What’s the Best Public Relations Campaign in the Last 400 Years?

shutterstock_137502698The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays of the year. Who can argue with a holiday that has burgers, beer, and debauchery as its staple traditions? Everyone has their own memories of marching in their hometown parade or lighting off fireworks from their backyard, enjoying the beginning of summer with family and friends. The day is filled with celebration, all because 56 men pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to create a country free from oppression.

I know what you’re thinking – Here we go with another cliché “let’s not forget our Founding Fathers” mantra. I agree, too much of that splashes the front pages of different publications each year. However, let’s put a different lens on this topic (naturally, from a communications standpoint). Could the Founding Fathers be PR geniuses? Let’s consider it: They held public prominence in their communities, earning them their positions in the Continental Congresses. They forged an identity (or brand, if you will) for a new nation and created a public document addressed to the King of England that served to not only declare our independence, but also serve as a model for a number of other people looking to change the political process in their own countries. Pretty inspiring, right? Of course. It may also be one of the best public relations campaigns of the last 400 years.

If we think of the United States as a startup, or a new product launch, the founders did a masterful job with execution. The public had a need (frustrated by taxation without representation; assaulted in the northeast with the battles at Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, etc.) They needed a resolution, even if that meant something drastic. The colony had to move forward in order to continue to grow, build its brand, and market itself to the world. The founders met this need with a public decree that announced the colonies as a new, independent nation, seeking to guarantee the inherent rights every man is entitled to.

A successful public relations program requires the mastery of three important areas when building their own brand. Three of our most famous founders each mastered one of these areas, creating a trifecta public relations force that even the British Crown couldn’t defeat.

Benjamin Franklin – Master of Public Image

Whether you’re a Franklin fan or not, you cannot argue with his panache and international reputation in an age where communication was sluggish. His public engagement began as a teenager when he disguised his identity in letters he wrote to The New England Courant, posing instead as a middle-aged widow, Mrs. Silence Dogood. These letters illustrate his humor and wisdom at an early age and earned a swell of attention and praise from Bostonians, becoming Franklin’s first success and spawning what was perhaps the first viral campaign of its time. From there, he moved to The Pennsylvania Gazette where he became editor, wrote renowned articles, and built his social standing in Philadelphia. His personal brand rose with the newspaper’s brand, and the publication quickly became one of the most read in the colonies. Although life in Philadelphia was far from the Appalachian frontier, he never failed at maintaining the frontiersman persona that the French swooned over. It’s with this favor from important French diplomats that he was able to negotiate our military alliance with France and the ultimate victory sealed with the Treaty of Paris.

It’s not a coincidence that this public relations expert always remained tight with the press to leverage his own ideas and public image. He understood the value of media and how it could help accomplish his goals, as seen in many instances where his public influence can be traced to articles and pamphlets he distributed. Brands should look at how Franklin successfully worked with the media to convey his brand and how they can use the press to deliver their own. Tactical and well-articulated pieces hold sway and can shape public opinion, but it’s important to keep one other bit of Franklin’s philosophy in mind: “We must not in the course of public life expect immediate approbation and immediate grateful acknowledgment of our services.” Humility and a realistic approach never hurt in the public sphere.

Thomas Jefferson – Master of the Pen

shutterstock_52266859If Jefferson leaves any legacy behind, it would be his written word. Not only is he the lead author of the Declaration of Independence, for which we celebrate this holiday, but he produced a number of other works that helped shape early American philosophy and debate. His thoughts on paper combined much of the popular thinking of his day, including that of Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Rousseau, and set a tone for the beginning of philosophical application as we set out to embark on a new political experiment.

It’s crucial to articulate your own company’s messages in a purposeful and masterful way, as Jefferson did. It’s also important to ask yourself, who is your audience and what is your communications goal? Jefferson understood that this would not only be read by King George, but two other important groups: his compatriots, who needed their feelings articulated in an eloquent and comprehensive way, and loyalists, who may sway with the new nation or be provoked to flee in allegiance to the old country. He articulated the colonies’ grievances for all, and his chosen words continue to stir emotions today.

George Washington – Master of Thought Leadership

I think you’d be hard set to find someone who doesn’t think Washington is the ultimate American hero. You can’t go to an American town without finding a Washington Street and I work only a few blocks from beautiful Washington Square Park here in New York, where a triumphal arch is dedicated in his honor. He achieved this lofty position in America’s minds and hearts through his tremendous success in war execution and political morality and neutrality.

His innate ability to lead was unquestionable, and with this he organized a nation that continues to aspire to his ability. Behind Washington is a massive amount of evidence that backs up his genius. He created war strategies that won the crucial battles of Saratoga and Yorktown, remained neutral during European conflicts that could have wiped us out, and implemented presidential traditions like the cabinet and inaugural address. Every president since then has aspired to his reputation of thought leadership, or at least some semblance of originality and honor. You see this in every presidential library that’s ever built. Exhibits in these monuments painstakingly build former presidents into idols; convincing you they led brilliantly by their own wisdom (or at least as best they could, considering the historical context of their terms).

Demonstrating thought leadership is crucial if any brand wants to establish third party credibility. Your information has to be excellent, innovative, “out of the box,” and, needless to say, correct. Washington benefitted from early victories; it’s important you get your message out early too. As a brand, think about what the conversation is in your industry and what hasn’t been said. Is it time to change the conversation? Perhaps. If you have a new message, say it. Reporters and, more importantly, the public, will listen.

So this holiday, enjoy your franks and frank relatives, sip your Budweiser by the pool and enjoy the warm sun. However, if you can spare a moment, think about what our Founding Fathers can teach you about public relations. After all, if they weren’t as popular, or as learned, or as tactfully brilliant, we may not have the freedoms we afford today.


Do You Want to Hear a Story?

“We’re entering the golden age of journalism.”

This was said by Henry Blodget, editor and CEO of Business Insider, at yesterday’s Future of Media event, hosted by I Want Media and in conjunction with Internet Week New York.

That line really resonated with me, and not just because it was the closing comment. You see, for the last few years the PR industry has been bombarded with blog posts and happy hour conversations about how journalism is dead. “Newspapers are dying, the old media guard missed the boat on digital, no one wants to pay for content, we’re all journalists now, etc.”

This is all true. Everyone and their grandmother knows that newspapers have had a difficult time adapting to the rapidly changing times. People have opted not to pay for content because there’s so much free news available at their fingertips. And social and mobile have turned all of us into glorified correspondents. You only need to look at how the recent Boston bombings unfolded online to see that the news cycle is vastly different (and better) today.

But if you think The New York Times or CNN are going out of business, you’re out of your %*#@*^ mind.

Before I go further, it’s worth pointing out that the only “traditional” media presence on the panel was Mark Thompson, President and CEO of The New York Times, so it’s not as if this was a roundtable full of old print folks crying about their declining ad dollars (and for the record, The Times is doing some really cool multimedia stuff and their iPad app is as good as any). The rest of the panelists were all from the new wave of media outlets, including HuffPost Live, Buzzfeed, and Business Insider. These companies are all using technology to deliver a level of news that didn’t exist a few years ago and they’re now household names in the media world.

I expected everyone to talk about the demise of journalism and gang up on Mark (which occasionally they did, though it was all in good fun and he more than capably answered their jabs). Much to my surprise, though, they did the opposite. They all had a slightly different view of the industry, naturally, and everyone agreed that the way we consume news has changed forever, as is the type of news we consume. But at the core of the entire discussion was the value of good reporting.

Yes, minute-by-minute Twitter updates gives consumers a news experience they’ve never had before, and it can be compelling, exciting and eye-opening in a way most media outlets can’t compete with (almost everyone agreed that Twitter is the first place news breaks). But the fact remains that consumers still want good content and good content is produced by good journalists working for good media organizations. My friend’s Instagram photo of a TEDx event might be cool, but it doesn’t summarize who was there, what was said or why I should care. Yes, I want to see his picture, but I also want to see a video of the event, glance at its hashtag stream on Twitter and have access to an article written by a credible reporter. The photo filters and hashtags tell part of the story but not the whole thing.

Blodget said a great word yesterday, something I haven’t heard in years and something that perfectly exemplifies what I’m trying to say here: “storytelling”. How great is that word? How many fond memories does it stir up inside you? Do you remember being in Kindergarten and listening in awe as your teacher told you the greatest story ever, and then running home to your parents to tell them? Can you visualize that schoolroom from 25+ years ago with the painted hands on the wall and the frayed carpet?

The communications field has been so focused on adapting to “disruptions” the past few years that many of us have forgotten how important storytelling is. After all, isn’t that what we want, a great story? Whether you’re watching a video on your iPhone, catching up on Twitter in the elevator or sitting down at your computer, we just want to see, hear and experience a great story, just as we did as children.

I didn’t expect to attend an event about the future of media and walk away feeling optimistic about the journalism industry, but I did. So think of this the next time someone tells you journalism is dead. It’s evolving, as it always has, and it’s stronger today than ever.

Agree/disagree? As always I’d love to hear your thoughts:, @WaterWallPR, @AndrewHeals


The Pursued, the Pursuing, the Busy, and the Tired

If you’ve walked into Brooks Brothers, watched television, or stood waiting for a bus recently, you’ve noticed that America is somewhat steeped in Gatsby-mania once again. Although you may disagree with director Baz Luhrmann’s unabashed freedom with the score and other elements of the story, Fitzgerald’s work remains a cornerstone of American literature. Adolescents and aged readers alike find messages that resonate, even nearly a century after they were first published.

shutterstock_137291939Upon first reading this book in high school, one quote has stuck with me all these years:

“A phrase began to beat in my ears with a sort of heady excitement: ‘There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.'”

Take a moment to “unpack” this quote, as my college professor would instruct. Within the context of the book, this quote is referring to the specific characters, but certainly has an intended value outside of Gatsby that can apply to the people and companies you know in your own life.

In fact, we encounter these four types of clients often at Water & Wall Group:

• The Pursued: The pursued are those who are high profile, dynamic figures who have established a reputation for industry prowess that are guaranteed to attract an ample audience. Their value is unquestionable for the media and pitching their name and story is essentially unnecessary. Many of the pursued take a reserved stance with communications, and decide on their opportunities selectively. A targeted approach with a narrow and controlled message is their strategy.

• The Pursuing: The pursuing are those who seek to one day be the pursued. This is the bulk of any agency’s clients – the ones who shoot for the moon and hope that one day their reputation precedes them. They understand that there is unquestionable value to the bottom line for those who successfully garner positive attention from the appropriate media outlets. Their messaging often touches on a number of topics for several types of audiences. They are more apt to use social media as a channel and will often participate in and hold conferences to discuss their expertise. Success is being everywhere.

• The Busy: The busy are those who focus on doing well for their clients. They’re the ones that focus on the job at hand and know their investors and clients are always right. Often times, this group will neglect to pursue opportunities that will push their brand, such as conferences and media interviews. It’s important for this group to maintain focus and to continue to think outside of the box.

• The Tired: The tired are a broad group. It may be the career veteran who is focused on mentoring the next generation or someone who is not seeing the results they’re pushing for. It is important for this group to also maintain focus. What’s missing that will push your company into new territory? Show your audience you’re in the game for a reason and demonstrate your edge.

Spring, a season of renewal, provides you the opportunity to rethink and, perhaps, restart your communications approach. Ask yourself, “Am I taking the right approach?” Am I tired and should I now pursue? Am I busy and should I refocus? Am I pursuing enough? Have I achieved my goals and am I now pursued? Assess the goals of your firm or corporation and how media may be able to assist you.shutterstock_100647751

For those who are sitting back, is this the time to pursue?

I’m currently going through my own mini-renewal. Aside from my new position here at Water & Wall, I’ve started to read “How to be a Man” by Glenn O’Brien. It’s a book that’s pretty enjoyable for those who are still striving to be a gentleman, but need an author with a little more humor than Emily Post.


The Need to Unwind

Last week I took my first vacation in almost three years. While some people might perceive that as bragging (“Look at me, I work really hard and I never take off work, blah blah blah”), I assure you that’s not the case. Quite the opposite, and in fact, I’m embarrassed about it. While I’ve always had a strong work ethic I’ve always maintained a very healthy work-home balance. Work is important to me and I’m fortunate to do something that I love, but work is not my life, and it never will be. That may sound like treason to some people, including some of my friends and industry colleagues, but it’s a fact. Work is part of my life, not the other way around.

But that all changed when I launched my own agency last year. Whereas I previously used to focus all my time and energy on my clients (client interaction is by far my favorite part of the job), now I have to think about clients AS WELL as paying rent, meeting payroll, picking the best health care plan for my employees, deciding when to make a hire, etc. I experience every single emotion every single day and after a while I feel like I’m going crazy.

Water & Wall is part of my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but as many new business owners can attest there’s a thin line between working “a lot” and working “too much.” There are countless studies that aim to identify what makes people productive at work, and “everyone” talks about the value of having a proper work/life balance. Sounds fairly simple, but in the post-2008 economic environment, I think it’s safe to say we all work more than we did five years ago and with much less job security. How many of you have wanted to take a vacation, only to put it on hold out of fear that your boss may hold it against you at some point?

So why take a vacation in an uncertain economic environment and while my business is still in its infancy? Because doing so was for the greater good of myself, my business and my clients. I’m 31 years old and I’ll be damned if I work 24/7 and not take a step back from time to time. I’ll put my work ethic against anybody’s, but everyone needs to recharge their batteries from time to time and we’ve all hit a place at work (and in life) where some quiet time away would do wonders.


 (This basically sums up my trip)

Though I continued to think of work while on vacation and check emails occasionally, I didn’t obsess over it as much as I normally do. The resort we stayed at didn’t offer WiFi on the beach or by the pool (NO WIFI!?!?), and while I cursed that at first, it was a blessing in disguise. I was on vacation to unwind with my wife and have a good time, not to check emails or see what the markets are doing.

And having planned our getaway months in advance, I was able to prepare my colleagues/clients for my absence and do everything I could to ensure the office would continue to plow ahead as it normally does. Much to my surprise, they all wished me well and they were pleased to see me enjoy myself.

Now that I’m back I’m recharged and ready to throw myself back into my work with a sense of excitement and calm that I seemed to lose for a while. In my first week back I’ve already signed on a new client and had to say goodbye to another, so the emotional rollercoaster is still there, but I smiled through it all and can’t wait to go away again next year.

Agree/disagree? Love to hear your thoughts.

What I’m reading now: Wool, by Hugh Howey. It’s a sci-fi series, which really isn’t my thing, but it has a very cool premise. And what really drew me to it was the story of how the author eschewed traditional publishing “rules,” did things his own way and is now happy and successful. I love stories like this.