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Comedy and Communication – Using Humor to Your PR Advantage

Appropriate humor used effectively can bolster any business’s communication plan. That’s the assertion of David C. Winfield, professional stand-up comedian and CEO/Founder of Commonwealth Commercial Comedic Communications. David offers his services to myriad businesses, helping craft jokes that complement their communications plans. On behalf of the Richmond PRSA on Wednesday 6/28, David gave a keynote speech on how the hard-learned lessons of comedy he internalized after years on the stand-up circuit can be related to public relations.

David made it clear from the beginning that humor can be used in almost any professional setting because it exists on a spectrum. The key to implementing comedy into a communications plan is to determine what type of humor is appropriate given your business or client. Jokes don’t have to be offensive or vulgar, although offensive jokes shouldn’t be discounted outright. “Appropriate” does not always equal “clean.” Know your audience, know your brand, and then determine if people will respond well to more vulgar jokes, or sillier jokes, industry-specific jokes, etc. Humor is not inherently unprofessional, as some may believe. In fact, David believes employees perceived as funny by their peers are also viewed as more competent and confident.

So, which situations are optimized for humor? David points to three categories:

  1. Announcements, especially those that contain lists
  2. Speeches, pitches, and presentations
  3. Social media

Utilizing comedy helps to both gain and maintain an audience’s attention. That’s why David recommends using humor when giving a speech, or even in pitches to the media. Never allow your jokes to overshadow your core messaging, but punching up your pitch to that New York Times reporter may just set you apart from countless other pitches they receive each day. Jokes are the “sizzle” to your messaging’s “steak.”

The greatest opportunity for a business to optimize humor is on social media, because it is relatively new and, thus, less bound by tradition. For example, Wendy’s Twitter account has been lauded for its brutal responses to online critics, with Business Insider calling the tweets “hilarious.”

So now that we know it is possible to inject humor into public relations and communications, the question becomes, “How can I be funny?” In his speech, David pointed to three core elements of humor: Truth, Surprise, and Hostility.

Laughter is often a response to relating to a shared experience. That’s why many jokes are rooted in truth and then embellished with hyperbolic details. We’ve all waited in line at a bank or been on hold with customer service. Know the shared experiences of your target audience, and then introduce the second element of humor, the element of surprise. Start your joke with relatability, and then pull the rug out with an unexpected twist. For example, this great Steven Wright joke: “I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time,’ so I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.” Also, “A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me, I’m afraid of widths.” The surprise of the joke then informs the joke’s hostility, which David defines as a “disturbance of the norm.” Nothing’s ever funny when everything happens exactly as expected.

My biggest takeaway from David’s speech was that, in the world of PR, we shouldn’t feel restrained by tradition or convention. Jokes and comedy are symbolic of a break from many of PR’s long held beliefs. However, breaking from convention should not be done without reason, without planning, or without an expert understanding of your messaging and your audience.

Trust your business, your team, and yourself to implement comedy effectively into your communications plan. And if at first your jokes don’t land, persevere. After all, dying’s easy. But comedy? Comedy is hard.

Book Report | Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies

Since burgeoning in the mid-2000s, social media have presented a conundrum for businesses and organizations hoping to maximize their brand’s value. On one hand, social media, when skillfully used, offer organizations the ability to reach, interact with, and utilize their consumer base in previously impossible ways. On the other hand, social technologies have a great democratizing power that shifts influence away from traditional marketing departments into the hands of consumers.

This is the problem explored in Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Forrester Research’s Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. Originally published in 2008 and revised in 2011, Li and Bernoff define the ‘groundswell’ as, “A social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations” (Li and Bernoff 9).

But how, exactly, is the groundswell useful to companies? According to Li and Bernoff, the answer lies in each company’s objectives. Generally, the authors group these objectives into five categories, which form the backbone of the book itself: Listening, talking, energizing, supporting, and embracing.

Listening to the groundswell helps companies perform customer and market research, while talking allows companies to market themselves. Energizing the groundswell means identifying super-customers who will “supercharge the power of their word of mouth.” Supporting the groundswell means providing the tools and platforms for customer-to-customer help systems, while embracing the groundswell goes several steps further and involves incorporating customers into how a company functions and designs products.

Clearly, there are several layers of complexity to the groundswell that must be accounted for before any interactions with it can take place. But Li and Bernoff do a fantastic job of making the concept accessible. They translate the abstract landscape of social media into real business sense without losing the humanity behind the groundswell. Several real-world case studies punctuate their points, and prove the potency of the concept.

Social technologies have been so ingrained in our daily lives that, for an organization of any size, acting to maximize the benefits and minimize the potential negatives of the groundswell is no longer optional. To do so, the authors recommend beginning with a four-step planning process, “POST:”

  1. People: How will your customers engage with your organization?
  2. Objectives: What are your goals? Do you want to talk to the groundswell for research, energize sales, etc.?
  3. Strategy: How will your relationship with your customers change, and how will customers carry your message?
  4. Technology: Which social technologies will you use and what applications will you build to reach your customers?

The book is a masterclass in navigating the new (at the time) digital landscape of social media. However, Groundswell was last revised in 2011 in large part to explore the growing influence of a social media site exploding in popularity: Twitter. But, a lot has changed in the past 6 years. As noted in the book, Ashton Kutcher had 6 million followers on Twitter when Groundswell was published. He now has 18.1 million. McDonalds had a “big Twitter following” of around 75,000 people in 2011 (197). Today? 3.45 million. Experts are no longer discussing the viability of Twitter as a new social media/micro-blogging platform, but have instead started to wonder how long it can survive.

So, the question of whether Groundswell is relevant today is a valid one. Effusively, I believe it remains relevant because, while the digital landscape may change, mastering the groundswell, according to Li and Bernoff, relies on one tenet: Concentrate on relationships, not technologies. No matter which technologies are invented, evolve, transform, and die in the future, relationships will remain a constant.

The groundswell is our present and our future. Now that the world has been connected by social technologies, it is unlikely to ever be meaningfully disconnected. Li and Bernoff have a very interesting vision of the future groundswell, one that is “ubiquitous,” with complete – and nearly constant – connection. In the book’s final chapter, the authors make predictions on how the groundswell will evolve. Many of their predictions have proved true, like an increased reliance on mobile technology, and news feeds and alerts that are uniquely crafted based on the sites you have visited and the articles you have read. The technologies that already existed when this book was published in 2008, say the authors, will be markedly bolstered by increased participation in the future.

Wireside whole-heartedly recommends Groundswell to anyone working in marketing or PR. Though the book is aged, it has aged well, and will continue to inform our understanding of customer desires, input, interactions, and more as social and digital technologies continue to transform the world.

In Case You Missed the Memo on the Importance of Social Media in PR- Read This.

PRSA Richmond’s April luncheon speaker, Dr. Donald K. Wright, wanted to make one point very clear: Digital media is absolutely vital to modern public relations departments. Dr. Wright is the Harold Burson professor and chair in public relations at Boston University’s College of Communication. Every statistic, metric, and case study from his research, a 12-Year Longitudinal Analysis Tracking Social and Digital Media Use in Public Relations Practice, points to the simple fact that PR professionals must take new media very seriously, or else suffer the (often very public) consequences.

The Death of Traditional News

Dr. Wright began his talk by discussing the downfall of the newspaper industry, especially at the local level. Newspaper Death Watch keeps a comprehensive list of those papers that have closed in the past few years, but even once-daily papers that have managed to stay afloat have in many cases switched to a three-day-a-week model to save money.

While traditional news consumption has fallen off a cliff, though, digital media use by consumers is rapidly expanding. This trend, according to Dr. Wright, means PR agencies have been forced to adapt to the new media climate, or watch their clients’ visibility and outreach suffer. His research shows that the time PR practitioners spend working with emerging media like blogs, social media, etc. has increased each year since 2015. In 2015, 29% of his respondents spent more than 25% of their working hours with social and digital media. That percentage increased to 36% in 2017 (Wright and Hinson 21). 75% of 2017 respondents think that PR or Communications should have the responsibility of monitoring and managing emerging media communication (Wright and Hinson 22). Still not convinced that digital media is inescapable in the field of PR? According to Dr. Wright, only 1% of the PR practitioners surveyed don’t spend any of their working time with digital media (Wright and Hinson 21).

These trends matter, because digital media empowers customers, subscribers, audiences, etc. Consumers are now one tweet, Facebook post, or Yelp review away from causing viral backlash against an organization. But even absent a crisis, maintaining public relations through print and broadcast are no longer tenable in this era of real-time status updates. To improve sales, maintain a positive public reputation, and quickly disseminate news and information, PR departments must dedicate substantial resources to digital media. To highlight this point, Dr. Wright used a series of good, bad, and ugly case studies:

The Good

In 2015, McDonalds’ sales were reaching record lows. But, together with communications firm Golin, McDonalds was able to use new media to boost their sales by identifying the service a huge part of their consumer following craved: All day breakfast. During his talk, Dr. Wright said that Golin found more than 300,000 people had mentioned all-day breakfast on Twitter between 2007-2015. When they announced the debut of all day breakfast, it trended on Twitter and Facebook for more than five hours, and received more than 340 tweets per minute (Wright and Hinson 32)!

Dr. Wright’s statistics are clear: The announcement generated 245 media placements, 1,100 influencer brand engagements and 48 mentions in earned media stories. McDonald’s stock rose 25% in one quarter, and store sales recorded their strongest quarter in four years (Wright and Hinson 33)!

The Bad

For every all day breakfast, however, there is a viral video that severely damages consumer trust in a brand. Dominos experienced exactly this in 2009 when a video surfaced of two employees, among several more disgusting things, spitting on food before serving it to customers.

However, Dominos was able to combat the viralness of this video with a video of its own. President Patrick Doyle filmed his own YouTube video apologizing to his customers. Through directness, sincerity, and quickness, Dominos was able to avert a major hit.

The Ugly

And for every gross Dominos video, there is, well, are, several United Airlines fiascos. Back in 2008, digital media was used to strike at United when a passenger, Dave Carroll, had his guitar broken by the airline. He promptly posted a song on YouTube called “United Breaks Guitars.” Rather than replacing the $3,500 guitar, United watched as the video went viral, and they lost millions in reputation and business.

More recently, United suffered social media heat when they refused to allow two teenage passengers, who were using a United benefit that allows employees and their dependents to fly for free on a standby basis, to wear leggings on board. And somehow even more recently, United became a top global news story when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of their airplanes because United had overbooked the flight.

What United shows perhaps better than any other company is that new media makes organizations’ reputations instantly vulnerable. While Dominos was able to get in front of its problem with speed and sincerity, United failed to adequately communicate with its consumers. And when United CEO Oscar Munoz did communicate, he showed a noticeable lack of empathy.

What we at Wireside took away from Dr. Wright’s speech is that, ultimately, technology has consequences. As we exist in a time that is shifting away from traditional newspapers to the new media of Twitter, Facebook, and beyond, it is important to stay on top of the tools and systems that allow PR professionals to best share an organization’s message. As McDonald’s and United show, new media giveth, but new media also taketh away.

It’s PR, not ER. How to Triage a Crisis

PRSA Richmond’s Crisis Planning and Communications professional development session began – how else? – with a crisis. The session’s scheduled presenter, Padilla Owner Brian Ellis, was called away to help handle an unexpected client development, so in stepped Mike Mulvihill, Padilla’s executive VP, to help us explore the unpredictable world of crisis communications.

The New Media Landscape

We began by discussing the evolution of media and consumption. The past 20 years have been marked by a distinct shift towards a digital news landscape. Today, more news is being consumed online, and is often first reported by non-journalist citizens. On Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites heavily featuring user-generated content, anyone with a phone (and, by extension, a camera) can provide a first-hand account of breaking news. Citizen journalism is the new norm, and it is altering how organizations react in a crisis.

Now more than ever, speed is vital when a crisis arises. Mike described the media as a constantly eating beast and, with social media and new live technologies, an organization may be in the beast’s mouth before all the members of that organization are aware a crisis has occurred. An effective response is built on preparedness. Mike and Padilla recommend doing the following before a crisis breaks out:

Anticipate threats: Murphy’s Law dictates, roughly, that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. While your organization does not need to be as pessimistic as Murphy, highlighting your key vulnerabilities puts you in front of future crises. The owner of a pipeline needs to be prepared for that pipeline to leak. Chemical companies need to prepare for spills. Data storage providers should be prepared for their sensitive information to be hacked. Hopefully your organization will never need to utilize these plans, but when a crisis arises, you will surely be glad to have formulated – and practiced – your response.

Define your role: All the major players in an organization should have clearly defined roles in the event of a crisis. Who will be handling internal communications? What about external communications? Who is the designated spokesperson for the media? What about investors? While the list of roles goes on, assigning them before a crisis ensures an organization’s response can begin immediately after the crisis breaks.

Prepare your first three steps: After roles have been assigned, each individual should have a list of the first three things they will do in crisis-mode. Speed is vital in the first hour of the crisis, and having a checklist for each role will allow an organization to move quickly without getting muddled in extended deliberations. While working together as one unit is vital, a ‘first-three-steps’ plan of action for each person’s role allows for a cohesive autonomy and a speedy response.

Develop core messaging: Organizations needs to speak with one voice in crisis communications. Developing the core messages before a crisis occurs will keep everyone in any organization on the same page, and will help it to be proactive in combatting the confusion, lies, and misinformation that run rampant when a breaking news story first starts trending online.

A Heist at the Children’s Museum

Imagine you work on the executive board at the Ellisville Children’s Museum, which is consistently ranked as one of the “Top 10” in the nation with support from major corporations like Apple, Toyota, and Northrup Grumman. Your phone rings at 5:00 AM, you pick up, and a local reporter unleashes a barrage of questions. “We’ve received reports that the museum’s CEO and CFO have embezzled millions of dollars and have skipped town – can you confirm?” “Who’s in charge?” “Has the FBI been notified?”

This is the scenario my team was given during the workshop-portion of the development session, and we had one major obstacle: We weren’t given time to formulate an action plan before the crisis broke out. So, our first efforts were focused on discovery and containment. We decided to appoint one teammate, Paige, our lead spokesperson. By 10:00 AM, we had contacted the FBI and issued a statement to the press, on our website, and via social media. We did not offer much comment on the issue, citing the FBI’s ongoing investigation, but asked the media to contact Paige with inquiries.

Our team recalled the vitalness of internal communications during a crisis and, after deciding to maintain normal operating hours, convened our employees to inform them of the situation. In-person and via email, we asked them not to comment, and not speculate, to reporters.

As the ‘day’ wore on, the FBI confirmed that the money had been embezzled, and that the CEO and CFO not only worked to steal the money, but had been hiding a relationship as well. It became the “Crime of the Century” in the Ellisville Tribune. To reduce speculation, we decided to provide the press with hourly updates, confirming the money was stolen while reasserting the Children Museum’s commitment to community enrichment. We bolstered our credibility by hiring a third-party auditor to determine how the money was embezzled.

While our team responded well to the heist, we could have improved our performance by more clearly defining our roles. For example, Paige became our general spokesperson, but we should have appointed two— one to lead external communications and one to lead internal communications with our investors and employees. We also should have appointed someone to regularly canvas social media to gain perspective on the community’s reaction. More than anything, this exercise reinforced the importance of planning. A pre-planned response will always be more effective than one put together mid- crisis.

Crisis IQ

If you’re interested in improving your company’s own crisis preparedness, start by taking Padilla’s Crisis IQ quiz. According to Mike, 71% of those who take the quiz are not adequately prepared in the event of a crisis. Around 55% don’t have a crisis management plan, 66% do not practice their plan often enough (Padilla recommends once per year), and 85% ignore social media when drafting a plan.

It is, admittedly, highly unlikely that your CEO and CFO, after hiding a secret romance, will abscond with $10 million embezzled from your company. But your organization’s fortunes can falter at the drop of a hat. Having an organized, well-practiced crisis communications plan will ensure damage control begins before that hat hits the floor.

The Truth About Diversity and Inclusion in Public Relations

On February 22, the Richmond PRSA hosted Stephen Macias for a discussion on diversity and inclusion in communications. Macias founded his own PR firm, Macias Media Group LLC (MMG), in 2012 to connect clients to LGBT consumers. Since MMG was acquired by MWWPR in 2014, he has worked as the senior vice-president of MWWPR’s multi-cultural & LGBT national practice.

Drawing on firsthand client experiences, Macias asserts that companies no longer must choose between doing what is right and doing what is profitable. Intersectionality has become inextricably linked to crafting messaging that appeal to consumers and, to prove his point, Macias drew on a few good and bad examples of companies attempting to create diverse and inclusive messaging.

Defining Intersectionality

‘Intersectionality’ is an often-misunderstood word, says Macias. He showed us a video from Teaching Tolerance, an organization founded to reduce prejudice, improve intergroup relations, and support equitable school experiences for children of the United States. The video defines intersectionality as, “the reality that we all have multiple identities that intersect to make us who we are.” Today, PR firms must be conscious of intersectionality to adequately appeal to the human-ness of consumers. “By adopting an intersectional lens,” both Macias and Teaching Tolerance assert, “we have a better opportunity to understand the institutions that help and harm us based on who we are.”


In 2015 and 2016, Macias and MWWPR worked with their client, Focus Features, to help promote the Golden Globe nominated film Loving. By being aware of intersectionality, Macias and his team were able to connect the historical lessons of Loving with relevant issues of today, including LGBT marriage equality and current racial tensions. MWWPR secured an interview between Loving’s stars, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, and Raymond Braun, noted LGBT advocate and the former lead of YouTube’s social campaigns, programs, and LGBT marketing. Loving exemplified diversity and inclusion on screen, and by connecting the historical fight of the Lovings to LGBT and racial tensions still felt today, MWWPR helped foster a national discussion on the intersection of several marginalized identities.

Hilton and Frito-Lay

Macias’ assertion that companies no longer have to choose between ‘right’ and ‘profitable’ has been shown in two MWWPR campaigns. In 2014, Macias worked directly with Hilton Hotels on an LGBT-minded campaign centered around a Hilton-sponsored wedding for Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, two of the plaintiffs in the court case that struck down Prop 8’s ban on same-sex marriage in California.

In 2015, Frito-Lay partnered with the It Gets Better Project to support the fight against LGBT bullying. Along with MWWPR, Frito-Lay created rainbow-colored Doritos that could be purchased off of the It Gets Better Project website for a $10 donation. Macias said that, while Frito-Lay produced an initial supply expected to last two months, the rainbow Doritos sold out in 24 hours. Amazingly, the campaign garnered over 1.8 billion media impressions.

Macias firmly believes that, in PR, messaging must speak to the human experience and, today, the reality of human existence is one of intersectionality. Rather than hurting profits or marketability, Hilton and Frito-Lay’s experiences show that this type of communication works. It speaks not only to marginalized audiences, but to their allies as well. Embracing diversity and inclusion is profitable, and is the right thing to do.

Poor attempts at diverse messaging, such as Groupon’s offensive Super Bowl commercial that tried to capitalize on the social and economic struggles of Tibet, still occur. Professional sports, according to Macias, have been one of the last industries to champion diversity. However, for every demeaning Groupon commercial there is a positive Airbnb or Wells Fargo commercial. The NBA decided to move their 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans in response to North Carolina’s HB2 “bathroom bill.” The move towards diverse, inclusive messaging continues to grow stronger. Clients and the audience desire it, and young talent expects it from potential employers, says Macias. Utilizing diversity and inclusion with clients and their consumer base is an absolute necessity in the modern world of public relations.