Season 1, Episode 10: Responding in Real-Time
In this week’s episode of Outsmart, your hosts Nicole Allen and Rex Petrill sit down with our Senior Vice President of Public Relations at TEAM LEWIS, Megan Maguire.
In this episode we dive into:
- Authentically connecting with audiences across moments of time
- The art of the taking a tasteful pause during global events
- Brands that are winning at moment marketing
Megan: One of the things that stands out to me is just how good brands have gotten at this in recent years. And I think when you think back to 2013, that Oreo moment had us all, like, gob smacked, right? Like, we’re all sitting there thinking how on earth that they get that post out so, so quickly. And it did take an orchestration of all the right teams and creatives and everything behind the scene, but the standalone output of that was a single social post, right? And now if you think about what brands are doing to react in real time to these moments, we’ve taken it just so, so much further.
Nicole: Welcome to another episode of the Outsmart podcast. I am Nicole Allen, joined by my co-host, Rex Petrill, and we are very excited today to have TEAM LEWIS’ own Megan Maguire on the line. Megan heads up our Chicago office and our US PR practice, and Megan is joining us today to talk about marketing moments in time, which I think is very timely considering we just wrapped the Oscars on Sunday and we’ve got April Fools coming up and there’s quite a bit going on. So welcome to Outsmart, Megan.
Megan: Thanks, Nicole. I’m really happy to be here. I have so many opinions!
Nicole: Good. Well, Megan, to kick us off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? What’s your elevator pitch?
Megan: Thanks, guys. I am very excited to be on the podcast today. I’d like to point out, I think I am the first member of the PR team that is joining, so I hope I live up to the expectations of my team. I oversee the PR team here at TEAM LEWIS. I have been with the agency for about three years and have a little bit of an untraditional background into getting into PR. So, I actually started out my career on the social media side, specifically working with influencers. So spent a number of years at a small startup agency that was helping brands understand how to tap into the parenting market and how to reach moms on social media. And at that time, what that meant was mommy bloggers; the word influencer didn’t exist. And so over about a ten-year period of time, I worked heavily in the influencer space, helping brands navigate what was at that time the wild, wild west, a totally new field, just really as it emerged. I then spent a little bit of time on the complete other end of the spectrum, working at a large holding company, advertising firm, and then have since found my home in the PR side of the world, have worked in both consumer and B2B. And really, I think the through line of what my passion is in the industry is helping brands understand how to identify stories to tell that are relevant to them and help tell their stories through voices and outlets that they don’t necessarily have full control over. So, it’s really all about marrying the story that they want to tell and who they are as a brand with the brand of the whether it’s the influencers or the reporters or the analysts or whoever those third parties are and how to make sure that your brand story really gets out there, but done so in a really authentic way. So very excited to talk about marketing moments in time. It’s a really big part of what we think about every single day in the comms landscape, just making sure that we’re really aware of kind of what’s bubbling up in culture, both the planned brand moments and the unplanned brand moments so that we can make sure that we are helping our clients and our partners tell a meaningful story that kind of hits right at that key cultural moment.
Rex: Tapping into the zeitgeist, the cultural moments of the time. Kind of as you mentioned, Megan, you’ve got these moments that you can plan for, you know, that they’re coming up holidays, things like that, earnings calls, whatever it is. You have these very structured moments working with influencers. You have to have a very well thought out strategy and implementation or else it’s going to go haywire pretty quickly. How do we counsel clients to best position themselves both for those planned moments in time but just as importantly and honestly much more difficult to do is for those unplanned moments, like when something happens, like the Oscars or there’s a crisis unfolding in the world, what do we do? What do we tell clients?
Megan: I think this comes up a lot with clients. It comes up in the really kind of fun and interesting way like times, the Oscars, and it also comes up in times that are a lot more somber and a lot more serious. And I think a really great example of this that we’ve been kind of actively counseling around for the last month plus is what’s unfolding in Ukraine. And I think when Russia invaded last month, we were actively involved in conversations with each and every one of our clients about how to respond and what their role was and what their position should be. And I think it’s natural and its human nature at times of crisis to want to react on behalf of the brand you represent in the way that you want to react personally, which is to make a statement, to do something, to really put yourself forward on the side, to really back what you believe in. And in fact, when you are representing a brand, you actually have to be a lot more careful. And so, what we counsel brands to do in these instances is in most cases, to take a beat, to kind of take a moment and think through what reason you have to be a part of that particular conversation. Do you have something active to actually offer the moment as it’s unfolding? And this can kind of happen in two different ways. One, for brands that are frequently this happens with brands on the B2B side, if you have access to data, information, insights that can help guide and elevate news stories as they are emerging, that’s an excellent time to kind of put yourself forward and have those conversations with journalists to see if you can help build and help illuminate a little bit more insight or provide a little bit more insight about the story that they’re trying to tell. If on the other hand, you have kind of a tangential relationship to the story that’s breaking, but not necessarily something big and meaningful to say, for example, if you have kind of general insight about something that’s happening on the ground, that it could cause potential disruption to supply chains, or if it could cause potential disruption to cybersecurity issues, but not actual insight. That’s the point where you might want to just take a beat and take a step back. The other way that we’re seeing brands respond in these situations is to take a meaningful stance in terms of what you’re actually doing as a business. And we’re actually seeing this unfold in a number of different ways. Brands actually trying to help citizens in the Ukraine on the ground. So, we saw that Verizon actually provided free services. Hilton and other hotel chains are providing free hotel rooms or even brands like Airbnb or Etsy are responding to their communities that are doing things on their own. So, they’re not brand driven initiatives. With Airbnb and Etsy, both the everyday people were using those platforms to purchase products or to book rooms from Ukrainian hosts and Ukrainian artists. And just being able to back that and allow and enable your brand to kind of be a part of the situation but not making your brand the star of the show because this really is about something that’s much bigger than you.
Nicole: Those are all really great points. And on the digital side of the house, sometimes we’re kind of caught with those questions of what should we say on social or how should we change our targeting or anything like that. And quite often the response from us to some of those brands and companies we work with is to say nothing, give airspace and airwaves to the journalists and the people who are on the ground, or the citizens to say their piece and go dark for a little bit. And sometimes just that kind of going dark and giving space is a powerful action as well, especially as crises often start to unfold before a company really knows how they might be able to provide support or help or guide journalists or anything like that. It’s often best to just take a beat and just go dark.
Megan: Absolutely. And in those early days, often with these large crises, journalists are focusing on the actual news that’s breaking, right?
Megan: They’re not even at the point where they’re able to focus on what help is being provided or the wider kind of matrix or halo of things that are happening around it. They’re really just looking at what news is happening on the ground today, tomorrow, the next day. And it’s really only in the days and weeks that follow that the story starts to emerge. And as you said, Nicole, you can really start to understand what is my role as a brand in this conversation. And do I have anything meaningful to add that can actually help? Or do I just want to say something because this is something that’s breaking right now. And if you ever get into that point, you’re probably being self-serving as a brand. It’s not doing anything. It’s not going to have any real impact. And in the worst-case scenario, you’re putting yourself at risk as a brand of really trying to kind of steal the limelight and using a tragic situation to your advantage.
Rex: Yes. I mean, it’s totally okay to say we don’t have a role in this. We should not be participating. I think in often cases, there is not a one for one connection to a foreign invasion of the sovereign nation. Like, our brands are not going to have a role in that until, as you say, kind of as the dust settles and you start to see, OK, where can we actually plug in and help? Is it making a statement? Is it pulling business out of Russia? Is it whatever it is? These are obviously the extreme instances. There are certainly micro moments in time that don’t take over the global news cycle. And not to make a harsh pivot away from something like Ukraine, but that’s not an everyday occurrence. There are those everyday occurrences where it can be a bad review on social, it can be a failed launch, it can be whatever it is. It can be the Oscars and Will Smith hits Chris Rock like, oh my gosh, what has just happened? We make light of these incidents, but they are something that we need to consider that can have, as you say, Megan, like far reaching and very negative consequences for your brand and long-lasting damaging effects of your brand if you don’t navigate them in a responsible and authentic way. When we talk about the moments in time and marketing to these moments and being successful, you kind of touch on this little bit earlier. But what does success need to look like? It’s not going to be the same for every moment. It’s not going to be the same for every brand. So how do we kind of look at, okay, should we get involved? And this is what we would expect if we were to get involved in a moment?
Nicole: Yeah, I think it’s really looking at, first of all, what type of moment you’re addressing at that instance. So, if we’re talking about something that is like a quick moment in time, so something cultural, oftentimes those instances give us the opportunity to show our personality as a brand. And it’s not necessarily about the big secondary impact that you might have. If you’re pushing out a wider campaign on the PR landscape, that means total number of placements that you’re driving or did a campaign go viral and story just got picked up all over the place? Yes, that’s the ideal solution. It’s a white whale target in these instances. And there’s still a meaningful reason that you can get involved in conversations in a way that can help show your brand’s personality, in a way that can help connect and engage with your audience. So, I think looking at a lot of social metrics and social tactics can be a great way to kind of softly engage in the conversation or get yourself out there or push something out that helps show that you’re kind of paying attention and you care about the things that your audience and that your customers care about. But not doing so in a way that you need necessarily to get this huge amount of credit for it that often comes kind of hand in hand when you think about like. Okay. We got covered for the thing that we actually did.
Nicole: Yeah, I think the social trend pieces, it’s a really good way to your point for brands to show a little bit of their personality and get involved. And it also takes a much lighter lift. Like the word old trend on Twitter is one that I know a lot of our B2B clients, we helped them jump in on, and it doesn’t take that much of an effort, and it doesn’t take a huge creative budget, but you can connect with different audiences and show your users and customers that you have a personality. Right. Same with sort of like how it started versus how it’s going. I remember when that started to blow up and we were coming to clients with a lot of different creative ways for them to get involved in that trend. So, there’s kind of those moments in time that if you have your social listening set up and you’re catching those moments and you’re agile enough as a team, you can quickly capitalize on them. And then there are sort of those upcoming moments in time that you can plan for a little better, like April Fools or kind of point in time holidays, things like that, where we see a lot of brands have a bit more fun with it and maybe put a little more budget behind it and turn out a campaign that lands an AdAge or something like that. Megan, I’m just curious, as we kind of talk about marketing moments in time, is there a campaign that you’ve worked on that stands out to you or a moment that stands out to you where you got to sort of counsel one of these brands through how to align their messaging properly with something that was coming up and have a positive creative outcome? Or conversely, is there an example of a brand that you feel really got it right? Like, to me, what was the Super Bowl year with the blackout when Oreo put out their ads right away? Right when the blackout happened. I mean, it was so freaking fast. It was like they knew it was happening.
Rex: Yeah. 2013, we blacked that out because, well, the power went out and then the Ravens beat the 49ers, which was not a positive memory for either of us.
Nicole: No, horrible, yeah. Aside from the outcome of the game, it was a win for the brand and that’s something that I always think of, wow, that team was on it, and they were ready, and they kind of threw caution to the wind and jumped right on that trend. Is there something like that that stands out to you or an example that you like to highlight when your kind of going through this counseling process?
Megan: Yeah, one of the things that stands out to me is just how good brands have gotten at this in recent years. And I think when you think back to 2013, that Oreo moment had us all, like, gob smacked, right? Like, we’re all sitting there thinking, how on earth did they get that post out so, so quickly? And it did take an orchestration of all their teams and creatives and everything behind the scenes, but the standalone output of that was a single social post. Right. And now if you think about what brands are doing to react in real time to these moments, we’ve taken it just so much further. And the two things that the two campaigns that come to mind are the output of both was actual commercials. So, the first one is the Crockpot incidents, which tied back to This Is US. I don’t know if you guys are current fans of this Is US.
Nicole: I had to stop. It was too much crying.
Megan: Right. So, I watched it for the first couple of seasons like everybody else in the United States with a box of tissues and cried multiple times throughout every episode. And for those of you who weren’t fans or need a quick refresher, the series was building up to this huge moment where we were going to find out how one of the main characters died. And he was super beloved, and you knew that he had died because there’s flashbacks and flash forwards. And when it comes down to it, you find out that it is a Crock Pot that was left on and sparks and creates a fire, and he ends up dying from smoke ventilation from the fire. Great for the episode. Not a great thing.
Rex: Bad for Crockpot.
Megan: Really bad for Crockpot. And it’s funny, going through Twitter when it was happening that night, I followed so many people who are in the PR and marketing landscape, and the entire conversation was like, oh, crap. I really don’t want to work on their PR team right now. But what they did that was just so incredibly brilliant is within, I believe it was within a number of it was either hours or days. They put out a commercial that was starring the character who actually ended up passing away, that was promoting Crockpot. So, it was kind of this meta commentary on what was actually happening. It allowed Crockpot to take a situation that was just inadvertently bad PR for them, they hadn’t done anything wrong and really put themselves at the cultural forefront of it. And I think they were the first brand that I at least remember seeing take that moment in such a big way and do something that just seems like compared to Oreo sending a single tweet, like they created a freaking commercial and put that out in a short period of time. And then taking the cake with the Peloton, Sex and the City example. And that commercial came out what within like?
Nicole: 48 hours, I think.
Megan: 48 hours. Something just bananas fast. So, the same exact concept of a character dying because of using a Peloton, really bad for Peloton, and then they made a whole separate commercial about how Peloton is great. So impressed, I think overall, with just brands really continuing to push the limit as to what they can actually do and be so prepared to execute bigger and more creative campaigns so much faster.
Nicole: Yeah, the Peloton example is a tough one, too, because at the same time, they found themselves in the middle of a crisis with Chris Noth. And I think it is another example of when you align your brand with an individual, all of the potential baggage that can bring. And obviously you do everything you can to vet those individuals. Like you said earlier, Megan, making sure that the influencers or journalists or analysts that you work with align with your brand. At the end of the day, though, it’s a person, it’s a human, so you only have so much control over that. And I think Peloton responded really well to the crisis as well. Pulling everything down, that was a tough one to watch. I felt for that marketing team because I thought they did a great job capitalizing right away. And then it was like, oh, shit.
Megan: They’re having their debriefing drinks after the fact, right? Like, cheers-ing and then the next bout of news breaks and you’re like, oh, wait, we’re not going to sleep for another couple of days.
Rex: Yeah, a massive, massive roller coaster. But I think, Nicole, like you mention, to their credit, I think it all came from a just fundamental understanding of their audience. They knew their audience was watching the Sex in the City reboot. They knew a big portion of their audience was going to see that, so they knew that they had to respond. Stock price goes down. That also helps kick some things into gear. But then they know immediately, like, oh, no, we cannot be associated with this type of allegations on the Chris Noth side. So, I think the whole flexibility in being able to work that quickly on both sides of the spectrum to get it up and then get it down is just they know inside and out what their brand stands for. They know their audience inside and out, so they know, like, anything could happen, and their whole team is going to be plugged in because they have such a well identified brand and understanding of their audience. So, they know what’s going to work, what’s not, and where they should plug in.
Nicole: Right. Drake rapped it, know yourself. And Peloton takes that to heart.
Rex: And then Bruno Mars thinks about Skippy in Uptown Funk global hit, and Skippy says, well, we have to make a commercial about this with the most adorable child dancing around to Uptown Funk. There are these great moments that are handed to you as a brand in your lap that you have no control over them in the first place. Then all of a sudden, they can put you in a really good position and really let you show your personality and let your brain shine through. All right, and since we are in the spirit of marketing’s most perilous holiday, April Fool’s Day is coming up tomorrow. We wanted to chat. What are our favorite April Fools campaigns? We’ve seen good, we’ve seen the bad. We have some examples, but we just wanted to kind of chat together to figure out what have we enjoyed and what are we taking away? And what do we tell clients that say, should we do something for April Fools? Megan, the floor is yours.
Megan: Should we do something for April fools? My answer is almost always yes to this question because it’s the softball of holidays for brands. Even if you know that your exec team is super conservative, this is the day that you can be a little bit fun, you can be a little bit silly. And as long as you kind of keep what your audience has knows about you in mind, it’s a pretty safe way to kind of break outside and do something that everyone gets to be a little bit more creative with. And I think when we come down to brands that have really goofed on April Fool’s Day, those are the audiences that sometimes don’t understand just how passionate their fans and their followings are. So, I think when we see these big, big fails, a lot of times it has to do with brands announcing, like, a new brand name or a new product line. I think Volkswagen announced last year that they were changing their name to Voltswagen, which really annoyed a bunch of the media because they thought it was an actual, real thing. But also, when we talk about a lot of new brands, just, like, rolling out new products, if it’s like a new sauce, burger King did a toothpaste, like a burger flavored toothpaste. They have some young, really fun fans of the brand and those people might actually want that product to exist. So sometimes you see a little pushback there. When I think of favorites or I guess favorites from the last year or so, the two that I think were really clever, one is the Lego campaign. Super, super simple. They came out with just a piece of social content where they pretended that they were announcing a product called Smart Bricks, which just get away from your feet as you’re walking around the room. So, playing on the fact that every parent hates the thought of stepping on a brick, you’re probably cringing right now if you’re thinking about the time that you did it last. Super easy to put together. Didn’t even probably require any sort of like formal production. You can do it with stock content that you have in house. But a fun way to get involved in the conversation, lives on social alone. The other larger one that I thought was really, really clever was a Duolingo toilet paper campaign. Probably playing on the fact that a lot of people are learning new languages when they’re in the bathroom. And so, they came out with rolls of toilet paper that actually had translations on it. And so not only was the idea clever and kind of tapped into a fun little insight about their product, but they rolled it out in a much bigger way. So, there was a landing page, they had actual products laid out on it, they had fake product reviews. So, they took it bigger, gave their audience just more ways to engage with them as a brand. So did it well, not so far and far enough over the top that people know that it’s fake. And I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind. If you’re deciding on putting out a fake product, make sure that it is obvious and goofy enough and aligns with your brand enough that people aren’t going to say like, hey, this sounds great, where can I get it? Because people get mad on social. Spoiler alert, twitter is not a safe place. So, make sure you’re putting something out there that they get, that they understand and that everybody is in on the joke.
Nicole: Or be ready to jump into production. The toilet paper thing, that’s another revenue stream.
Rex: Like you said, make sure that if you’re driving people to your site or something, make sure that you have a dedicated space for it that is clear and obvious, that this is an April Fool’s joke. You don’t have to say it at the top of the site, but don’t have it next to your real activations and your real campaigns. Make sure that it’s a separate incident where you can kind of talk through everything and get people involved in the brand in the right ways and then get them off to your actual purchases and things like that. So really fun. It opens up a lot of opportunities for brands. I think the key point that we always come back to is knowing thyself, but also knowing your audience is just crucial to all this and having that full picture understanding of when and when not to get involved in these types of moments in time.
Rex: Megan, thank you so much for joining us. We had a great time talking with you today, and hopefully we did the PR teams proud, so thank you so much.
Megan: Thank you so much, guys. It was fun.