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What “Empty the Tanks” and “Anti-vaxxer” movements have in common and what zoos and aquariums can learn from the latter


The past few weeks have seen several tourism companies climb aboard the bandwagon of those opposed to keeping marine mammals in aquariums and zoos. The reason cited is familiar rhetoric frequently espoused by animal rights groups, but lacking in credible evidence to substantiate the claims.

Rhetoric shapes public perception, and perception becomes reality. By continually sowing the seeds of doubt in peoples’ minds, and bolstering those doubts with well-spun, half-truth tales that pull on heartstrings, the public begins to accept opinion as truth and accusation as evidence. The tactics of anti-zoo groups are manipulative and disingenuous to be sure, but as a communications professional, we must acknowledge the shrewdness of their strategy. Their singular focus and multi-pronged approach to achieve the end goal is a frustrating and potentially daunting challenge for zoos and aquariums. But it is not unsurmountable with a strategic communications plan.   

The target audience of the Empty the Tanks propaganda campaign is empathetic people who care about animals. This is, of course, the same audience of current or prospective visitors and supporters of aquariums and zoos. This audience is exposed to propaganda from many different directions – not only from animal rights groups (which this audience may or may not find trustworthy or credible), but also from friends and influencers in their social networks, celebrities and companies like Trip Advisor and Airbnb. That pervasive rhetoric makes it difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. The tactic being deployed is a law of propaganda as used by Nazi Joseph Goebbels: “Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes the truth.”

“Illusion of truth” is what psychologists call this type of propaganda campaign, and it is a strategy that many people and companies buy into. The targeted individuals – who care about wildlife and want to do what is right – begin to feel conflicted and socially pressured. They reach a point of feeling they need to make a choice, and pick a side, and when they do, they likely will err on the side of caution in the animals’ best interest. Of course, the propaganda is strategically executed so caring people will lean toward the animal rights rhetoric as likely the better choice for the animals, despite evidence that would contradict that concern.   

When one looks at the persuasion campaign objectively, it is strikingly similar to the anti-vaccine movement that emerged a few years ago and spread like a disease. That too was launched from flimsy – and later roundly debunked – research that played on fears and specifically targeted a susceptible audience – deeply invested mothers, who are often well-educated, live a healthy, organic lifestyle, and want to protect their children from unnatural toxins and environmental harms.    

The “Empty the Tanks” and “anti-vaccination” campaigns share common traits:

  • The research that backs their claims is weak or flat-out wrong.

  • They systematically ignore research that refutes their claims.

  • They rely almost entirely on the emotional tales of outliers to drive their movement. For example, rare stories of an adverse reaction to a vaccine, or an uncommon situation where an animal died before the median life expectancy while living in an aquarium.

  • They gain celebrity backers to champion their cause and spin their tale.

  • They target an audience of empathetic individuals who want to protect someone or something they care about.

The last point is the most ironic. It doesn’t make logical sense that a mother who wants to protect her child would risk subjecting it to a life-threatening infectious disease that is completely preventable.  

But logic, we learned, doesn’t work. This is one of the key learnings the health community has gleaned from its efforts to combat the anti-vaccination movement. Facts, logic, science, proof – these don’t work. In fact, attempts to educate a vaccine skeptic with evidence and logic often drives them to become more deeply embedded in the anti-vaccine camp.

Movements are driven by emotional storytelling – not science or data. A well-crafted emotional story can lift the soul and inspire, or it can tear at our heart and leave a scar that cripples our brains from rational thought.

Aquariums and zoos can learn a lot from observing the tactics, successes and failures of pro-vaccine communications efforts. The public health community has invested an extraordinary amount of resources into combating the anti-vaxxer movement through communications efforts to build public trust in vaccines. Vaccine skepticism is now considered by the World Health Organization as one of the top ten public health threats of 2019.  

Without vaccines, measles is sweeping through communities, children have been hospitalized and people are dying – from completely preventable diseases.

When we look at this through the lens of marine mammals in aquarium and zoo care, most knowledge that supports the welfare and conservation of dolphins and whales in the wild has been gleaned from studies in zoos and aquariums and conducted by, or in collaboration with, marine mammal experts affiliated with these facilities.  

One-third of all marine mammals are facing extinction. The oceans are increasingly unhealthy. Dolphins living off the Atlantic coast are less healthy than those living in human care, and are getting even sicker from pollution. Whales off the Pacific coast die from ship strikes and malnutrition, and 83% of endangered North Atlantic right whales are being entangled in fishing gear. Noise pollution in the ocean is endangering marine life, and conservationists rely on the results of hearing studies conducted in aquariums to inform conservation policy.

The future will not be positive if we stop learning from marine mammals in human care, when these learnings are driving conservation solutions to protect them. Just as the future health of children and communities is endangered by the anti-vaccine movement, so too is the future for marine mammals if we empty the tanks.

Aquariums and zoos may benefit from the lessons learned from the pro-vaccine communications efforts, and apply those learnings to their own strategy.  

  • Leading communications with logic and science doesn’t work.

  • Attacking the other side doesn’t work.

  • Leading with empathy seems to be making headway. Empathy and fear are key emotions that drive the anti-vaccine propaganda efforts, and are now being harnessed by the pro-vaccine community to persuade skeptics to the other side – and this effort is seeing some success.

If mothers are afraid of subjecting their child to harm, show them what a child wracked with whooping cough sounds like, and what a measles outbreak looks like. Introduce them to people who are physically or mentally debilitated because they were exposed to a preventable disease.

Show, don’t tell. Lead with empathy, not defensiveness or condescension. Understand that the audience wants to do what is right – so do you. You’re on the same team. Help them see that.  

By understanding your audience, and the key emotional drivers that influence their behavior, you can build an effective communications strategy that will meet them where their heart is. Showcase in an honest, authentic way how your care and conservation efforts for marine mammals are in the animals’ best interest. Demonstrate how much you care; not just how smart and credible you are.

5 Tips to Make Your Story Stand Out to Healthcare Journalists


Do you have a great healthcare story to share, but struggle to find the best way to get reporters to agree?

My team led a panel at MATTER, a PCI partner and a Chicago-based health tech incubator and collaboration hub, where four leading healthcare journalists from Built in Chicago, Chicago Tribune, Modern Healthcare and Crain’s Chicago Business offered tips on how to convince reporters that your story is one they’ll want to share with their audiences. Here are five takeaways:

1. Establish rapport and build genuine relationships with the media.

Reporters are more likely to consider a story pitched by a source they know and trust. And a genuine relationship means you’re willing to help out a reporter with information even when there’s no direct benefit to your organization. Look beyond the immediate goal of getting your story placed; your long-term goal is to become a valued media source.

2. Make sure your story demonstrates an outcome.

How does your story end? Ideally with a positive impact. Does your story demonstrate how your organization or product makes things better for an industry, for doctors, for patients? Make sure you tell your story in a way that helps the reporter, and ultimately the audience, understand why they should care.  

3. Don’t be a pest, but do be persistent.

Pitches can get lost in a sea of emails and most reporters are too busy to drop what they’re doing and respond immediately to your pitch. So do follow up by phone or with another email. When does being persistent turn you into a pest? Use your best judgment and remember to follow Tip #1. You’ll have more leeway with a reporter with whom you’ve developed a good relationship. Also keep in mind that reporters often keep story ideas on file for when the time is right.

4. Get to the point.

Reporters don’t have time to read long pitches, or try to figure out what you’re getting at. Be clear, concise and direct, and put the good stuff in the subject line and the first sentence of your email. 

5. Do your research.

Make sure your pitch is directed to the right journalist at the right company within the right industry. Know who you’re writing to or calling, and make sure the information is relevant to that person. When you contact the wrong person, you waste everyone’s time and lose credibility.   

Want to know more about how to tell your healthcare story? Read PCI’s blog post recapping another MATTER workshop on brand communications or contact PCI at



Are You Ready to Tell Your Brand Story?


You want the world to hear your story. But are you ready to tell it? Whether you want to spread the word about a startup company or a new product or initiative, you need to consider several critical story drivers before you launch outreach.


At a brand communications workshop led by PCI at MATTER – a Chicago-based health tech incubator and collaboration hub – several PCI communications counselors, including a former TV journalist, shared success stories and cautionary tales to illustrate story-telling best practices for new ventures.

As a proud partner of MATTER, PCI helps share stories that show how MATTER and its member startup companies are improving healthcare through innovation. Our work with these startups has given us insights into their distinct communication challenges and whether they have the story assets in place to persuade public audiences to care. Our workshop focused on three key story drivers – alignment, personalization and visuals.

1. Get Aligned

Your readiness for successful storytelling to outside audiences starts inside your organization. Do you have a value proposition? Do your leaders and core staff agree about what makes your venture unique? Have you taken time to define and agree on specific language and key messages to talk about what you do and what sets you apart? Take the time to identify and iron out internal inconsistencies, developing resources such as key messages, so you and your team members can confidently present a unified, cohesive story about your company or program.

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2. Get Personal

Stories are a powerful tool in motivating audiences to care and take action. Research shows that the human brain responds to the descriptive power of stories in deeply affecting ways. Take the time to connect to the human stories that bring your brand to life. Was there a personal story that inspired you to start your company? Are there stories that illustrate the need for or benefit of your product, program or solution? Can you share a compelling patient or customer story? Journalists love founder and patient stories. And if you don’t have those stories (yet), consider giving journalists a “behind-the-scenes” experience of your product or solution. Those opportunities can persuade journalists to share your story with their audiences.

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3. Get Visual

In today’s noisy world of information overload, and audiences scanning content quickly, visuals can make your story stand out. Visuals also bring the abstract to life, and help us understand complex data, processes and ideas. Graphs and charts, illustrations, photos, videos and infographics can increase your story’s impact.

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Bonus: What’s Newsworthy?

Think of these story drivers as a multiplier effect when combined with a newsworthy topic to pitch to the media. How do you know if a topic is newsworthy? Ask yourself: is your product, service or solution the first, best, or only of its kind? Do you have compelling data or new research? Do your homework—find out what type of coverage competitors are getting and look at how their news is positioned.

With a newsworthy topic and aligned, personalized and visual storytelling assets, you’re ready to launch your brand story to the world.

Picture This: Using Graphics to Tell Your Story


They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and who has the time to read a thousand words these days?

Graphics – everything from charts and graphs to illustrations, photographs and video – have the power to simplify complex facts and figures, bring color to dry but important information and complement a well-written story.  

Using Graphics Effectively

“Keep it simple” is good advice in writing and speaking, and applies to using graphics as well. Sometimes we’re so eager to make something colorful and pretty that we let the graphics overcome the content.

Some common mistakes:

  • Filling the page with so many images that there’s no focus. Your eye doesn’t know where to land. Don’t be afraid of white space, also known as negative space. It will give the graphics you do use more impact.

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  • Mixing styles and images. Multiple typefaces, shapes and visual styles can be overwhelming. Choose one or two and use them as a theme or thread throughout your piece.

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  • Using a graphic just because you can. Always ask yourself if it enhances or improves the audience experience, or if simple words might be clearer.

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  • Neglecting flow. Just as your words need to have a flow, graphics need to be presented in a logical order.

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The Infographic

Infographics are generally engaging and efficient in delivering a lot of information in a small space to an audience with limited time or attention spans – in other words, most of us. 

Infographics are especially effective for communicating data, such as statistics and surveys results, making those numbers easier to grasp. Infographics also do a good job of presenting how-to information (5 Tips for Effective Infographics), suggestions (5 Great Vacation Spots) and timelines, lists and comparisons.

How do you create an infographic?

Decide what your message is. Why are you sharing this particular data? What are you trying to communicate about the accompanying text?

Decide on a style that fits the mood or purpose of your information. You can be cute and cartoony (those 5 great vacation spots) or serious and straightforward (data and health information). Think about where this is going to be used, and what might grab your audience's attention.

After choosing the right graphics, let it flow. Make sure both your text and graphics transition smoothly from one section to the next, so that the audience and reader can easily follow from point A to point B and so on. 

People have been telling stories with pictures since the beginning of time. Today’s technology allows us to give those pictures more impact than ever.

Here are some examples of how we’ve helped our clients communicate visually:

  • American Association of Diabetes Educators Survey Results infographic

  • National Society of Genetic Counselors DNA Test social graphic

  • National Society of Genetic Counselors Best Jobs social graphic

Making Messages Resonate with the Power of Storytelling

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A media interview is an opportunity to raise awareness of your organization’s key messages on an issue or cause. But how do you make sure those messages resonate and are remembered? Storytelling is one of the most effective tactics to engage and connect with your audience in a way that’s compelling and memorable.

A statistic that’s often cited is that you are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it’s been packaged with a story. Whether my clients want to increase awareness of the vital role their specialty plays in healthcare, highlight a new service or product, or inspire people to take action, I work with their spokespeople to practice using stories that make an impact. Think about how you describe your day to a spouse or friend. You tell stories. What do you remember from the morning news? It’s most likely a story about a person who experienced something life-changing, or even simply funny, sad, or unusual (check out A Story About a Story).

Stories are experiences, and sharing them creates an emotional connection that speaks directly to the hearts and minds of your audience.    

Stories are also effective in supporting your case or message because they can’t be refuted. Someone can disagree with your opinion or even challenge your facts, but they can’t claim your experience didn’t happen. They also make data and numbers come alive. When used together, they resonate on both an intellectual and emotional level. 

Here are some things to keep in mind when developing and telling powerful stories:

  • Character. Stories are about people so your narrative should have a main character. If you have permission and signed consent you can use real names, or even better, have your patient, customer or whoever you’re talking about, join you and tell his or her own story. If you can’t name your main character, use an unidentified person who is a typical example. Or, be your own main character. Want people to use sunscreen, lower their salt intake, protect the environment? Tell us what you do.

  • Visual descriptors. Using descriptive words will help paint a vivid picture for your audience. “A little boy who loved baseball so much he brought his mitt with him everywhere” is far more descriptive than just “A little boy who loved baseball.…”

  • Passion. Storytelling is most effective when you evoke emotion and demonstrate your passion for your subject through your story. It allows you to connect with people on a deeper level, humanizing you and your message while simultaneously building credibility.

  • Brevity. Keep it short. Practice telling your story in 30 seconds, then try 10 seconds. Tailor the length to different situations – in a print interview, you can provide some detail and be a little more expansive. In a two-minute live interview, or a taped interview that will be edited into 10-second soundbites, get to the point quickly.

  • Plan ahead. Build a library, and when preparing for an interview, have some stories in mind. Don’t stop at just one good story. Telling several stories during in an interview is even more effective and reinforcing than telling only one.

  • Connect the dots. Make sure your story supports your key message and that people understand the context and the reason for the story. An effective way to introduce a story is to state your key message and say something like, “Here’s a quick story that illustrates what I mean.” Or “This happens to thousands of people a year. Here’s one example. . .”

The power of storytelling is not just effective in working with traditional media. Use storytelling in presentations, at meetings, in social media commentary or anywhere you need to connect, inspire and motivate. 

Want to learn more? Take a look at our Why Tell Stories infographic.

Communicating in a Crisis: Who Does the Talking and How Do They Prepare?


You’ve thoroughly researched the crisis that’s struck your organization, thoughtfully crafted statements and FAQs and now it’s time for someone to step up, tell your story and answer some questions. 

Before your spokespersons face the media, there are several questions you need to answer to help ensure your spoken communications accurately and candidly inform and reassure the public, and help your organization quickly get back to business as usual.   

Who does the talking? When the confidence and trust of your publics are shaken by a serious crisis, having your CEO take center stage will demonstrate that the situation is under control, you’re serious about fixing what’s wrong and you have nothing to hide. (You do have nothing to hide, right?) Additionally, consider offering availability to some of your technical experts who may have an up-close day-to-day knowledge of the situation and can provide the factual details reporters may want. These technical experts may be all you need if your crisis isn’t full-blown.

How do we prepare our spokespersons? Early and oftenIdeally your CEO and other members of the leadership team have had spokesperson training periodically and are comfortable meeting with the media because they do it all the time. Not so? Then provide training for these staff members and start establishing relationships with the media. You don’t want someone’s media debut to be a grilling about what went wrong. And reporters who know your spokespersons, and are used to getting solid, accurate and useful information in good times, will be more receptive to them in bad.  

What about short-term prep? Even veteran media spokespersons need to practice addressing a specific event, staying on message and keeping their cool if things get heated. So, load them up with your key messages and the important facts, and do some role playing with some tough questions – the obvious ones and the ones you hope no one will ask. Because you know someone will.  

Wouldn’t it be better to let our lawyers do the talking? Only if they’re talking about the law.  

Crisis Management Requires Planning and Speed in Digital Era


Not long ago a company hit with a crisis had time to assess the situation, develop a public statement and release it in time for the next newscast or the next day’s newspaper. Today, social media requires that a crisis response be ready in minutes, not hours or days. If your company is not prepared to address a crisis immediately, online audiences could find out about your story from another source long before your company makes a statement.

While each crisis is different and requires a tailored approach, having a digital crisis management plan will guide you in a crisis and help protect your company’s reputation.

Prepare for the unexpected

Here are tools to have in place that can help you better navigate or, better yet, avoid crises:

  • Employee social media policy. Employees represent your organization publicly. And despite what they think their social media settings may be, nothing is private anymore - screenshots exist, settings change and things can easily slip through the cracks. Develop a policy for your employee handbook that outlines acceptable online behavior in relation to your organization and employment. Review the policy frequently so that it stays up to date with the constant changes in social media and digital communications.

  • Social media monitoring schedule. Determine a monitoring schedule either through a monitoring service or a designated member of your team or PR agency. Based on how active your followers are, schedule what times of day your channels will be monitored and for how long. Monitoring should include:

    • A review of what people are saying about your brand via a qualitative sentiment analysis. For example, note recurring positive and negative statements about your organization.

    • Visits to pages and profiles that have talked about your brand in the past, like employees or members. If there is a known detractor, regularly monitor that profile.

    • Filtering content through a list of keywords that may be negative in association with your company. For example, if you operate a zoological institution, set up your monitoring service to flag terms like “prison” or “captivity.”

  • Digital crisis management plan team. During a crisis, know who is responsible for managing your digital platforms. Ensure that team members on your crisis communications team have special experience in digital and are up to speed on the overall crisis plan. These team members should have permissions and logins for your website, email distribution platforms, social media platforms, etc.

  • Social media response matrix. A response matrix helps guide appropriate actions to take in response to the positive and negative messages and inquiries you may receive on your company’s social channels. Develop a list of questions you may receive from followers and pre-approved responses that incorporate your key messages. This allows your digital team members to take quick action during crises.

Act quickly during a crisis

During a crisis, put your plan into action to help alleviate the issues online. Steps to take include:

  • Ramp up social media monitoring and post judiciously. Once a crisis hits, you may be flooded with questions, statements or even attacks online. Someone needs to be responsible for monitoring at an increased frequency in relation to how often users are engaging. Be aware of social media engagement and the sentiment, and make sure this is reported to the entire crisis team. Now is also the time to engage the response matrix so your organization can focus on the crisis response in real-time. Pause any other scheduled content until the crisis passes to avoid appearing out of touch or indifferent to the crisis.

  • Own your story on your digital channels. Use your owned channels to share key messages or media statements with your audience - both external and internal. When appropriate, post announcements on your website, social channels and in emails to stakeholders.

  • Identify opportunities to move negative conversations offline. A key to good crisis management is letting your audiences know they’re being heard. This is why responding on public platforms like social media is critical. But there are benefits to moving conversations offline. This should be noted in your response matrix and also on a case-by-case basis during monitoring. For example, if a closed Facebook group pops up to oppose your organization during a crisis, identify the leader(s) of the page and determine what type of communication might result in a positive exchange.

Take time to recover

Once it seems like the crisis storm has calmed, assess the situation before returning to business as usual.

  • Go dark by refraining from posting new content, and continue to monitor the tone and content of online comments. Maintain a dark period, which is a time that your social media channels are inactive for a week or so after the public’s interest in the crisis has subsided. Limit promotional posts or topics unrelated to the crisis to avoid backlash from followers. Once you feel you can return to a normal posting schedule, choose neutral content to reengage your audiences.

  • Conduct a postmortem. Take time to reflect on what went well and what could be improved. Did the response matrix provide content that covered all of the engagement you received on social media, or do you need to add more content? Was everyone on the crisis team aware of who to ask for digital support? Now’s the time to revisit your digital crisis management plan so you’ll be prepared for next time.

Would your organization benefit from a digital crisis management plan or assessment? Connect with us at

Words Matter: Good Writing is the Essence of Successful Crisis Communication

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Gracefully and successfully maneuvering through a challenging situation with your reputation intact is called crisis communication for a reason. The key is effective communication. And effective communication arises from good writing.

While you decide who will be your team leader, choose your spokesperson, appoint your legal counsel, identify your content experts and determine other people who will be involved in managing a crisis, don’t forget an often-overlooked part of your team - the writer who will create content, from key messages and letters to stakeholders, to social media posts, media statements and Q&As.

Your crisis communications strategy should include a writer who:

  • Understands your business: Writers typically have expertise in specific areas and one who knows your business will have the knowledge to hit the ground running without extensive backgrounding - especially important when you’re in crisis mode. If you’re a hospital dealing with a medical mistake that led to patient harm, clearly you want a writer who understands the healthcare system and how mistakes can occur, as well as how they are resolved. A zoo that has lost an animal wants a writer who understands animal welfare and the nonprofit world. You get the idea.

  • Asks questions, collects the facts and listens: A good writer will ask the right questions to unearth all the facts and then listen carefully to the answers to understand your concerns and goals, working with you to craft messages that meet your objectives while addressing stakeholder and media questions.

  • Plays the tough reporter: During a crisis, everyone from reporters to Facebook posters will make assumptions and jump to conclusions. A good writer will challenge you during the message development process and help you think through effective answers to the inevitable difficult questions. Writers who are former journalists know what reporters will ask and can help you develop truthful and authentic answers to tough questions that are more likely to resonate with media and your stakeholders.

  • Thoughtfully crafts your messages: Communicating through a crisis has become even more challenging with the advent of social media. A good writer ensures messages evoke empathy and honesty as well as your expertise and dedication to finding a resolution. He or she also develops content that is less likely to be taken out of context, for example noting your team is “reviewing” rather than “investigating” a situation and that you are “sorry” about a situation but not that you “regret” it. These small differences can have a big impact.

  • Works quickly and until the job is done: During a crisis, time is of the essence. Good writers hit the ground running and work efficiently and hand in hand with you to develop materials in a timely manner, regardless of the hour.

A robust crisis communications plan is a necessity for any organization. But if your plan doesn’t include a good writer as a key team member, all your other planning and hard work could fall short if (when) a crisis erupts.

Six Key Steps That Help Recover Your Reputation After a Crisis


Your company has spent countless hours managing a crisis that threatened to erode customer, investor or employee confidence. Once the situation calms down your team may feel they can take a break from the pressures of navigating a high-stakes issue. In reality the work to repair damage to your reputation is just beginning.

Many organizations and companies feel they are fully prepared for the “what ifs” because they have a crisis plan or playbook in place. However, we counsel many clients through crisis situations – labor and financial issues, lawsuits, cyber breaches, attack campaigns and protests, disasters, and more – and often find they underestimate the work to be done to manage the residual effects of the crisis.

Once the pressures have subsided and the crisis has faded from the headlines, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and conduct strategic planning and follow-up for post-crisis recovery. The first thing is to ask: How seriously did the crisis influence the public perception of my institution’s brand?

Following are six key steps your team should take to ensure you continue the momentum to repair your organization’s brand following a crisis:

1.       Conduct a crisis post-mortem debrief and analysis.

2.       Follow through on any promises made to the public, employees and other stakeholders. Proactively communicate those actions.

3.       Make organizational, process or leadership changes as needed.

4.       Counsel leaders to adopt an inspirational message to renew organizational confidence.

5.       Communicate your commitment to rebuilding any damaged relationships with important audiences.

6.       Focus on internal communications to bolster support and understanding among employees, customers, donors and other critical groups.

Crises happen quickly, and the effects can linger for a very long time. A post-crisis recovery plan is a wise investment for the long-term success of your brand and reputation.

It's Almost Year-End. Do You Know Where Your Strategic Plan Is?

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“Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” - Ferris Bueller

Fall is a good time, as we approach year-end, for organizations to think about their long-term and short-term planning. 

Whether you’re developing your three-year strategic plan or putting those strategies into place for the coming year, here are some insights from PCI’s transformation team for tackling a strategic planning process that will bring clarity, priorities and success.

Strategic Planning Insights

  • Involve outside counsel. You can’t be a prophet in your own land, and yet nobody knows your business better than you. Your inside, in-depth knowledge teamed with outside perspective and facilitation can bring out your organization’s best thinking.  

  • Avoid cookie cutters. Too many plans are poorly crafted or generic so they sit on a shelf and collect dust instead of being put to work. Your association and its needs are unique; your process and plan should be as well.   

  • Embrace inclusion and diversity. Have a steering team comprising senior leaders, rising stars, multi-generations and diverse thinkers. Choose at least one person you know will challenge and push the group. Find multiple pathways to maximize participation—focus groups, surveys and stakeholder interviews.  

  • Don’t talk amongst yourselves. Look at the competition, talk to members, hear from front-line employees. Consider external and internal perspectives and treat them as equals.  

  • Allow time for planning—but not too much. Plan and go! Three years flies by quickly and in today’s environment, five to seven years is too far out to see. 

  • Planning is an art and a science. Don’t dive down every rabbit hole or fall into analysis paralysis, but don’t under think either. Involving the right number of voices, ideas and approaches without getting bogged down or overwhelmed can be a delicate balancing act.

  • Keep it simple. (Enough said.) 

  • Connect the dots between strategic priorities and annual plans. The strategic plan should be your roadmap for building annual plans for the years ahead. If you don’t put your strategic plan into action and focus on it in daily life, you’ll never get where you want to go. Think both big picture and bite-sized chunks.  

  • Be your plan’s chief cheerleader. It’s okay to be a broken record. Talk the plan, workshop it, evaluate and report progress against it. Share big and small wins. Share losses, and how you will course correct. Be flexible and recognize when you need to shift slightly or do an about face. Own mistakes, apologize and move on.   

  • Voila, three-years. Time to start over. Avoid this trap. A well-constructed strategic plan is not an employee slogan or a marketing campaign to be dumped on a whim. It’s a living, breathing roadmap that allows for evolution into the next planning phase. You’ll know you’re on the right path to a good plan when you can see the horizon ahead. 

Thinking about Thought Leadership? Some Tips for Speaking Your Mind

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Associations are often looked upon as thought leaders within their industries. Building or bolstering your thought leadership strategy can increase awareness and respect for your association. To begin, look to your association’s executives and employees who are often subject matter experts recognized for their industry insights. Your members also have a wealth of knowledge to share and can elevate awareness of your association. If you’re looking to build your thought leadership strategy, here are some tips for success.

  • Know your business goals. A successful thought leadership campaign is purposeful, tied to your association’s priorities and significant current or upcoming initiatives.

  • Support with your association’s mission. Whatever topic or issue your association chooses to champion, your stance should align with your association’s mission, vision and values. If it doesn’t, you risk diluting your organization’s message or damaging your reputation.

  • Be authentic. Be passionate. Be relevant. Thought leadership is not self-promotion. It’s about positioning on behalf of the association. Identify leaders and members who can offer new insights, a provocative or surprising opinion or firsthand experience and perspective that provides valuable context on a timely issue or hot topic.

  • Identify your “rock stars.” Find those in-house leaders and members who have cultivated a “voice” with external audiences, those who frequently represent your association as speakers, researchers, writers and/or advisory group members. Remember that while it’s great if your “rock stars” are among your C-suite, include staff subject matter experts and members to broaden your thought leadership pool.

  • Find the right stage for your “rock stars.” While thought leadership often involves speaking opportunities and media interviews, the right setting for an expert might be bylined articles, opinion pieces, radio programs or podcasts. And don’t forget social media where your member thought leaders might already be influencers with large followings.

  • Be prepared. Before your thought leaders speak in front of an audience or are interviewed by the media, be sure they’ve had training. Many thought leaders will think “I’ve got this,” but they will thank you for the opportunity to refine their messages, sharpen their delivery, role-play interviews and practice answering tough questions.

  • Be agile and ready. If your thought leader is taking a stance on a controversial topic or issue, get buy-in from key decision-making groups ahead of time (e.g., trustees, advisory board, etc.) so that you can move quickly to do interviews when external news events trigger an opportunity for comment.

Annual Meetings - Making the Most of those Crucial Few Days


It’s only a few days a year, but for associations, an annual meeting is where ideas, news, and synergies come together. Far flung members are in the same place at the same time. Advances in the field and the work of your experts are being presented, and leadership and staff have an opportunity to showcase all that’s been accomplished on behalf of your members throughout the year. It’s a time to engage with people, do some show-and-tell and get members excited about helping to tell your story.

As many associations have just completed their annual meetings and others are preparing for theirs in the spring, here are fresh ideas PCI provides clients for making the most of the event of the year.


Show, Tell and Engage

Annual meeting is a perfect time to spread the word about all you’ve done during the year to raise the profile of the association and the profession it represents, and recruit members to play a role. Highlight your public relations activities at a special booth either on the exhibit floor or elsewhere at the meeting. Create a video sizzle reel to run on a loop showing results; have samples of materials you’ve created, staff the booth with someone who can answer questions and encourage members to get involved.

If you don’t have much to report because public relations hasn’t been a priority, annual meeting is a good time to introduce ideas to members and assess their interest.  

Be Social

While annual meeting is often the only time members and staff meet face-to-face, they are often more engaged on social channels during that time because the association is top of mind. Tap into this:

  • Host events such as a “tweet-up” in the meeting’s host city to help members meet their Twitter friends in real life

  • Look for ways to engage experts or ambassadors onsite by asking them to live-tweet from general and plenary sessions

  • Capitalize on hashtags. When enough people use it, the hashtag will trend in the area and provide another platform for your association that you might not have expected.

Identify and Publicize Your News

Whatever profession or industry your association represents, you most likely have news.  Depending on the association’s size, resources and the content of your program, determine the right level of media relations activities. You might choose to develop two or three news releases and reach out to media while the meeting is going on. Or, you can set up a newsroom, invite media to the meeting, and coordinate onsite interviews and press briefings.

Some tips for a media relations campaign:

  • Review abstracts or presentation summaries to identify information that offers something new - the “first, best or only.” It’s best to have communications staff or outside consultants help with this to determine what will generate interest outside of the presenter’s world. 

  • Decide if your news is strong enough to warrant press briefings (many associations are moving away from this model) or one-on-one interviews.  Prepare your presenters to meet with the media by providing media training or press briefing rehearsals, and making sure they’re available and reachable on short notice.

  • Create a newsroom. If you decide to invite media to your meeting, make sure they have everything they need – a newsroom with plenty of space, outlets and charging stations, coffee and snacks, personnel to answer questions and track down researchers and a quiet place to conduct and record interviews. 

Offer Communications Workshops


Many associations are offering seminars and workshops at their annual meetings that encourage members to become involved in communications either on their own, or through official association programs. Media training can be provided as an invitation-only benefit for members who have been active, or have expressed interest in media relations on behalf of the association. Some organizations offer courses to all members, sometimes for continuing educational credit. Media training can be provided in a variety of formats – on-on-one coaching, small group sessions lasting two or three hours, or larger sessions in which members learn the basics of effective media interviews.

You can offer sessions on other types of communications: social media, blog writing and public speaking. All of these and media training are not only appreciated benefits, but a good way to identify and recruit effective communicators on behalf of the association.

Top Young Professional Offers Insights Into Communications Changes

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Digital communication channels continue to transform public relations, and it’s young professionals like PCI’s Michael Queroz, who are helping lead the transformation.

Michael, named PRSA’s 2018 Chicago Public Relations Young Professional of the Year, is an account supervisor who helps lead the agency’s digital services and strategies. He joined PCI in 2014 and continues to advance in his responsibilities and roles in the agency, including generously sharing his knowledge and experience as a mentor to young people interested in communications professions. 

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Nominated for his strategic thinking, his skills and his determination to see his clients succeed, Michael is passionate about making a difference in the world. He combines his personal interests in helping youth and advancing social justice with his commitment to client programs that deliver results, which aligns with PCI’s mission to work with purpose.

Michael shares his insights and tips for creating opportunities in communications and in the public relations profession in this interview:

How do you stay current with PR trends and best practices in the digital era?

I thoroughly enjoy reading articles about new digital PR trends outside of the office, which can be time consuming sometimes but ultimately helps me brainstorm new and different strategies for clients. You need to have a natural curiosity about trying new products and platforms because there are a lot out there. As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be among the first to try new platforms or apps or learn about trends - for example, when Google + was a thing I joined the early waitlist to see what the buzz was about and how it could change social media. Of course, it didn’t, but being aware of how new platforms work and if they’ll be valuable communications tools is important. Working in PR in a digital era isn’t easy –when trends sometimes end before they even catch on.

What are your tips for succeeding as a communications professional?

Know your strengths, always be open to learning more, and remember to tap into the talents of others.  It’s easy to succeed when you have a great team of professionals, like the team at PCI - we work together to solve challenges. 

You also need to learn how to strategize, which takes time and patience. In my honest opinion, you need to master tactical aspects of PR programs (pitching, writing social posts, etc.) before learning how those fit into overall PR strategy. But taking the time to learn how to properly strategize is so helpful – starting any program or project with a cohesive plan in place helps guide processes and ensure success.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of PCI’s work with the Greater Chicago Food Depository because it was one of the first projects I led, including developing the strategy. The goal was to expand the number of in-school breakfast programs for in-need students in Illinois who didn’t have breakfast at home, making a successful day at school nearly impossible. Our team used the best of traditional media relations and digital strategies to achieve the client’s goals, leading to increased awareness and ultimately the signing of legislation that resulted in hundreds of more kids receiving breakfast in schools across the state. I still remember the day we learned the legislation passed – it was such an amazing feeling to know that we helped make that happen. It’ll always stand as one of my proudest accomplishments.

What was something about PR that you wish you knew as a student?

When I was a college student, I assumed that working at a corporation after graduation would result in greater long-term success. I’m happy that wasn’t the path my career took. My job at PCI was my first out of college, and I’ve learned that working at an agency is the best way to jump start a career in public relations. At an agency, you’re getting a variety of experiences that other people working in-house would take years to gain. Everything you learn within an agency is essential to becoming a better practitioner, which is why I’m happy I landed where I did.

What’s the best advice you can give to someone entering the field?

 I always like to say to college students and interns to “go the extra mile, even if it’s a tight squeeze.” In the early days of your career it’s essential to establish with your coworkers (and yourself) that you have the stamina and intelligence to make it far in this field – all accomplished through hard, smart work.  As long as you’re passionate about your work, going the extra mile shouldn’t be an issue. Find the work that’s right for you, and everything else should fall into place.

What does this award mean to you?

My college guidance counselor at UIC once told me – out of the blue – that she could see me working with nonprofits and being very successful at it. I didn’t have that vision for myself and kind of wondered what the heck she was talking about. But through my work with the large number of nonprofit clients at PCI, I’ve realized that there’s an innate passion in me for working with clients with purpose. It’s an amazing feeling to work on programs that make a difference. Through client work, my colleagues and I have been able to help people beyond our office downtown – whether they’re students who need breakfast to succeed, conservation organizations that are passionate about saving wildlife, or an organization that wants to make Chicago a more enjoyable place for families.

This award was not expected or even something I’d thought about, to be honest, but it’s much appreciated and it’s a great reminder of how much value working at a place that values not only clients with purpose, but me as a young PR professional.

Wondering How to Boost Your Fundraising? New Report Has Answers


Good news for CEOs and the boards of nonprofit organizations. The latest study of philanthropy in America shows hope for charitable nonprofits challenged to broaden their base of private financial support. 

At PCI, we recognize the importance of developing communications strategies that help nonprofit organizations achieve their goals for advancement, development and fundraising. The first step is finding the data and insights you need to answer your most important business decisions.

Giving USA 2018: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2017* is the most comprehensive and accurate benchmark for charitable giving in the U.S. The report provides insights to benefit both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. The report addresses key questions vital to shaping effective strategies to communicate a nonprofit’s case for support. It also provides insights to help for-profit business leaders make informed decisions about how to reach current and prospective customers in more meaningful ways.

Where should a nonprofit organization focus its outreach? CEOs and the boards of nonprofits may think that, of the four sources of charitable giving—foundations, corporations, individuals and bequests—foundations and corporations make up the bulk of charitable donations. Not true. This year’s report shows that individuals and their households are overwhelmingly the biggest source. 

How individuals give, the causes they support and the impact of younger more diverse generations are shifting. There are gender differences, too. Millennial women are more likely to engage in crowdfunding and newer methods of giving while Boomer women tend to prefer traditional forms of giving like direct financial contributions. 

Consumers have come to expect that corporations will use their resources for the greater good. Corporate giving is responding. Objectives for corporate social responsibility (CSR) are shifting—from a reflection of corporate values to reputation management, and now to generating new customers and products. Corporations are increasingly expected to address social and environmental issues.

Millennials turn out to be socially conscious—87 percent believe that companies have a role to play in addressing such urgent issues. The generation born after them in the mid-1990s, Generation Z, even more so: 94 percent. Generation Z is less confrontational, both online and offline, and favors positive engagement over an adversarial approach.

For more details on the report findings, check out this infographic or email

*Giving USA 2018: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2017. Chicago: Giving USA Foundation.

Ideas and Collaboration Build PR Power in Worldcom


They say there’s power in numbers but there’s even greater power in top-notch companies joining forces to complement each other’s capabilities and extend their geographic reach. Thirty years ago, PCI and six independent public relations firms in the U.S., Canada and Europe joined forces to found Worldcom to provide comprehensive services to clients in several parts of the world.

From those six founding agencies, Worldcom has grown into an international organization of 110 firms in 95 cities on seven continents, representing 2,000 public relations professionals. Recently some of those agency members met in Toronto for Worldcom’s 30th Annual General Meeting where the organization’s founding partners were toasted and presented with awards by Worldcom chairman Patrik Schober of PRAM Consulting, Prague, Czech Republic.

“For the past 30 years Worldcom has allowed us and our partner firms to maximize and extend our capabilities and provide exemplary client service in a variety of ways – providing local market intelligence, on-the-ground support in far-away places, and content-specific resources and information,” said PCI Senior Vice President Wendi Koziol, who received the award at the Toronto meeting. “The Worldcom agencies continue to support each other, learn from each other and inspire each other to do the best work possible as the communications world continues to change and evolve.”  

Digital Advertising Plays Key Role in Integrated Communications

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Public relations and advertising. There was a time when they were often presented as two disparate and sometimes mutually exclusive communications techniques.  Today, they go hand-in-hand, with digital advertising an increasingly important part of the strategic mix.

As PCI continues to build and expand its digital capabilities, we welcome Peter Spinner as our new Digital Advertising Manage. Peter comes to us with an eclectic background in journalism, public relations, digital marketing and branding.

“The reality of today’s digital landscape is that advertising has to be a component of a well-thought-out strategic plan if clients are to achieve the results they want,” Peter said. “It’s becoming more challenging for brands and companies to reach audiences solely through free or organic marketing tactics.”

Peter is responsible for developing strategies and managing digital advertising campaigns across client programs while working with PCI account teams on implementation of paid promotion campaigns, digital marketing analytics, and business development initiatives.

He came to PCI from Allstate Insurance Company where he served as project manager in the Marketing Analytics Business Unit and before that he was Director of Integrated Marketing for the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association. At IFMA, he managed the strategic development of all branding and marketing communications initiatives. He also worked as a staff reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago and Sun-Times Media Group.

In 2013, Peter became an equity partner with Hannah Banana Bread Company, where he created the company's brand communication strategies, launched its e-Commerce store, and built out a B2C and B2B targeting approach.

Awards Call Out Purpose-Driven Client Work

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PCI is an agency that works with purpose and that purpose is to use the power of communications to make a difference in the world. That purpose and power were front and center in the four awards we received with our clients recently from the Publicity Club of Chicago.

At the PCC Awards Dinner in late May at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, we received four Silver Trumpet awards for the following programs:

  • Crisis/Issues Management– Fresenius Kidney Care: “Maintaining Care During Hurricane Season,” a comprehensive campaign to ensure people who rely on kidney dialysis to stay alive and healthy in the face of overwhelming obstacles: loss of electricity and clean water, flooded streets, extensively damaged clinics and nurses and other providers flooded out of their own homes

  • Multi-Cultural Campaigns– Southland College Preparatory High School: “Hidden Figures No More,” a national media relations campaign to showcase the success of an extraordinary charter school by highlighting the story of the African American women scientists and mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960s, including Katherine Johnson, whose nephew attends Southland Prep

  • Social Media- National Society of Genetic Counselors: “Genetic Counselor Awareness Day Empowers,” an integrated communications campaign to promote the society’s first annual awareness day. The campaign utilized organic and paid social media, the NSGC blog, member and partner outreach, and media relations to generate awareness of genetic counselors

  • Special Events- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: “Elevating The Lutheran Message,” a media relations campaign publicizing its observance of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation

“We’re so grateful to our many clients who entrust PCI to help them tell their stories and advance their important missions,” said PCI’s Chief Executive Officer Jill Allread.  “Seeing our programs recognized by our industry peers just makes our work all the more gratifying.

Plan to Action: Strategic Planning Sets Direction for Success

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Every organization needs a strategic plan. Poor decisions made without the benefit of research, analysis and a unifying strategy, can cripple an organization. Increasingly, PCI is working with a variety of clients that seek counsel to develop an effective strategic plan, which then informs their communications and marketing plans.

Amy Ritter Cowen joined PCI in Mark to work with PCI's senior counselors in addressing the growing strategic planning needs of our clients. She brings deep expertise in executive leadership including planning, issues management, operations, revenue generation and integrated marketing for a wide range of nonprofits and cultural organizations. She supports a variety of client sectors with a focus on strategic planning, brand management and C-suite leadership development.

Amy most recently served as Chief Marketing and Experience Officer at Chicago's Navy Pier. Since its reopening in 1995, the Pier has welcomed more than 190 million guests, including a record-breaking 9.3 million in 2016 under Amy's leadership. She was instrumental in the planning and execution of Navy Pier's 18-month Centennial Celebration that culminated in the Pier's first fundraising event, its comprehensive Arts & Discovery strategic plan, brand evolution work and in building a comprehensive Guest Experience team in partnership with 80+ Pier w ide commercial and nonprofit partners.

She also held executive leadership positions at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and the John G. Shedd Aquarium. At the Aquarium, she oversaw sales, audience development, guest experience and marketing communications to exceed annual attendance of 2 million guests, making it a top attended aquarium in the United States and generating 80 percent of the Aquarium's annual revenues.

"Amy brings first-hand experience as an accomplished, nonprofit executive with skills and expertise that can be applied to a variety of sectors," PCI Chief Executive Officer Jill Allread said. "She understands the complexities of strategy, and she effectively counsels organizations in finding their strengths and creating a plan that helps ensure success. Without strategic priorities, an organization will find it difficult to have effective communications and marketing."

Let Your Pictures Do the Talking: Visual Storytelling Brings Client Messages Alive

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At PCI, we love good stories. They’re at the heart of how we work with our clients to deliver their messages to the audiences they want to reach. Increasingly good stories are told through good pictures and PCI is expanding our visual story-telling capabilities to help bring our clients’ stories alive. Reporter, TV anchor and multimedia journalist Lauren DiSpirito is passionate about visual story-telling and she brings her passion, experience and skills to PCI as our new Account Supervisor of Video Strategy. 

Lauren began her career making editorial coverage decisions in Philadelphia and she has worked for network news affiliates in Colorado, Florida and Georgia, reporting on stories on public policy, conservation and education, and guiding teams in producing engaging video content for traditional, digital and social media channels.

“Digital Strategies are constantly evolving, which makes videos and other digital media initiatives more prominent than ever.” Lauren said. “You have to choose and test out various visuals to know what works for your brand because it makes the connection with your target market that much more valuable.”

In addition to developing video strategy and producing videos for clients and PCI projects, Lauren will use her television journalism experience to work with our media group to develop effective media pitches and media training exercises to help client spokespersons prepare for media interviews.