Listen to The Boss: What Your Brand Can Learn From Springsteen

I’m known amongst my friends and loved ones as a Bruce Springsteen enthusiast. I remember the first time I heard "Thunder Road." I was in my dorm room at Indiana University and popped his greatest hits CD into my stereo (until then I’d just thought of him as the "Born in the U.S.A." guy). I think I uttered two words; the first one was "Holy."

So when I saw this article about how brands can benefit from being more like Springsteen, it was a no-brainer that I had to blog about it. There are some solid points here about staying current and relevant, and transcending your industry.

1. He’s a thought leader. Read the cover story from the recent Rolling Stone magazine to discover a man who’s well connected with the world around him and not afraid to express a point of view. He has tackled controversial topics throughout his 40-year career, sometimes stirring negative reactions, but he never backs down. He did it again with "American Skin (41 shots)," a song inspired by the 2000 police shooting death of Amadou Diallo. Speculation suggests Springsteen may have been making a statement about the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Thought leaders shouldn’t be shy to share their opinions on issues that matter to their audience. Your employees and the public will respect you for speaking out on struggles they face, or are top of mind.

2. His values define him. In the "Rolling Stone" interview, Springsteen said, "In my music—if it has a purpose beyond dancing and fun and vacuuming your floor to it—I always try to gauge the distance between American reality and the American dream." He began this journey in 1972 when he signed his first record contract with Columbia; it continues today with "Wrecking Ball," his latest album.

There’s no denying that Springsteen’s message and values have been consistent. Brands should follow suit. Messaging should align with your company’s values. That extends internally. If one of your company’s core values is putting employees/associates first, then shouldn’t they be allowed to use social media at work?

3. He’s social. He’s a social animal who enjoys camaraderie and conversation. In an age of social media where the word "community" is fast becoming cliché, Springsteen has sustained an avidly engaged community that keeps expanding. One measure (besides selling more than 120 million albums) is his social media presence. He has 2,179,654 "likes" on Facebook and 157,843 Twitter followers. He is keeping the conversation alive, staying current in a digital age. He’s no Lady Gaga (with 49 million Facebook likes) but he’s definitely in the game.

There are so many ways to engage with employees, customers, and potential customers today that brands have no excuse for burying their heads in the sand.

4. He’s sensory. He may be a biological 62, but watching him perform, I marvel at his 20-something dexterity, strength and flexibility. Whether it’s sliding across the stage on his knees or bending backwards to the floor while holding a floor stand microphone, this guy logs hours in the gym to remain physically relevant. He’s a best case example of how staying fit keeps us young.

Brands like Target leverage the power of sensory in its store designs, which entice and engage shoppers and create a more fulfilling shopping experience.

5. He’s an innovator. A handful of artists transform their music, take risks, and push in new directions. The Beatles morphed in amazing ways over a too-short nine-year span; "I want to hold your hand" sounded nothing like "Day Tripper" which sounded nothing like "A day in the life."

Springsteen is in this pantheon. The rambling lyrical style of "Greetings from Asbury Park" morphed into the tighter pop structure of "Born to Run," which was re-shaped to "Nebraska" starkness and later to the Americana-influenced "We shall overcome: The Seeger sessions." One of the new songs from Wrecking Ball—"Rocky Ground"—features a hip hop interlude, something Springsteen has never done.

The takeaway is simple: Brands must be innovative if they hope to stay relevant.

6. It’s about us, not him. We brought two friends to the concert who had never seen him. I explained how Springsteen feeds off the audience and exists to give each person a gift. "It’s never about him, it’s about you," I said, explaining how Springsteen is passionate about making sure everyone has a good time, gets their money’s worth and leaves happy. When the show was over I said, "Now you’ve been baptized." They grinned and understood.

This is an important reminder for thought leaders. It’s not about your product per se, but delivering what your audience expects and needs—be it an experience or a service. Steve Jobs, for instance, was a master at creating products his fans didn’t even know they needed.

7. He’s more than music. I’m not hung up on awards, but Springsteen was robbed in 2003 when "The Rising" failed to win the Grammy for Best Album (he lost to Norah Jones). Inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks, the inspirational LP Springsteen created helped us heal. It was musical catharsis; it was more than an album. His giving spirit has impacted a range of organizations, from Amnesty International to the Rainforest Foundation Fund to WhyHunger. He endorses a local charity at every concert.

Go beyond what your company makes or does. Companies like Chipotle and Starbucks have given back to their communities, winning the admiration of many.

8. He’s the best kind of brand. Great brands create a feeling, a meaningful personal connection that sticks. We want to associate with that brand because it’s part of who we are, how we view ourselves. That’s why he’s more relevant than ever.

Business to Customers: “We Messed Up, Please Help!” (And It Worked)

This is a very encouraging article from about an Illinois pizza place, some mistakes, and some very devoted customers.

In general, begging is a tactic that PR folks tend to frown upon.

But when Nick Sarillo, CEO of Nick’s Pizza & Pub, sent an email pleading for customers to help keep the doors open at his two Chicagoland restaurants, customers didn’t just respond. They rallied.

"We doubled our sales in each restaurant for the first week and stayed at a 75 percent increase for a couple of weeks," Sarillo told Crain’s Chicago Business.

So what gives? If begging, or at least pleading, isn’t a worthwhile PR tactic—Sarillo’s publicity staff and his bank tried to talk him out of sending the email—why did this work? Gerald Baron, a blogger and principal at Agincourt Strategies, says it comes down to one word: authenticity.

"It was real," he says. "It was not a ‘strategy’ as we tend to understand it."

A genuine plea

Last fall, Nick’s was in deep trouble. In Sarillo’s email, he says, "we overbuilt and overspent," and he blames himself for "the bad decisions that got us into this mess." He gives percentages for sales drops at his Elgin, Ill., restaurant and states, "We are going to run out of cash to pay our vendors and team members over the next couple of weeks and will have to close."

Tripp Frohlichstein of MediaMasters Training says Sarillo’s direct, honest approach was "classy and smart."

"As a media trainer, it is amazing to see so many clients who realize that being honest about a situation is easier than evasion or deception," he says. "The realization that you can’t always please everyone is very important in sticking to this approach."

Drew Mendelson of Mendelson Communications says being straight with customers is vital to having a profitable business, but he notes that Sarillo’s approach won’t work for everyone.

"What Sarillo did probably works better for a privately held business that doesn’t have to answer to stockholders who might panic at the news and drive stock prices down," he says. "It also would probably have worked better if he made his announcement earlier, before things got so dire."

Mendelson says a message like Sarillo’s has to come from a CEO or, if the CEO isn’t the most personable executive, someone else in upper management. "The message has to be personal," he says.

Likewise, Mendelson says he doesn’t view Sarillo’s approach as begging.

"Sarillo wasn’t asking for charity. He was being honest. His business was beset by today’s mediocre economy and by the unforeseen problems of road construction."

Let’s Hear It for the PR Pro

The public relations profession doesn’t typically rake in a great dual of kudos. Sure, the internal "way to go" feedback takes place occasionally, but when the external spotlight shines it is often negative in nature — as in struggles in dealing with a crisis.

That shouldn’t deter one from the profession, at least according to U.S. News & World Report. In its "Best Jobs of 2012 list," it ranks the public relations specialist position the number one creative services job of the current year.

Thanks to the explosive popularity of social media, companies have entered a new era in the field of reputation monitoring, and social media outreach has largely been assigned to PR departments, and has led to more comprehensive contracts with PR agencies — and will continue to do so. "Whether you’re the press secretary for the President of the United States, a communications director for Google, or a media specialist for a small nonprofit, your main goal is to generate positive publicity for your client and improve their reputation," the article says about the PR profession.

In addition to the high ranking for PR, the article also cites promising job opportunities over the next decade — the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects public relations specialists’ employment growth of 22.5 percent between 2010 and 2020. During that time period, an additional 58,200 jobs will need to be filled, the article reports.

On the topic of landing a PR job, "A public relations specialist job requires writing skills, critical thinking ability, fast turnaround, patience, a thick-skin mentality, and creativity," said Public Relations Society of America chair Gerard Corbett in the article. He also adds that you should be able to demonstrate real accomplishments and have broad networks. And wallflowers need not apply — public relations specialists must have an outgoing, self-confident and friendly personality. 

Should Your CEO Really be Blogging?

When blogs and social media really began to take off, there were some who argued that businesses should put their top executive’s face out there and get their CEO blogging about the company. Over time, that’s worked for some folks, and not so much for others. PR Daily offers further analysis on why it remains a challenging communications topic for many:

Mark Schaefer of Schaefer Marketing Solutions and the blog Businesses Grow says most CEOs will never get to that level of ease and comfort. Charismatic executives such as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson are atypical, he says, though that level of authenticity would certainly be an advantage for a CEO.

However, Schaefer says the interviews with the 10 bloggers show that they’re “out of touch with reality” in terms of what CEOs can and can’t say. “It’s naïve to believe that CEOs are going to be as authentic as someone who’s blogging about gadgets,” he says.

A key reason for that difference, he says, is the law. For example, a CEO whom Schaefer knows tweeted about a meeting with shareholders only to find he had broken a Securities and Exchange Commission rule. That CEO ended up paying a fine and having to appease angry investors.

“CEOs are under a tremendous amount of scrutiny,” Schaefer says.

The public isn’t the only constituency to consider, Olson says. Being critical of another company, another CEO, or the business environment in general may go over well in the public eye, but it “may threaten a CEO’s standing with his contemporaries or perhaps be read as disloyalty,” she says.

Likewise, saying doesn’t make up for doing, Olson says. Expressing sympathy for employees who lose benefits doesn’t mean much when a CEO is taking home a big salary or huge bonuses.

“PR can’t fix an inherently and systemically flawed corporate structure,” she says.

Bernstein points out that some points the bloggers make are contradictory. It’s hard to be fearless and authentically human at the same time, he says.

“Even Seal Team Six members feel fear,” Bernstein says. “However, coming across as confident despite any fear is admirable.”

Stop the Jargon, You Exclusive Solutions Provider!

Best. Leading. Top. Premier. Sustainable.

These words sound familiar? You’ve probably seen them in a press release. Perhaps you put them in a press release.

A post by Ragan relays that Schwartz MSL Research Group and Business Wire released a list of the most common buzzwords used in press releases. If you want your future releases to stand out, you might want to start by keeping out the words it lists.

Additionally, they reveal the top action words (over)used in headlines are:

  • Announces
  • Launches
  • Partners

How to Keep Your Audience Awake

If you’re in the professional world long enough, odds are pretty high that you will have to make at least a few speeches. While some people tense at the thought of public speaking, others take to it like ducks to water. However, the real keys are organizing your thoughts and practicing.

Regardless of your comfort level, one frequent challenge for everyone is making the speech interesting and engaging. We all know that business topics can be a little dry and crammed with information. The question is how to take what may be a dull topic and turn it into an attention-getter.

In its e-newsletter for communicators, Ragan recently offered five good tips to follow and featured a video of a speech that embodied this approach.

The speaker:

  1. Began with a story
  2. Created the framework for his talk
  3. Took his time
  4. Gave the audience a roadmap of what to expect
  5. Didn’t rely on PowerPoint

Twitter More Prominent in Customer Relations, Crisis Response

In its few years of existence, Twitter has grown in use from simply a way to answer "What are you doing?" to being a way to answer "Where can I find information important to my life and/or profession?" The latest East Coast snowstorm provided evidence of how businesses are taking to the medium. The New York Times reports:

Some travelers stranded by the great snowstorm of 2010 discovered a new lifeline for help. When all else fails, Twitter might be the best way to book a seat home.

While the airlines’ reservation lines required hours of waiting — if people could get through at all — savvy travelers were able to book new reservations, get flight information and track lost luggage. And they could complain, too.

Since Monday, nine Delta Air Lines agents with special Twitter training have been rotating shifts to help travelers wired enough to know how to “dm,” or send a direct message. Many other airlines are doing the same as a way to help travelers cut through the confusion of a storm that has grounded thousands of flights this week.

But not all travelers, of course. People who could not send a Twitter message if their life depended on it found themselves with that familiar feeling that often comes with air travel — being left out of yet another inside track to get the best information.

For those in the digital fast lane, however, the online help was a godsend.

Danielle Heming spent five hours Wednesday waiting for a flight from Fort Myers, Fla., back home to New York. Finally, it was canceled.

Facing overwhelmed JetBlue ticketing agents, busy signals on the phone and the possibility that she might not get a seat until New Year’s Day, she remembered that a friend had rebooked her flight almost immediately by sending a Twitter message to the airline.

She got out her iPhone, did a few searches and sent a few messages. Within an hour, she had a seat on another airline and a refund from JetBlue.

“It was a much, much better way to deal with this situation,” said Ms. Heming, 30, a student at New York University. “It was just the perfect example of this crazy, fast-forward techno world.”

Although airlines reported a doubling or tripling of Twitter traffic during the latest storm, the number of travelers who use Twitter is still small. Only about 8 percent of people who go online use Twitter, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit organization that studies the social impact of the Internet.

“This is still the domain of elite activist customers,” Mr. Rainie said.

Of course, an agent with a Twitter account cannot magically make a seat appear. More often than not, the agent’s role is to listen to people complain.

So Please, Treat Your Staffers Well…

Feeling very Crosby, Stills & Nashish today, so you’ll have to excuse the headline.

Ragan offers some basic, yet valuable tips on treating your staff well. So if your New Year’s Resolution is to make your employees a priority and improve morale, stay on track and make your goal easier to reach. Here are the things to avoid:

1. Playing favorites—Favoritism shouldn’t exist in the workplace. When you constantly give opportunities only to your favorite employees or apply the rules only to certain employees, you’re going to create a work environment that’s filled with jealousy and resentment. All employees should be treated equally.

2. Taking sides in employee disputes—This usually goes hand in hand with favoritism. You should never jump to conclusions nor take sides when two or more employees have a dispute. Always look at the facts, and make decisions based on company rules and regulations.

3. Not giving employees clear performance expectations—If employees don’t know what’s expected of them, how can you expect them to succeed? You need to have clearly defined standards, and employee performance should be measured against those.

4. Not giving employees a forum for voicing suggestions—You want your employees to feel like they’re valued members of your company. That’s why you need to encourage them to make suggestions for improving the company or the way their job is handled. When you get good suggestions, make sure you actually do something with them. Talk is cheap; implementing the good ideas is what counts.

5. Hiding the bigger picture from employees—Employees that find some sort of deeper meaning in their work are likelier to take an interest in doing a good job and being proud of what they do. Let your employees know what the company’s goals are and how their performance plays into that.

6. Knee-jerk reactions to disputes—Before you react to a situation based on your emotions, take some time to calm down and evaluate the situation rationally. This could save you from doing something stupid like firing a good employee or alienating a worker by overreacting to a simple mistake.

7. Lack of communication with employees—Just like every other relationship in your life, communication is essential to maintaining a healthy relationship with your employees. Be present. Be easy to contact. And take the time to get to know your employees by speaking with them regularly.

8. Ignoring the law—Too many companies forget that there are laws governing how you can interact with and treat your employees. Before you take any action—such as firing an employee—you need to make sure there are no laws prohibiting your actions.

9. Not trusting your employees—You can’t create a positive work environment if you treat employees as though they’re untrustworthy. If you’re constantly over their shoulders, monitoring their every move, tracking their actions, and questioning them, you’re going to produce a lot of bitter employees.

10. Never rewarding or thanking employees for their hard work—Your employees work hard for you. They’re helping your company succeed, and without them, you’d be out of business. Showing your appreciation for their hard work can go a long way to keeping them happy and motivated. Check out these 10 ways to reward your employees.

Surely, there are other big employee relations mistakes worthy of making this list. Share your favorites below.

Doing a Media Interview? Try These Tips

Speaking with the media can be tough, especially if you’re not used to doing it. Christina Khoury of offers some quality advice for businesses (it’s actually for PR pros to pass on to clients) about how to get your message across effectively in only 5-10 minutes, so you come across a little more like George Clooney, and a little less like Rod Blagojevich or Animal from "The Muppets":

Prepare. Inform your client about the outlet, host, market, and if you’re lucky the questions that will be asked (don’t count on it).  Note: no matter how much you prepare, prepare for the unexpected and plan for possible damage control.

Draft no more than three talking points. If there are more than three, clients feel rushed to make sure every point is discussed and it makes the interview seem less conversational.   Work with the client so that he can discuss the points comfortably with improvisation instead of memorizing them.  This will help create a more genuine interview.  If needed, index cards are beneficial but should only have key words instead of phrases in case your client forgets something.  And if he does,  it’s not the end of the world.  Stay positive, give feedback, and move on to the next one.

This is not an advertisement. Be careful how many times your client mentions his product.  If the audience wanted to watch informericals they would turn on the TV in the middle of the night.  No one wants that during prime time.  My rule of thumb, especially for short interviews, is to mention the product twice.  Once in the beginning and once at the end as a call to action to communicate where or how to purchase/experience said product.

Smile. It’s easy to sound monotone on interviews especially if they are over the phone.  By smiling clients can change the entire tone of their voice and people are more inclined to listen to a voice that is inviting.

Relax, breathe, and have fun. I’ve had clients sing on the radio, tell embarrassing stories, and some hosts have even professed their love for some clients.  Just have fun.  No one wants to listen to anyone that takes themselves too seriously, especially during drive time.

All in the Workplace Family … Really!

When asked over the years what I do for a living, the answer has typically been journalist, reporter, editor, communications professional or some close variation. But when it comes to BizVoice magazine and our (joined by colleagues Rebecca, Tony, Candace, Matt and Symone) role, I think I prefer storyteller. It’s what we do in article after article, issue after issue.

At no time is that term more perfectly suited, however, than when writing for our Best Places to Work in Indiana issue. We’re "telling stories" of people that truly enjoy their time in the workplace and companies that make that possible. They are genuine and speaking from the heart when they use words and phrases like "family," "special culture," "service to each other," "close team" and more. (In 25-plus years, trust me I’ve seen and listened to many who were more auditioning than being authentic).

It’s really a privilege to be able to bring these stories to our readers. I’m sure you will enjoy the offerings this time around. Seventy companies are on the 2010 Best Places to Work list. While we can’t sit down with each and every one, we profile a variety in different locations and types of businesses, as well as gain the comments of many more in stories that focus on workplace communications, teamwork and respect.

The awards dinner is May 6. BizVoice will go in the mail that day and be available online after the event (can’t reveal those final rankings ahead of time). And if you think your company or another organization should be in the running as a leading employer, learn more about the annual program here.