Interview with Noreen Heron – Heron Agency

We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Noreen Heron, CEO and founder of Heron Agency.

In 2000, Noreen founded and has built the award-winning Heron Agency into one of the nation’s leading lifestyle communications agencies. As a pioneer of new communication and digital technologies, Noreen ensures that Heron Agency is always on the cutting-edge of the media industry and its trends. Her entrepreneurial mindset has garnered her over a dozen prestigious industry awards, and her reputation of consistently delivering fully integrated marketing campaigns that improve a client’s bottom line and profitability is well known. Throughout her career, she has represented 30 hotel brands, more than 1000 theater productions including national tours, 400 restaurants, and countless events including the Taste of Chicago, the Race to Mackinac, the Jeff Awards, the Grand Chefs Gala, the Randolph Street Market, the Highland Games, the Chicago Boat & RV Show, and the One of a Kind Show. She has managed corporate campaigns for Paper Source, Luna Carpet, Smirnoff, Massage Envy and others. Noreen has represented numerous celebrities in Chicago and around the country including Prince, Jerry Seinfeld, Janeane Garafalo, Gabriel Byrne, Dan Aykroyd, the Beach Boys, Celtic Thunder, and Jewel, among others. She has also represented several non-profit organizations including the National Hellenic Museum, Alliance Francaise Chicago, the American Writers Museum, and more. She has grown the scope of the agency over the years in terms of client base, because she believes that creative, solid PR/Social media services in any category are what is needed and what the agency is capable of delivering. Hence, the agency has represented retailers, entertainment venues, CVBs, medical practices, product launches, sports teams, franchises and more.

Never having worked at an agency prior to owning one, Noreen developed what her clients refer to as “the secret sauce.” Team members serve the way in-house publicists do, working in every conceivable fashion to drive business for clients. Wanting to provide service that she would herself hope to receive as a consumer, Noreen provides the bandwidth for clients, putting 4 to 5 experts on each team servicing a client.

Noreen has served on numerous boards and planned dozens of charitable fundraisers, receiving many awards (listed below). Highly networked, she is a specialist at using her connections to the benefit of her clients and linking them to each other to build productive relationships. Her time on property at Hyatt Regency Chicago, working under Jerry Lewin, and serving on the Executive Committee for 5 years, gave her a keen understanding of return on investment, and the importance of practicing PR, Social Media, Marketing and Advertising that provides real results.

Prior to Hyatt, Noreen served as the Director of Public Relations for the iconic Candlelight Dinner Playhouse/Forum Theatre, the 1025-seat dinner theater venue where she started as an usher at 14 years old, moving up to House Manager, Season Subscription Manager and eventually managing the theater’s PR. This legendary venue developed her love of live theater and the restaurant business. Hyatt made her fall in love with the electric atmosphere of hotels.

Noreen lives in Lincoln Park, just three blocks from her office. She calls her Heron team “family” and she considers her greatest work achievements the wonderful group of talent that she has assembled; the mentoring that she has done; and the creation of a day-to-day warm culture at the firm. She has taught classes on Communications at Northwestern University, DePaul University, Roosevelt University and Kendall College.

What is reputation management?  How does it relate to public relations?

Reputation management is the effort to influence what and how people think of a brand or person when viewed online. Put another way, character is who you are. Reputation is whom other people think you are, and today it’s based mainly on what artificial intelligence systems portray about you rather than the first-person experience. Every company wants to be perceived as “authentic” but actually more often than not, brands are manufactured to reach a certain demographic to make a profit. A truly authentic brand always resonates. Public relations practitioners are often the gate keepers/watchdogs as to what is being said online and it involves “social listening”, watching the news, following social media platforms etc. to make sure a brand’s good name is not maligned unfairly.

What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online?  How could these mistakes have been avoided?

Lately, we see a lot of companies being tone deaf on current events, moving along with their own sales, promotions, initiatives when our country is hurting, seemingly oblivious. The companies that are empathetic and think past “how do we improve our bottom line” are the ones that usually do improve their bottom line!

How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?

Hugely now, because many people use their social media as their news source. According to a Pew Research study, sixty-two percent of US adults now get news from social media sources. Reddit has the largest number of users who say they get their news on the site at 70 percent, followed by Facebook users at 66 percent and Twitter at 59 percent. When people are reading comments and perceiving it as news, it is very important to harness that process as a public relations professional managing the reputation of a company, because what you read is not always true. A brand can become maligned very unfairly and very quickly doing severe damage.

What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?

Shut down the comments section because a lot of misinformation can be spread quickly. Work with the press quickly and efficiently to get the facts out and tell your truthful story.

What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?

Attention must be paid to not only who is running the social media account for a company (remember when KitchenAid tweeted a tasteless “joke” concerning U.S. President Obama’s deceased grandmother during the presidential debate?

“Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! She died 3 days b4 he became president #nbcpolitics”

Even though the tweet was deleted minutes after, the damage was done. Twitter users and the media caught on, and the company was forced to send out a number of apologies. In general, companies should have a set policies in place regarding what is fair game, and companies should encourage their employees to help support the social media platforms of a company. Mercedes Benz has 175,000 employees. Imagine if all of them were posting pictures of the new models and the power of that from a sales perspective.

What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?

Pay attention to what the news is of the day and make sure that your agency does as well! One of the worst social media disasters came from the NRA. On the day of the Aurora, Colo. shooting, the NRA tweeted:

“Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” Naturally, the NRA received no points for sympathy, and a critical firestorm of tweets were launched across the social platform. The tweet was taken down hours later, and a spokesperson said that “A single individual, unaware of the events in Colorado, tweeted a comment that is being completely taken out of context.”

Is reputation management getting easier or harder?  Why?

Much more challenging because people can post anything, even if it isn’t true. I think that the absolute worse platform for this is Glassdoor, where there is no gauge for truthfulness and posts are anonymous. One angry employee could post ten fake reviews and single-handedly take down the company’s score without even giving their name. Trip Advisor is similar. I once read a review for a restaurant that said, “Food wasn’t salty enough for me” and gave the restaurant one star. Now even let’s say it isn’t, another consumer might have taken to the restaurant’s salt shaker on the table and fixed the problem themselves. That one-star review really brings down the company’s overall score, and in our world, people look at the star rating quickly and don’t read some of the inane criticism.

What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge?  How did you handle it?

I have handled too many big crisis situations to really pick just one, but I handled a crisis for a large retail client who had one of their employees shot and killed in one of their locations by her ex-husband, whom she had filed a restraining order against. We immediately started working with the police to get them all the information that we needed, we made sure that senior leadership was physically there to emotionally support the family, we prepared statements for the press and the employees of the company, and managed calls from the press. We also recommended starting a Go Fund Me account for the family which our client seeded with a large donation.

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