Public Relations Insights from Kohnstamm Communications

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This summer marked the 20th anniversary of the cult classic “Clueless,” which also happens to be one of my personal favorites.  

The 1995 film is based on Jane Austen’s “Emma” and stars Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz, a well-meaning but superficial teenager in Beverly Hills. Pop culture fanatics know that the movie gave rise to some of the 90s most iconic fashions and catchphrases; but what is less well known is that Cher is, like, totally the ideal PR maven.

OK, so the analogy isn’t perfect. After running this idea by a fellow PR pro, she pointed out that Cher thinks Kuwait is in the valley; you need a little geography knowledge to pitch.

But still, you’d be buggin’ to think Cher didn’t have what it takes to dominate modern communications. Here are some lessons we can bring to the PR world from everyone’s favorite fashionista:

  1. Be connected: No doubt Cher would thrive in today’s hyper-connected culture; she was on her phone 24/7. If she were in charge of a campaign, Cher would be completely unafraid of pitching reporters via phone.
  2. Dress for success: If this isn’t self-explanatory, you may need to re-watch the movie. I hope not sporadically.
  3. Know your worth: Cher deftly turns down unwanted male attention with her now famous catchphrase, “As if.” Treat your client like a total Betty – no need to slum it with low-level brand partners or media outlets that won’t provide the results you need.
  4. Look for synergies: Cher loves playing matchmaker, and fixes up Mr. Hall and Miss Geist to get them to ease up on grading. This coupling fares better than her matchup of Elton and Tai, because they actually had things in common. Look for clients, partners and outlets that are a natural fit together, and you could get a win-win-win.
  5. Spend time on the important stuff: When training for her drivers test, Cher muses that she doesn’t need to practice parallel parking because “everywhere you go has valet.” Be well versed in the important skills you need to use and teach every day (like stopping at stop signs or getting on the freeway).
  6. See others’ potential: Cher loves a good makeover – she helps the hopeless new girl Tai assimilate to Beverly Hills, forging a long-term friendship. She also takes a fresh look at her dorky former stepbrother to find romantic potential. Don’t overlook burgeoning brands or newbie PR pros just because they don’t immediately fit your culture.
  7. You’ll have moments of self-doubt: Sometimes this industry is way harsh. When not even Rodeo Drive can stop Cher from bumming, she proclaims, “Everything I think and everything I do is wrong.” It’s natural to have campaigns or clients or weeks that just don’t go how you hoped.
  8. Let things roll off: Sometimes the only reply you can offer a difficult client, co-worker or a reporter is simply, “Whatever.”
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A colleague recently passed along a post from Bad Pitch Blog (which is a great site, by the way) that talks about soft language, and how PR pros need to be careful about using it in pitches and releases.

The article points to George Carlin’s example of how the term “shell shock” has changed from generation to generation. In World War II it was called “battle fatigue,” and now it’s called PTSD.

The post made me chuckle, only because I’ve seen soft language turn into “way too official-sounding words that no one understands” phrases and clichés. This happens in PR and in journalism. And I admit, I’ve used a few in my day.

I reached out to a few of my former journalism colleagues for some great examples, and they didn’t disappoint.

  • “The man fled on foot.” No, he ran away. Period.
  • “She sustained fatal injuries.” She died. Period.
  • “Press release” – In this digital day and age, newspapers don’t use a whole lot of presses anymore. And “press” is more than that these days. Call it a media release.
  • “The barn was partially destroyed by the storm.” It was damaged. It’s either destroyed, or it’s not.
  • “The driver failed to negotiate the curve.” He went off the road.
  • “Floats are gathering for the first annual parade.” There’s no such thing as a first annual anything. However, an inaugural parade exists.
  • “Preparations are underway for the storm.” People prepare. It’s more active to say it like this anyway!
  • “It’s the show everyone is talking about.” Really? Everyone in the world?
  • “According to Smith, the deal is final.” Smith says the deal is final.
  • “The team is looking a for a white-colored vehicle.” The team is looking for a white car.

Lesson learned here? Be simple. Be straightforward. Tell it like it is. Wishy-washy language only dilutes the message. In our business, we’re sometimes tasked with making things sound a lot more important than they are. But as George Carlin said, “it takes the life out of life.” Well said. 

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If you're like me, your social feed is filled with numbers and superlatives each day. How many times can something be "ridiculously amazing”? Are there any 90s sitcom facts left to uncover? How many cat GIFs do we really need?

You can thank our ever-present smartphones, changing online habits, short attention spans and click-bait weakness for the “listicle-ization” of online content. The listicle (a portmanteau of “list” and “article”) has in turn given rise to the never-ending Facebook quiz parade and the more uplifting “you won’t believe what happens next” video series.

(BRB, have to watch the top 97 cutest puppies of all time.)

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How to go Viral in the Digital Age

Posted by on in Public Relations

Why do some brands go viral, while others just get the flu? We look with awe at brand powerhouses like Apple and Nike, and wonder how they’ve not only spread their microbes into every recognizable platform, but also have created an epidemic that has courses through our entire society.

I looked to one of the leading brand practitioners, Patrick Hanlon, for inspiration on global brand engagement. In a forum introducing his new book, The Social code: Designing Community in the Digital Age, Hanlon defined how to create communities of advocates who become so passionate about your success, they are willing to create it themselves.

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The Life of a Kohnstamm Intern

Posted by on in Agency News

Telling my friends I’m an intern can sometimes be off-putting. As a college grad that has completed multiple internships, it can feel challenging having that title.

There are so many questions that hang in the balance when you’re an intern. Your future is uncertain and it’s incredibly stressful. I’m someone that always plans ahead. As an intern, that’s not always possible and it can feel disconcerting.

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Brand Lessons by Mom

Posted by on in Public Relations

Growing up in a large family, my mom was big on teachable moments. And, as the seventh of eight kids, and the sixth of six boys, there were plenty of them. One of those moments -- okay, A LOT of them -- stick with me to this day. Thanks to Mom. This particular teachable moment involves a 4 x 6 piece of blue paper taped to the “boy’s bathroom mirror” in the basement, my artist mom's effortless handwriting curving in blue ink: "What you do speaks so loudly I can't hear what you are saying." Yeah, I always had to read it twice, too. My mom’s brilliant, even when she quotes someone else (in this case, Ralph Waldo Emerson). Moms are all good that way.

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Native advertising in the media landscape

Posted by on in Public Relations

Twenty-three students into a classroom setting, all with unique experiences, jobs and backgrounds makes for interesting discussions during an eight hour, month long class at the University of St. Thomas. We’re discussing Reputation Management. As a class, we read case studies about the BP Oil spill and Domino’s Pizza crisis management situation. Business Communications 661 proved to be one of the most engaging learning experiences, so far in my graduate school career.

One valuable conversation was the presence of native advertising in the media landscape. What is native advertising? Have you heard of it? The New York Times and Time Inc. have high-level executives supporting the idea. BuzzFeed gets 100 percent of its revenue from native advertising and other companies will start to participate too.

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Color Eye Photo

Nothing makes me hit the “block” button on Facebook faster than having my newsfeed taken over by a user who can’t seem to get past a particular craze.  We all know some one who posts incessantly about the latest political buzz, their obsessive love of dogs, or the details of their morning breakfast.  After hundreds of repetitive statuses, we can’t help but begin to label them as “the extreme left wing,” “the dog lady,” or “aren’t my eating habits interesting?” status updater.

Brands, companies or corporations may be just as susceptible to that label as individuals, becoming so focused on pushing out messages that the real story gets lost or never recognized. In essence, they may become socially boxed in. We can’t forget that the faces behind social media are human beings, and humans are not simply one-dimensional or transactional.  How do we make sure that our communication on social media remains human and doesn’t become robotic? Here are some simple dos and don’ts for connecting with others meaningfully through social channels:

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Three Questions with Greg Zimprich, APR

Posted by on in Agency News

IMG_6794.jpegEDITOR'S NOTE: Greg Zimprich moved on as SVP, leaving Kohnstamm a stronger agency with the tightest team of PR professionals a client could ever want. He's also moved on from public relations after some 25 years of corporate and agency work to pursue a combination of teaching, executive coaching, and leadership development. At 50, there is no time like the present to broaden one's horizons. But before he left, we thought we'd ask our "3 QUESTIONS WITH…" to catch some vintage Z-morsels of reflection. Thanks, GZ, and don't be a stranger to your East Metro fans! 

-- Josh Kohnstamm

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I’ll preface with the fact that I am NOT a morning person.

That said, I AM a huge fan of MPR, The Current and public radio in general, so learning that evening DJ and fan favorite Mark Wheat would be speaking at a, GASP, morning forum instantly grabbed my attention.

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“Be very personal and know whom you’re pitching.”

“Understand the audience you want to target.”

“Be persistent when pitching contacts via Facebook, Twitter, email and no phone calls, please.”

These are a few topics covered at the “Meet the Media: A New Paradigm of News Generation” conference at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel earlier this month.

BusinessWire hosted the event with an expert panel of six journalists:

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The goodbye was bittersweet. Our annual “year-end” lunch at Zelo with Dean Christopher Puto this month ended in manly hugs on Nicollet Mall that seemed to encapsulate the years of hard work, transformation and loss we experienced together. For 11 years, Dean Puto has been our client as head of the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business — a time marked by a grinding accreditation process, overhaul of the curriculum, near total turnover of faculty and the sudden loss of his beloved wife, Susan, amidst it all.


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Brand managers who focus on driving word of mouth as part of their marketing mix understand the power and effectiveness of influencer and peer-to-peer recommendations. Brands that provide consumers with a remarkable, “talkable” experience earn the attention and loyalty of brand advocates willing to spread the word on their behalf. And companies that create happy customers gain the benefit of a virtuous cycle of positive recommendations widely regarded as more efficient and authentic than most traditional paid marketing vehicles. Before your brand joins the conversation, here are five things I know about word of mouth to help guide your journey:

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Working in public relations, we are lucky enough to work with all sorts of editors, bloggers, radio hosts, TV personalities and key influencers. Tess Masters, aka "The Blender Girl" is one of those influencers we are privileged to know.

With her new (and FABULOUS!) cookbook, I marched in to the kitchen in our office and whipped (ahem, blended) up two of her delicious smoothies for the KC team.

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Five Tips for Blogger Relations

Posted by on in Public Relations

I’m standing in the driveway the other night, talking with my neighbor while our kids played. She was telling me all about the great new grocery store that opened down the road from us. I’d been getting the store’s circulars in the mail and had seen the ads on TV. But it wasn’t until the store had earned my neighbor’s “seal of approval” that I became interested.

Nielsen research shows that nearly all of us trust word-of-mouth over any kind of advertising. This isn’t new news, of course. The trust in earned media is why we as PR professionals have job security! And no kind of earned media does word-of-mouth better than the blogging community.

I realize that brands engaging directly with bloggers isn’t new either, although the nature in which we work with them continues to change. In fact, I’ve noticed a real shift in just the past year. Here are five things I’ve learned along the way:

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b2ap3_thumbnail_WP_20140515_004_20140516-192840_1.jpgSpring marks the official kick-off of off-site team-building season in Minnesota.

Sure, there are plenty of activities that can be done during the long, drawn-out Minnesota winters. Curling, anyone? But after the most recent seemingly never-ending winter we just experienced, the tried-and-true team trip to Target Field to take in a Twins game was only a dream just a few short weeks ago. Even an overcast sky with temps in the low 50s wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits of a hardy group of Minnesota Twins fans!

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As PR professionals, one of our main goals is to earn publicity and awareness for our clients. A few weeks ago, a video that stood out from the crowd, with over 18 million views, caught my eye as it dominated the Facebook newsfeed. Mullen, a Boston ad agency, created this video to promote its client Cardstore from American Greetings and successfully utilized four tactics that played a key role in the viral exposure.  

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b2ap3_thumbnail_MOA-ESP-2.pngDid you know that the Mall of America has over 500 stores, receives more than 42 million annual visitors, and employs 15,000 people? And that the upcoming expansions to the facility, including a new hotel, retail space, water park and more, will more than double the mall’s square footage?

The place is, in a word, massive, and so the public relations and social media staff at the MOA really need to be on their game on a daily basis. It is within this context that I happily signed up to attend the Minnesota PRSA chapter event at the Mall of America, for a tour of the mall’s central communications hub, dubbed ESP (Enhanced Service Portal). 

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We Should Never Punt, Either

Posted by on in Public Relations

b2ap3_thumbnail_Kelley.pngWhy would anyone want to be considered just “average” in their field? As PR strategists, we have the opportunity to break new ground almost on a daily basis. Why would we simply want to dust off shop-worn cookie-cutter approaches when we have the ability to create real-time strategies based on opportunity?

I recently ran across the story of Kevin Kelley, the highly unconventional football coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. His Bruins never punt, choosing instead to take their chances on 4th down. And they always try for an onside kick after every score, instead of a more conventional kickoff. Kelley’s built a cult following based on his disregard for conventional football wisdom. Yet, as the saying goes, there is method in his madness. 

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Three Questions

Posted by on in Events

With Honest Tea Co-founder and "TeaEO" Seth Goldman

Kohnstamm Communications recently welcomed former client Seth Goldman back to our office as part of the national tour for his book “Message in a Bottle.” During his visit, we asked him about his company’s rapid growth, balancing investor influence, and the role that PR played in sharing Honest Tea’s message. Here are excerpts from that conversation: 

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Josh--Seth-Goldman.jpgIt is easy to dismiss, in hindsight, that a brand and visionary such as Honest Tea and Seth Goldman were simply in the right place at the right time – the trends towards Fair Trade, organics, lower sugar products, better-for-you brands are today part of the very fabric of everyday American living in 2013.

But Seth’s is truly the story of bending the arc of the business world, by creating and accelerating consumer awareness and engagement generating critical mass where it really didn’t exist before. Seth set the standard for what we now recognize as brands that are “healthier, authentic, and honest.”

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Public Relations at the Crossroads

Posted by on in Public Relations


Welcome to the newly minted Kohnstamm Communications blog, which we aptly named "Crossroads" as a reflection of the state of the public relations and communications industry we find ourselves immersed in today. It's a position both bursting with opportunity for those who see the light, and fraught with peril for those who don't adapt to the times.

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