Showing posts with label publicity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label publicity. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 28

What's All The Beef About The Naked Burger Ad?

With GoDaddy pulling its "Puppy Mill" ad, all eyes are now on Charlotte McKinney for Carl's Jr. to steal the top spot for most controversial Super Bowl advertisement this year. The advertisement, which will only run on the West Coast, features the top model bounding  through a farmer's market.

What makes the advertisement "controversial" is that McKinney appears to be naked in the majority of the spot, thanks to camera framing and prop placement. Feeding the fantasy is a series of gawking men who alternate between being distracted by the blonde beauty and fondling produce in front of her.

The commercial is supposed to sell a new hamburger for the quick service franchise, but mostly it sells McKinney. She usurps Paris Hilton and other socialites that Carl's Jr. has employed to sell food with sex. This time the caustic relationship is being all natural, alluding to nakedness and not altered.

Overall, the commercial does a great job at selling McKinney, but not such a great job at selling product. Most people struggle to remember the name of the new burger, a problem that isn't new for the fast food chain on the bottom of the big five burger businesses.

The problem isn't new. Most people don't remember what kind of burger Hilton or Heidi Klum ate either (and some can't remember the chain that supplied the sloppy eats). And even after doubling down on their decision to make premier hamburgers part of the product offering for Carl's Jr. and Hardees, the CKE business model has yet to eek out one percent of the quick burger market share.

To put that into perspective, its primary competition — Burger King, Wendy's, and Jack In The Box — have all captured 2 percent of the market. Meanwhile, McDonald's isn't even in the same category, owning 19 percent of the market share. The only reason it feels like the two compete for customers is that Carl's Jr. requires stores to spend about 5.8 percent of their sales on advertising to supplement regional advertising buys. In other words, the CKE sister chains tend to be more talk and less eat.

The Charlotte McKinney ad is less controversial and more boring. 

Let's be clear. McKinney is not boring. She does a fabulous job with a bad script and mediocre concept. Her presence in the spot is largely the freshest thing about it. The chain traded up in terms of spokespeople. It's a shame they didn't trade up their creative too.

The advertisement is a rehash of Benny Hill comedy with an Austin Powers twist. It pretends to be controversial, mostly because Carl's Jr. claims it is too hot for television, a boast that perpetuates some outdated masculine myth that women used to be sexually stymied but are now liberated, which is good news for men who love to objectify them.

Aside from that, it also perpetuates the myths that sex sells and attention is the end all of advertising. On the contrary, sex doesn't sell and publicity is cheap. Naked women aren't clever. They are a punt when every other play had failed and nobody in the room can come up with anything remotely clever.

This lack of creativity might even be contagious. Sex in advertising has been on a steady rise since the 1980s despite studies that show as many as 60 percent of consumers have a negative reaction to such advertising and women, specifically, are bored and disinterested in sex-infused advertising.

So where is the disconnect? Most people attribute it to the outmoded thinking of male executives who make the decisions and sophomoric creative types who lament that their best years were in college. I see it a bit differently, but only because I know hack creatives take most of their cues from television.

As television has become more titillating, they think advertising should follow suit. The only problem is that they never consider the context. Just because people tune into a sexually explicit show doesn't mean they want their advertisements to feature leering men and objectified women. The setup is done to death.

The push back that anyone who doesn't like it is a prude is banal.

All this isn't to say that sex ought to be excluded from advertising. There are plenty of treatments where it can work provided the creative doesn't eclipse the product. Consumers have a much more positive reason to like sex in advertisements when it's wholesome, sexily sensual, or smartly funny.

Those types of treatments tend to skip the stereotypes as they were defined in the 1980s. Nowadays, sexual liberation isn't defined by someone's tolerance for soft porn, but rather their maturity to see it as clean, consensual, and occasionally clever in its use of innuendo and humor. And unlike movies and television, copywriters and creative directors ought to remember that they have two jobs that fiction writers do not.

Modern advertising not only sells the product, but often holds up a mirror to its audience. So if the audience can't relate to the spot, don't expect them to respond to the product. They're much more likely to critique your ad instead, which is exactly what most people who have seen this ad have done. Hat tip to Geoff Livingston for the topic.

Wednesday, December 10

Why Picking A Fork In The Road Will Doom PR

Public Relations
Twenty years ago, most professionals agreed that public relations could be segmented into three basic disciplines — public relations, media relations, and publicity. All three saw some overlap, with only practitioners and amateurs confusing the terms outright.

Nowadays, it's shaping up to be considerably different. When public relations decided it wanted to "own" social media, it created yet another schism within the industry, with some hoping to define its practices as traditional public relations, advocacy public relations, and social media PR. And it's this split that could eventually doom public relations because none of them resemble public relations.

According to one Forbes column, traditional public relations can be defined as media relations, with the principal endeavor being the pursuit of media mentions in a world with an ever-shrinking pool of news outlets. Advocacy public relations can be defined as the heavy guns, where strategists fund research to support whatever message points were voted on by special interests a week prior. Social PR covers everything from the 19-year-old intern managing Twitter to more lucrative content creation and social network distribution models. And that's it?

All three forks lead to oblivion. Don't pick any of them.

As author Robert Wynne points out, traditional public relations (as defined by the article) has faced a market contraction. Traditional firms that focused primarily on media relations are seeing their monthly retainers shrink as fast the news outlets they once catered to. Some have even made the mistake of accepting "per placement" rates, which only reinforces the pursuit of publicity at all cost.

While it used to be considered a nobler pursuit than writing pitches and press releases exclusively, many advocacy public relations firms have been sucked down the black hole of propaganda. Wynne cites several political spin campaigns, ranging from health care to global warming, whereby organizations invest millions of dollars to prove their points of view rather than find the truth.

The third fork, social media PR, runs accompanied by the myth that anybody can do content marketing and then attempt to sway the masses direct by creating some sort of viral phenomenon online. It was also the cause of many public relations budget cuts. In their desire to "own" social, many firms missed the memo that it meant more work for less money.

If these are the three forks from which public relations professionals can choose, the field might as well fold today. The first is too narrow, relying too heavily on a single public to be effective. The second isn't public relations as much as it is propaganda. And the third has already been played out, with the next step in online communication being very different than what we know today.

Public relations desperately needs to get back to the business of outcomes.

The real problem with thinking of public relations as being split into three forks is that it misses the point. Public relations is not a process as much as it is a concept. It's fundamental purpose is to transform "us" and "them" into "we" by evaluating trends, making recommendations, forging relationships, and providing for communication that produces mutually beneficial outcomes. 

It doesn't matter how that communication is exchanged — through a news outlet or direct to public. But what does matter is that any content shared is authentic, accurate, and truthful in order to ensure mutually beneficial outcomes. Anything less isn't public relations as much as it is propaganda. And anything more tends to compound the challenges that the field has yet to adequately address.

Maybe it's time to reconsider the original three disciplines again.

Public Relations. The job is to provide counsel on the exchange of mutually beneficial communication.

Media Relations. The job is to maximize positive media coverage without paying for it directly through advertising.

Publicity. The job is the deliberate attempt to proliferate the public's perception of a subject.

With the original model, all anyone had to remember was that the world view of public relations and publicity was fundamentally different. It otherwise worked fine, even after social media arrived. It also produced more outcomes.

Wednesday, August 6

Does Social Media Crap Deserve Its Defenders?

It didn't take long at all. Within 15 minutes after the Ad Contrarian posted Why Your Social Strategy Sucks, there was a buzz of affirmation and then dissention. Some people felt he hit the nail on the head. Others thought he was unfair, cynical, and very discouraging. "At least people try," they said.

His contention was — much like television commercials, movies, books, songs, and paintings — about 93 percent of all social media sucks. But unlike all other mediums, people aren't satisfied when the crap they create on social media doesn't go anywhere. They just promote it and push it harder.

It's hard to argue with him. Take a look at Facebook. It made $2.36 billion in ad revenue last quarter.

Do you really think marketers spent $2.36 billion in three months to promote content that was wildly creative and instinctively compelling? Trust me. They spend it on the content nobody wants to see.

"Producing crap is better than being silent," one person wrote. "At least you have a chance."

The entire topic is perplexing to me. Does social media crap deserve to be defended? I'm not so sure.

If we can no longer identify crap for what it is, then we truly have surrendered to the notion that advertising, communication, design, marketing, and social media have become such a banal commodity that anybody can do it. And if that is true, then none of our experience, education, expertise, and talent adds value. Everybody deserves a certificate of participation. At least they tried.

No wonder some pros are discontent. In a world where everyone is a storytellerstorytelling ceases to have any identifiable meaning beyond the mundane. We can all rehash our day at the dinner table.

So let's not be delusional. Not every life event is created equal. Not all publicity is good publicity. Not all criticism is cynicism. Sometimes the very best thing that anybody can ever do for you is tell you when your content is not working so you can stop misappropriating time, wasting money, and (perhaps) damaging your brand. And if more professionals had the courage to call out questionable ideas, then maybe fewer marketing budgets would be wasted and more companies would succeed.

Producing crap is not better than being silent. Because while crap might give you a chance to be noticed, it also robs you of any chance to make your best first impression. And therein lies the difference between "trying" something out online and executing part of a strategic plan.

While either method can produce crap, one is informed enough to see it for what it is and take action to fix it. The other merely tries to convince people otherwise. When they do, we all lose. Just like saturated fat, the public can easily develop an appetite for it and then our clients will order more too.

Wednesday, April 23

Fame Is Fun But A Shallow Substitute For Real Recognition

Richard R. Becker
It takes much less than 72 hours of fame to appreciate the folly in it. I had my fill after two hours.

It's true. For 72 hours in Grand Canyon National Park, everybody knew me. Not everyone exactly, but enough people that I could have passed Geoff Livingston's Safeway Test. Some would smile and nod at me with wide-eyed identification. Others immediately approached me with compliments or quips. And a few of them even acted like long lost friends, striking up a conversation.

It wasn't incessant, but surprisingly frequent. And when it did happen, there was enough exuberance in these random exchanges that some onlookers couldn't help but wonder who was that guy.

How 10 minutes of fun turned into 72 hours of fame, maybe longer.

Who was that guy? Those in the know, knew. In total, those in the know included about 600 people who filled the bleachers in front of the railroad tracks at the Grand Depot Hotel in Williams, Arizona. All of them, like me, were there to see a shootout before departing to the Grand Canyon.

Having the foresight to know the show would be packed, my family and I even arrived early to get good seats. But what we didn't know is that the cowboys would pass over every audience volunteer with their hand up and pick me to participate in a card game prior to their shootout.

As the story played out, I was transformed into the "rich" tourist playing for an unknown stake in a card game with three brothers who had lost everything they had the night before (along with their mother, who was still sitting in jail). I played along, drawing up some dusty high school and college theater experience to lend expression to my mostly non-speaking part.

Rich Becker in a gunfightWhen the cards were all dealt out, I found myself sporting aces over kings. My hand easily beat two of the three brothers who had been dealt in, but not the third. He conspicuously won with five aces.

Accusations of cheating followed, with a younger brother getting the drop on the older brother by plugging him in the back. That might have been the end of it had the sheriff not shown up. My heroes quickly changed their tune to avoid jail time and fingered me as the most likely villain in the story.

According to the new account, I not only cheated but also gunned their brother down in cold blood. The sheriff didn't buy it for several reasons. I wasn't holding the alleged murder weapon. I was walking around in "underwear" and a purse. And that purse, duly noted, didn't match my shoes. Long story short, I didn't measure up to same rugged toughness as the company I kept. I was asked to sit back down. Sigh.

The verdict stung almost as much as being gunned down so I took my seat. The sheriff stood his ground on his own. Then there was a shootout. Bang, bang, bang. Cowboys dropped. We took some photos. It was done. Except, it wasn't done.

Why the prospect of fame is full of empty calories, never fulfilling. 

Almost immediately upon boarding the train, another family recognized me as the guy from the shootout. A few hours later, while overlooking the Grand Canyon, someone came up to mention what a good sport I had been. Another couple, walking by, pointed out my shoes still didn't match my purse.

Grand Canyon DepotIt went on like this for the next 72 hours. People would call me everything from "the five aces guy" (I wasn't) to a "no good dirty cheater who got those boys killed" (I wasn't). It was fun, but also odd in that some people seem to expect more from me than a laugh, a thank you, or other pleasantries. After a few encounters, the novelty wore off and some left me feeling empty or even awkward.

Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't trade the experience for the world. While I never seek it out, I have been picked (or seen family members picked) more often than not. It makes trips like this memorable.

The first time it happened, years ago, I was pulled up on a stage, strapped to chair, and surrounded by scantily clad women singing Hanky Panky. Another time, I joined friends to compete in a bed race down the main drag of Oatman, Arizona. A few weeks ago, I ran across a baseball field dressed as a Girl Scout cookie with my daughter. But unlike those times, something was different this time.

The intimacy of the show, the proximity to the audience, and the percentage of time on stage made me part of the show and, by default, part of the vacation experience of an audience and their photo albums. And as such, I became known not for who I am but for a part a played for about 10 minutes.

This is significantly different from teaching or speaking or receiving an award or writing an article, where being recognized is the result of recognition. This was akin to fame as in the condition of being known and talked about by many people but necessarily for any achievement. It's the difference between Miley Cyrus being known for a wrecking ball video but not as a singer. Call it set dressing.

Recognition will fill you up, even if no one knows you on sight.

Shoot out in Williams, Ariz.Conversely, no one in the Grand Canyon knew I was simultaneously being recognized by a colleague I respect nor that an article I wrote was picked up by an online publisher. And therein lies the irony of this observation.

No one will likely recognize me on the streets for either the recognition nor the article, but both have considerably more value from a perspective of reputation. Never mind that no one will recognize me on the street as the result of either. Even if they did, it wouldn't mean much.

Fame is fun but not a substitute. And if you need some help applying my meaning to public relations or social media, sum it up as being careful what you wish for. For many people, fame is nothing more than a flash in the pan before they return to being anonymous. Reputation, on the other hand, can last a lifetime. Ergo, the shootout was a load of fun and I would do it all again. But the fame that followed afterward, while novel, I could do without.

A few more words. My hat is off to the cowboys of Grand Depot Hotel in Williams, Arizona. They add  something extra to the entire experience like nowhere else. Let them rob you on the return. A full review will follow on Liquid [Hip] Travel.

Wednesday, December 4

Why Amazon PrimeAir Drones Transcend Publicity.

It would have cost somewhere around $3 million for a retail outlet to buy 15 minutes of airtime around CBS's "60 Minutes" on the Sunday night before Cyber Monday. But Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos secured his spot for free. He appeared to talk about the future Amazon drone delivery program.

"I know this looks like science fiction — it's not," Bezos said, words that have been echoed a million times over. The maelstrom of media attention that has followed can't be quantified. Every major and mid-level media outlet has covered the "60 Minutes" segment, many finding their own angles.

A few story spins include validity vs. publicity, regulatory updates, retail delivery disruption, practical applications, test site applications, civilian safety concerns, law enforcement issues, consumer laziness, and countless others. It also makes the case for the power of brand equity. Other companies have announced drone delivery programs, but none of them had the brand equity of Amazon.

Bezos could have said Amazon was testing miniature sleighs powered by eight tiny reindeer and piloted by chubby guys in warm winter suits and it would have been new. But a majority of pitchmen would have laughed at or even blacklisted him. When mediocre pitches come from big companies, they can still move something from the future potential pile to the future possible pile. Bezos went further.

Why the Amazon Drone Delivery System story wins attention. 

The reason the Amazon Drone Delivery System is such a success story is that it found the sweet spot between publicity and public relations. The reality is that Amazon, like many companies, is testing drone delivery programs that will one day be mainstream.

Never mind that the application will likely take longer than Bezos suggested, with some estimates putting drones off until 2020. Even then, such a program will likely be confined to rural or select suburban areas as opposed to high density urban centers. But then again, you never really know.

Technology can sometimes be fast tracked if people want it bad enough. And based on the chatter alone, people really want to see delivery drones and orders that arrive in less than 30 minutes. People want them, but not only for their ingrained predisposition for instant gratification.

Part of the Amazon drone delivery system allure is about the increasing need for Americans to regain their footing on the future. After the constant bombardment of stories best summed up as "failing empire syndrome," consumers are ready for drone deliveries because it represents an ideal.

Launching a drone delivery program would prove American business, technology and affluence are still part of the equation. It's just far out enough to feel like science fiction but just close enough to feel like science fact. And along with that, it touches our psyche to say anything is still possible.

What the Amazon Drone Delivery Program accomplished. 

In the weeks ahead, some public relations professionals and entrepreneurs will likely dismiss the story as a publicity stunt. But the Amazon drone delivery program isn't just a publicity stunt. The company is working toward shorter delivery times; which ones get off the ground or not won't matter.

The notion that Amazon succeeded in usurping attention from any other major retailer on Cyber Monday is icing on the cake. The real accomplishment is that Amazon has once again affirmed itself at the forefront of technology — playing at the same scale as Apple, Google, Nike, etc. — while nurturing publics that want Amazon and Bezos to succeed in innovating a better world.

They want companies with a penchant for big ideas. They want more people like Steve Jobs. They don't even care if companies succeed or fail on big ideas like PrimeAir (which is what the drone program is called). They want what Seth Godin might call a Purple Cow or Malcom Gladwell might call another David. They want these things because we've seen too much dismantling in a decade.

Bezos is a smart CEO because he tapped into this need and fulfilled it, even if it might be premature or a little bit fanciful. That isn't a trite publicity stunt like sitting naked on a wrecking ball. It's a strategic move to build brand equity as an innovative retailer, one that people will support.

Think about that before your company pitches a teleportation segment. PrimeAir isn't a publicity stunt, even if the story generated (and is still generating) an epic amount of publicity. PrimeAir is a well-timed real story that reinforces the strategic position of a brand that people genuinely like and how it is really doing something that could change our perception of what's possible.

When was the last time your company did that? If it has been a long time, then perhaps it would be worthwhile to explore the possibilities. Instead of worrying about the packaging of a company (like marketing and public relations tend to do), maybe it's time to think about what's inside the box.

Wednesday, September 11

Any Fool Can Do What Another Fool Has Done

Miley Cyrus
When Miley Cyrus finally started talking about her performance on the MTV Video Music Awards, she hit every publicity misnomer in existence. According to the pop star, she and Robin Thicke weren't making fools of themselves. They were "making history."

"Madonna's done it. Britney's done it," she said. "Every VMA performance, that's what you're looking for; you're wanting to make history."

She said she doesn't pay any attention to the negative comments either. No matter what anyone thinks, Cyrus says that this has played out so many times in pop music that it doesn't even matter. She's claims to be amused by anyone still taking about it. She said they've thought about it more than she ever did.

Of course, few people are talking about twerking anymore. Her Wrecking Ball video has out-buzzed all that as the pop star stripped down to nothing in order to break video viewership records. Never mind that just as many people are tuning in to see her naked as they are to see her sing, she must be a winner.

So is fashion designer Kenneth Cole. He didn't even have to strip down to boots in order to get attention. He only had to make a joke about boots. "'Boots on the ground' or not, let's not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers," wrote the fashion designer in response to the possibility of the United States taking military action in Syria. Count up all the retweets and raves. He must be a winner too.

The public's fascination with spectacle is as cyclical as it is tired.

Kenneth ColeAmerica isn't becoming a society of spectacle. It has always been a society of spectacle, with the only difference from one decade to the next being our mainstream appetite for it. The 1960s, 1920s, 1880s, 1840s, 1790s all had racy, raunchy, and tasteless elements. The whole world has been part of it too.

It happens so often that one would think we would grow tired of it. But then we all suffer some odd form of public amnesia, forgetting the existence of such things as history tends to tidy itself up when the pendulum swings toward a more buttoned-down decade.

Even when we do remember, we tend to confine our memories to the 1960s because people were really in it for political commentary as opposed to quick profits. And perhaps that alone is why the modern spectacle feels as empty as it is tasteless.

Whereas people like Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, and Ken Kesey made history, people like Cyrus, Cole, and Ariana Grande will become footnotes of the eventually forgotten. If you don't believe it, take a look at the twerk fail hoax video masterminded by Jimmy Kimmel.

His hoax caught 10 million views, proving that you neither have to be famous nor talented to make a similar impact. But honey badger don't care. Cyrus was happy to up the ante. She not only strips off her clothes for 30 million views but her integrity too. The video isn't much different than the time-honored streak, except most people this desperate for attention aren't attempting to rebrand themselves.

Miley Cyrus nudePublicity is easy. Reputation is hard. 

Those six words were all I offered up about the subject prior to writing this article. They say it all.

Sure, one can easily subscribe to the notion that negative publicity has a positive impact on sales. When you compare Michael Jackson and his run-ins with the law as Jonah Berger, Alan Sorensen, and Scott Rasmussen did in their 2010 research paper on negative publicity, Jackson's album sales went up.

The crux of the research is not new but it is interesting. It is underpinned by the notion that purchases are tied to the quality of the product and what any publicity triggers you to think about.

Negative publicity for Jackson made people think about his great music. Negative publicity preceded cookbook sales for chef Paula Deen. Negative publicity spurred sales of Mel Gibson's films. And yet, you have to ask yourself about the after-controversy market for new material. In other words, negative publicity might drive short-term sales but cost someone's reputational legacy in the process.

In fact, it might be more accurate to say that negative publicity creates an illusion of positive sales because research cannot quantify the lost sales of material that will never be created or a lost legacy. History holds a different reverence for John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jackson.

But who cares? Some say millennials don't care.

According to some studies, the generation born between 1981-2000 places money, fame and image ahead of self-acceptance, affiliation, and community. And whether you believe it or not, Cyrus fits the short-term mindset as much as Cole is trying to reach them. They are less likely to ridicule the behavior of someone like Cyrus or Cole and more likely to praise it.

Earlier studies said pretty much the same. They don't care. And maybe they aren't alone. The phenomenon isn't confined to a single generation. Most people think that 15 minutes of fame (or infamy) is worth the reputational cost as long as they can capitalize on the short-term success.

CyrusThe Onion did a brilliant job in articulating this fact too. On the day after the Cyrus stunt started making waves, CNN didn't lead the news with world affairs, human achievement, or an attempt to be a positive force for change. The leading headline reinforced mainstream rubber necking.

The commentary is sharply satirical in the telling. The purported explanation from the managing editor of CNN is as simple as it gets. Although making Cyrus the top news story was admittedly a disservice, it ensured more web traffic than any bothersome news like chemical weapons in Syria, civil unrest in Egypt, or even the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

So no, it's not millennials who are guilty of placing the spotlight on one girl's narcissistic booty shaking. That honor belongs to the media serving its viewership. As long as they believe that popcorn means more advertising dollars than meat, then more generations will likely view the working world with disdain in favor of a few fleeting seconds of fame.

But so what? I don't personally care whether Cyrus' actions detract from her own talent. It's up to each of us to carve out our own path in this life. And if that includes selling out for temporary success, I hope it's worth it. Just don't pretend it's original or historic. It's not. History is littered with forgotten fools.

How about you? Do you subscribe to the notion that all publicity is good publicity or that 100,000 Twitter followers will somehow ensure your words will outlast the pyramids of Egypt? What do you think? And by that, I mean anything. There comments are yours. Let's talk.

Wednesday, November 7

Exhibiting Symptoms: Why American Apparel Was Singled Out

Last week, American Apparel was singled out for creating a controversial advertising campaign designed to capitalize on Hurricane Sandy. It wasn't the only one to run ads or sales tied to the storm. Urban Outfitters, Even Singer22, Owner Operator, and others all had Sandy ads.

But American Apparel was the only one that really received public pushback. Its creative was singled out out as being especially insensitive and even repugnant. Why? CEO Dov Charney blames the blogosphere. Specifically, he said, "about 25 of them" that decided to blow it up.

"Each blogger or Twitterer eggs on the other, and it becomes a big deal," he told Bloomberg. "The media is also interested in getting a rise out of readers."

Right or wrong, Charney misses the point. American Apparel wasn't singled out because the bloggers and media have it in for the company that frequently creates its own controversy. American Apparel was singled out because it has afflicted itself with an increasingly chronic case of brand weakness.

The advertisement on its own is a non-entity.

American Apparel targeted nine stricken states with an advertisement featuring the headline: "In case you're bored during the storm, just Enter SANDYSALE at Checkout." The copy line isn't very avant-garde or even that creative. It's hardly as offensive as advocacy channels pretended last week. Charney is right he shouldn't lose sleep over the ad backlash.

What Charney ought to lose sleep over is over the long-term brand damage the company's publicity stunts and near-porn ad campaigns have done to the brand over the years. While people still buy the clothes, few respect the business. And this increasing lack of respect is starting to manifest itself into aversion.

If you want an analogy, think back to grade school. When the model student made an untimely joke, everybody still laughed. They might have even called it clever or cute. The class clown, on the other hand, was promptly sent to the dean's office. Nobody had to hear what they said because everything the class clown ever did or said was little more than another distraction. Just make it stop, classmates said.

Brands that are starved for attention flail about.

Companies with strong brands seldom struggle for it. They never need to rely on publicity stunts. Everyone gives them attention anyway. They don't even have to make news. They are the news.

Weak brands don't have that luxury. They try too hard and then become poster children for bad taste instead. It's a mistake that a manufacturer like American Apparel can't afford either. The ad that was intended to help boost sales in order to offset East Coast store closures did not help sales at all. If anything, it is likely the sales made them worse and could carry consequences for several months ahead.

Ironically, this is especially bad news for American Apparel because it had been enjoying a sales resurgence of sorts while being less controversial for the last few months. When American Apparel is quieter, people tend to remember one of its primary selling points: The manufacturer's clothing line is made in America. Made in America means something. "Sandy Sale" means something else.

Wednesday, October 24

Making News: Pizza Hut Tries Presidential Publicity

Pizza Wars
Author and public relations professional Gini Dietrich wrote a great article about the publicity stunt gone sort of wrong for Pizza Hut last week. The pizza chain promised one person a lifetime of pizza if he or she asked President Obama or Mitt Romney whether they liked sausage or pepperoni.

When Pizza Hut received some push back, it decided to skip the publicity stunt and came up with something else instead. Inexplicably, this decision divided some public relations professionals and journalists. Some thought that stunt was brilliant. Some thought the stunt was stupid.

What surprisingly few people did was distinguish public relations from publicity.

Sure, publicity sometimes works as a public relations function. And sometimes it operates under the umbrella of marketing. Either way, the idea is basically the same. If you don't have news, make some.

The idea is lock step with some of the many stunts done by Edward Bernays, the man who is most often credited as the father of modern public relations. He advocated publicity stunts for all sorts of reasons (including making it less taboo for women to smoke in public), believing the news to be the very best carrier for any message.

Of course, public relations as a field (and many but not all practitioners) have grown up since the shift from propaganda to public relations. Specifically, it grew up when several professionals began to realize that public relations didn't have to rely on manipulation. It was much more effective when practiced with the organization and its publics in mind.

This, more than anything else, is the reason there was an insider kerfuffle over the stunt. Some praise it as creativity-minded public relations while others look as such cute or stupid stunts as diminishing the evolution of public relations as a management function. Honestly, the whole discussion is kind of silly. Except one thing.

Publicity that aims only for attention is a wasted effort. 

When employed by public relations, there is such a thing as good publicity and bad publicity. Most people, including myself on occasion, have a bad habit of evaluating stunts based on the measure of their creativity. The truth is that we ought to evaluate it based on its strategic substance.

What would Pizza Hut have gained had the stunt worked? Would it make you more inclined to buy their pizza or any pizza? Would have it have reinforced their brand or mission statement? Probably not.

Of all the pizza chains out there, Pizza Hut is the one that best exemplifies the shotgun approach to marketing and public relations. They mostly promote cheap pizza, big servings, limited time pizzas, exclusive sides, gimmick campaigns, crossover product offerings, world hunger, literacy, etc., etc. — more messages than toppings.

Pizza Hut doesn't always have marketing madness. Its communication tends to expand and contract. Two years ago, for example, it was winning with a tighter message. Right now, it has a loose message. The result? Domino's profit was up 18 percent in the third quarter. Pizza Hut sales grew too, by 6 percent.

Sure, there is no question it's still the leader, but it still struggles (as all big pizza brands do) against independents that continue to gain ground. Pizza Hut used to have an 18 percent market share. Nowadays, it's down to 15 percent in the United States as big chains continue to compete against each other based mostly on the price of their pies and gimmicks (while always hoping to shore up profits with side orders). Meanwhile, the independents have managed to capture 70 percent of the market.

All this information is just another way of saying that Pizza Hut (which I prefer in comparing the big three except when I have time for a tastier independent) wasted the effort on this publicity stunt because it didn't even reinforce the price point it actually competes on (despite all the noise). If they wanted a worthwhile campaign, maybe they ought to have "cut pizza pie deficit" instead of trying to make sausage and pepperoni a partisan issue. Or, if they wanted to serve themselves and the public, they could start talking about how gas prices must be killing their drivers and hurting pizza delivery.

Wednesday, August 8

Being Empathetic: Objectivity In Communication

One of the most difficult lessons in public relations and communication is one that journalists used to take pride in having mastered. The lesson revolves around objectivity. It's not even what you think.

To me, the formalization of objective journalism was the cornerstone of establishing journalism as a legitimate profession. Prior to the hard work of Walter Lippmann to emphasize a journalist's role as an objective mediator or translator, journalism often had more similarity to propaganda than news.

Since then, objective journalism has taken its fair share of hits. Some people doubt the ability of human beings to be objective when faced with issues that run contrary to their personal views. Others view being objective as somehow less than human, merely applying intellect over emotion.

In some cases, journalists have at times proven this to be true, positioning themselves as the ultimate observers, unwilling to interfere with the world around them, even in the face of atrocity. In other cases, journalists have proven themselves to have hidden agendas despite an air of being objective. But \elevating such examples of human frailty does not constitute evidence that people cannot continue to strive for something better. And I believe we can do better. As communicators, we have to.

In fact, even as journalists have become more lax in being objective, public relations professionals and communicators are regularly called upon to apply it, given that their role requires they represent both organizational and public interest. And because this is the role, it makes the Chick-fil-A controversy one of the most important of our times as it underscores that there is not always one public to serve.

The issue we face is bigger than Chick-fil-A and it's not one issue. 

As a living case study, which means I intend to explore several topics directly related to and indirectly related to Chick-fil-A, I was largely undecided on which topic I wanted to tackle next. In fact, it wasn't until Saturday, after reading the comment left by a former student, that I made the decision. In order to consider the nuances of this case study, I have to write about the elephant in the room first.

The elephant isn't same-sex marriage. The elephant is our eroding ability to tackle tough issues as a nation with objectivity, empathy, and compassion. The fact that there is controversy over same-sex marriage is merely a symptom. There are dozens of issues that mirror this one, with the public being tricked into picking sides under the pretense that "unless you are with us, you are against us."

Applying objectivity and empathy to an emotionally charged topic. 

An objective view might be that the definition of marriage is not a political or state issue. It is a religious issue, with different religions observing different definitions. In other words, it may not be up to the state to define marriage or force its definition into practice as much as it is to recognize the varied definitions of a secular union (or civil union when no other secular observances apply).

However, considering history as a guide in the United States, the objective view might be wrong. Reynolds v. United States is the closest we came to defining marriage with a unanimous 1878 Supreme Court decision based on the long-standing principle that "laws are made for the government of action, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious believe and opinions, they may with practices."

Or, maybe this Supreme Court decision was wrong too. I don't know. But therein lies the conundrum of any state being given jurisdiction over personal liberties. That said, same-sex marriage does not have an easy answer. It is a question that is bigger than itself.

Some of the smaller issues are pretty obvious.

• While it is apparently clear that it would have been prudent for CEO Dan Cathy to avoid the debate, he is free to hold the belief that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman, provided he does not discriminate against those who do not share this view, given the 6-3 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which reversed the 1986 Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick.

• LGBT supporters are within their right to lobby for same-sex marriage, but it would probably serve some organizers to demonstrate empathy and realize that the motivation to define same-sex marriage is not always born out of fear or intolerance.

• Any elected officials who threatened or acted to bar Chick-fil-A based on Cathy's beliefs are wrong and only demonstrate an ineptitude for leadership and equally ignorant understanding of the U.S. Constitution. Their actions demonstrate a willfulness to exploit, incite, and limit free expression.

• Anyone who used Cathy's views to attack Christianity only showed their proclivity for ignorance and intolerance. Incidentally, Saint Augustine also saw a conflict with the definition of marriage in the Old Testament, but suggested the better example of a divine plan was plainly shown with the first union.

People sometimes make the mistake of believing that an unwillingness to promote an idea is the same thing as intolerance. Empathy doesn't require agreement or enthusiasm as much as understanding and acceptance. For public relations professionals and communicators, it starts with adhering to a code of ethics, which allows for the principles of free speech and calls for a sensitivity to cultural values.

Ergo, in this case, different people have different ideas, but the role of the communicator is best served by engaging in fair and balanced communication activities that foster and encourage mutual understanding. I'm not sure about you, but I have seen very little effort in this regard. And that's what I want to tackle.

Likewise, I called it a public relations nightmare (and not a publicity coup) because a short-term revenue spike is not the only measure of a successful communication plan. I think that will become more apparent as we work through Chick-fil-A as a living case study. As for me personally? Like the artwork (above) of my friend Ike Pigott communicates, I'd rather we all just get along.

Monday, September 19

Looking Inside: A Developer's Marketing Confessional

Wow. That is the first word that comes to mind after reading Jeff Hangartner's indie gaming articles a.k.a. confessionals at Gamasutra. Hangartner recently launched his own indie game studio, Bulletproof Outlaws, to market his first iPhone game and the article shares some of his marketing experiences from the purview of business owner and not a marketer.

The series is a must-read for anyone in marketing, public relations, or social media because it's a rare opportunity to see an authentic, even transparent, client perspective. Even better, there is no throwing stones like the Bruce Buschel article because Hangartner is all DIY.

On Social Marketing. Hangartner gives high marks to social marketing, recognizing that it's one of the most important segments of any campaign today. He understands that social marketing might be "free," but not really free. There are hundreds of things a new indie game studio could do, and social media carries the one cost you never get back — time.

• One account on various networks is enough; it's too cumbersome to splinter your impact.
• Quality connections are more important than quantity; but weak follows can help early on for things like claiming your vanity url on Facebook.
• Social networks work better without spam; participation carries more leverage than broadcast.
• Blogs can be incredibly useful; but he recognizes that he loves to write more than most people.

Area For Improvement. From his own experience and admission, Hangartner gives some of the best advice early in the article: start early. The earlier, the better.

All too often, entrepreneurs think about social marketing (and all marketing) too late. People wait for the product, wait for the website, and wait for anything else they can think of. But the reality is that the last thing you want to do is work to develop a network at the same time you are launching a product.

On Traditional Marketing. Hangartner nails down the truth of traditional marketing in that for most startups it requires a balancing act. You neither want to blow your rent check to gain additional leverage nor can you afford to hang on to every cent you make.

• Know the rules of any advertising program, including promo codes; they have strings, including who can review your product.
• Alexa can sometimes point you in the right direction; but it's also a lot of "mumbo jumbo."
• Impressions and clicks and purchases are not the same; find your own formula that works and then test it.
• Be wary and double check anyone who asks developers to pay for reviews; consider the ethics of it more than justifying it.

Area For Improvement. Like most marketers today, Hangartner is learning that numbers are important but searchable numbers tend to lie. Even here. I run different stat programs like many marketers and all of them tell a different story. What none of them tells is who, even on the lowest read days, whom those readers might be. Rather than discount anyone, you carefully weigh who you could help make an influencer over night. Some of them only need a cause to champion and they haven't found the right one and all of them beat anyone you might pay for a positive review.

On Maintainence And Public Relations. Hangartner entitled the article Game Related and Maintenance, but mostly it's about public relations (and a recap of some other marketing and social media details). Incidentally, he even proves my point about blogs with his own. One day, his seldom read blog jumped from nothing to almost 6,000 visitors before tapering off.

• Press releases, press kits, and DIY trailers are easier than ever to make; no help needed (maybe).
• There is always an ask on the table for exclusive stuff; he suggests waiting but is tempted.
• Continually check banner advertisement outcomes and don't keep the ones that are under performing.
• Always keep some level of maintenance going because people drift off if you are not present.

Area For Improvement. Specific to what Hangartner calls a press kit: it's mostly a sales kit. That's okay. As a reviewer, some of the content can help clear things up quickly. In other areas, the sales copy gets in the way of any real story. It's also missing something else. One vertical screenshot is something I wish all developers (and bands) had on hand before I have to slice their pictures to fit.

More importantly, the public relations pro he doesn't want to hire for a release (maybe a good idea; maybe not) might help him wade through the exclusive content scenario (if they are any good). While everyone wants exclusive content, I'd be wary of what it might do to every other relationship he is trying to establish. Likewise, the time he invested looking for answers might have taken minutes had he had at least one professional worth more than $5 per hour to ask.

On Psychology. This was one of my favorites of the four articles he has written so far, and the one that convinced me to make it a must-read for communication students. It's powerful and insightful because not all entrepreneurs share this stuff with their marketing teams. As the collective articles allude, clients juggle much more than their marketing and communicator contracts. And that is the sharpest point for any marketing and public relations person to take away: you are important but not the most important part of any company puzzle.

• As a business owner, expect highs and lows; always keep your ego and attachment in check.
• Checking the stats daily is addictive; there is nothing wrong with it until it dictates your emotions.
• Everybody has an opinion, especially friends; listen, but don't think you have to act on advice.
• Handing out business cards is less important than collecting them; keep in touch with the people you collect cards from.

Area For Improvement. Hangartner does a good job outlining the psychology of being a developer and an entrepreneur. Having worked with so many, I've seen first hand what many of them go through — especially game developers, artists, and other creative types. It's hard not to take some things personally when you put so much of your person in the creation. There is no way to improve on his experience, with the exception of one thing — finding one or two people whose opinion you can value will go a long way. The only downside is that many developers and entrepreneurs find the wrong people to trust or shuffle through a deck of them based on nothing more than what their gut says today.

This post isn't advice for Hangartner. It's advice for marketing and public relations.

Of course, this post wasn't for Hangartner. It's for marketing and public relations students as well as practicing professionals, especially those who always see the world from their perspective and cannot understand why their opinions don't carry more weight with their clients or prospects.

The answer is simple enough. Marketing, public relations, and social media aren't the one-dimensional exercise that so many people in the profession like to pretend they are. This series of articles ought to go a long way in helping students and professionals see that, at least I hope so.

Clients have hundreds of things on their minds, hundreds of people with myopic suggestions, and the constant fear of failure (which sometimes carries the consequence of paying the rent). They can't be like the firm or agency that has worked with dozens of different clients, experience that eventually teaches us how to distance ourselves from the attachment of the client (but not the work) or else we might find ourselves heartbroken on a monthly basis.

For us, there might always be another client. For some of the people who hire us, there is nothing else. Treat them fairly. And, even when they are wrong on some points, always take the time to listen to their ideas. They know more than you think. You don't have to educate them about every detail, but always be open to dialogue because nowadays, especially, many of them are grasping at everything.

Advice for Hangartner? He's doing most of it right. I only wish he would expand his target audience. They aren't gamers and other developers, which is where most of his efforts have been. There are people, on the other hand, who never actively look for games but would be interested in his offering.

Friday, March 25

Getting Noticed: Top Five Ways To Get Media Attention

Everyone seems anxious for publicity these days. So much so that Patrick Garmore published 109 ways to make your business irresistible to media on Copyblogger. Some of those ideas might work, but Garmore curiously left off the top five.

What's more, none of the top five really require social media (but social media will give you an attention-getting boost). So much so, there is a good chance you will be booked on talk shows for weeks, even if you have never developed any relationship with the media before. So can you handle the truth?

The truth is that all of these proven publicity tactics are so effective that most public relations professionals will never present any them. Why not? Because they just don't know they exist. And, because it demonstrates just how easy it is to drive hits on YouTube and land national news coverage any time you want.

Top Five Ways To Get Media Attention And They Never Grow Old.

1. The Streak. There is nothing more effective than streaking at a sporting event. It's guaranteed to make the evening news and generally draw more than one million hits when it lands on YouTube. Just remember to wear a hat, especially one that can be easily identified with your business.

Planning for a streak session requires just enough exercise to outrun security and the price of admission to a sporting event. Add two or more people to the streaking session for maximum impact. Risks associated with this stunt include angry players, fans, and the possibility of arrest.

2. The Shoe Toss. Originally made famous at the expense of President Bush, the shoe toss remains one of the best ways to gain not only media attention locally but also around the world. It all just depends on the prominence of the person you toss the shoe at or how prominent you might be. The original shoe tosser was thisclose to sparking an international incident. Wow!

Planning for a shoe toss requires a balanced hand at picking the right shoe. The shoe needs to be soft enough not to cause any real damage, but aerodynamic enough to hit the target. It also helps to pick someone not as athletic as President Bush, given it made his assailant look so amateurish with two big misses. Risks associated with this stunt include criminal arrest, deportation, disappearing, and possibly being shot.

3. The Squirrel. Although some stunts have become cliche, waterskiing squirrels or other pet tricks still command attention. In some cases, pets don't even have to have talent if they are cute. But the waterskiing squirrels still rock on both counts, making them the leader of the pet trick pack.

Planning for a waterskiing squirrel or other pet trick is a serious commitment. It could take months or years before it pays dividends. On the plus side, as long as you are kind to your animals and they don't get hurt, there is no downside. They draw crowds when they are at live events and are good for one to three videos.

4. The Rant. While it helps if you are somebody, near incoherent rants from anybody are worth their weight In gold. And if you think the video rant can only be employed by the likes of Charlie Sheen, then you must have forgotten that the reigning rant champ (37 million views) was none other than Chris Rocker.

Planning for the perfect rant is not as easy as it looks. While it can be scripted, rants only work if they appear spontaneous. They also require one seamless take so prepare for several attempts before you get it right. The downside to the perfect rant is that the better the rant is, the harder it will be to top it. Sheen was smart to play his rants down just enough to give himself wiggle room for future toppers. Rocker, on the other hand, quickly lost the momentum.

5. The Flub. While it takes more effort to find the right venue, blowing an answer on live television or anything that looks remotely like a spontaneous man-on-the-street interview is big business. Case in point: While blowing an easy question is still preferred, Kellie Pickler makes her blown answer into a masterpiece as she throws out half a dozen unrelated answers that are also wrong.

Planning to toss out a series of stumbles and still maintain face can be difficult. This is why we picked Pickler as the best example. She has always managed to be graceful in never allowing what she doesn't know to outshine her talent. Prior to Pickler, Miss South Carolina had the crown (but she had more difficultly overcoming the moment).

So there you have it. Making yourself irresistible to the media has never been easier. In fact, we have a list of about two dozen more tactics that have proven effective time and time again. And, much like the top five above, none of them require any hard work like those offered up by Copyblogger. All it takes is the guts to seize your moment, assuming you really want it.

However, there is one primary caution to employing any of these proven publicity techniques: Never mix and match any of them. A rant followed by a shoe toss, for example, will make you look overly aggressive. Answering questions with dumb answers after streaking devalues the original scheme. And any of these actions around animals — such as poodle tossing or appearing naked with animals — will permanently damage your credibility. That said, have fun and get ready for your close up!

Copywrite, Ink. does not endorse any of these tactics per se. They should only be done by trained professionals who are cognitive of the risks, especially any of those that could result in serious harm or fatal embarrassment.

Friday, March 4

Questioning PR: Bruce Buschel At Southfork Kitchen

Bruce Buschel on PR
While traveling through Europe, Bruce Buschel, who now owns the Southfork Kitchen (Southfork), was struck by the abundance of restaurants that served food with locally grown or raised ingredients. He believed opening a New York restaurant based on that idea would be a winner in the Hamptons.

The idea isn't as novel as it sounds. Celebrated Houston Chef Clive Berkman always tells me the same thing. If he cooks while traveling, he always leans toward making a menu based on local ingredients. But that's neither here nor there. This is a lesson for PR, especially my students.

A Rehash Of The 'Public Relations' Problem.

What makes Buschel interesting is his New York Times column about opening and managing a restaurant. The last two columns were especially interesting to anyone in communication: The Problem With Public Relations and Do P.R. People Have To Like The Food. They offer an unabashed glimpse inside how the restauranteur views public relations.

Buschel was originally dazzled by a local public relations firm's pitch and just as easily disappointed when they didn't produce a single story before the opening. When he called them on it, they pushed the err on him. His restaurant was "too hip to be square and too fishy to be hip," they said. And specifically, as Buschel lists in his column, these were the firm's primary issues:

• The New York Times blog was a problem, scooping PR or getting in the way.
• Area restaurants were equally sustainable and/or organic (no contrast).
• We have to taste your food in order to get excited about doing our jobs.

SouthforkBuschel really took exception to the third point. He thought it was ridiculous that paid help would have to like the food. So he sacked the first firm and tried a second firm whose principal blogged for the the Huffington Post and appeared as a judge on Iron Chef. Except, go figure, the second PR firm eventually left a bad taste in Buschel's mouth too. He was especially unhappy after receiving a list of everything his restaurant did wrong after the guru/principal dined there with a fellow critic. The guru didn't even like the name anymore. The name?

So Buschel wrote a post about it and criticized PR. Of course, as you might imagine, the mostly neutral story drew the ire of public relations professionals on both sides of the line — those who sided with Buschel and those defending their industry. (It almost always happens that way.) Then, Buschel cherry picked one response for a follow up — a parsed point-by-point rebuttal.

The Real Problem With Public Relations.

The real problem with public relations in this case is that Buschel didn't want public relations and the first PR firm didn't promise public relations. He wanted publicity — high-priced cheerleaders without sexy legs. They promised publicity too, but then couldn't deliver it. So they invented excuses like all faux public relations firms do.

The tell is in the third excuse. The firm promised pre-opening buzz and accepted a check without tasting the food. But then when they failed to deliver results, they wanted samples. Dopes.

The second PR firm wasn't much better. Buschel still wanted publicity and the second PR firm promised publicity. But after what seemed to be a promising start, that PR firm stopped offering publicity and started offering consult beyond public relations.

The tell is in claiming the eatery has the wrong name. It seems likely the name game was stolen from the food critic's notes because if the name was so bad to begin with then why wouldn't the firm had mentioned it before? Baloney.

All this leads me to believe that the real problem is in the definition. It's a common problem too. People say public relations but they really mean publicity. Here are some thumbnail versions of longer definitions to provide the basic context.

Public Relations. The job is to provide counsel on the exchange of mutually beneficial communication between the organization and various publics.

Media Relations. The job is to maximize positive coverage in the mass media without paying for it directly through advertising.

Publicity. The job is the deliberate attempt to manage the public's perception of a subject, which often includes an emphasis on media but is not limited to it.

pr cheerleaderAt a glance, it might seem that the second PR firm was attempting to offer some semblance of public relations. However, the approach in how they passed along conversational notes after dinner with a critic was more confrontational than mutually beneficial. The story sounds more in line with what we might expect a celebrity social media ego to do — act as paid adversaries to their own clients, beating them with customer comments.

All in all, despite the propensity for public relations professionals to jump into one camp or the other, there are no camps. Everyone looks equally foolish, but not everyone looks fraudulent. Buschel might be like hundreds of other clients in that he was hoodwinked by non-performing publicists into accepting an erroneous definition of the trade, but his intent seems pure.

Bolstering Southfork Kitchen Would Benefit From Integration.

It seems to me that there are a variety of real and perceived challenges that the restaurant might want to overcome. First and foremost, forget the babble about the name. You can call a company anything and it will stand the test of time once it earns a reputation. One of the most talked about computer companies in the world is named after a rather generic fruit, after all.

Some of the other conversation threads are clutter too. PR firms can do ground work before tasting any food; most of them assume they will for awhile, especially during a pre-opening period. The New York Times column was not and is not a liability; it is an asset. (Even if there were some cannibalized stories, plenty of other stories remained.) Even most of the opinions pushed back on Buschel could be chalked up to bringing in the wrong audience.

With all of these tidbits out of the way, there is only one potential problem left on the table: the unique selling point. If this argument is valid, then the solution needs to come from marketing more than public relations. Specifically, Buschel might consider re-prioritizing his contrast points. I wouldn't abandon organic, but maybe it's not the number one focus or perhaps some added clarity would help make it distinct.

Other than that, the problem may have nothing to do with the restaurant. The real problem may have to do with the liberal use of terms. Mixing up public relations and publicity always creates a breakdown in client-vendor communication. It's an industry problem.

farmerIf either PR firm really did public relations, the local farmers would be promoting the restaurant, area associations would be booking luncheons, and the sudden interest would have attracted the interest of foodies and faux foodies because those folks hate to be left out.

As for additional media exposure, there are enough stories to sell assuming the firm would work beyond their normal lists. They may need a new one for this unique venue. And, if select critics didn't like the food or service, the firm would be charged with finding common ground and providing feedback. They would not simply bleed the client as if they were the owner.

Then again, I'm not convinced Buschel wanted public relations help. It seems to me that he wants publicity help even though he is doing a fine job on his own. The truth is that he already nailed one surefire way to get publicity — if you want people to write about you in a social media world, write some smack about public relations.

Any time anyone writes smack about public relations, the entire bubble blows up in a public debate between those who claim to know and do not versus those who might know but never do more than communicate tales of industry woe. Buschel said he finds this ironic, but ironic isn't the right word. The right word is pathetic.

Wednesday, November 17

Neglecting Public Relations: How ACORN Fell

Fallen Acorn
In comparison to other news coverage in the past two years, the declaration of bankruptcy by ACORN, which used to be the largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate-income people with over 400,000 member families, has been virtually inaudible. After 40 years as a grassroots advocacy organization, the board members voted to close its last chapter on Nov. 2.

The timing could not have been worse, unless it wanted to go out in a whimper. The release was sent out on Election Day.

According to an end of an era post by CEO Bertha Lewis, the reasons were the barrage of unmitigated accusations and extremists increasing their radicalism. I propose something else killed ACORN.

If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.

Extreme publicity, the very assets that became the advocacy group's weapon of choice, was responsible for its undoing.

In its early beginnings, it could be argued that ACORN was needed as a counterbalance. And, for the decade it focused significant effort on investigating complaints against companies accused of predatory lending practices, it did some tremendous good by supporting the enactment of strict state laws against predatory practices, organizing against foreclosure rescue scams, and steering borrowers toward loan counseling.

Ten years or so ago, it even became a valuable resource for me when one bank attempted bait-and-switch practices, using 9-11 as an excuse to jack up interest rates just prior to closing a second mortgage. The information ACORN provided was critical in writing a brief to various members of Congress, providing early documentation and a case study on predatory refinance and second mortgage schemes. Since, the bank in question (but not all), has moved away from such practices.

However, as ACORN expanded its goals to become a much more far-reaching organization through aggressive demonstrations that aimed to draw negative publicity against issues as opposed to evidence, some of its activities became a hotbed of controversy. In 2003, it was criticized for union busting within its own organization. And in recent years, there were allegations of voter fraud, embezzlement, and unprofessional conduct.

In addition, it became more and more politicized in its support and increasingly walled in its approach to public relations, adopting a posture not unlike some of the more unjust companies it would rally against. Whereas the organization was effective in causing change with extreme publicity, its credibility continually eroded until the federal government had no choice but to distance itself and private donors could no longer support it.

The difference between publicity and public relations could not be more clear.

Crain's New York Business was one of the few publications to mention the bankruptcy as more than a mention. Had the organization invested as much time in crisis communication and public relations while keeping its own values in order, it may have survived some of the various controversies. Publicity does not enhance credibility.

Likewise, it could have remained an advocacy group as opposed to becoming an activist group. Perhaps the various ACORN spinoffs that are now being founded, leaving the debt-ridden organization behind, will do better to understand the difference. Any time an organization begins to focus on feeding the organization as opposed to its original mission to support a specific cause, it is time to close the doors.

Tuesday, September 7

Failing Pitch: How A PR Firm Can Derail Exposure

When a public relations firm has a client roster that claims Fender, Dickies, Red Bull, and MTV, you might expect a great pitch. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. The back of the house sounds different than the front. I've forgotten by how much.

If last week is any indication of things to come, there may be no shortage of silliness after sticking our toes back in the murky waters of publishing. Liquid [Hip] might be a side project, but it's quickly picking up steam and some people have taken notice.

Most pitches are professional. Penguin Books, for example, know what it is doing. From pitch to coverage, even their intern was professional. Likewise, we thought a mostly unknown musician did pretty well. She didn't have any public relations experience, but her pitch convinced us she had a story worth sharing. And then there was that firm with all those bright and shiny clients.

How PR Pitches Have Negative Impact.

The pitch was sent late at 6:10 p.m. on Friday, without any contact information other than a name and two links to their Web sites. What was especially unusual, is that it wasn't even a pitch as much as a time-sensitive promotional solicitation. Here it is, minus the closure.

Dear Rich/friends at LiquidHip,

I got your contact via the “inquiries” link given on your site, and was wondering if you’d be interested in doing a CD giveaway for the new Jenny Johnny album “I’m Havin’ Fun Now”? It comes out next Tuesday, and I was hoping we could have you set it up. If we could try shooting for next Tuesday (August 31st), that would be perfect, but obviously we can work around that date. Let me know if you’re interested. It’s a great album! It’s received a bunch of buzz thanks to the NPR stream posted up on Monday. Anyway, if you could get back to me ASAP that’d be great! Thanks so much!


I happened to catch it as I was closing up late in the day. In retrospect, misspelling the name of the band, Jenny And Johnny, ought to have been a red flag. Referencing what NPR, another media outlet, did was also questionable. Ending with "Cheers" is always a bad sign in the U.S. But we bit.

After some discussion on whether or not we could accommodate the short notice (editorial juggling, establishing the giveaway criteria, getting an advance release, etc.), we decided it might be fun for our growing group. Besides, we had already covered a single from Jenny And Johnny and were bullish on the album. We responded within 30 minutes, with direct contact information for the weekend.

No call or follow up ever came. By Monday, we assumed the public relations firm had realized the Friday to Tuesday turn time was too close, even for them. By the end of the week, we thought otherwise. It was just a bad pitch, probably part of a mass email scheme to get publishers to read past the first line.

The downside for Jenny And Johnny was that we had intended to review the full album the following Friday (Sept. 3) until receiving the inquiry. We moved the review to Tuesday. But then, with no follow up from the firm, we covered what we originally planned and gave the Friday spot to the under covered My Gold Mask. We expect great things from them.

When you add it all up, it's a peculiar chain of events. Jenny And Johnny went from having an album review to a CD giveaway to nothing in less than one working day. Well, not nothing.

I can always use the experience to teach other public relations professionals and students what not to do. If you're going pitch, stick with it. Otherwise, your client will lose and your next pitch will end up in the don't bother pile.

Thursday, August 5

Being Transparent: Sometimes It's Stupid

It has been months, but people are still talking about it. Last year, Spirit Airlines floated the idea of charging a "passenger usage fee" to cover the costs associated with buying a ticket. Specifically, it would charge a $5 to $10 fee if you booked a flight anywhere other than a Spirit Airlines ticket desk.

This year, Spirit Airlines was considering the opposite. The new fee idea charges passengers for getting help from one of its employees (hat tip: Andrew Weaver. It's not all that novel, given that some airlines already charge as much as $25 to place a reservation over the phone.

And while it might not happen in the near future, CEO Ben Baldanza is not morally opposed to charging a fee to use the bathroom. The justification for it, and all the other charges (including carry-on bag charges and seats that don't recline), was to keep the base fairly low.

Refreshing Transparency Or Just Plain Stupid?

Baldanza clearly has the fragile brand theory on his side. He's always inventing ways to make what most people consider a necessity much more like a luxury. He's unapologetic for it.

Spirit Airlines is fighting to be the low fare leader and treating people a little less favorably than parcels on a FedEx flight. Ultimately, customers have a choice. And some people, reportedly, like it.

This truly blows some holes in many modern business theories. Spirit Airlines customers aren't looking for relationships. They aren't looking for comfort. They aren't looking for anything but the cheapest possible fare to get from point A to B.

The online poll on USA Today Travel shows 59 percent of the people think it's a bad idea; 23 percent think it's a good idea. And 19 percent think it's a good idea if it speeds up boarding because many delays are created by carry-on luggage. The irony there is that the airlines industry created the carry-on problem because of mishandling bags and charging to check them.

Here's the thing. Any company can do whatever it wants, and most of the backlash seems to be from concerns that other airlines will adopt policies that seem idiotic on their face because a heavy enough percentage of people are willing to go for low air fares.

At the same time, Baldanza has succeeded in ginning up publicity in his quest to make Southwest Airlines look like a luxury flight. It's crazy, but seems to be working for him and his airline.

Free Publicity For Silly Ideas Works Until They Stick.

However, there is a caveat. What works today will eventually not work tomorrow. Right now, given the economy, people are hustling and bustling to cut a few dollars anywhere they can. Once the economy stabilizes, assuming the federal government cranks back its aim to make profit a sin, then price conscious flyers might not be so keen on the Baldanza concept.

If that happens, even if all airlines followed Spirit Airlines' lead, Baldanza will be remembered for the push to make everything an extra. Personally, I'm not sure if such a concept is sustainable. Nobody really wants to need a day of recovery after a flight.

Overall, customers want a fair price for what is being promised. The problem for the airline industry is they struggle to keep their promises because most of them allowed price wars to be their only product differential. Add to this the constant pressure for catering to people who don't care about anything but price, and sooner or later you run out of things to cut.

It seems to me that Baldanza is smart for the short-term gain. But over the long haul, people will remember him as the guy who considered charging for bathroom privileges. In a down economy, people might take it. In an up economy, he's a jerk.

Sometimes being transparent is stupid. I don't mean in an intellectual way. I mean in a long-term strategy kind of way. Not all ideas need to spill out of your mouth. And not everything that spills out of your mouth needs to be published ad nauseum, especially when people figure out Baldanza is trying to find a way to charge you for not speaking to a live person or charging you for speaking to a live person. That is his real dream come true.

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