Monday, September 17, 2012

Apple doesn't need publicists -- just journalists

"As a business journalist, I find it deeply depressing to watch the inevitable media frenzy about an incrementally new Apple product." -- The Wall Street Journal's David Enrich

 I think Apple may have reached a turning point with its relationships with journalists with its annual introductions of a new version of the iPhone.

As usual, journalists were falling over themselves in the days leading up to last Wednesday, when the iPhone 5 would be introduced. They feverishly published rumors of the product's looks and capabilities, and gave tips on how to sell your previous iPhone to pony up for this version. The whole hype parade hit a crescendo by JP Morgan Chase economist Michael Feroli, who predicted sales could play a role in boosting the U.S. economy! On the day of the press conference, attendees were positively giddy counting down to when Tim Cook would take the stage and open with the usual "We've been having such a fun time" line.

And then the press conference introducing the iPhone 5 took place.

And it didn't take long to discern from the massive Twitter outpouring that the iPhone 5 was a real "meh." Some more power, a faster camera, and a bunch of tweaks that screamed "is this the iPhone 4SS?" Even The Wall Street Journal's Jessica Vascallero penned a story titled, "Is Apple's iPhone 5 Boring?"

You think that would have sobered everybody up about the new iPhone? Heck, no. Reporters were stalking the AT&T and Verizon stores late that night, looking how easy or not it was to order a phone, if the service was sluggish or on time, and if the inventory was plentiful or not.

And for the second year in a row, Apple spokespeople use the identical phrase "blown away" to describe how fast preorders went in their own store, a phrase reporters everywhere and under every rock again. Next year, I'm betting that phrase pops up again -- why not?

I actually un-followed a few well known Apple news Twitter feeds this past week because of the blind lemming hype of a new smart phone that doesn't seem to have wowed many people at all. Even though Apple decided to change the shape of its USB plug, which will render everybody's chargers useless for the new model unless they fork over more money for adapters, no backlash... yet. Computerworld's Matt Hamblen estimates Apple stands to make $1 billion in revenue on adapters alone. 

Apple has turned journalists into religious cult fanatics who do all the publicity chores for them, despite the release of what seems to be a ho-hum upgrade. Nothing would make Apple happier than all this reporting frenzy causing that old publicity stunt, long lines in front of every Apple store, perfect for even more press coverage to keep the cycle going. Sadly, they've already begun over a week early.

However, when everybody comes back down to earth again, after we start hearing the first inevitable iPhone 5 complaints within the first 48 hours of its release and two weeks later, blog posts pop up for iPhone 6 feature wish lists, you have to have to wonder if the tech press will wise up to being Apple's waterboys. Siri got everybody talking a year ago and within three months, the backlash was deafening.

How many times will the press be led to the water before they stop for a moment and think about what they went so head over heels for last year, and frankly, saw the bloom of the rose a few months later? Maybe they don't feel they were burned by Apple for a product with just incremental improvements, but you would hope they'd think twice about slobbering over an upgrade the next time they're beckoned for a press conference.

Apple pulls enough of these much-ado-about-very-little events, and at some point, they going to find the tables turned and be forced to earn its good will and admiration all over again from the press. There are only so many times people will listen to a boy who cries wolf.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The ingenious Great Vibrator Giveaway

Give credit to Trojan for pulling off the best public relations stunt of the summer.

According to the New York Times, the cost of giving away 10,000 vibrators from from two Manhattan "pleasure" carts would be $350,000, and that's in retail value.

In the "winky wink" media world we live in, announcing you are giving away free vibrators in the New York Times is like catnip to the press: massive joke coverage spread virally on Tuesday because, hey, we need a good randy topic to blog about in the middle of the summer. A site like Gawker could not resist.

I've always said that one of the best kinds of PR stunts is getting a long public line to form, and in this, Trojan succeeded. On Wednesday, fueled by all the buzz generated from Monday's article, both carts had huge winding lines of people of all ages waiting to pick up their free goody. No question that would give Trojan another wave of press coverage that would far exceed the cost of this stunt, such as this from ABC News and Huffington Post.

However, whether Trojan's marketers anticipated this or not, the New York Police Department arrived on the scene closing down the carts, claiming they needed city permits and the crowd had grown too large. The press, who were already there covering the event, pounced on this golden opportunity, raising the event coverage into the stratosphere -- it was the front page of today's New York Post.

The New York Post even posted a video to go with the bust.

Trojan's marketing department and whoever dreamed up this stunt should be given bonuses for a stunt that gave exceedingly far more value than it cost.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Somehow, the press takes "The American Mustache Institute" seriously

Whoever oversees H.R. Block's public relations, please give them a raise.

Although taxing mustaches is about as long a logical stretch to doing your taxes as me being nominated for President in the fall, the press somehow has been taking this very obvious PR stunt far more seriously than it warrants.

Last summer, Abercrombie & Fitch offered "Jersey Shore" star The Situation a boatload of money not to wear their clothes in a press release. It was treated as seriously as Ben Bernanke issuing a statement changing the interest rates. The story appeared everywhere as if A&F was really going to do this, including the NY Times and other publications. Gossip rags will publish anything that is fed to them, but high-standing reputable news sources?

So kudos to Business Insider's Laura Stampler for calling out CBS (!) and The Weekly Standard for treating the Million Mustache March as if it is real. Let's see, the event happens on April 1st, which is, uh...

For God's sake, the H&R Block logo is all over every single thing about the Million Mustache March.

It's competitive in the tax preparation business. Turbo Tax and H&R Block have been offering all kinds of freebies since last year to lure customers. Somebody had to think of a new trick, so why not try to abolish the fictional tax on mustaches? Will this actually help H&R Block's business in the end? We'll know in a few months. I personally don't see the connection between mustaches and tax preparation.

But why do respectable news organizations fall for this very transparent stuff?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Stephenson Group -- please stop spamming

New Jersey public relations firm Stephenson Group doesn't seem to have received the widely circulated memo about how people hate spam, especially journalists.

For some reason, one of their staff people, Richard Virgilio, keeps sending me pitches about Western Union and small business. I don't write about either topic.

I sent Richard a note last time pointing out that this is irrelevant material and spam gives PR a bad name. I cc'd his bosses, who are listed on their web site.

But here is Richard again, sending me his spam pitches about Western Union and small business.

The company seems to offer a number of services, but they really should add "Spamming" to their capabilities.

They have definitely earned their place on my blocked domain list.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sorry, Mark, but many startups DO need PR help... and desperately

Dallas Mavericks owner, investor and tireless blogger Mark Cuban posted a defense of his "Why startups should never hire a PR firm" statement this week after he got blasted by various publicity folks. He backtracks a bit, but I have to say, a lot of what he says is rather disingenuous.

So let me turn things around and say, Mark, if you knew many of the startup executives I have known, if you were in my shoes, you'd be crazy not to think they didn't need a publicist. They desperately needed one.

Granted, there are some startups that should not hire a PR firm. I've been hired by a few myself. They have so many NDA's or what they do is such inside baseball, that journalists aren't going to get much out of them or they'll not be interested. So why even try to move that mountain? Don't bother.

Cuban talks about publicists having plenty of contacts but not being able to do the "vulcan mind meld" of understanding the elements of a growing business. Well that's pretty sad if you've been burned by some lousy PR firms. If all you're doing is hiring firms who excel at burning lots of money sending out press releases over paid syndication wires, have some good contacts and act like hovering control freaks, frankly, you deserve to be upset at the profession. But hey, you hired wrong! Not all PR firms are alike.

Did you examine the brains upstairs at these firms to see if they think strategically, know how to tell a story, have some genuine creative genes, and have passion for who you are? Do they rely excessively on sending out press releases for every little thing? If you didn't, then you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Cuban says that any executive writing an unpretentious letter to a journalist will likely get a response:

It’s amazing how often a simple email to a writer for a trade publication or local media will get a response. The key to getting a response is being short, sweet , hyperbole free and to the point.

If you're Mark Cuban, sure. But you'd be surprised how many startup execs don't know how to write or spell. Really. They are great at what they do, but they're not exactly Robert Browning or Elizabeth Barrett. Weirdly enough, the subject line Cuban uses in his sample letter to the press -- Tracking Traffic to Reduce Vacancies -- looks like spam or a press release. Not personalized. Upper and lower case, like the headline of a press release? C'mon, that's bush league and a good, smart publicist wouldn't let that happen.

Sure, a casual toss-off letter to a total stranger may get a reply, but more often than not, they don't. Mark, have you ever seen the inbox of the average blogger at a popular tech site? Good luck not getting deleted or overlooked altogether!

Besides, what happened to picking up the phone? Whoops, no mention of that in Cuban's advice.

Let me tell you about some of the startup execs I run into. A good deal of them need third party guidance on how to shape their story and message because they've been living inside it for so long, they can't get to the point. They may put their foot in their mouths by talking about things they shouldn't. Sometimes they don't know how to be confident when speaking with a reporter, or just too confident and get carried away, going overboard.

Some of them have brilliant complex concepts for their companies, but need another person to boil it down to something a journalist can easily understand and go "aha!"

Some have harangued me about going on video casts, but then when they are in front of the camera, they need somebody like me to tell them, "hey, maybe you should be enthusiastic about what your company does?"

Some have incredible delusions of grandeur, thinking the world is going to beat a path to their door. I have to break the news to them that if they don't walk before they run and think strategically over time, the only people arrive at their door will be the moving men to clean out their offices.

Where would Mark Zuckerberg be if somebody didn't bring him out of his shell and explain how to come across as less geeky and more approachable and humane?

Here's some more reality from the front line: a lot of startups are just plain afraid of approaching bloggers, and many of their top people are so busy, they don't have time to write nice little notes to them either.

It's really easy to say "startups should never hire a PR firm" and pontificate about some fantasy world where reporters answer all your emails and are dying to hear about what you're doing, and where all startup executives are Brad Pitt and infinitely quotable and articulate.

But they are not. Far from.

P.S. Isn't it ironic how some journalists jump on the bandwagon and say, we agree with Mark, don't hire PR firms, but then are inaccessible when startups approach them. Or better yet, when some executive goofs up publicly, maybe by accident, and they can't say tweet fast enough, "where's their publicist?" or "they should have had a better publicist!"