Inspiration from the road

By Monty Hagler


I found it on a recent trip to Canada for the Worldcom Public Relations Group global meeting.  A flicker came from the meeting itself, which was chock full of information, wisdom and best practices from leading public relations agencies throughout the world. A spark was generated from my final meeting as a Worldcom Global Board member, a responsibility that I greatly enjoyed and learned from. There was a glow during 2,500 miles of driving (with my fiancée Jane Nickles as my co-pilot) through gorgeous countryside along the old Canadian highway to explore Niagara Falls, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. 

But the inspiration flame was lit while reading a book on the journey up and watching a band in an empty hotel bar on the way home. 

Flying Colors is a novel by my friend Chris Laney. He worked on it for years and years, rewriting and refining it amid rejections from publishers who all wanted something different. Something this. Something that. It is so easy for people to say no. It is so easy to give up. Chris never did. He took the feedback that made sense and he incorporated it, but he never lost sight of his vision for what he wanted his story to bring to readers. He pushed it forward and he got it published. 

When it debuted, Flying Colors was the #1 new release on Amazon in the Philosophy & Metaphysical category. It ranked among bestsellers like Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Mitch Albom’s Five People You Meet in Heaven. 

It’s an easy, fast read that will make you think about life’s possibilities and perhaps change how you view the world. I encourage everyone to buy a copy.

On our way home from Canada, we reentered the United States via Vermont. It was the final state I had not visited. Like the other 49, it did not disappoint. Expanses of green, rugged terrain, delicious local restaurants, a Great Lake and historic town squares. 

On a hot Friday night, The Chris Lyon Band set up to play in our hotel bar. Jane and I wandered in, ordered some drinks and sat down to listen. The band kicked in, playing mostly original songs rather than covers. They radiated passion and joy. We clapped, cheered and danced. We asked for more. For 2 hours, they played for us (literally, no one else showed up except for hotel staff). While I know the band would have loved a packed house, we could tell they were playing because they love music. Chris Lyon writes music because he has stories to tell, and emotions to capture. And he is going to get them out there. Find him on your favorite streaming music channel.  

Since our return to Greensboro, I’ve reflected on the commitment and focus that both Chris Laney and Chris Lyon have to pursue their passions. They’ve inspired me to recommit to my own professional and personal goals. I’m fortunate that I have a clear vision of what is important to me, the path I want to follow and what makes me happy. I may or may not be successful in all that I want to achieve. I know it will require hundreds (thousands) of hours, with two steps forward and hopefully only one step back along the way. It is better than sitting still.


It seems like a lifetime ago, but I was recently reminded that it has only been 11 years since I was deeply embedded in leadership positions with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). I was invited to attend the 2022 year-end meeting of the NC PRSA chapter in Raleigh, where I was recognized as a past president of the chapter. There were only a few familiar faces, and I definitely felt like one of the oldest rats in the barn.

When I started my career at First Union Corporation fresh out of graduate school, I joined the Charlotte PRSA chapter. I immediately got to know a wide range of public relations professionals and was exposed to the myriad ways I could build a career. I served on committees to get experience outside of my comfort zone, and I continued to grow in the organization when I moved to Raleigh to learn the agency side of PR with Capital Strategies. Over the next few years, I served as chapter president, Southeast district chair, a member of the National Board Nominating Committee and National Bylaws Task Force and as a National Assembly Delegate. I made great friends across the country, earned my Accredited in Public Relations certification, traveled extensively for conferences and meetings and deepened my expertise in this profession. And then I quit PRSA.

The reason was simple. I had started my own agency and had the opportunity for RLF Communications to join Worldcom Public Relations Group, the oldest and largest partnership of independent public relations agencies in the world. We needed to focus our time, energy and money on getting all the value we could out of this organization, so I dove in headfirst. Doing that has paid enormous benefits for my own professional development and the growth of RLF Communications. I have made great friends around the world, traveled globally, deepened my expertise and served in leadership roles on the North America Region and Global boards.

As I drove back to Greensboro from the NC PRSA meeting last week, I thought about the different chapters we all have in our lives both personally and professionally. How we can be deeply embedded in projects and people, and then, as those experiences run their course, we take on new challenges and opportunities. The key is to respect and remember what was once important in our lives and helped shape who we have become. PRSA played that role for me. Worldcom continues to play that role for me.

Now it comes full circle. While I am not going to dive back into the PRSA deep-end, I do want RLF team members to get involved for the professional development and networking opportunities that exist. We’re also going to explore ways our agency can help the NC PRSA chapter extend its programming to the Triad region of North Carolina.

Many people know that my favorite novel is “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren. It has been more than 40 years since I first read “how life is strange and changeful, and the crystal is in the steel at the point of fracture, and the toad bears a jewel in its forehead, and the meaning of moments passes like the breeze that scarcely ruffles the leaf of the willow.”


Perspective on Measuring Public Relations Value

In conversations with clients and potential clients, the issue of measuring the value and impact of investments in public relations is a frequent topic. It is a simple question without easy or straight-forward answers. RLF Communications’ (RLF) point of view is that measurement can and should be implemented if the client is committed to long-term investments in strengthening its brand, building awareness for its products and services, and deepening its relationships with stakeholder audiences.

At the simplest level, public relations can be measured with “ad equivalency,” “share-of-voice,” or other metrics that track earned media coverage. For example, ad equivalency metrics assign a value based on what that same “space” would have cost if it had been purchased. A story on a local television news program that airs for 60 seconds would be assigned the value of what that same airtime would have cost to run a commercial. Most formulas also assign a multiplier of 3-5 times to reflect the third-party credibility that comes from earned media. It can also be measured by creating dedicated landing pages or phone numbers tied to specific news releases.

While there are multiple variations and flaws with these approaches (how to measure tone, how to account for negative coverage that could have been so much worse without skillful PR support, etc.), it is the easiest way to create charts and graphs that can be shared with senior leadership teams. Although most companies have moved away from ad equivalency metrics, there is still a role for them as a baseline to track earned media efforts over time, particularly for specific projects such as product launches and promotional campaigns. RLF invests significant resources in monitoring systems and databases such as Cision, Sprout Social, Mention and other platforms to help provide this type of reporting and analysis.

Tracking the deeper impact of public relations initiatives to support company\organizational brands requires a more sophisticated approach. New services such as Signal AI are developing tools that harness the power of Artificial Intelligence in data gathering and analysis. Beyond that, there are a multitude of studies that address how to arrive at brand equity formulas but do not segment out the specific role public relations plays in creating that value. Even the Valid Methods Framework (VFM) adopted as part of the Barcelona Principles in 2010 does not provide helpful measurement tools that can be applied by organizations.

RLF defines public relations as “communicating, connecting and influencing stakeholders who can help or hurt an organization by what they think, believe, say and do.” As companies\organizations seek to establish or maintain leadership positions in their respective industries, establishing original and relevant business metrics will help determine the value of their public relations efforts with stakeholders. Those metrics start with RLF helping to clearly define what “success” looks like and what goals makes a meaningful difference to the company\organization.

Once we know which way is “True North,” RLF advocates adopting the “outcomes” model identified in the Guidelines for Measuring Relationships in Public Relations study commissioned 20 years ago by the Institute for Public Relations. It is still considered the gold standard in PR measurement techniques. The model identifies five outcomes of successful relationships with key stakeholders:

  • Control Mutuality (The degree to which parties agree on rightful power to influence each other.)
  • Trust (Built through integrity, dependability, competence and confidence.)
  • Satisfaction (Where positive expectations are reinforced, and benefits outweigh costs.)
  • Commitment (When the relationship is worth spending energy to maintain and promote.)
  • Communal Relationship (Both parties provide benefits to the other because they are concerned for the welfare of the other, even when they get nothing in return. This is in contrast to “exchange” relationships where all actions are predicted on expectations to receive benefits of equal or greater value to what has been given.)

Organizations that communicate effectively with stakeholders develop better relationships because management and stakeholders understand one another and are less likely to behave in ways that have negative consequences on the interests of the other. Therefore, the value of public relations can be determined by assessing the quality of relationships with strategic publics and measuring effective outcomes.

Every company\organization has a different set of key stakeholders, but they generally encompass both internal and external audiences, such as senior management, employees, boards of directors, regulatory bodies, legislative bodies, activist groups, analysts, retail shareholders, institutional shareholders, trade media, business media, local media, vendor partners, retail partners, suppliers, financial partners and labor unions. Let’s also not forget customers and the myriad of combinations they form. The list goes on and on, driven by an organization’s size, complexity and industry.

There will often be times when a company\organization is at odds with the needs and desires of certain stakeholders. In fact, there are times when going to war against those groups is required to accomplish organizational objectives. In those instances, the value of having done the hard work required in public relations pays off. As Sun Tzu recorded more than 2,000 years ago in The Art of War, “Know your enemy and know yourself, and fight a hundred battles without danger. Know yourself but not your enemy and win one battle but lose another.”

If companies\organizations truly want to understand where they stand with friends and foes, RLF recommends developing a Perception Matrix that assigns a current score for each “outcome” with every stakeholder audience. Strategies and tactics can then be developed to stabilize, improve and track outcome scores, with the desired objective to more effectively operate and achieve business objectives.

For example, companies\organizations can establish baseline scoring systems ranging from -5 to +5, with 0 serving as neutral. For each stakeholder group, an initial score can be assigned in each outcome category (Control Mutuality, Trust, Satisfaction, Commitment, Communal Relationship) and then work to create strategies with specific outcome objectives such as increasing positive share-of-voice, reducing regulatory cycles, aligning third-party supporters and other metrics that ultimately lead to improved company\organizational performance.

There is a no question this is tricky to figure out. Professor Jim Macnamara has written, “human interactions, relationships, feelings, attitudes, loyalties, perceptions and engagement do not yield easily to numeric quantification.” But companies\organizations can and should be able to develop a model that assigns numerical value to the investments they make in establishing (and maintaining) leadership positions in their respective industries.

Companies\organizations interested in these issues should also review insights gathered in the Authentic Enterprise report commissioned a decade ago by the Arthur Page Society. Page is composed of the top corporate public relations executives in the United States. The study was updated in 2013 and reaffirms that a proactive narrative is a key part of explaining an enterprise’s social value and defending the company’s reputation in the global marketplace.

Another resource that can be helpful is the annual Global Communications Report conducted by the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. This survey is endorsed by the leading communication associations, and RLF participates in the data gathering process through our Worldcom Public Relations Group partnership. With more than 100 leading independent agencies around the world to draw on for trends, insights, proprietary research and best practices, we are able to access a multitude of resources for our clients.

RLF deeply believes in the power of public relations to move companies forward and build brand equity. Absolute quantification is a challenge in our industry, but we can develop metrics to inform our progress. We are devoted to ideas, strategy and service that help our clients succeed and we welcome the opportunity to work with clients who aspire to great things.

Monty Hagler Speaks to COVID-19 Communications

CEO Monty Hagler led a Q&A session with more than 100 Greensboro Chamber of Commerce members on best practices for communicating with key audiences during the coronavirus crisis. Key points of the discussion included:

  • Deliver a consistent message. Work with your company’s leadership team to come up with a unified message, then tailor it for different audiences. Consistent messaging and visuals show you are in control of the situation.
  • Expect criticism. No matter how perfectly packaged your message, someone will disagree. Be respectful, listen and adapt if needed. Expect that everything you write will become an external document.
  • Think about the long term. How can you plan ahead for six months to a year from now? Think about how this crisis will affect your marketing strategies going forward. Use any down time to work on projects you wouldn’t normally have time for.
  • Prepare for jagged re-entry. Companies will return to normal operations at different points. Where is your industry on the curve? Check will suppliers, employees and other stakeholders about their timelines.

The full conversation can be listened to here.

Summer Slowdowns

By Piper Anderson

Maybe all of us have been there at some point. It’s a summer afternoon and there’s not much to do at work. You stare out the window: The sky is bright blue, the sun is hot and your to-do list is bafflingly empty. How did this lull happen when just a week ago you couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with all the tasks at hand? Well, it’s called summer, and it’s a strange time to be in public relations. Summer days are capricious: Some bubble over with projects like an egg sizzling on hot pavement, and some are so unbusy that they pass slowly as oozing syrup.

It’s not uncommon for strategic communication agencies to offer half days on Fridays, or more opportunities to work from home.

Why such random summer slowdowns? There are myriad reasons. School is out, clients and reporters are on vacation, campaigns are stalled until fall and winter. In regards to the fiscal year, clients have already spent a good chunk of their marketing budget and are saving until later months. There aren’t many major holidays in the summer, which limits marketing potential. And so, the normally fast-paced PR world loses momentum.

There is a beauty in lost momentum, though, because it offers wonderful opportunities for growth. When things are slow we can maintain, check-in, organize. We are afforded the opportunity to go that extra mile– a mile that there was no time to pursue, previously.

Here are five things to keep in mind during those dog days of summer. Chew on them in the slow moments, when otherwise you would just be mentally packing for a vacation that is 4 weeks out…

  1. Stay relevant. Read up on trade publications, read books on hot new marketing trends, publish tasteful posts on social media. Brushing up on the latest marketing campaigns might just spark a brilliant idea of your own, and at the very least, throwing some buzz words into client conversations never fails to impress.
  2. Pitch fluffier stories. The newsroom down the street might be having just as much of a slowdown as your own firm. Take the opportunity to pitch feature stories that reporters might dismiss during high-volume months. You can build your client’s brand in a very holistic way while also striking up a relationship with a reporter grateful for the story idea. After all, summer is generally slower-paced for the public as well, which means people are more willing to invest that extra five minutes to read a human interest article, peruse a fun recipe idea, or read up on a local business.
  3. Get organized. If your desktop (or desk) is a chaotic spread of stray documents, spreadsheets, and photos, then summer is the perfect chance to sort your files. Getting rid of digital clutter is surprisingly soothing. You can also get organized in other ways: polish your LinkedIn profile; reconnect with old colleagues or clients over coffee; see what your competition is up to.
  4. Boost office spirit. Have a little fun! Bring in ice-cream bars or baked goods just for the heck of it, and throw an office cookout. Start a message thread encouraging employees to share photos from any weekend beach trips or intercontinental adventures they embark on. These little moments bring smiles to everyone’s faces and foster a sense of community in the office.
  5. Treat yourself. Summer provides a wonderful opportunity to relax for a beat. Get back into exercise, take a cooking class with a friend, pursue something you’ve always been interested in. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to take that quintessential summer vacation. While some people can feel guilty about it, vacation is actually incredibly beneficial, as studies have shown that people come back from time-off (even if it’s just 24-hours away from work) with renewed motivation and energy.

In moments of slowness at work when everything that can be done has been done, focus on staying proactive, getting organized, and being kind to yourself. In the busier months to come, your future self will thank you.

Pop PR– Hot marketing tactics behind Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s surprise album and video release

 By Piper Anderson

Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s music video Apes**t is magnificent to behold. It was somehow shot in a completely empty Louvre without any knowledge of it leaking to the press. There are gilded ceilings as golden as the music’s rhythm. Tantalizingly brief shots of gorgeous outfits against richly pigmented walls. Fluid dances, power couple shots, ancient art. The stills in themselves make for endlessly aesthetic marketing materials and media articles. But when this beautiful cinematography is coupled with the element of complete and utter surprise? Then the reaction is massive.

Photo courtesy of YouTube via Essence

On Saturday, June 16, Beyoncé and Jay-Z (the Carters) dropped their joint album Everything Is Love without prior announcement or promotion, along with their stunning Apes**t music video. Fans took to social media ecstatically reeling from the unexpected gift, and even non-BeyHive members couldn’t miss the coverage coming from virtually every media platform that touches on pop culture. 2.1 million tweets circulated about the album in the two days after its release.

Why such a media maelstrom? The quality of the music is part of it, but the Carters’ genius for marketing certainly helps. They have always been masters at keeping secrets. Beyoncé in particular has a gift for hiding things like albums and then strategically unveiling them for maximum response. Her album Beyoncé sold over 600,000 copies within 3 days of its surprise release; her audio-visual album Lemonade sold over 600,000 copies within the first week of its surprise release; her song Formation caused a frenzy after its unexpected drop on the eve of her Super Bowl performance. She has become a pioneer of surprise releases in the music industry.

The element of surprise is a powerful and clever public relations tool– especially in the face of increasingly predictable marketing tactics. Between algorithms that predict market trends and data that tailors messages to exactly the right audience, increasing technology-use in marketing runs the risk of trading in excitement for efficiency.

Singer Adele told TIME that surprise marketing keeps the audience interested: “When you have a 6-month build up, don’t expect me to be there the day your album comes out, because I’m bored.”

The power of surprise is no secret to the music industry. Future’s Evol, Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered were all surprise albums that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart within the first week of their unexpected release.

The element of surprise is easily transferable to other industries and brands, as well. Take for example, IHOP’s bizarre change to IHOB. Such an unprecedented change could not be ignored, and the franchise’s “word-of-mouth” score skyrocketed.

Album cover image from Amazon

Surprise is something PR professionals might keep in mind when brainstorming campaigns– even little surprise-and-delight moments make for wonderful media coverage, like Coca-Cola’s happiness vending machines that gifted “doses” of happiness in the form of fresh flowers and pizza and more. These unexpected moments bring back the wonder and glee of childhood.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z carried their flair for mystery into the Apes**t video. It’s striking not just because the setting is magnificent, choreography mesmerizing, and visuals gorgeous. It’s striking because it’s enigmatic. There are hundreds upon hundreds of articles about the “Secrets Behind the Art in Apesh**t” and the “Hidden Meaning in Each Painting.” The obsession over the symbolism and complexities in the video– which the Carters have not commented on– has become a trending media topic.

Of course, no matter how great a surprise is, a brand won’t get recognition if it’s actual product is uninteresting and insignificant. The message of the Carters’ music is what gives this stunt staying power, rather than being a flash in the pan. Apes**t cleverly addresses what it means to be black in a predominantly white culture, and the power behind re-contextualizing Western art. The Everything Is Love album takes a more personal twist– it explores the marriage between Beyoncé and Jay-Z, a topic that the public has been endlessly fascinated by. The drama of their marriage has been expressed in Beyonce’s Lemonade and Jay-Z’s 4:44; now, this album marks the two of them coming together and healing; it explores the African-American legacy they are creating. With messages like that, marketing comes naturally.

As far as a public relations takeaway from the Carters is concerned, combining the element of surprise with quality messaging can make for great results. Surprise and mystery entice your audience and keep them curious and excited. But it’s the contextual elements of a product or organization that truly appeal to an audience and drive brand loyalty– or, in the case of the Carters, life-long fans.


The Art of the Pitch

By Taylor Lord
Pitching. It’s the reason that reporters have a love-hate relationship with PR specialists. A trick to improve your media relations lies in effectively pitching media outlets without hounding reporters. When thinking of a story idea, make sure you remember to consider tactics to accomplish the three pitching steps: the “before,” the “during,” and the “after.”
Media relations don’t begin by picking up the phone to call an outlet about an intriguing story. You need to establish a relationship first. Just think of the name: “media relations.” It implies a connection between you and the reporter. Before even thinking about dialing or clicking send, plan for the pitch.


1. Research

Imagine that you are working on a pitch for a new hire release. You create a media list and settle in for a long day of calling. The first outlet answers and, whoops, they only want product releases. If you keep contacting this publication to pitch new associates rather than new products, the reporter begins to think you are simply wasting their time and will ignore you when you do have a new product to pitch.
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How to lose clients and kill your reputation

By David French
My spouse and I traveled recently to the British Virgin Islands. After we returned, I wrote TripAdvisor reviews of several restaurants we visited. All the reviews were brief and favorable, except for this one:
We were so looking forward to a wonderful dinner in one of the most spectacular settings on the West End. Food was simply OK for the price, and service was terrible. Entrees arrived +45 minutes after we ordered, and several tables who were seated after us were served and finished before we ever got our food.
And the restaurant owner’s response:
You are on holiday. It’s evening. It’s beautiful weather and a ” spectacular setting. ” Why can’t you spend an hour having dinner? Are you really that important? International calls flowing in requiring your attention? Big deals brewing?
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The Bookshelf – The World Is Flat

img_5284By Monty Hagler
(Part of a continuing series on the books that made the journey to RLF’s new office space)
Think of The World Is Flat as business science fiction, circa 2005. Many of the concepts author Thomas Friedman chronicles were still in their emerging phases – the ease in which anyone could outsource research work to India, the blinding speed of digital communication connections, the seamless process of pulling into a McDonalds drive-thru and having your order taken by someone a thousand miles away.
If I recall correctly, I read The World Is Flat about the same time I got my first mobile phone with a camera that allowed you to easily snap a picture and then email it. I don’t believe texting and instant messaging from the phone were options, but on my laptop there was this new tool called Google to look up things without a staff of researchers and assistants tracking down information. And as someone who is paid to look things up and track things down, it was a wake-up call that I’d better up my game.
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The Bookshelf – When Words Lose Their Meaning

By Monty Hagler
As RLF packed up the office space we occupied for nine years, I faced difficult choices on what to keep, give away, recycle or trash. That is particularly true when it comes to books. I’m old-school print, with hundreds of books in the office and thousands on the shelves at home. Sinceimg_5279 childhood, literature has fueled wonder, discovery, laughter, suspense, adventure and knowledge in my life. It’s easy to gather, much harder to discard.
When the dust settled, 20 books made the move to the new office. This Orange Slices post marks the first in a series about each book that opened my eyes to a broader world or taught me lessons that still resonate. I don’t distinguish between reading for pleasure or business, but I do follow a cardinal rule to put a book down if I’m not enjoying it or finding value from it in the first 35 pages.
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