps am I going to have to take to offset the fact that I indulged in a childhood craving for blueberry PopTarts™ this morning, which started me thinking about guilty pleasures – you know, those things we know we shouldn’t do, but do anyway “just this once?” Then we feel the requisite guilt and promise ourselves “never again,” except that in the case of my blueberry PopTarts, since they come in packages of four, there will be more dietary sins to come, necessitating extra exercise. But then I started thinking about my love of writing – when did that become a guilty pleasure? Continue reading


Jeff Varner’s Employer Votes Itself Off United’s PR Crisis Island

So, buried under all the other drama of The Week That Was came this little PR nugget that largely passed under the

collective radar of many of us who don’t feel the need to wallow in the less admirable aspects of human nature: Jeff Varner, a contestant on CBS’ reality competition show “Survivor,” gets fired from his day job from a real estate firm because (according to Varner), he was told that he is “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.” Collateral damage from the United Airlines debacle? Or are companies finally realizing the actual business cost of publicly being a jerk?

First, a brief recap: Varner publicly outed fellow tribe member Zeke Smith as a transgender male in a desperate bid to avoid being voted off the island and out of the running for the million-dollar grand prize. For the nonfan, on “Survivor,” a group of strangers are isolated in various exotic locations under primitive conditions, and are put through privations and “challenges” designed to make them work as a team, while simultaneously conspiring with each other to get rid of fellow team members and be the last “Survivor.” Sounds a bit like a day at some offices I’ve worked for. Continue reading


United, Just Stop

United Airlines, stop. Just stop. You’re only making the indefensible worse.

United Airlines once again takes over the headlines as the world’s most hated/least trusted corporation for the second time in a week. And they did that in spectacular fashion straight out of Hollywood, with company goons dragging the bloodied, hapless victim…er, passenger, down the aisle as he screams helplessly, and terrified passengers watch, fearing that they’re next. Passengers inevitably manage to get video of the incident out before the plane doors are slammed shut and they are shipped out to Louisville. The unfeeling CEO of the corporation, far removed from the downtrodden victim, trots out the usual corporate doublespeak, full of nonwords that brush off the incident with empty promises of an investigation. Goes really well with United’s stated purpose of “being the airline customers want to fly, the airline employees want to work for and the airline shareholders want to invest in.” Really? Can’t you just see the trailer from the movie now?

Continue reading


Welcome to the First Social Media Campaign

Congratulations, we’ve nearly survived the first social media presidential campaign. Only two more days and we can move from the sturm und drang of this campaign to picking up the pieces and returning to normal life – or can we? I’m afraid that the current climate may very well be the new “normal.”

We’ve heard it over and over from the pundits: this has been a campaign unlike any other: the historic possibilities of the first woman president, the challenger who refuses to follow “normal” campaign strategy. The active interjections – some would say meddling – into the campaign of third parties: Russia, Wikileaks, comedy shows, the FBI…and us. We the People. Because of social media, this campaign has marked the first time that everyone with a social media account has acted as a campaign surrogate. Boy have we! And that has brought a mixed bag of results. Continue reading


Women Leaders and Sexism in PR

There’s nothing higher on a PR writing instructor’s “things-I-don’t-want-to-do-on-my-day-off” list than write. But as I was

Standing Out from the Crowd. Available in high-resolution and several sizes to fit the needs of your project.

Women leaders and sexism in the 21st Century.

putzing around on Facebook this morning, I ran across a photo of past PRSA chairs as they welcomed the newest former chair, Mark McClellan, APR, into their ranks. All are distinguished professionals, all have sacrificed time, energy, money and sleep to lead this organization that has given so much to those of us in the profession. They are colleagues and in some cases, friends…and the thought crossed my mind as I “liked” and congratulated them was that most of them were men.

I didn’t make that comment on Facebook, because I didn’t want to take away from the moment. But I couldn’t stop wondering why there were so few women in the photo. PR as a profession is predominantly women (70-75 percent is the figure I’ve run across the most), so why have so few women ascended to the top of the profession? Counting incoming chair Jane Dvorak, APR, Fellow PRSA, in 2017 the total number of women leading PRSA will have reached the grand total of 13. Thirteen women in 69 years. And seven of those 13 – over half – have been in the past 15 years. As Heather Whaling points out in her blog post on this incident, only 40 percent of agency leaders are female.

So what’s the big deal? The organization is changing, right? Women are bound to be elected to leaders more frequently now, you say. Then why is it that, nearly two full decades into the 21st century, in a profession dominated by and increasingly led by women, are we spending the last day of the industry’s biggest conference talking about a sexist tweet, posted by an accredited PR professional. If anyone should know better, it should be him, right? Continue reading


Sunday Coffee Contemplations: Election Commercials Killed Creativity

Image of businessman hand holding election symbol with number 2016

Brace yourself: it’s election season, and advertisers are beginning to demonstrate an absolute lack of imagination by trotting out election-themed commercials, led by Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. As if the real politicians aren’t off-putting enough, we’re now forced to endure fake election debates over the merits of food that many of us don’t eat at all. Why?

Creativity, where on earth have you gone? Why did you leave us in a commercial land littered with creepy mascots, pharmaceutical commercials for conditions normally not discussed outside of bathrooms or doctors’ exam rooms (opiod constipation, anyone?), and spots that run so frequently they can forever ruin even the best song. I always cringe when I hear a favorite song being used for a commercial, and I go into instant avoidance mode. When Pharrell’s “Happy” was the hot hit of the day, I refused to listen to it for weeks. Every time I heard the opening notes, I either changed the channel or muted the TV. Not what the advertisers had in mind, I’m sure. Now it appears to be Comcast’s turn. Not even their nod to the obnoxiousness of their X1 Entertainment Operating System commercials can save it. It’s enough to send me fleeing to online streaming services.

The online world has its own commercial problems, with ads that persist in popping up and refuse to obey the desperate clicking on the X button in whatever distant corner it’s hiding in. Would that we could do the same with these election-themed commercials.


Return’d So Soon! And Other Sunday Coffee Contemplations

So I’m back. It’s been a while – well over a year – since a new post appeared on this blog. Hell, it’s been almost a

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

year since this blog was even visible. Life – and hackers – happened, and since I’m totally reliant on my husband’s good graces and computer abilities and persistence to finally rescue this blog, I’ve spent a long time away.

Instead of writing about writing and PR, I’ve been spending my time teaching it. I’ve found that teaching writing is so much more difficult than actually doing it. It’s much more fun to critique others than to do the heavy lifting of writing yourself. And especially after the break of more than a year. So I’ve been sitting here for well over an hour, hiding behind my oversized mug of coffee and trying to avoid the moment when fingers meet keys.

The hardest part of blogging is thinking of something to write about. It’s not for lack of ideas, rather the opposite. How to pick just one of the things that pop into my head on a constant basis? I spend a lot of time staring at a blank screen, usually muttering things under my breath that my mother wouldn’t approve of. So in honor of the rebirth of this blog, procrastinating writers everywhere, and to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, here’s a couple of classic insults from the god of English writing to use the next time you’re stuck for inspiration:

“I am sick when I do look on thee.” From A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene I

“Thou art a boil, a plague sore.” From King Lear, Act II, Scene II

“Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive rooting hog!” From Richard III, Act I, Scene III

Stalling and insults only work for so long, though. Getting back in the writing habit is going to be tough. Not that I don’t write normally, but that’s work writing. Writing for me, writing for the sheer pleasure of it, now that’s going to take a bit of effort to get back into the habit. So it’ s going to take baby steps to redevelop the habit. So for now, it’s enough to say, “I’m back!” Or, as the Bard himself said so much better in a different Comedy of Errors,

“Return’d so soon! Rather approached too late: the capron burns, the pig falls from the spit, the clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell; my mistress made it one upon my cheek: she is hot because the meat is cold; the meat is cold because you have no stomach, you have no stomach, having broke your fast; but we, that know what ’tis to fast and pray, are pentent for your default today.”