Weckl Head PR: back to basics

wecklBack in the late 80’s a drummer named Dave Weckl hit the fusion scene with the Chick Corea Elektric Band. If fusion was your thing Weckl was unquestionably your guy. He played impossible polyrhythm stuff and had technique so sound that many thought he sounded like a drum machine. Impossibly perfect.

With Chick’s band, Weckl put all kinds of electronic triggers on his drums and got drummers everywhere thinking about how to use the machines to their advantage instead of worrying about them signaling a pending drummer irrelevance (in a way, the 80’s were to drummers what today is to ad agencies).

Like him or not Weckl was a game changer writ large. Everyone started triggering their sets. Buying Octopads. Trying to figure out his impossible polyrhythms. Calling themselves Weckl Heads. Growing mullets.

It took Weckl several years of fame before releasing his first instructional video. Drummers buzzed about it for years. Couldn’t wait. Give us an Elektric Weckl magik pil. Unlock some secrets. Take us into the future. Teach us the impossible.

In 1988 he finally released it: Back to Basics. My music career (such as it was) took me away from fusion but I never forgot the statement Weckl made with that video. Wanna change the game? Understand the game first.

Today as I think about good branding, marketing, and communications I’m ever convinced that it all starts with a thorough grasp of context. Godin and Crayon and anyone else extolling the virtues of being remarkable risk missing the point that sometimes — just sometimes — organizations need to rethink the basics (if they ever thought of them before). If authenticity is primal (and I believe it is), some organizations need to get the basics down first. Reflect who they are and build a risk tolerance competency within the organization before playing polyrhythms and adding triggers.

Such was the case recently when I created a strategic PR and communications plan for a group that hardly has a PR function within it at all. They’re very good at executing on their mission and have a terrific story to facilitate but they needed a back-to-basics explanation of the public relations function, probably even more than they did a plan to execute. The plan itself included some down-and-dirty brand platform stuff (what the story is), some organizational change recommendations, and a goals-to-strategy-to-tactics-to-objectives plan (how to go about telling it).

A section on PR as a Function preceded all of this, and was a great exercise for me. Articulating something is the best way to affirm a grasp of a concept (even if it’s to yourself). Especially if you’ve done something for a while, explaining it forces you to challenge assumptions and be clear about your starting place.

Here’s a re-work of the media relations section of the PR as a Function part of the plan. Sometimes in the midst of rapid change it’s easy to loose track of the basics. Seems to me that today’s socialnew2.xmedia frenzy is just like what drummers were going through in the 80’s.

I’m no Dave Weckl of the MarComm world. Not by a long shot. And there’s plenty of PR specialists out there that have a lot more to offer on this subject: Todd Defren, David Mullen, Brian Solis, Chris Brogan, Glen Turpin, and Cori Keeton Pope are a few I keep an eye on. But maybe the following 101 will help a few others reflect on the basics and how many principles still hold true.

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(Big thanks to Cori Keeton Pope of Keeton PR. She helped in many ways with the plan discussed in this post. My first time working with her, and I look forward to many more.)

I started with two definitions to establish the gestalt.

Broadcast: scattering and disseminating information widely
Podcast: Literally Personal On Demand dissemination of information

There is no doubt that we live in a Podcast reality. Information is gathered on the stakeholders’ terms. More and more, it does’t matter what enterprises (including mass media companies) consider important. Or when they consider it important. It matters what stakeholders consider important. And when.

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Our podcast reality drives two important principles:

1. An enterprise’s story isn’t what we think it is. It’s what they (stakeholders) think it is.
2. An enterprise’s story will not be crafted and told by the enterprise or its PR agency. It will be crafted and told with its stakeholders.

For many, the old way of approaching public relations was to devise a systematic process of controlling messaging. Today the most effective public relations campaigns revolve around facilitation — encouraging dialog, sparking discussion, and adding value. This means promoting the story, yes, but also recognizing that countless stakeholders can and will participate in the telling of the story.

Today everyone has a microphone. Attempting to control messaging is not only futile, but oftentimes generates a reputation antithetical to the way stakeholders demand information and, as a result, craft reputations in their minds.

Creating Good Stories To Tell

Usually an enterprise’s activities are not as interesting to stakeholders outside of the enterprise as they are to those within it. Organizations that understand the discipline of thinking about their activities beyond their own self-interests are those that have their stories told more broadly. This happens in three stages:

1. Upstream: Considering what activities to pursue by equally aligning the interests of the broader community with the mission of the organization.
2. In Stream: Capturing the results of the activities performed — money raised, lives changed, introducing something new to the world, value added.
3. Downstream: Telling the story of the activity with the mission of the organization (and the activity) beyond the self-interest of the organization: how it changed people, the community, or the world.

Facilitating the telling of stories — the job of the communications and public relations function within an enterprise — requires a strong set of skills, talents, relationships, and tools. But having good stories to tell depends on a strong partnership with the enterprise in the first place: a willingness to put story-telling considerations at the table with mission or operational considerations.

Media Relations

Some of the most important vehicles for telling an enterprise’s story are not controlled by the organization. This includes legacy media (print, television, radio, and so on) and new media (blogs, internet radio, podcasts, and so on). Despite the seemingly disparate means by which the people behind these vehicles do their work (the storytellers), there are commonalities among them that allow an enterprise to approach media relations with a simple and rational set of strategies.

First, however, comes a principle that must be understood and embraced. Regardless of their medium, storytellers have a job to do. Their goals are actually pretty simple:

1. Tell a compelling story to the audience they’re targeting,
2. Do it better and earlier than anyone else telling stories in the same space, and
3. Be authentic and truthful.

Storytellers don’t accomplish these goals in a vacuum. They use and partner with a variety of people and enterprises in three fundamental ways, always in service to their goals:

1. Upstream fishing: Muse relationships to find ideas, trends, advice, or anything of value to their audience.
2. Midstream authentication: Finding experts and sources to validate the facts in and the angles of their stories.
3. Downstream promotion: Leveraging any opportunity to expand the audience of their story.

With this understanding, the single most important principle in media relations is this:

Enterprises must add value in service to storytellers’ goals if they want to be a part of the process.

When working with storytellers, it’s rarely — if ever — about the enterprise. It’s always about the story and its teller. Those enterprises with the strongest results from their media relations approach their work from a starting place that is a steadfast dedication to this principle.

In the end, it’s about building relationships. Like all relationships, the key to working with storytellers is adding value. In the media relations world, here’s what adding value means:

1. Approach storytellers only with those in your enterprise who have, without question, these three A’s:

– Authority
– Authenticity
– Availability

2. Be on the storyteller’s timeline

– If you help a storyteller with a last minute deadline, you’ll become a resource they know they can count on.
– If they want another interview for clarification, give it to them.
– If you promise follow-up information, give it to them. If you can’t, don’t promise it. They’re waiting for you and won’t come back if you leave them in a lurch.

3. It’s about the quality (as opposed quantity) of your story ideas.

– Your organization won’t be the first to realize the value of engaging with storytellers; there are a lot of people who have figured this out.
– Storytellers are like the rest of us: they hate spam, and they get a lot of it.
– Releases and personal outreach need to be relevant to the niche.
– Releases and personal outreach need to think about the storyteller’s goals first, and the enterprise’s agenda second.

The strategies and tactics outlined in the plan started from this place and of course included much more than just media relations. I’m looking forward to executing on it. The group truly has a special story to tell.