How can brands get the most out of a front-page story opportunity? Kate Cronin, Chief Brand Officer at Moderna, highlights the value of educating reporters and spokespeople and mistakes to avoid. Kate also shares how her team manages the spread of false narratives by building trust and understanding with reporters.
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HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: KATE CRONIN
DOUG: Most PR professionals will never get the opportunity to have a front-page story. From our introduction, that probably wasn’t Kate Cronin’s experience. Thanks so much for joining us.
KATE: Thank you for having me.
DOUG: Great. So how can PR professionals get the most out of a front-page story opportunity?
KATE: Well, if you know it’s going to be big news, you know you have to do it right and you have to be as transparent as possible with what your story will be. And that’s creating the narrative and making sure that your spokespeople understand what you’re trying to communicate and what the messaging is around it. And I think also understanding which media you should go to with an embargo. An embargo can certainly help with a front-page story because it gives you the opportunity to get more information in front of a reporter before the story actually breaks. So, when it does break, they have all the backgrounding that they need to write a full and complete story. And that’s really a strategy we’ve been deploying a lot at Moderna.
DOUG: Any way that you can build trust with journalists, because obviously, if you’re asking them to hold on to this major, major news story that’s going to get their article on the front page, they have a lot of pressure to go quickly. How do you build that kind of trust?
KATE: A lot of top-tier media are certainly used to this idea of the embargo. This is nothing that Moderna invented. It’s certainly an opportunity to demonstrate that we can trust them by giving them the information prior to the news breaking, but it’s also an opportunity to demonstrate a two-way street in terms of backgrounding them, spending time with them, we put reporters in front of our spokespeople, and our physicians, and our researchers all the time, and we spend the time that they need to get the story right.
And I think it’s super important for a company to invest in that time and energy it takes to educate reporters about what you’re working on and what the story is, and that’s really what we’ve been doing. And that all builds up to that front-page story, if you will.
DOUG: Kate, what are some mistakes or maybe a key mistake to avoid when your story’s so big, reporters are coming at you constantly, there’s news everywhere?
KATE: I think it’s important to not react to every piece that comes at you that might be inaccurate or might have a headline that’s slightly off or something that’s a minor mistake in the story. Reacting to everything can be a challenge for you and can distract from staying the course, which I think is the most important thing. Stay the course, don’t react to everything, don’t get distracted. And unless it’s a super issue or a big problem, an error, just stay the course and you’ll be fine.
DOUG: Yeah, one quick follow-up to that is what are some sort of tips or criteria you use to determine if something is sort of smaller and won’t likely explode into a bigger thing, how do you keep an eye on that?
KATE: We’ll monitor to make sure something doesn’t get picked up. Sometimes we’ll make a call to the media outlet and if they push back on us, then we know that perhaps this isn’t going to go anywhere, we’re not going to waste any energy on it. However, it does feed into how we manage the story in the future because then we can actually shape it in a more assertive way than perhaps, we did originally. So, there are learnings when that happens.
DOUG: Yeah, one of the challenges there are stories that big are generally fluid in nature. And so, how do you handle it when sort of the news and almost your position and the facts change so frequently as new information comes to light?
KATE: It’s so true that when you think about COVID, the news changed pretty much on a weekly, if not daily basis. And so, we were always transparent with the reporters that we worked with and ensuring that they understood what was changing from our end, what science we were looking at, even looking at boosters and bivalence versus the original strain. What are we looking at for the fall and getting reporters to understand the science? And the science really is what is leading us. And so, that takes time. And as you know, science evolves. And so, it’s important for them to understand how the science is evolving.
DOUG: Yeah, it’s great that you used the word science because even pre-COVID, working on scientific or health news, there was always a challenge to try and get the people who are the experts in the field to communicate in a way that the layperson could understand. I would think that would be multiplied by a factor of about a zillion when it’s people’s life and death and health in question, an issue that affected everyone. So, how do you go about making sure your scientists, your spokespeople are communicating in a way both that they feel comfortable, but that’s easily understood by the audience?
KATE: Well, we look at communicating the science in a way that people can understand through sometimes analogies. So, if you look at mRNA technology, the analogy we use is the software of life, that mRNA is in fact a messenger and it gives the body instructions. And those are the instructions that the body uses to make defenses against whatever virus is attacking the body. And so, using this analogy helps people to better understand how the science works and takes away some of the fear factor I think that people might have around new science and new modalities. I also think by the same token, a lot of consumers are much more educated now about science because of COVID. And so, as you all know, they’ve up their game in terms of understanding what is going on with your body and with COVID, including people like my parents, who are 85 years old, who are really much more astute understanding science.
DOUG: And congratulations to them on a long marriage at 85, still going strong. That’s pretty exciting as well. So, how about if you’ve got, say, someone who’s specifically like the genius inventor and I don’t even know if that works in the modern way things are developed, and they’re just not comfortable on TV or speaking to reporters, but they’re the real source. How do you work around that? Can they be coached to competence or do you have to have different people share the message?
KATE: Yeah, I think it’s a combination of coaching and also having other folks who are researchers and scientists share the message and be in front of the TV. Some people are more comfortable with print interviews and some are more comfortable with TV interviews. And I think it’s understanding where your spokespeople will play the best and working with them to give them the opportunity to tell a story that makes sense. And I think in a soundbite world, some people are very good at giving soundbites and others want to tell a long, more fluid story that requires perhaps 30 minutes of reporters’ time or 45 minutes, if you will. And we really work with all of our spokespeople to help manage that.
DOUG: One of the challenges that so many of us face is combatting false narratives that seem to crop up all the time. Is whack a mole the approach, or is there a way to preempt some of the false narratives that go out there?
KATE: What you don’t want is to be on your back heel and but sometimes it’s not avoidable. And what we try to do is frame up what we’re doing, what our story is, what we’re working on and telling it in an authentic way and being, as I said to you, transparent. And then when we see stories that are projecting a false narrative, we actually offer an interview with the reporter, with one of our executives or our researchers, and put them in front of them to say, hey, we love for you to have a one on one with our doctor to talk to you about what’s really going on here. A lot of people appreciate that they get the time with our spokespeople and our physicians, and I think that’s one way that we’ve managed it and also just framing up what we’re doing and are using our own content and really pushing that out in an effective way versus being on our back heels, which has been a challenge in some cases, as you may know.
DOUG: Of course. And as Chief Brand Officer, one of the most important audiences to protect, and preserve, and make sure they have the proper view of the brand is internal audiences. We’ve seen a trend where external communications are among the most effective way to communicate internally, because if your leaders are saying this out publicly, that almost carries more weight than something they communicate privately. How have you seen the balance and shift where how you communicate internally to some of the external communications, especially being so in the news?
KATE: You may remember this, I’m dating myself, maybe 25 years ago when the employee communications budget was always the smallest budget and it sometimes got cut. And now we look at employees as the number one audience. The employees are the ambassadors for the brand. They’re the evangelists for the brand. And it’s incredibly important that they understand what we’re doing and that we really communicate with them first. And so, that’s our strategy is really radiating out. So, starting with the employees, sharing news with them and radiating it out is incredibly important. And that, when we have something that’s newsworthy and that we share it with a press release, we make sure the employees are seeing it at the same time, if it’s something that we can’t share ahead of time. And so, this is a super important part of what we do, because, as you know, we’ve been recruiting a lot in the past couple of years. We’ve grown significantly and we’re still recruiting. And so, we want not only for people to want to come work at Moderna, but also for the employees to help us recruit for Moderna.
DOUG: And they also to make sure they stay, is important. I was going to say similarly years ago, Satellite Media Tours that small part of the budget. Fortunately, that’s changed, which has worked out well. Any final thoughts on this topic that you’d like to leave the audience with?
KATE: It’s just an interesting time that we’re in right now in terms of reputation and company reputation from employees to outside stakeholders to the general public, and how important it is to surround and protect your brand and be as transparent as possible and as informative and educational about what your company is doing as possible as well.
DOUG: And I think just to add from even this conversation, having a cool, calm, temperament when you’re involved in this huge kind of story is really important, especially for the comms team, because you’ve got to be the ones that are helping others exhale and figure out what they need to do. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with us and continue to be obviously hugely important work, you’re involved in saving lives on a daily basis.
KATE: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.