Friday, August 16, 2013

Can the Way We Communicate Affect Our Physical Environment?

All of us in communications see every day how the digital world has reshaped our jobs and our personal lives. But I think the impact of texts, tweets and email may be going far beyond how we communicate with each other and could actually be shifting our preferences for the physical environment around us. The best example may be transportation and the way we commute.

This spring, public transit use reached the second highest level in the United States since 1957. The group that issued the report pointed to higher gas prices and an improved job market as the main reasons why more Americans are boarding subways, buses and trolleys.

Researchers and public transportation advocates often point to the seemingly endless expenses associated with car ownership – monthly payments, insurance, gas, repairs, parking – as a reason why many turn to public transit, particularly young adults. They also suggest that public transit users are concerned about the effect of cars on the environment. Pardon the pun, but I think there could be another, overlooked driver behind our shift to mass transit: our desire to stay connected.

You drive, I’ll text
These days, we all want to take advantage of every opportunity to communicate, but it’s not easy to like something on Facebook on your mobile device while you’re driving, and it certainly isn’t safe. And not surprisingly, it’s illegal to text while driving in most states. Even using a speech-to-text function on a hands-free device reduces your concentration on the road.

So, if we want to stay connected while we’re commuting, we shouldn’t be behind the wheel. Perhaps Greyhound’s old tagline, “Go Greyhound – and leave the driving to us,” which traces its roots to a 1956 ad campaign, may have been decades ahead of its time. (Public transit marketers and communicators, take note.)

The Millennial generation particularly is attracted to public transit. As a specialist in generational behavior commented about commuting, Millennials “want to spend as little time as possible doing it unless they can simultaneously do things they value, like texting, exercising or socializing.”

An anecdote or something more?
If the way we communicate today affects our commuting preferences, is it merely an interesting anecdote, something public transit insiders or generational scholars debate at happy hour? I think it could have broader, real-world ramifications. Email, texting and social media are often blamed for making our interactions feel less personal these days, but in fact, they may be literally bringing us closer together.

Successful public transit requires people to live closer together to provide a critical mass of users. They won’t be thrown into direct contact with neighbors just on buses or trains, they’ll also be living in more walkable communities built around mass-transit stops. Leaving our cars at home to focus on our mobile devices may be one of the factors causing demand for these types of neighborhoods—the norm in pre-WWII America—that can provide more opportunities for face-to-face interaction with our neighbors.

Of course, we’ll need to look up from our smart phones while we walk.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Our Client Gets a Sneak Peak at a Solar Decathlon House

Recently, I had the pleasure to accompany a client on a tour of a solar-powered house. Under construction on the campus of Catholic University, the house is bound for this year’s 2013 Solar Decathlon in Irvine, California. A number of PCGers, including me, are fans of this competition, in which college students design and build net-zero-energy houses. While we’re a little disappointed that the competition won’t be taking place in Washington, DC, as in years past, it’s still exciting to see a hometown team entering the contest and preparing to transport an 850-square-foot house across the continent.

2011 Solar Decathlon
Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. DOE Solar Decathlon
We arranged the tour for the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC), a public-interest organization that rates the energy performance of windows, doors and skylights, which helps consumers and others compare products. We’ve been proud to help this client communicate about its important work for more than 15 years.

The house featured NFRC-certified windows, and following the visit, NFRC posted an article on its blog: It was exciting to see first-hand how NFRC’s energy ratings helped a Solar Decathlon team select windows for its projects.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What’s the best #strategy for using #hashtags?

BBC uses a hashtag to interact with viewers. Photo by dan taylor.

After many months of rumors, Facebook began enabling hashtags last month, a move that seemed inevitable after purchasing the already hashtag-heavy photo sharing app Instagram. If you’re not already using them, now is the time to get familiar.

“Hashtags” are the content “tags” used in social media, denoted by a hash mark (#) at the front end of a word, or series of words. Much like the content tags you see in the right column, or at the bottom of this post, they can be used on social media services like Twitter and Instagram to filter content by subject or to make your own content more searchable.

How do I select a hashtag?
There’s no process for registering a hashtag, but there are two things to keep in mind when selecting a one: brevity and uniqueness. No one wants to type out 25 extraneous characters. Keep it short and sweet. And always check to make sure the tag you want isn’t already being used, or your audience will have a harder time reaching your content exclusively. There’s nothing to prevent someone else from using the same tag, so use yours early and often.

One of the best ways companies and associations can utilize hashtags is in conjunction with conferences or other events. The first time I saw one used widely was at the Society for Environmental Journalists annual conference in late 2008. I attended a panel on using Twitter to engage with journalists, and I noticed when checking my Twitter feed from my laptop (in the days before my phone could connect to the Internet), that journalists were using #SEJ08 to denote tweets about the sessions they were attending. I could search for #SEJ08 and see a bevy of content being generated about panels and speakers all over the conference, and it led me to discover new sessions to attend that week.

Now, virtually every event has a hashtag, even if it’s just to corral guests’ candid wedding photos on Instagram. If you want your industry event to be successful, whether it’s a multi-day conference or an awards dinner, carefully selecting a branded tag that allows attendees to quickly find content related to the event is a critical component of your event’s marketing strategy. They are even useful for aggregating content you want to review later: a few years ago, PCG staff used a special tag when tweeting thoughts about sessions during an offsite business meeting, and tagged tweets were broadcast on a screen in the room. This allowed staff to see - in real time - ideas and reactions about presentations without interrupting presenters, and helped extend the dialogue about lessons learned beyond the conference room.

#Content and #Branding
Hashtags are primarily used for denoting the subject matter of social media content. There are two strategies:
  •       Filtering content: making your content easier to find for potential clients/customers/audience members. For example: a tweet about this post by PCG might include: #advice, #pr, #branding, etc. This makes your content more searchable by people looking for branding advice.
  •            Grouping content: branding your content by grouping it together with a unique hashtag. In this case, you may have a team of employees with personal Twitter accounts who want to tweet thoughts about their work. They would all use a single hashtag like #PCGstrategy to aggregate their thoughts quickly and easily.

In the first instance, you want to use hashtags that are specific, but common. Say you are posting about a service that your company provides. In PCG’s case, that might include media training. If we Tweeted about the work we do with the U.S. Coast Guard, we might include: #media, #training, #mediatraining, #coastguard, and #USCG. That way, anyone searching for information on media training could find us more easily, and someone searching for tweets about the US Coast Guard would see that PCG works with them.

For branding your content, you want to use fewer hashtags, specifically one or two that are unique to your company or project. Nike has an extensive social media presence, with separate accounts for its different sports divisions, and sponsored athletes who post engaging, inspirational content daily. Besides tagging things with the obvious #Nike, the company often uses its tagline #noexcuses when talking about a legendary player, or even a buzz-worthy play. Short, memorable taglines like “No Excuses” make for great hashtags, letting anyone know right away that your content is your own.

Other #ProTips
There are few other things to keep in mind when creating or selecting a hashtag:
  •          Keep it short: It should be noted that while Twitter now allows for “expanded tweets” over 140 characters, brevity is still best. For an event, the acronym for your event plus numbers for the year, or a succinct motto are an excellent starting point.
  •          Make it memorable: For those of you who enjoy a good pun or a bit of alliteration now is your time to shine! Even simple portmanteaus are a popular and effective method for creating a hashtag.
  •          Pay attention: What tags are your clients or members using? What about potential clients, or audiences you want to reach? Use TweetDeck or other free, simple social media management tools to keep tabs on what tags are popular with the people you want to connect with: then use them.
  •          Make them public: Keep in mind that your social media content is only as searchable as it is public. Using a hashtag on your personal Facebook page won’t make a post automatically public – your content is still only as available as your security settings allow. But if you want to reach people you haven’t met yet, go public: and let the world find you.
Have any questions about using hashtags? Post them in the comments below, and we'll answer them. Or, tweet them to us: @PCGPR.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

From left to right, panelists Todd Terrell,
Vaughn Gilbert, Mimi Limbach and Amy Lientz
Yesterday, a panel of three terrific communicators shared their insights and best practices at the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Annual Meeting in Atlanta. I was privileged to be the moderator for the Communicating for New Nuclear Facilities session. Their unanimous advice – be as transparent as you can about your organization’s plans and operations. Don’t hesitate to reach out to critics. Keep all of your stakeholders apprised of what you’re doing. And continuously build community and policymaker support.

Nuclear Development Communications Director Todd Terrell discussed the extensive outreach that Southern Company conducts on a routine basis, along with the important role that the employee speakers’ bureau plays in its outreach. And he spoke about the degree to which the company works to be transparent, including holding periodic meetings with critics whose agendas  include environmental, nuclear and policy issues. 

Westinghouse External Communications Director Vaughn Gilbert shared the company’s excellent new broadcast commercial, which soon will be shown in a variety of venues including Washington, D.C. He described the company’s decision to focus on stakeholders outside the nuclear energy industry whose support will be important to the industry’s future success. And Westinghouse, too, has reached out to critics.

Amy Lientz, director of communications and government relations for the Idaho National Lab (INL), described the challenges the Lab faces in modernizing critical aging facilities and building new ones in an era of tight budgets, sequestration and continuing resolutions from Congress. The INL, too, works for transparent communications, while recognizing that some actions – for example, those involving individual personnel matters – must remain private.  And she recognized the unique challenges of timely communications from government entities. 

ANS members engaged all three panelists in a lively discussion. And the audience learned that communications best practices apply to very different kinds of organizations.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

PCG Welcomes Jackie Carpenter as Project Coordinator

Jackie Carpenter, a recent PCG intern who graduated from Bucknell University this spring, has joined our team as a project coordinator. A native Marylander, she majored in political science and environmental science, and minored in history. Jackie will be supporting a variety of PCG clients, including AREVA, the Electrical Safety Foundation International and TerraPower.

In addition to immersing herself in the world of public relations and communications, Jackie enjoys crafting, running, baking, reading and rock climbing. And if you’re looking for a fellow “Game of Thrones” fan, look no more. She’s already anxiously awaiting the next book and TV season.

Please join us in welcoming Jackie to the team!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Communicating Effectively in the US and Abroad

One of the most rewarding aspects of the work we do is having the opportunity to train professionals with communications skills and then see them advance in their abilities to connect with important audiences. We get to take students from being nervous and often unfamiliar with the dos and don'ts of messaging and bridging, to confident spokespeople ready to address media and stakeholders.

My colleague Karen Heinold and I had the pleasure of serving as instructors to 30 maritime officers from countries spanning the world last week at the International Maritime Officers School at the U.S. Coast Guard training center in Yorktown, Va. 

For three full days, we taught the basics of interacting with media, messaging and bridging techniques, and the principles of risk communication.

In addition to our communications course, these officers receive an in-depth overview of U.S. Coast Guard organization, planning and management of its missions during their multi-week stay in the United States. 

At the close of our course, students graciously shared compliments and kind words of gratitude for the experience. We're equally grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the group and are eager to see our graduates put their skills to good use in the future.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

AP Stylebook Turns 60

PR pros everywhere are eagerly awaiting to receive their ordered copies of the 2013 edition of the AP Stylebook as our handy dandy guide, often referred to as the "Journalist's Bible," was released today.

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the AP Stylebook, this latest edition includes nearly 100 new or updated entries, along with an expanded chapter on social media. Some of the new additions are in sections on food, fashion, numerals and weapons. There are others on mental illness and illegal immigration.

Among word-specific new and revised entries are Advent, Alaska Native, Asperger’s syndrome, athletic trainers, disabled/handicapped, doughnut, dumpster, ethnic cleansing, homicide/murder/manslaughter, moped, populist, rack/wrack, red carpet, swag, underway, wacky and wildfires.

All in all, the spiral-bound version comes in at 510 pages.

Cheers to turning 60!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Science of Communicating Science

I had an interesting conversation with reporters this week at a Washington Women in Public Relations lunch series at the American Chemical Society. We discussed the science of communicating with scientists and how to turn technical matters into compelling stories.    

Anna Edney of Bloomberg and Kimberly Leonard of US News and World Report, who often write about the latest medical technologies, emphasized the importance of remembering your audience: people.    

Readers like to hear stories, and more than anything, want to know what’s in it for them.

The reporters shared the techniques they use to create personal connections on technical matters—techniques that are very much a part of the PR world and the work we do at PCG:    

·         Use analogies. Comparisons can put technical subjects into terms with which your audience can relate.

·         Remember the big picture. Readers want to know the implications of the science. How does it affect society and the way in which we live?

·         Add a human face. Anecdotes can spruce up your story with emotion, personality and suspense. Tell the story of the scientist, or of a person affected by the science.

·         Incorporate multi-media. Videos, pictures and infographics are effective tools to break down complex information.

At PCG, we’re in the business of helping our clients communicate complex information and we know firsthand the effectiveness of these techniques.

After all, that’s what keeps our work fun. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

What's in a URL? Usability

When branding a company, product, or program online your URL must be descriptive, succinct, memorable, and above all: user-friendly.

If only the Transportation Security Administration would have realized that sooner, they could have avoided their embarrassment this past week. Since 2011, they have used a URL for their website that promotes a pre-screening process that travelers can use to expedite domestic travel. Unfortunately for them, the URL,✓™, included check mark and trademark characters, both of which most people don’t know how to access from their keyboard. End result? Many people were unable to access the website.

(Screengrab from via Slate)

Those two symbols scrambled the URL and led visitors to a 404 page, meaning the page could not be found. The TSA has since changed the URL to Maintaining the symbol usage in the URL may have initially seemed like a nice commitment to branding standards, but ultimately made an agency not known for efficiency appear more inefficient.

So how can you avoid making TSA’s mistakes? Here are tips on choosing a URL that conveys your desired message without driving away traffic or garnering criticism.

1. Ensure the URL is succinct. If cleanliness is next to godliness, brevity will gain you online divinity. If your company, product, service or initiative’s name is verbose, think about using initials, or just the first one or two words. For instance, the White House uses and not, or because the URL is short, concise and memorable.

2. Avoid common misspellings.  Try to avoid words that are commonly misspelled and words with silent or double consonants, or an extra vowel, like “column” or “vacuum.” For added insurance, you can easily buy up common misspellings of your URL and have them redirect to the proper spelling. It’s a one-time fix that will prevent you from losing traffic.

3. Avoid hyphens and other symbols that could cause confusion. They are easily forgotten and lost in translation, and are best reserved for subpages where hyphens are a necessity. Also, keys that do not appear on most keyboards – i.e. check marks and trademark characters should be avoided as they’ll discourage users from accessing your website.

4. Consult an expert. In theory, a skilled web developer and designer should be involved in the production of your site as well as a communications strategist you can provide insight into proper branding and messaging. Your website should be the first online entry point into information about your organization. It’s important to make a good first impression. 

These are a few of the basics to get you started in deciding on a URL. Of course we’re happy to help you advance the process. Visit to learn more.

The Power Surge and Perception

Yesterday afternoon I walked over to the New America Foundation to hear Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), discuss our increasingly dynamic energy landscape and his new book, The Power Surge.

While I have not yet read Levi’s book, it’s high on my list. His Energy, Security, and Climate blog is a must-read. As an energy communicator, I’m both thankful for and jealous of his uncanny ability to make the complex digestible.

Not surprisingly, he said quite a bit yesterday that was insightful, but I found his remarks about public perception and the onshore oil and gas industry particularly poignant for communicators. It seems that many onshore oil and gas companies believe that a mistake by a competitor will not have ramifications on their brand and their ability to operate. As Levi suggested, in this moment of intense scrutiny over hydraulic fracturing and drilling, this perception is likely flawed.

The public, by and large, doesn’t distinguish carefully between different oil and gas companies. A drilling accident by one company is perceived as an accident by the entire industry.

This is a lesson the nuclear industry learned during Three Mile Island and one that has helped nuclear energy communicators prepare for challenges down the road, such as the accident at Fukushima in Japan. 

Protecting brand reputation, especially in the energy industry, often means not only preparing for challenges within your organization but also preparing for challenges within the industry that can drastically affect perception of your organization and its ability to do business.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What to Say When Things Get Tough – PCG Partner Leonard Greenberger‘s Book is a Great How-to Manual

At Potomac Communications Group, we’re well known for our work in helping clients communicate credibly in a crisis or when stakeholders are angry about a decision that will affect their community or when they don’t trust you or the industry you represent. So, I’m very pleased to announce the publication of PCG Partner Leonard Greenberger’s first book, What to Say When Things Get Tough: Business Communication Strategies for Winning People Over When They’re Angry, Upset, and Suspicious of Everything You Say.

In the book, Leonard uses many of PCG’s real-world experiences to illustrate how to win people over by understanding how people assess risk in tough situations, how to send the right verbal and non-verbal messages, and how to establish and maintain trust and credibility. He also provides basic training on how to conduct media interviews, including a fool-proof model for answering difficult questions.

Published by McGraw-Hill, What to Say When Things Get Tough represents the perfect reference book for any tough situation – from calming an angry customer to siting a controversial industrial facility. Win Porter, former Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said, “Every business professional should have a copy on the shelf and pull it down whenever a tough situation presents itself.”

To learn more about the book, order copies or book Leonard for a speaking engagement, please visit our book webpage at

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Tweet that Rattled Wall Street

By now, you’ve likely heard that the Associated Press’s Twitter account was hacked yesterday. For anyone who may have missed it, hackers sent out a tweet using the AP feed reporting explosions at the White House that injured President Obama. While the AP worked quickly to correct the misinformation via its other social media outlets and website, we quickly saw the impact of just one erroneous tweet.

Source: Bloomberg via The Washington Post
Most notably, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 100 points in the moments after the tweet was sent, but it recovered just as quickly when the AP announced that it had been hacked and the information was false. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney even noted that President Obama was fine during yesterday’s press briefing.

This one instance, which took place in a matter of minutes, really drives home the influence that social media has in today’s world. In the ongoing race to be first, news outlets are increasingly breaking news via social media. (The number of outlets that have reported misinformation via social media in breaking news situations is another topic for another day.) In fact, a study released last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that one-third of adults under the age of 30 get their news from social media platforms.

Today, social media allows us to get information and communicate faster than ever. But as we saw yesterday, it also has the power to rattle Wall Street. While some things – like getting hacked – can be out of your control, yesterday’s tweet serves as a reminder to be mindful of what you read and to double check information before taking it as truth.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Community Focus with an Artistic Touch

Last week, PCG Partner Leonard Greenberger, Senior Creative Director Barbara Longsworth and I had the pleasure of attending the Bread for the City annual fundraiser Art with a Heart. Talk about an amazing event. It's no secret that BFC is one of my favorite charities. I love their mission and the staff members we've had the pleasure of working with as part of our pro bono support to the organization are amazing. It was wonderful to witness all of the excitement and joy everyone had in supporting this very important evening.

Fun times!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why PR People Should Care About International Commodity Prices

I am sitting at an International Monetary Fund (IMF) conference where a panel of experts are discussing international commodity price fluctuations. The only communicators in the room are me and my two colleagues from PCG. Thanks for inviting us IMF.

Why am I here? Is it because I love energy economic theory and its geopolitical implications? Am I trying to living the DC dream of hanging out with smart people talking about big policy issues? Did I get lost on my way to the George Washington University Chick-fil-A?

I am here because the best public relations practitioners know their topic almost as well as those they serve. PCG aims to be able to talk shop with economists and engineers and translate for mom and pop. We aim to bridge two worlds.

There are times when I run into communicators who are all flash and no substance. That is not who we strive to be at PCG.

So I have to go for now, they are talking about US imports of Nigerian and Angolan Crude. Good stuff right?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Washington DC