Thursday, March 22, 2012

Things that go "Bump"

It sounds like a horror novel, and for some small businesses, it can be a real fright.  But breaking news doesn't have to be the mask-wearing, knife-wielding slasher that ends your news coverage dreams.  The fact is, understanding how breaking news works and how it impacts small business news coverage can actually help you in the long run, but you have to remain patient, confident and respectful. 

 Manning a Bronco? I should pitch my fundraiser story now!

Be Aware:

Let's say you're a small business who has taken the right steps to pitch a story to a newsroom.  You make the contact, put together a simple release, make the follow up phone calls and finally get a reporter to commit to covering your story.  Because you're pitching an event that takes place over the weekend, the story is slated to air on a Thursday.  Thursday rolls around and you're ready, excited even, for your interview and story to be broadcast out to the masses.

Suddenly, hours before your story is to air, there is breaking news.  Producers begin slashing and burning their rundowns, replacing old stories with new stories related to the breaking news.  Your story ends up being cut and now, just a day before your event, it's unlikely your story will ever hit the airwaves.

This is how breaking news works, and, unfortunately, it's the small businesses and non-profits that are hit the hardest when news breaks, regardless whether it's local or national.    When this happens, the best you can do is thank the reporter for their efforts, and give them space and time.  For one, reporters and producers will be focused on covering the breaking news, NOT on your story.  The worst thing you can do is get angry, plead for your story to air or pester them to find out when your story will air in the future.  Your story is huge to you, but to them, it's just another story that had to be cut to make way for bigger, better things.

I have clients who's stories have been bumped for a number of reasons.  In Denver the most common reason for being bumped is weather.  My clients have been bumped due to blizzards, potential blizzards, tornadoes, Spring thunderstorms and extremely high winds.  They been bumped because of school shootings, political news and even sports developments.

Which leads me to this:

Unless you've been living in a cave for the past two weeks, you know that there have been some fairly remarkable sports stories developing from New York to the San Francisco Bay.  It started off simply enough with Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning being released from his longtime team, the Colts.  This was followed up by his cross-country tour of teams as he tried to decide where he'd play next.

Then on Monday, Manning made his choice.  He chose the Broncos, setting in motion a whirlwind of activity both in the NFL and in the media.  Speculation, rumors, reports began circulating as reporters attempted to break down his decision, it's impact on other teams, and, not to be forgotten, what would happen to the league's previous biggest story, Tim Tebow.  In the middle of all of this Alex Smith, QB of the 49ers was meeting with the Dolphins, another ripple effect of the Manning decision.

On Tuesday, Manning and the Broncos held a press conference to introduce the newest starting Broncos QB to the world.  Meanwhile, Smith resigned with San Fran, more Manning ripples.  But things only got stranger after that.  On Wednesday, the league handed down severe penalties to the New Orlean Saints as part of a bounty policy run by the defense during its Superbowl run.  At the same time, Tebow was traded to the NY Jets, then he wasn't, then he was again.

All the while, news rooms across the nation were scrambling to keep up with the quickly developing stories.  In Denver, reporters and producers were overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information coming at them.

Entire rundowns were written, scrapped, re-written and scrapped again as the news changed seemingly by the minute.  The losers in all of this, sadly, were the small businesses and local stories that got bumped because of the time devoted to the Manning, Tebow, Bronco developments.  This isn't to say that the breaking news wasn't important, it was, but that's an issue for another post.  It's just that many of the stories that ended up being bumped would never have a chance to be aired again. 

It was during this rush of breaking news that I received a tweet from an old friend who works in a local newsroom.  In essence he was lamenting the fact that even while all hell was breaking loose, he was being pitched other news stories.  Folks, if I've said it once, I've said it a million times, one of the biggest reasons why story pitches fail is due to lack of awareness.

If you're going to be pitching a story, you really ought to know what is going on in the world around you.  Trust me, when newsrooms are dealing with breaking news, the last thing they have time to do is listen to a story pitch that has absolutely nothing to do with the story that is breaking.

Even if you simply send an email pitch, the likelihood that a producer or reporter will have time to open it up, read it and decide on its newsworthiness is very, VERY low.  Your email will more often than not end up unread and you will have wasted your time pitching a story during breaking news.  Oh, and don't even THINK about making a phone pitch. 

As a small business owner, losing out on a story due to breaking news is frustrating, even heartbreaking.  But you can use the situation to help you over the long haul.  These are great times to help build your relationship with a particular reporter or producer.  Think about it.  Journalists are people too.  They have feelings and they DO understand the frustration that goes with being bumped.  They also understand that you did pitch a quality news story, and they'll listen to you again in the future.  You may have lost out on a particular story because of breaking news, but you'll get a longer look the next time you pitch.

Here are some basic tips to help you deal with breaking news as a small business owner or non-profit:
1.  Be patient - Understand that when breaking news happens, producers and reporters are VERY busy.  You may be wondering if your story is threatened and you may feel the urge to call the newsroom to find out if your story will air or be printed.  Fight that urge.  The worst thing you can do during breakig news is call a newsroom about a story that may or may not be on the cutting block.  IF they have time, and IF they think about it, they'll let you know if your story is being bumped.  Most likely you won't know until you watch, listen or read the news.  At some point you'll be able to chat with the journalist, just not during breaking news.

2.  Be respectful - This could also be titled, "Don't get angry".  If your story IS bumped, let the reporter or producer know that you understand and that you're hopefull the story can be covered at a later date.  Whatever you do, don't get upset, don't complain, don't plead, beg or bribe.  A simple thank you, and let's touch base in a few days, will go a long way to building a relationship with a particular journalist.  If you show you understand and respect the deadlines the journalist is under, they will remember you the next time you pitch a story.

3.  Never ever, ever, EVER try to pitch during breaking news - Consider this...you're at work, you have a huge project to deliver and the dealine is coming up fast.  All of your focus is on that project and on meeting that deadline.  Then, suddenly, someone comes in and wants to tell you all about their Disney vacation with the family.  You don't have time to listen to that.  It could be the funniest story in the world, but really all it does is distract and annoy you.  That's what it's like for a journalist working on breaking news that gets a story pitch.  All you'll do is annoy them.  They may not listen to your pitch, but they'll probably remember your name as the person who didn't respect their deadlines enough to pitch a story during breaking news.  That won't help your effort later on when you try to pitch the same story or even a different story.  
There is ONE exception to that last rule.  If, say, the breaking news is about a toxic chemical spill and you just happen to be the owner of a company that works with toxic chemicals, you can make a pitch to the newsroom that might actually give insight into the breaking story.  In other words, the only time you can pitch a story during breaking news is if you have something to add to the coverage. 

If, however, newsrooms are scrambling to cover a plane crash or multi-car pileup on the freeway, and you call to pitch a Saturday night fundraiser, don't be surprised if you quickly get a dial tone. 

Once again, dealing with newsrooms and journalists is all about common sense and courtesy.  Respect what they do and understand the pressures they are under and you'll gain respect, which goes a long way when pitching future stories.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Occupy This!

Greetings friends.

It's been a while since we here at RPR Central have had time to enlighten you with more words of PR wisdom.  Mostly it's been because we've been working on other blogs and social media efforts for clients, so that's a good thing.

Just here with a million of my closest friends...hope someone notices.

But never fear, we've been stocking up on some great posts for you to enjoy in the next few weeks.  This post was going to be a brilliant analysis of the "Occupy" movement and how it's captured the attention of the world...or at least the world media.  But, about a third of the way through, it became clear the analysis could be told in one single phrase.  "Size Matters!"

If the occupiers consisted of a hundred angry folks holding signs and camping out in public parks and Wall Street, there's very little chance you would have heard much about this movement.  But the fact is, there are thousands upon thousands of them clogging streets, holding up signs and making themselves known to anyone within shouting distance.

Yes, there's a little more to it than just size.  There's the organized media content, the massive online and social media push and some smart logistical planning (such as taking it to Wall Street).  But frankly, it's the sheer number of people involved that has turned the movement into such a big story.

The Inside Track:

I'm guessing here, but I'm pretty positive that a movement as large as this doesn't just happen on its own.  Yes, it's possible to organize a few hundred people to suddenly show up as part of a flash mob to protest something or make a point.  But this is much more organized that that.  There are some very smart and organized folks behind the scenes that put all of this together.  More than that, these folks knew exactly the right media buttons to push to get massive amounts of news coverage.

It's that kind of inside knowledge that helps businesses garner earned media coverage, regardless of the size.  In the past we've covered the importance of building relationships with the media to help you pitch your stories.  As mentioned, just because you have built a relationship with a reporter, producer or editor it doesn't mean they'll automatically cover your story.  You still have to put together a great pitch, make it timely, impactfull and local.

But even if your media contacts don't always cover your story, you can still use those contacts to help you garner coverage for your business.  This is because these contacts are the ones in the middle of everything going on in your local newsrooms.  They know the scuttlebutt, the trends, they see the changes and they have a pretty good idea of how local events are effecting the other newsrooms.

Some of this information may come in the form of gossip.  There are a number of websites out there dedicated specifically to the changes and trends taking place in newsrooms.  These sites tell you who's leaving, who's coming, what broadcasting changes are on the way, or what kind of content certain newsrooms are looking for.

Sites like MediaBistro, assignmenteditor.com, SourceBottle.com and Broadcast.com are all very helpful in helping you keep on top of what to pitch, when to pitch, how to pitch and even who to pitch your stories to.

An Example:

I have to mention before I move on to the example that the individual in question is a good friend of mine. We worked together at a local newsroom and we chat often about how much the news industry has changed in the 8 or so years since I left local news.  There's a level of trust there that you can't expect from your local news contacts, but that doesn't mean you still can't glean important information from them.

I have a client.  A local theater that has just opened its doors.  It's brand new and in serious need of some PR attention.  Some buzz has been created, but as always, more is desired.  Pitching the arts and theater is significantly different than pitching other news stories.  First off, it's one of the few remaining beat jobs still in existence in local newsrooms.  Just about every outlet has at least one individual dedicated to covering local theater, arts and entertainment.

But in the end, you're still pitching a business.  As it happens, the newsroom where my friend works, has a very well known and popular entertainment reporter.  He's been on the air in Denver for over 20 years and a single positive review by him can elevate a show from the doldrums to wild success.

In the many years I've been pitching a show, event or theater, I've never received coverage from this reporter.  You'd think that would make me angry, frustrated or simply make me throw up my hands and quit.  But you have to remember, it's never personal.  I continue to pitch him because it's worth it.

Recently my friend and I were chatting at a party, discussing life and work and family.  At one point, as it often does, the conversation turned to the changes taking place in local newsrooms.  More than the mechanics of the rundown or new technology, we focused on overall content of his station newscasts.

It was during this conversation that he mentioned that even the entertainment reporter was subject to the content policies.  In other words, even the entertainment stories had to have an element of economy to them.  Every story had to provide some sort of economic value to the viewer.  In other words, instead of just reporting on new shows or upcoming events, the stories had to report on deals and specials that would provide real entertainment value to the viewers.

Suddenly, I realized how I needed to pitch my story.  It wouldn't be about a grand opening, or about new and unique shows.  My pitch had to focus on the extraordinarily cheap tickets, package deals and affordable drink specials.  A new venue, to be sure, but one that provided extra bang for your entertainment buck.

Had I not known this valuable piece of information, I likely would have pitched my story in very much the same way I had previous stories.  And it would have been ignored.  Now, I have some insight into HOW to pitch this particular reporter I didn't have and I believe it will help me get coverage for my client.

We'll see.  The point is, I know how to pitch most of the other entertainment reporters, now I know how to pitch this particular reporter, one I've never had success with before.

As a small business owner, you can't simply put together a single pitch and send it out to everyone in a mass email.  You have to cater your pitch, craft it specifically for individual journalists.  One reporter will be looking for one kind of element in the pitch, while another will be looking for something completely different.

If you don't have someone on the inside to give these kinds of details, you can still get this information by simply asking.  You may not get an answer, but it never hurts to ask a reporter what exactly they are looking for in the kind of news stories they cover.

It also helps to read the articles, watch the reports and listen to the broadcasts of the reporters you are most likely to pitch.  In this way, you'll have a better understanding of what kind of stories they are looking for.

It takes time, and effort, but by creating unique pitches to each reporter you send your story to, you'll vastly improve your chances of receiving coverage.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Know The Code!

Maybe you've seen them out there.  Funky looking squares that look more like those "Magic Eye" pictures than any kind of real marketing materials.  They're called "QR" codes and believe it or not they represent the latest in guerrilla marketing strategy.

You might already be using them, and if so, that's fantastic. But chances are, you have no idea how these things work and more importantly, how to use them.  Even if you ARE using QR codes, you may not be using them correctly.  So let's take a moment to learn about what they are and how to use them to drive traffic to your websites and customers through your doors.

QR What?

Basically, the QR code is a pre-programmed visual representation of information.  Think of it as a kind of barcode.  You can't really see the information that's programmed into that barcode, but you know it's there, right?  Well, a QR code is essentially the same thing.  The biggest difference is that the information encoded into a barcode generally deals with pricing, or personal information such as height, weight, eye-color, etc.  The barcode on your driver's license contains a wealth of information that can be used by police, fire, emergency crews and so on.

But chances are, you're not looking to provide that kind of information to your customers or online viewers.  So what kind of information DO you want to give out to your friends, fans, followers and customers?  You want to tell them about your daily specials, your upcoming deals, your website address, your social media information, everything that will help improve your business.

Chances are, though, that you don't have the time, or skill needed to program a barcode that includes all of that information.  Most of us don't.  Fortunately you don't have to be a computer programmer or take hours to develop a QR code that contains that information.

How To Get It:

The best and easiest way to generate a QR code for your business is to find a website that does it quickly and for free.  There are a number of sites out there that do this.  Simply type QR Code Generator in your google search and viola!  For most sites, once you get on, you only need to type in the URL for the site you want encoded and the site will generate your code square. 

Once the square is generated, you can download the code to your desktop.  From there, it's all up to you.  You can post it on your social media sites, print out a poster, insert it into your blog, whatever you want to do.  This is where the fun begins.

How It Works:

Like a barcode, the QR code needs to be scanned in order to work.  I'm guessing most of you don't carry around barcode readers when you go shopping, but many of us DO have smartphones.  So many of us, in fact, that barcode readers for your iPhone or Droid are as common as wallets and belt buckles, everyone has them. 

For most of us, we use these barcode scanners to retrieve nutritional information while we're shopping.  We can scan the back of a potato chip bag, or can of green beans and find out how many calories per serving, how much sodium, etc.  QR Codes have different kinds of information programmed in.  While you're using the QR code to provide information, it's more of a delivery system than a repository for information itself.  Instead of having tons of information encoded in, the QR square is primarily used to take the user to a specific location where they can find all the information you want them to see.

All you have to do is download a QR code reader onto your smartphone and you're ready to go.  It's very simple to use.  Just open the app, your camera will turn on and then you simply have to point the camera at the nearest QR code square you see.  Within seconds, you'll be transported to a website that is hopefully interesting and useful.

How To Use It:

Unlike bar-codes, the QR code really only contains one piece of information.  Generally, this is a web-page.  But it can also be the link to your Facebook page, your Twitter page, your blog, whatever you want it to be.  Some companies, such as Coca-Cola have designed special web pages specifically for their QR codes.  When you scan the code, you will be taken to a website that has information, specials, daily deals, whatever they want you to see.

When I put together QR Codes for my clients, I make different codes for all of the different social media sites, website, and, if necessary, a special code for a special deals page.  This could mean four, five, six different codes, which is fine, since you may want to drive folks to specific pages for different reasons.

There are two important factors to keep in mind when using your brand new QR code:

1.  Enticement
2.  Payoff

In other words, your code presentation has to be interesting enough to grab the viewer's attention and get them to pull out their smartphone, open the app and scan your code.  But perhaps more importantly, you also need to make the effort worth it.  There are few things more frustrating than scanning a QR code only to be taken to a page that offers nothing of value.

This doesn't mean you have to offer the world, but consider this:  Platforms like Foursquare and the Facebook Check-in have been built on, and successful because of a reward system.  You check in on Foursquare and more often than not, you'll receive a free drink, a free appetizer, a discount on a meal.  It makes the effort to check in worth it. 

Yes, it's nice to provide pure information to people, but what they really want is to be rewarded for patronizing your website or your business. 

Years ago in Denver there was a band that called itself, "Free Beer".  An interesting name to be sure, but the bar that employed them as a house band would advertise the band by putting out fliers that said, "Free Beer Tonight at The Whiskey Bar!"  People would see that and they'd flock to the bar expecting free beer.  Well, they got free beer, but they were pretty disappointed when they found out it was a band and NOT free alcohol.

But, the bar DID make it okay by providing one free beer for everyone who came to see the band.  If you put together a QR code poster that said, "Scan me for Free Beer!" chances are you'd get a TON of hits to your website.  If, once they get to your website, they are told about the band, and that they can get a free beer if they come to see the band, chances are you'll generate some excitement.  You might even draw a bigger crowd because of your efforts.

The point is, the presentation of your code garnered enough interest to get folks to scan it.  This alone gets the word out about your event or special.  Then, you actually offer a decent payoff for people to consider walking through your doors as a customer.  This is marketing 101. 

Do's and Don'ts:

So here are a few tips to make sure you're using your QR code as effectively as possible:
1.  Test your code - The minute your code is generated, scan it with your smartphone to make sure it takes you to the page it's supposed to.  If it doesn't work, there's no point in using it.

2.  Don't get too fancy - When you present your code, whether it's on social media platforms or as part of a poster, don't bury it in a ton of other media.  In other words, you want folks to see the code and immediately know that it should be scanned.  If it's buried inside pictures, graphics or other design elements, it can be confusing, and the last thing you want to do is confuse your customers, or potential customers.

3.  Find a Signal - If you use your QR code as part of a poster or flier, make sure you hang that flier or poster in a location with a strong signal.  I like to post my QR code fliers around downtown Denver and in an area we call LoDo.  But there are pockets in town where the signal is pretty weak.  One bar kind of weak.  Plus, the WiFi that is available nearby is locked.  There's no point of hanging the poster or flier in a place where people can't actually scan the code and be taken to the page.  Test your code wherever you hang it.

4.  Be Mobile - Make sure that whatever page your code directs the customer to works in a mobile format.  Some websites aren't very smartphone friendly.  They either use flash (which is bad for iPhone users) or they don't really fit into the smaller smartphone format and is a terror to negotiate on the phone.

5.  Be Interesting - Make sure that the text or title around the code is interesting enough, intriguing enough to actually get people to scan the code.  You want just enough information that entices them, but not too much that makes the scan irrelevant. 

6.  Make it Worth It - Add value to your code by offering a reward to those who take the time to actually scan your QR square.  This could be in the form of "secret" information, a free drink, a discount on a purchase, whatever it is, reward the user for taking the time to scan your code.  Trust me, they'll come back and scan again and, even better, they'll tell their friends to scan your codes as well.
Chances are, the QR code will, at some point, go the way of the fax machine, but then again, maybe not.  That's the problem with new technology.  We're not exactly sure what will stick and what won't.  If you had asked me ten years ago if MySpace would make it, I'd have said yes, absolutely.

But then Facebook came along and made MySpace a non-factor.  Does that mean that the time spent on MySpace was wasted.  Absolutely not.  Bands and other entities were able to use MySpace to build a fanbase, and when Facebook came out, they simply transferred that over.  QR Codes may be replaced in a year or two by something else, true.  Until then, why not use it to help grow your business and get the word out to the masses? 

The QR Code is simply another weapon in your arsenal that can be used to help you.  It is easy to generate, easy to use and easy to understand.  They're already being used significantly by businesses of all sizes and stripes.  And, at least for now, they seem to be growing in popularity. 

So get yourself coded and get out there, it's cool, it's fun, and hey, everybody's doing it!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Judging The Cover

Sometimes what you see is exactly what you get.  And sometimes, what you see is simply what you want.  This point was hammered home to me last week as I was wandering local businesses attempting to drum up donations for a fundraiser I'm putting together for a local non-profit foundation I'm working with.

I walked into a small, cozy little liquor store in a tucked away section of lower downtown Denver.  It's a nice shop, a family-run shop, the kind of shop you enter and instantly feel at home in.  As I struck up a conversation with the owner behind the counter, we started discussing various alcohols and drinks and, since I'm a fan of the "brown" liquors, the conversation drifted towards whiskeys and rums. 
You might not have a logo this recognizable, but your logo CAN help you drum up biz

Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with alcohol an rattle off the names of the more familiar whiskeys and rums found on nearly every shelf of every liquor store in the country.  But I was surprised when the merchant started talking about a new rum that had hit the market.  Apparently he was having a hard time keeping it in stock.

I won't name the rum, but I will say that it's relatively new, it has enjoyed a strong national advertising campaign and has a pretty cool label.  When I asked the owner how the rum actually tasted, he said, "Surprisingly, really good."

But it's what he said right afterwards that is actually the point of this post.  He leaned over as if to tell me a secret and said, "You know, most folks come in and buy it because of the label design, and then they buy it because they like the taste." 

It's a pretty basic tenant that a cool logo, or a classy visual representation of your organization will help lead to success.  Sometimes, logos become icons themselves, just look at Apple, or McDonalds or Jaguar.  You can instantly see their logo.  They are clean, they are classic, and more importantly, they are instantly recognizable. 

This is why so many companies devote so much time and effort into designing their logos.  They logo is often the first thing a potential customer sees, and it's what they'll remember.  Your logo is the vanguard of your organization, so it has to be simple, clean and attractive. 


But more than that, your logo needs to say something.  When people look at your logo, you want them to associate it with quality, or with fun, or with whatever you want your image to be.  That means your logo has to actually say something about who you are, what you do and what you stand for. 

Take a look at some of the more successful small businesses around you.  Some may simply have their name attached and use that as their logo.  Others may have a more complex logo.  Some will have a simple, clean and easily recognizable and memorable logo.  Chances are, the ones with the great logo will be the more successful organizations. 

That doesn't mean having a great logo will ensure great success.  Far from it.  Because you have to remember the second half of what the kindly liquor store owner said to me.  They buy it for the label, they buy it again because they like the taste. 

You see, a great logo can only attract people initially.  It's the substance behind the logo that will keep your customers coming back and help grow your business.  If you have a fantastic "look" but your service or product is poor, you'll go under.  The best of logos can't help a business that provides poor quality service or products. 

But having a great look CAN help establish you as a force to be reckoned with and help your business attract customers, especially in the early days after the doors have just opened. 

Customers, no matter how established they may be with an existing product or service, will always be curious about something new.  Is it better than what they have?  Is it more affordable?  More convenient?  Customers will come to you out of that curiosity, and it's your logo and look that will initially catch their eye.

And remember, your look extends far beyond just the sign hanging outside your door or on the sign on the corner.  Your look has to be part of everything you do.  This means your press releases, your pamphlets, your in-house collateral and anything you hand out or give away in your surrounding neighborhood.  It has to extend to your advertising and even your uniforms (if you wear them).

And don't think that social media isn't important when it comes to distributing your look to potential customers.  Brand your Twitter page with your logo, make your Facebook photo your logo.  The same holds true for your blogs, your website (of course) and even your Foursquare and LinkedIn accounts. 

You want your logo to be seen by as many people as possible, and that means making sure it's on every piece of paper the public comes in contact with from your business and on every associated page they might see online.

If you're putting together a logo for a business you're putting together now, or thinking about redesigning your logo, keep these tips in mind:
1.  Keep it clean - We're not talking being obscene or not being obscene.  We're talking about the KISS system; "Keep It Simple Stupid".  This theory actually works in just about every aspect of social media, PR and marketing.  But for your logo, simple is king.  You want it to be a symbol that folks will easily recognize and remember.  You don't want hieroglyphics that folks have to decode.

2.  Let it Represent You - If you run an auto body shop, you certainly wouldn't use a sandwich as a logo, would you?  You want folks to have a pretty good idea of your business just by looking at your logo. 

3.  Use The Right Colors - Look it up...colors have impact.  This is why restaurant use the colors red and yellow in their logos.  Red and yellow makes people hungry.  Blues and purples make people feel confident.  Green makes people feel calm.  There are a number of resources online that you can refer to in order to get the right color combination for your organization.

4.  Don't Get Wordy - You want your logo or look to be symbolic of your organization.  It's hard to be symbolic with a lot of words getting in the way.  One, two words tops.  You don't need to put your slogan or message in your logo.  There is enough time to do that in the rest of your collateral.  Let your logo stand alone.  Put your name in, no problem there, but otherwise, the fewer words the better.
Again, your logo is just the first interaction with your customers or potential customers.  In the end, you have to have a quality organization in order to survive and grow.  And one last item...as you're putting together your logo, make sure you get a design that is a high quality resolution and comes with various color backgrounds and one with no background so they can be used in videos, TV and other forms of printing and collateral.

So get out there and wave your logo loud and proud! Just like everything else, it's a tool to attract customers, and the better you use that tool, the more successful your company will be.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

No Tiger? No Problem!

Okay, I'll admit it, I like golf.  I like to play it and (gasp) I like to watch it.  Let's be honest here, I fit the mold.  I'm over 40, white, male and firmly middle class with aspirations to go higher.  If there's a cookie cutter for wannabe golfers, I was cut from it.

Really good golfer...not exactly Mr. Personality, though.

Of course, like millions of Americans, I fell in love with the game of Tiger Woods from his very first Major Championship in the late 90's.  Like most, I have followed his career with an almost stalker-ish interest.  But in the past two years, Tiger has been conspicuously absent.  He hasn't won a Major in that stretch, and while he's made a couple of runs here and there, he just hasn't been the same since that fateful run-in with a hydrant in December 2009. 

And now, Tiger has taken his clubs and gone home for this year's US Open Championship at Congressional.  This may be great news to the rest of the field, it's a nightmare for the TV networks who know that viewership goes down when Tiger doesn't play.  It also presents a dilemma for pro golf in general.

Sure, they'd love to have a healthy Tiger playing.  He brings ratings, he brings excitement, he simply raises the stakes.  But pro golf also has an entirely new generation of young and talented golfers waiting in the wings to step up and take over the empty reigns left behind by Mr. Woods.

The problem is, no one knows who they are.  Die-hard golf fans know Ben Crane, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and the others.  But the casual American has no idea who these young guns are.  So, to counter this lack of name recognition, some young golfers and US Golf decided to reach out and touch someone, social media-style.

Take a look at this video that hit YouTube and the airwaves this week:

What's The Point?

Hey, it's a great video, and it's worth watching over and over.  It's clever, it's creative, it's hip, it's in your face without being over the top.  But really, what's the point?

This is a question you have to ask yourself every time you do something online, whether it's a Facebook post, a Tweet, a blog post or a video.  What are you trying to achieve with your actions?  Will your particular post or video help you reach your goal?  Or are you simply throwing stuff up online to fill space and keep your name out in front of your friends, followers, fans, customer and potential customers? 

In the case of the aforementioned video, one has to ask, "What was US Golf trying accomplish?"  Because I don't work for US Golf, I can only speculate.  My first thought is that the powers that be wanted to generate some interest and excitement and draw an audience to this week's US Open.

If that was, indeed the purpose of the video, then sadly, it most likely failed.  It's not that the video isn't eye-catching, or clever or fun to watch.  But the video itself isn't likely to bring any more viewers to the tv screens than would have previously been watching.  It's not like someone will see the video and say, "Hey, these guys are cool, I HAVE to tune in to the US Open to check them out!"

In that respect, US Golf missed the target, and badly.  But in the process, they may have hit a home run on another front.  Perhaps unwittingly, (or maybe they are just crazy like a fox) they managed to bring some personality back into golf.  Golfers can sometimes be a stoic bunch.  Yes, they will wear colorful clothes, and every now and then a few pop up with some compelling stories.  But outside of Tiger, let's face it, the personalities are generally lacking, particularly on the American side of the slate.

But now, with this video, the American public gets a chance to see some of the next generation of US golfers goofing around, having fun, being, well...interesting.  There is no overt or clear-cut message in this video, other than, "Hey, we are pro golfers and we like to have fun!"

But that's okay.  Most of the truly successful videos have messages that aren't immediately obvious to the viewer.  In this case, the golfers in the video produced something that is enjoyable and entertaining to watch.  This alone will grab people's attention and generate views.  And ultimately, that's the goal. 

A Delicate Balance:

That's what makes videos-as-a-marketing-tool so difficult.  Too often small businesses try to hit their audience over the head with their message at the expense of watchability.  We already know that humor is subjective, so that can be another pitfall, but more often than not, if you shoot for humorous and entertaining, you'll hit your mark more than you'll miss it.

But even the most entertaining of videos have a message in it if it's produced by a small business or non-profit.  The message may be, "Get down here and spend your money," but it's still a message.  The trick is knowing how to present that message and producing a video that meets your goals.

In the case of the US Golf video, they may have been off target in their goal of increasing viewership for this particular major, but they DID hit the target of making these golfers interesting and more personable.  In the absence of Tiger, they injected some fun into an event lacking some star-power.

In the case of one of my clients, a veterinary clinic in Denver, they had some very simple and reachable goals.  First, tell people that they exist.  Second, talk about the quality of care they provide.  Third, let people know they are one of the most affordable clinics in town.

It would be easy to shoot a video of the front of the clinic, give an address and tell people, "Hey we're here, we're good, we're affordable."  But that doesn't seem like a very interesting video, does it?

Instead, they produced a series of videos.  One showing a veterinarian caring for a cute little chihuahua, acting like the dog whisperer, talking to the dog directly and listening as the dog talks back.  It's funny, it's clever and it has a tagline at the end, "Our doctors are THAT good!"

The next video shows a man in the waiting room, preparing to pick up his pet.  Within seconds, the front desk girl comes out, hands the pet to the owner as the owner lugs out a huge bag of money to pay for the treatment.  Instead, the girl takes a single bill from his hand and tells him to have a good day.  The tagline is "It's really THAT affordable!"

Notice that there is some consistency with the presentation of the message, that there is a bit of humor in both, they're both short (a minute or less) and they use the right words.  Affordable denotes quality whereas cheap is...well...cheap.  You can check out both videos at www.downtownanimalcarecenter.com

The messages get across that they provide quality care at a price people can afford by blending a short and interesting video with a strong tagline.  At the end, they include a call to action for people to check out the website and make an appointment.

And Now The Tips:

Small businesses and non-profits can reap huge benefits from the use of video, but in order to do so, they have to keep these tips in mind:
1.  Keep the videos short - Anything more than a minute isn't likely to generate a ton of views. :30 to :45 seconds is ideal.  You can go a minute, but you have to get right into the interesting part of the video to hold people's attention.  The only exception to this rule is music videos.  Even then, try to keep it to less than two minutes.  Anything more and you'll probably lose viewers midway through and they won't share the video with friends, which is what you want.

2.  Know your message - The beauty of video is that you can produce a series of short videos, each with a different message.  They can all work together or separately, but know what you want to say before you shoot the first minute of video, otherwise, you have no focus.  If you have no focus, viewers won't know what you're trying to say.

3.  Establish your goals - Know what you want to achieve with your video.  If you want to raise awareness, that's a different type of video than driving business or donations.  Make sure your video hits your target and is keyed to help you meet your goals.  Again focus here helps.

4.  Think entertaining - Make it funny, dramatic, avant garde, it doesn't matter.  What matters is that it's fun and interesting to watch.  That will bring eyes to your video and therefore get your message out to more people.  Plus, the more entertaining the video, the more it will be shared.  Think clever and interesting rather than simply overstating your message.

5.  Keep it simple - Like everything else you do with your marketing, the simpler the better.  You don't want to overwhelm people with too much at one time.  Try to keep your videos to a single message.  The more you try to cram into your video, the longer it will be and the more confusing it will be for viewers.  Confusing is bad.
Remember, we are a visual society now.  The more you can use video in your social media, marketing and promotional efforts, the more successful you'll be.  Just try to keep in mind those simple tips and you'll find your pages filling up with fans, friends and followers.  And if you do it right, you'll also start to see more smiling faces walking through your doors.  And that's always a good thing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hide The Weiner

Once again, dear friends, it falls upon the big, beefy shoulders of the Real Public Relations staff to talk a little current events and provide a little analysis and "lessons-learned" moments from the latest social media celebrity scandal.
As you'll recall, not long ago, an employee at Chrysler lost their job after dropping F-bombs on Twitter about the apparent lack of driving expertise by the lovely folks in Detroit.  The individual in question said they made a mistake, that they had intended to make the "offensive Tweet"on their personal account, NOT the actual Chrysler Twitter feed.  
Regardless, the unfortunate twit...errr...tweeter, was unceremoniously fired and a Detroit PR agency had lost one of their biggest accounts after the dust had settled.  At the time, this space discussed Twitter etiquette and went over some of the Do's and Dont's of the Twitterverse.
Fast forward a few months and lo and behold, another poor soul has found himself in hot water due to a rather "racy" if not x-rated set of Twitter postings.  This time, though, it's not some faceless drone working with Chrysler.  No, my friends, it's a politician, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner from New York, to be exact.  
 "Now I'll just send that as a direct message...D'OH!"
By now, you've probably heard the news.  Congressman meets lovely young lady on Facebook, Congressman flirts with lovely young lady, Congressman sends pictures of his underwear-clad junk and bare chest to lovely young lady.  Just like Disney would have written it. 
Only there was a problem with all of this.  First...said Congressman is recently married.  Second...Said Congressman's new wife had no idea he was sending photos to the lovely young lady.  Third...Congressman lied about the photos when they magically appeared on a government watchdog site.
We are not here to pile on Congressman Weiner or to judge his actions.  There are enough people doing that already.  We ARE here, though to point out to small business owners and non-profits just how powerful, effective and yes, sometimes dangerous, Twitter and the online universe can be.
First, here is an excerpt from a USA Today article:

NY Congressman Admits to Lying About Lewd Photograph

Congressman Weiner said he had meant to send the photo as a direct message to the female college student and “panicked” when he realized he had instead sent it out to all of his Twitter followers. He did a whole day of television interviews last week in which he repeatedly denied that he had sent the photo, saying it was likely a prank and that his Twitter account had likely been hacked.
Let's take a look at this a little closer.  According to Congressman Weiner, he intended to send the photos as a direct message.  Instead, he sent the photos as an @reply, which are visible to all followers of his account.  Thus, instead of a single recipient getting the photos, EVERYONE got to see the kind of heat the Congressman packs in and out of the house.
Listen, we all know that dealing with new technology can be confusing.  There are a lot of buttons and gizmo's and blinking dealio's on your Twitter pages, your Facebook pages, your Foursquare and blogs.  It's easy to make a mistake, it's human.  You're going to make them.  But here's the deal, when you make a mistake about a special your running, or when you're hosting an event, those are easily fixed and they likely won't ruin your company.  When you make a mistake about who to send your R-rated photos to, well, NOW you have some problems.

Know The Tweet!
It's been said here a million times, and it bears repeating again.  Only post those items which you want the world to see!  This means don't be tempted to post gossip about a co-worker, or your boss, or the company dress policy, or the fact that you're sleeping through meetings, or that sometimes you like to drive 130 through school zones unless you're perfectly okay with the entire world knowing about it.  This includes posting any lewd photos.  
Furthermore, it doesn't matter if it's Twitter, or Facebook or a blog or anywhere online.  If it's up there, it has the chance to be seen by those you don't want to see it.  It doesn't matter if it's private.  It doesn't matter if you don't think you're big enough for folks to care.  Because the fact of the matter is, SOMEONE WILL care.  This is particularly true if you post on your official company or organizational platforms.  But it also matters even if it's just your personal pages as well.
Congressman Weiner used his personal Blackberry and laptop computer to send the Tweets, did it on his own account, and apparently did all the photo-taking and posting on his own time.  Other than being a bit of a louse behind his wife's back, he didn't break any laws.  And yet, because of who he is, the photos were newsworthy...at least to a point.  
The fact is, Congressman Weiner didn't know Twitter well-enough to send his photos in such a way that only the recipient could see them.  And even if he had, who's to say that the lady in question wouldn't have sent those photos to others who would have posted them all over the internet anyway?  Weiner SHOULD have asked himself this question, "Would I care if the world saw these photos?"
Clearly the answer was yes.  In that case, he should have never sent them, on Twitter or anywhere else.  The lesson learned here, is that even if you don't think people are watching, or reading or paying attention, they are.  If you run a small business or non-profit you are in a position where people will be paying attention.  And even if you don't post the offending items on your official social media platforms, folks are watching your personal pages as well.  You are linked to your organization BECAUSE it's a small business or non-profit.  Most people don't make the separation, so you'd be smart not to either.  In essence, you ARE your organization.  Best to remember that always when you're posting anything on Facebook or Twitter or a blog, or anywhere else, even an online comment or letter to a publication. 

By the way, if you ever want to send a personal message on Twitter, just go to your Twitter page and at the top you'll see a tab that says "messages".  Click on that tab.  It will take you to a box where you'll type in the name of the person you want to send a direct message to.  Type in the name, then in the text box, type in your message.  DO NOT use the @ symbol in the text box and DO NOT reply to other messages with an @ reply.  Those messages can be seen by everyone.  Then again, don't send any messages you wouldn't  mind the wold seeing in the first place.

Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies:

As noted above, what Congressman Weiner did wasn't Earth-shattering.  He didn't kill his neighbor, shake a baby, steal money from orphans or spew racist slurs.  He simply sent some R-rated photos to a woman who wasn't his wife.  He didn't break any laws, he did something stupid, but then again, don't we all sometimes?

Again, we're not here to blast or defend Congressman Weiner.  However, when we look at his actions, we once again see some decisions that, from a PR and social media standpoint are downright felony stupid.

We've already looked at his decision to send the photos online in the first place.  But it's what he did after the photos were revealed that really put him into hot water.  He lied about it.

Listen, as we've said here before, you can make heinous mistakes and get away with it if you're upfront about it, apologize about it and have a plan in place so it won't happen again.  In situations like this, there really is no plan to put forth. It's not like Weiner is going to stand up behind a podium and say, "My wife will be monitoring all of my online activity from now on...oh, and I promise not to be a guy anymore...so, you know...I won't be doing stupid things from here on out."

That doesn't really fly.  And besides, since no laws were broken, no one outside of his immediate personal circle was hurt, a plan really isn't necessary here.  But what IS necessary is honesty and an apology.

How much simpler would it have been had Congressman Weiner came out and said, "Yeah, that's my junk, and that's my shaved chest, and I DID send them to a woman I don't really know who I met on Facebook, and I've talked to my wife about it, I apologized, we're okay as a family and I apologize to my constituents for making a poor choice."

Frankly, the story would probably have gone away within a day.  No story here folks, he admitted it was him, that he sent the photos to a woman who's not his wife and by the way, he's very sorry we found out about it.

The public at large likely would have let it go and marked it up to men-in-power-doing-stupid-things syndrome.  Yes, FOX would run it into the ground for the next six months, but for the most part, the public would forget about it very quickly.

Instead, he lied about the photos, and, once caught in a lie, had to lie more, and then after he admitted the mistake, had to own up to the lies, forever tarnishing his image as a lawmaker and leader.  Certainly there are many out there now asking, "if he's willing to lie about something so small, what else will he lie about?"  And that's a reasonable question.

As a small business owner or non-profit director, you have to remember these three things when you find yourself in a situation, either of your own making or of circumstance. 
1.  Be Honest - Don't lie.  If you made a mistake, own up to it.  If you did something wrong, own up to it.  Don't blame someone else.  Even if the problem isn't of your own making, ultimately if it happened at your organization, you're responsible.  Take the hit and swallow your medicine like an adult.  Trust me, it's better than getting caught in a lie.  That just makes things worse.
2.  Apologize -  Be sincere, and contrite.  Chances are, you're going to be very sorry about whatever happened.  If one of your employees was running drugs out of your restaurant and someone overdosed because of it, YOU make the apology.  It's your business, after all, and you're ultimately responsible.  Apologize for not being more diligent.
3.  Have a plan - In most cases, you'll be hammered for not being prepared or for lack of oversight or for simply having human foibles.  In each case, you can offer up a plan that will ensure that something similar doesn't happen again.  For the most part, that's what your customers and supporters want to see.  They understand making a mistake, they just want to make sure it doesn't happen again.
When working in the online world, you have to be VERY careful. As you have seen, it only takes a single moment, a single sent photo, a random post or Tweet to get yourself into scalding hot water.  You have to remain on top of everything you do online. 
Social media is a powerful platform to market your organization and gain supporters, recognition and even business.  But all of your careful work can be undone in just a handful of keystrokes if you're not careful.  
And if you DO make a mistake, don't try to hide it, or "delete" it or ignore it.  Tackle it head on with honesty and sincerity and you'll find that you can overcome almost any faux-pas.  Just as long as your straightforward with your friends, followers, the public at large and the media. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Run For Your Lives!

I like horror movies.  I do.  There's nothing better than sitting back and getting a good scare.  The kind of scare that makes you jump out of your seat and scream and spew popcorn across three aisles in front of you.  Sadly, my love of horror hasn't helped me much in my professional life.  Truth be told, it hasn't helped me much in my personal life either, but that's a different story. 

As it turns out, I just wasn't thinking far enough outside the box.  This realization came to me today as I ripped through my Twitter feed checking for any interesting stories.  That's when I came across THIS little gem from the Los Angeles Times and local TV station, KUSA (click on the links to read the entire article or watch the video)

Preparing for a zombie apocalypse? The CDC weighs in

CDC advises on Zombie apocalypse
Zombies take over Hollywood Boulevard in a 2009 zombie walk. Would you be ready if they came to your neighborhood? (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Preparing for disasters has always been part of the mission of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from hurricanes to flu pandemics.

It was only a matter of time, then, before they decided to weigh in on another calamity of great concern to the public: the zombie apocalypse.
"That’s right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this," Dr. Ali S. Khan, an assistant surgeon general with the CDC and head of its office of Public Health Preparedness, wrote on the CDC's Public Health Matters blog.
I have to tell you, the instant I saw this article, I laughed, I chuckled, I shared and I laughed again.  But then I took a moment and thought to myself, "THIS IS BRILLIANT!"

I wasn't talking so much about the articles themselves, although the LA Times writing is excellent.  No, I had to marvel at the creativity and cleverness of the Center For Disease Control.  This, my friends is what we call a PR Home Run and there are some lessons to be learned from this particular news gem.

A "Newsy Sense of Humor":

Before I go on, I have to admit, I wish I had thought of something like this.  I also desperately wish I had been in the room when whoever it was pitched this idea during the PR meeting.  In my mind it goes something like this:
Person 1 - Any ideas of how we can make emergency preparedness more interesting and newsworthy?
Person 2 -  We could use the recent tornado and earthquake tragedies as a news peg.
Person 1 - We could, probably too soon, a little depressing, but a good idea.
Person 3 - Terrorism?
Person 1 - Bin Laden's dead, not timely.  Anyone else?  Anyone?  ANYONE?!
PR Intern - uhhhh....Zombie Apocalypse?
Person 1 - (choking on water) WHAT?!
PR Intern - I'm serious...how about a zombie apocalypse?
Person 1 - Errrrr....yeah, you know what?  Okay!
Allright, I'm pretty sure it didn't go down that way, but a man can dream, can't he?  Before we get too deep into the analysis here, I'm going to make a few assumptions.

1. The CDC is trying to reach a younger, more apathetic demographic
2. The CDC probably feels that their message is getting old and that they needed to spice it up a bit

By now, you've probably seen this story on the network news, in your local papers, on your local affiliates, heard it on the radio, heck, even NPR is running the story.  So how does a "fake" news story manage to get massive amounts of news coverage across the globe and shared millions of times in social media circles?

The answer is that the CDC did a masterful job of blending popular culture with a real news story with a real news peg.  And the incredible part is that they managed to do it about an issue that is generally VERY serious and, at least lately, involves stories centered around real life tragedy.

Zombies Rock:

Let's face it.  Zombies are awesome.  It doesn't matter if they're the slow-moving, dimwitted zombies from the 60's, or the lightning-fast brain-eaters from the late 90's.  They're popular, they're scary (usually) and everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is familiar with them.  Zombies have replaced vampires and werewolves as top monster (despite the best effort of that Moonlighting show...wait, not Moonlighting...you know what I'm talking about). 

That's what makes this latest CDC PR effort so effing genius.  The American public has been listening to the emergency preparedness message for decades now.  We've heard it so often, that for many of us, it's become a dull roar against the background of the rest of the news we're inundated with on a daily basis.

And yet, even though we see new zombie movies just about every year, we continue to love them, watch them, read about them; we can't get enough of them.

Zombies have enjoyed fifty years of mass appeal even as the emergency preparedness message has been relegated to the back pages of media outlets everywhere.  At some point, it probably occurred to someone that, hey, what could be more of an emergency besides a zombie apocalypse?  The nuclear threat has gone the way of the cold war, the threat of terrorism seems to have diminished a bit, the economy is picking up. 

What's left to be afraid of?  The answer, of course, turned out to be zombies.  So what if zombies don't exist outside of certain New Orleans neighborhoods?  If ever there was an emergency situation we can all get behind, it's a full-scale zombie attack.

Still Newsworthy:

But here's why the story REALLY works.  There was an actual newspeg behind the effort.  Yes, that newspeg happened to be the tragic deaths of hundreds in the U.S. and across the world due to severe natural disasters.  Within our own borders, the need for emergency preparedness plans is all too evident after watching the Mississippi jump its banks and twisters tear apart town after town in the South.

Yes, the loss of life is tragic.  The financial impact and the social upheaval is disastrous.  But we already know that.  We've all seen the pictures and, unfortunately, too many of us switched away to instead watch American Idol or Dancing With The Stars.  The stories themselves have become a bit old hat.  We're not only not shocked anymore by these disasters, we generally aren't paying much attention anymore.

Now, the CDC couldn't send out this release after the tornadoes, or after the initial flooding in the Midwest.  That would have been seen as insensitive, and rightly so.  But now, the flooding isn't as big of a threat, and enough time has passed since the tornadoes did their damage. 

Yet the newsworthiness of the story remains.  Being prepared for any kind of emergency, regardless of what it is, is still important.  Newsrooms realize this.  They KNOW it's a story they have to cover, it's just that they don't do it with any gusto anymore. 

Right after 9/11, emergency preparedness stories received ten minute, in-depth packages and three page spreads in the media.  In recent days, the same stories were lucky to get a :30 second VO or a sidebar mention.

One of the reasons I think this story really works is because the reporters, producers and editors immediately recognized the cleverness of the release.  The Tweets I saw from my friends still working in newsrooms seemed downright giddy.  They loved the story.  They giggled and guffawed as they posted the story on their websites, read it on the air and printed it in their papers.  They Tweeted it with lead-in's like, "I LOVE this story!" and "Thought everyone would enjoy this!"

The Breakdown:

So let's take a quick look at how this story worked, blow-by-blow.

1.  There was an actual newspeg (recent natural disasters)
2.  The information was wrapped inside a popular culture beast (literally and figuratively)
3.  The CDC made the connection between the fictitious event and a real emergency and the need to 
     be prepared in both instances
4.  The release made no overt effort to be jokey.  It was tongue-in-cheek serious and made its point as   
     if it were discussing a real event
5.  It was timed in such a way that it was still relevant without being insensitive

Trust me, this isn't as easy as the CDC made it look.  It took skill and knowledge and some creativity to pull this off, which they did in spades.

Extra Benefits:

Another stroke of genius is the social media aspect of this story.  Traditional emergency preparedness stories never make it as a social media viral posting.  When is the last time you saw a Facebook post about being ready in case of a sudden snowstorm or epic hailstorm?  The answer is, never.

And yet this story was burning up Facebook, it was blowing up on Twitter.  In a day it became about as popular as the "Talking Dog Tease" on YouTube.  I don't know if the CDC considered the social media aspect of the story, but because of the pop culture reference, and the uniqueness of the approach, the public saw exactly what the media saw, a funny, interesting story packed with real, useful information.

I suppose this story could have been couched in an alien attack, or a vampire scourge or an explosion of werewolves or teenage witches, but somehow I don't think it would have enjoyed the same success.  Had they picked aliens, it would have seemed a little too much "War of The Worlds".  Had they picked vampires, werewolves or teen witches, it would have seemed too cheesy.  It would have looked like they were trying too hard to connect with a younger generation and see relevant. 

By going with zombies, they managed to cross generational lines, be funny and informative at the same time, and look clever instead of desperate.  The particular pop culture reference made all the difference.

How To Do It:

Generally, I encourage you, as a small business owner or non-profit director to take risks, to think outside the box.  And trust me, I still do.  However in this case, I have to say, be careful.  Again, this isn't an easy thing to do.  You can see how the choice of choosing the specific pop culture reference made all the difference.  You can see how the timing had to be impeccable. 

Plus using a fictitious event to promote real information can be tricky if not properly presented.  The CDC got away with it because it's so well known and the story was one which had been presented regularly for decades.  Try doing this with a first-time pitch and you could run into trouble, or run the risk that journalists think your a bit batty.

However, with that said, if you want to use this technique to spice up your story pitch keep these things in mind.
1.  Make it useful - Your pitch has to have quality information, stuff that the everyday person can use and needs to know.  This makes it difficult for a lot of small businesses to capitalize on this technique

2.  Time it right - Like every other pitch, your story has to be timely and have a newspeg.  If it deals with serious, sad or tragic events, you'll have to wait and catch that tiny window between not being insensitive and still being relevant

3.  Choose your reference correctly - If you use this technique, you don't want to appear like you're just using a reference to attract a specific audience.  You want to look clever and smart, not like you're working too hard.  Your pop culture reference has to be something everyone can immediately relate to, like, you know...zombies!

4.  Don't try to be funny - Again, funny is in the eye of the beholder.  The CDC played it right by presenting the information as a real release, complete with background information and fictitious studies.  Yes, the story was humorous, but the CDC didn't present it that way.  There was a subtle wink to the reader, but we all knew what was happening right away and didn't need to be drawn in by jokes or overt humor.

5.  Use it sparingly - This isn't the kind of approach that will work over and over again.  This release worked because it came from a normally staid and conservative organization that normally doesn't do this kind of thing.  It caught the media off guard, it caught the general public off guard.  It was unique in both its presentation and in the fact that it hadn't been done by the CDC before.  However, if the CDC tries to use this approach too often, it will backfire and the media will simply stop paying attention to it.
***NOTE*** The exception to this is if the CDC uses this same approach in a year when it releases its annual emergency preparedness story.  Next time they might try "What to do if attacked by massive flocks of birds" or "How to be prepared in case the Mayan Calendar is correct."  This will work for a few years, but only if used once a year, as if part of a series.  Even then, in five years or so, it will get old and the media will have moved on.
So there you have it.  The breakdown of an honest-to-goodness PR homerun.  it doesn't happen everyday, and I rarely get as much joy writing about a particular press release or news story as I did with this one. 

In the end, what small businesses and non-profits can take away from this story is that it's okay to think outside the box, to be creative and take risks.  Yes, sometimes you'll fall flat on your face and your story won't be picked up.  But then there are those times when your story might actually become a news blockbuster and an internet sensation. 

Hey, it can happen...just like a zombie apocalypse.