Agencies can work best by listening and being honest and empathetic, says Anna Lingeris, Earned Media & Brand Publicity Lead at the Hershey Company. It is more important than ever to read the news and spend time understanding how to work within the new norms in an empathetic way.
Organizations need to understand how their messages fit into what’s happening around them. These are times where the world needs heartwarming stories that would truly resonate with the audiences and provide relief, not carefully crafted, self-indulgent pieces.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: ANNA LINGERIS
DOUG: So Anna lots of people would want to have your job at Hershey’s, and we appreciate you being with us. You’re in a position where you’re learning a lot about what the media’s needs are. Can you share some of what you’ve learned since COVID hit?
ANNA: So obviously since COVID it hit the world, and nearly every facet has been flipped on its head and has been presented with new challenges including the media world. And just like everybody I think in this industry we’ve worked to understand what’s changed, but also how we as communication professionals in a brand and a company can work within these new norms in an empathetic way, sympathetic that, you know, we’re giving them the information that they need that they can share with their readers, with their viewers. So everything obviously from the things that we read, from the furloughs to the layoffs, to four jobs being condensed into one job, and, you know, coverage of things that they’re not typical use of. So I think for our teams we spend time understanding that every day I know there is a lot of zooming out there and team meetings and sometimes fatigue. But we really feel that like a dialogue between all of our internal constituents and our external agencies is really important to share that knowledge. So from the minute we went home at Hershey, my last day in the office was March 8th I think, so whatever that, March 12, I might be off on the day. I’ve kind of forgotten at this point. We started bi-weekly calls with just a conversation of what is everybody seeing, and let’s put the forum together so we can all learn together and adjust. So if it was change of beats, you know, the at home activity became a beat that people were covering. Everything from the New York Times and Washington Post to PopSugar, everyone and everybody wanted to know what do you do at home, what can I do at home, how do I do this. And so I think just having that regular cadence and dialogue with the people I work with day in and day out to make sure we’re on the same page has been a really helpful thing. I mean we still continue those calls. We’re looking to understand what media want to hear, what do they want to cover, what do they not want to cover, because the last thing we also want is to put our foot in our mouth or to step somewhere there was really never had that intention, so I think it’s really important to stay abreast of what they need, what they care about, and where does your brand really fit in. But if I boiled it down to one thing it would be, you know, empathetic and doing what’s right for these times, not necessarily trying to, you know, spin your own message is something that we’ve really taken to heart.
DOUG: So maybe you can get specific for us on some of the brands that you’ve worked with and campaigns that have worked in this environment, as well as some of what you’re planning going forward.
ANNA: So I’ll give you a couple early ones because we have, I work on a lot of brands, so in my role I’m responsible for earned media across our U.S. brand portfolio which includes Hershey’s Reese’s, Kit Kat, Cadbury, Mounds, Almond Joy, York, you name it, and we have a jam packed full calendar of activities that we want to communicate with the public. Our brands are fun, people like to get them, I mean the best part of my job is when I get to hand you my business card, and someone says you must have the best job in the world. And the short answer is, I do, and I’m really lucky. But one of the early things we had to encounter is Cadbury, a very large seasonal brand, Easter also happened in the middle of COVID, we had our annual bunny tryouts. And if you’re not familiar with it, for the past three years, or two years I should say, we’re going on our third, Cadbury hosts a contest where you can submit your pet to be the next Cadbury Clucking Bunny. So it’s the iconic commercial of the lion and the bunny and the llama and the turtle with bunny ears, and it ends. So last year we picked a new bulldog, he was in the commercial, and this year we had actually selected our winner, it was through a nationwide vote, and we had to figure out how to announce this winner amidst COVID. So there was a lot of discussion of do people want to hear about a contest winner at a time where the world and the country is grappling with something that they haven’t dealt with for nearly a hundred years. The part of it is doing like a great exercise and risk assessment and honest messaging and what we came out to is the winner of the contest was a two legged dog from Ohio, and one of the things we felt that the world needed was in need of was a really great heartwarming story of perseverance. People knew Easter was coming, they still wanted to celebrate. People love candy brand, people also love their pets, and they were spending a lot of time with their pets. So for us we worked to craft a really honest message and some uplifting spirit to kind of share and it really was amazing for a brief respite there was some positive news in early March and mid-March when the world seemed to be down, and it was about Cadbury and our new Clucking Bunny.
DOUG: We’ve been seeing that the media is definitely more open to interviewing brands spokespeople to covering these stories to mix in with some of the challenging material that’s going on, so they feel that they need a break, viewers need a bit of a break. Are you seeing that yourself, and how is that shifting what your strategy is and I should mention, I can’t say I’m surprised that a bulldog was a winner, given I think you have a certain extra incentive there.
ANNA: Well a dog was a winner last year, and I promise you I had nothing to do with it.
DOUG: We’re hoping you recused herself from that based on evidence that we’ve seen or heard this conversation.
ANNA: I did. You know the thing I think I see from journalists, maybe it’s less about, you know, them wanting to interview people like myself, or the teams about brand stuff but it’s looking for the right brand material. So, you know, there’s a lot of brands in this world, from iconic brands to brand new month-old brands, and earned media is definitely a darling, I love it, I’ve been working in it for quite some time, and, you know, people are always looking to figure out how to place their brand in the stories. I think really the secret of what journalists and producers are looking for is a story that goes along with it that is a story. It’s not a carefully crafted pitch, it’s not self-indulgent, it’s empathetic, and you can show how that story can resonate with America, or why people would want to see it. So I think the trick is more of a how does your brand or the story you want to tell fit into what is happening, and how can it provide relief versus, you know, than just wanting to talk to people. For me that’s been like a little bit of a nuance that I’ve seen.
DOUG: There have been a lot of changes at public relations ad agency since COVID hit. So one of the things I won’t ask, how do you see the relationship changing or not, and what can agencies do to be the most valuable partners during this time?
ANNA: I get to say, at Hershey and the brands I work on we’re really lucky, we haven’t had a significant change in how we work with our agency teams. That said we have an in-house agency ourselves, it’s called C-Sweet, and earned media is a part of it, as well as social media and creative. So we’ve always had a little bit of a different approach in how we use our external teams. They’re more of strategic partners that we use on some projects but not all, the internal team is often willing to take on their own projects as well. So for us, and also our products have been doing well during this time, thankfully people still find rested and eating a piece of chocolate and celebrating the seasons, that our relationship really hasn’t changed. What I would say, and this is my professional and personal opinion on how agencies can work best is to listen and to be honest and to be empathetic. It’s really about understanding what’s happening to the business and how you can provide a valuable role, just not layers and layers of additional complexity. It’s really about the benefit you can provide back and being a great partner, and I think a lot of that comes down to this.
DOUG: And I think there’s more residents there and journalists who have gotten back their sort of sense of mission I feel, given everything that’s going on. As we get ready to close, any last pointers, last bits of advice you want to give to other communicators who may be checking out this segment.
ANNA: Follow your gut and go back to your nose for news. Make sure you’re reading everything, you know, I think it’s been really important for me and the teams to read the news, see what’s happening, see what other companies and brands have done to figure out how we adjust our game plan collectively. This is a new world, things have been different, and I think it’s really important to take that into consideration because most of the time the trends and the early warnings, or the early successes are coming from our discipline in earned, so make sure you’re reading, make sure you’re sharing and make sure you’re applying those to your brands.
DOUG: We’re right there with you with just loving and believing in the importance of earned media. Thanks for spending time with us and sharing your informative information. All the best.
ANNA: You’re welcome. Have a lovely day and the rest of your week at home.