Monday, December 22, 2008

Value investing in public relations

The public relations profession is ending 2008 getting a good smack, but somehow, the boat rights itself and sails on.

TechCrunch domo Michael Arrington stomps his feet and declares the embargo is dead because some "PR firms are out of control" so everybody has to suffer.

Brunswick Group partner Nina Devlin was allegedly the unwitting "golden goose" of her husband's inside stock trading scheme. As an additional consequence, her firm lost the Dow Chemical M&A account.

Tech client turnover was 30.4% in 2008, according to StevensGouldPincus, yet the overall industry was a 22% rate, one percentage point lower than last year.

And although there are no official numbers, business is tougher than usual, but not as bad as being an investment banker for Lehman Brothers or Citigroup.

Global advertising giants like Omnicom and WPP may lay off thousands of employees, but somehow, despite the rocky waters, PR hangs in and there are still opportunities to be found with enough patience, networking and referrals.

The saving grace for PR has got to be value. That's the magic watchword these days -- "value" -- for consumers and businesses alike. For holiday shopping season, everybody is looking for the best bang for the buck, where they will get the most for their money. It leads them to JC Penney and Kohl's over Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.

Unless a company invests thousands or millions of dollars in an advertising campaign, or goes on a blitz of buying Google Adwords, neither of which is high on the scale of ROI and credibility for a serious ramp-up, nothing equates to a smart, creative, well-executed public relations campaign. That is, as long as it's done by somebody who knows what they're doing.

A one-time New York Times or Wall Street Journal ad may cost $120,000 out of pocket, but for that amount, you can get a year's worth of actual credible press about you, done with finesse and strategy. That kind of action can move lips... and incoming revenue figures.

As bad as the economy looks, with relentless stories of layoffs, unsold cars sitting on shipping docks, bailouts, cut benefits and services, this may be the redeeming time for the public relations industry. There will always be a few bad apples just like any other profession, but when companies seek the most cost effective way to communicate their messages and sell their product, suddenly, PR looks like a damn good deal. Cheap chic, like shopping at Target.

Just because we're in the middle of the worst recession in 40 years doesn't mean companies are taking a vacation from expanding into fertile territory for new revenue streams and pumping up their brand names. Some of those companies are 800-pound gorillas which can steal market share dramatically.

Do you sit idly by, hoping that your sales force will somehow save the day or do you put public relations into action and take turf for yourself before others do?

This is the time for a value investment into the public relations professionals who can act like your own personal Cabinet advisers and executors. While online click through rates fall and companies switch ad agencies like musical chairs, a good PR counsel knows how to master both traditional and digital media to keep the drumbeat going.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I'm taking a holiday from holiday cards

This is my official "get well soon" card to the greeting card industry.

In the last week, I have never seen more lame, bland and boring holiday greeting cards than I have in years.

I admit, I've had a beef with card companies for years for their never-ending narrow-minded views. Father's Day cards assume all men are slobs who watch TV like couch potatoes or blow off everything for a golf game. Mother Day's cards assume all women wash clothes and pick up stuff from the floor all the time. I don't know how you could fit everybody into these outdated stereotyped little "downer" boxes. There's nothing empowering about these card's intentions.

The world has become culturally more sophisticated and diverse, but for the major greeting card companies, it hasn't.

Maybe the economy has forced Hallmark and American Greetings to recycle the same designs that they've had for decades, making them very profitable. But I feel like I'm watching the recent baseball playoff season on Fox TV again with the same mind-numbing DirecTV "Vacation" parody commercials played endlessly until I want to sign an affidavit that the last thing I would ever purchase is a satellite dish.

I rifled through Papyrus in Grand Central Station and was appalled by the same card packages I've seen every year: tumbling polar bears, Santa hitching a car ride with his reindeer, skaters at Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral in the snow, and a dove with a branch in its beak. I went to one of these "paperie" stores: same thing. Today, I went to the local card store and turned right back out the door.

In bad economic times, people need cheer, not overabundant morose sentiments. Yes, comfort and warmth and all that stuff is good too, but not monopolizing all the greeting card racks.

Hallmark, American Greetings and other manufacturers seem really out of touch by not providing a pick me up to consumers who need a smile when they are cutting back and/or out of work. Until they come out of the stone age, I am buying my cards elsewhere.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mission Impossible IV: Tom Cruise eating humble pie for his new movie



Over the past two years, actor Tom Cruise has done his best to come off as a weirdo and damage his career. From jumping on Oprah's couch followed by bashing psychiatry and post-partum depression on the Today show, and then being publicly whipped by Viacom's Sumner Redstone when Spielberg's War of the Worlds came out.

Cruise was like a rock rolling down the hill gathering moss with no way of stopping him. The film he produced, Lions For Lambs, bombed. His partner, Paula Wagner, left the company. This was one "golden boy" who was seriously tarnished.

Which leads to his rather fascinating appearance on the Today show this morning. Ostensibly to plug his next big budget movie Valkyrie, which opens Christmas Day, there was a lot more riding on his guest spot than just that movie. Having lost his step with the public and ruffled feathers in Hollywood, Cruise is now on a new Mission Impossible: to win back the goodwill of those who lost faith in him.

This "mission" is not an easy one: in the forthcoming thriller, he plays a World War II Nazi officer who attempts to assassinate Hitler, in an English accent.... and since it's based on a true story, everybody knows how it turned out. Will the world be willing to forgive Cruise?

I thought he did a terrific job, so my hat is off to whoever is masterminding his campaign.

He got off to an impressive start this morning, popping up during an outdoor segment and then spending several minutes shaking hands with the squealing public. Big points for seeming to be a regular guy and doing that.

Lauer started his interview right off the bat by addressing Cruise's run of weird behavior in 2005. The actor treated it seriously, had all the right body language and said the correct things:

“I thought about it a lot. It’s a subject matter that was important. After looking at it, I really thought, it’s not what I had intended. In looking at myself, I came across arrogant. I absolutely could have handled that better... I learned a lesson. I think I learned a really good lesson.”

And the cherry on the cake, which really nailed it for sympathy:

“I’m here to entertain people. That’s who I am and what I want to do.”

Apologies are generally one of the hardest things for a public figure to do. They feel they are above everything, kid of living in their own bubble and surrounded by "yes men." However, when push comes to shove, and this would certainly be the case with a lot of big money and people's reputations affected by Valkyrie, it it time to come back down to planet earth, eat humble pie and appear remorseful and "real."

I am sure we'll be seeing a lot more of Tom Cruise until this movie opens up. In 10 days, we'll find out if his "Mission Impossible" succeeded.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Coldplay writes excellent words to its lawsuit response

Coldplay writes excellent songs. They also write excellent responses to lawsuits.

Last Thursday, cult rock guitar hero Joe Satriani filed a copyright infringement lawsuit, accusing the British quartet of lifting "substantial portions" of his song "If I Could Fly" for their megahit "Viva La Vida."

Usually when these lawsuits are filed, it's some unknown songwriter appearing out of nowhere, and the case almost always gets tossed. However, Satriani is certainly above the radar publicly, so it was taken seriously.

At first, Coldplay and their label Capitol Records went immediately into "declined to speak" mode. Within 24 hours, a video appeared on YouTube comparing the two songs, garnering more than 1.5 million views. So it was not looking good for Chris Martin and company, letting Satriani and the public air it out first.

It appears Coldplay did not sit around twiddling their thumbs. Today, they came out with one of the most carefully crafted lawsuit responses I've seen in a long time.

"With the greatest possible respect to Joe Satriani, we have now unfortunately found it necessary to respond publicly to his allegations. If there are any similarities between our two pieces of music, they are entirely coincidental, and just as surprising to us as to him. Joe Satriani is a great musician, but he did not write the song 'Viva La Vida.' We respectfully ask him to accept our assurances of this and wish him well with all future endeavours."

It is so easy for artists, individual and corporations to become full of legalese in these siutations. They usually turn to those famous cliche phrases -- "This lawsuit has no merit" or "This lawsuit is frivolous."

So you have to hand it to Coldplay for taking a refreshing route and actually show admiration for the plaintiff, using carefully chosen words implying astonishment, and then being directlly sincere, and saying there is really much ado about a mere coincidence.

Responses like this are so rare and clever, that as a public relations professional, you have to stop and take note. In four deft sentences, not only does Coldplay take a believeable high road, but it puts the ball in Satriani's court -- if he aggressively pursues the suit, he appears to be an unreasonable, stubborn diva in the eyes of the public.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

You cannot win if you do not play

About one month ago, I flew up to SUNY at Buffalo to give career advice speeches to two very different groups of students.

One was a class of freshmen and sophomores who were undecided about what major to declare. The other was a standing-room-only conference room full of English and communications junior and seniors.

Yet, they both had two things in common: uncertainty about what lie ahead, and some degree of fear to solicit help from the outside world.

Before I spoke to both groups, I told the English department chair that students periodically contact me about internships and job opportunities. Their letters are often cookie cutter and a few are absurdly short. When I e-mail them back that I have no open positions, but offer to chat with them about looking for a job and networking, they almost never take me up on the offer. They are afraid of speaking up and making a personal connection with somebody who may give them invaluable advice and help their careers.

Fear manifests itself when asking businesspeople for advice or what it is like doing what they do for a living. Students think their heads are going to be bitten off. My retort to that is: people love talking about themselves. I asked one student what they were good at, and he said javelin throwing in athletic competitions. Wouldn't you be flattered, I asked aloud in his class, if a high school student expressed their admiration for what you did and wanted to know how you built up your stamina or threw for distance? Of course, he said. So why wouldn't it be any different if you asked your friends' parents about what they did for a living and what it was like?

Fear doesn't end in college. I've met my share of public relations peers who don't like to, for lack of a better word, "schmooze." There are others who are afraid of pitching TV producers or business reporters because for some reason, they found them intimidating, so clients are left languishing in those departments. I think of the publicists who pitch the same group of contacts over and over again, without expanding their circle of placements. Some things just don't change.

I don't know if there's a surefire recipe for getting over professional fear except the realization of running in the same place. That's what separates the truly ambitious from the vast mediocrity. Some people are content, as you know from watching shows like "The Office," to just do a few things and stay within that circle of competence. However, in a horrific economy where it pays to be adept at many skills and adhere to "knowledge is power," that old model diminishes the chances of even getting a job interview or staying employed.

Somehow, you've got to suck it up, roll the dice and be a player.

At the end of both classes that day in Buffalo, I offered my e-mail address for any of them who wanted to contact me for further questions or have me review their resume. I don't ever recall anybody offering a direct contact opportunity like that to me when I was in college. Of the approximately 65-75 students I spoke to that day, two of them LinkedIn to me and two others e-mailed with with follow-up questions. I'm hoping at some point in the future, they are brave enough to take me up on my offer.

My parting words to each group was the title of a 1978 Steve Forbert song: You cannot win if you do not play.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some executives should not be speaking to the press

This was a little scary to read coming from the mouth of a high-ranking executive of a public company. Didn't anybody on the company's communications staff review what this man said to Fortune magazine?

In the December 8, 2008 issue, the publication has its regular "Three-Minute Manager" feature where they ask three top executives three questions on a big overall topic.

The subject this time: I need to cut costs dramatically. How can I find smart ways to do it?

Opening question: How do I identify where I'm spending too much?

James Dallas, SVP of quality and operations, Medtronic: "Bring in third-party groups that specialize in benchmarking. For example, we hire experts in areas like telecom to help."

Third question, one inch below the first one: What are some reductions companies often overlook?

Dallas: Hired consultants and contractors are big expenses that often get overlooked. While most companies pay very close attention to their internal headcount, they don't focus as much as they should on how much they are spending on these third-party resources."

Uh, Mr. Dallas, make up your mind -- do you hire "third-party" groups to "benchmark" for Medtronic or are they "big expenses?"

Friday, November 21, 2008

A-Rod is no hero for Guitar Hero World Tour


I love the new ad for Guitar Hero World Tour that parodies Tom Cruise's famous living room air guitar scene accompanied by Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll." However, they cast four name-brand superstar athletes when in fact, only three of them merit the title of "hero" to be looked up to.

Tony Hawk is a hero.

Michael Phelps is a hero.

Kobe Bryant is a hero.

But A-Rod is no hero.

A-Rod may be an excellent athlete and one of the greatest baseball players of the last decade. But as a human being, he's pretty despicable and does not set a good example to any kid.

Did the people who cast this commercial have sudden memory loss about his recent escapades cheating on his wife Cynthia -- notably Madonna -- and getting caught with the paparazzi in the act? Did they remember A-Rod's announcement during the pinnacle game of the 2007 World Series that he was opting out of his Yankees contract so he could greedily get an even more lucrative deal?

There's a nice long list of great baseball players who really could be the "hero" in the new Guitar Hero World Tour game instead of A-Rod: Derek Jeter, David Wright, and Ryan Howard are just a few of them.

When I see A-Rod slide onto the floor with his scowl at the beginning of this ad, he just should have kept skidding right out of sight.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Do you really need a press release to do the job?

Do you really need a press release to break news and make an announcement?

If you are a publicly traded company, it's required by the SEC to issue releases and information on approved newswire services such as Business Wire.

But beyond that? Certainly many company executives believe that just about everything merits a press release: deals, personnel, new offices, closed offices, product launches, product expansions, you name it. Our business culture has enforced the Pavlovian trigger of sending out releases for all those reasons.

Let's put aside the issue of raining down press releases on every journalist's and blogger's head. How many of these things do you really need to issue a press release for? Why use a press release at all to get the job done? Are we so used to drafting, editing and issuing them, that it's autopilot for every public relations professional without thinking to stop -- can't I get the job done without this?

To be sure, there are agencies whose sole mission in life seems to be to crank out releases, issue them over the paid newswires, charge them back to their clients, and somehow pretend that's going to generate the placements. It amazes me that this ruse, which seems to be particularly heavily practiced in the tech/web sector, Silicon Valley and the entertainment industry, is still pulling the shades over the eyes of so many clients. No wonder why they end up feeling burned by their PR firms.

However, sometimes the situation is not handed on a platter to publicists. There have been dozens of times when my clients want to issue a press release, but one of their partners in the announcement does not want one, yet they are fine with getting coverage. For a number of publicists, this would put them in a complete bind because it would actually force them to pitch a story cold with no release to fall back on.

It all boils down to this: a press release is no substitute for great strategy, relationships with the press, and the execution of that plan.

A good publicist should be able to break news and create finessed stories by contacting the reporters, producers, bloggers, editors and bookers they know. Either by picking up the phone, sending off an e-mail, or ideally, both.

If you've got a well-planned strategy of who to reach out to, knowing what reporter would like the story, aiming high for impact, and taking into account the best timing, then there's no need to play "let's throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks" by issuing a press release cold.

Any non-public company who watches their in-house publicist or outside PR firm spend their money issuing paid newswire releases or blasting them out shotgun style with no advance game plan for impact is only fooling themselves.

If you really want to see what your PR people are made of, challenge them to make an important announcement without a paid wire service press release and see what they deliver.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sports agent uses the press to get over the hill client one more contract

In today's NY Daily News, you can see why sports agents get paid the big bucks. They have no shame when trying to shill for their clients to get a fat contract.

Today's case is all the more interesting because it's the agent for pitcher Pedro Martinez, who has spent much more time on the sidelines injured for the past two years than actually pitching.

Pedro wants to squeeze one more year of money out of somebody, and why shouldn't it be his former employers at the NY Mets and their super-sized payroll? With no subtlety whatsoever, Pedro's agent has his day in the press to beg, er, ask for one more contract.

Pedro's agent went exactly by my public relations playbook in making his case -- saying your client would like to play in New York, and saying your client has numerous suitors, but not indicating how many or who they are.

I don't understand why sportswriters allow themselves to be willing vehicles for such obvious smoke and mirrors. Try not to laugh when you read this excerpt.

Pedro Martinez still has "a lot of baseball left in him" and would like to finish his sure-fire Hall of Fame career in Flushing, according to his agent.

Fernando Cuza told the Daily News yesterday that Martinez would "like to stay in New York." Cuza added that while the Mets are Martinez's top choice, they are only one of many possible suitors for the 37-year-old pitcher.

"He's not ready to retire. He had a tough year, first with the injury and then with the death of his dad. It took a toll. But Pedro's put all of that behind him. He's very competitive and would like to finish his career strong," Cuza said. "He feels fantastic and he's been working hard."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The cat and mouse PR game continues -- it's the Mets' turn to volley





The crazy cat and mouse PR game between pitcher Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez and the NY Mets, as we've been following it all this week.

A couple of days ago, K-Rod's agent said to the NY Post that his client would be a "good fit" for the team and can pitch in pressure situations.

Today, it's the Mets' turn to volley back through the press, now via Newsday's David Lennon. Everything is playing exactly to script, with the reporter using the famous tag line of "a person familiar with the club's thinking."

Another person familiar with the club's thinking indicated that the Mets are not completely sold on K-Rod, but that could have more to do with the agent's early talk of a five-year deal. With injured closer Billy Wagner still collecting $10.5 million this season as he rehabs from elbow surgery and the Mets' reluctance to go long-term on pitchers, they'd happily sign Rodriguez to a three-year deal and increase the annual salary to make it more palatable for him.

The unsubtle message being tossed back in K-Rod's agent's court is "we don't want to give your man a five-year deal, so don't hold your breath!" Of course, with a little subtlety, they are also saying "There are other fish in the sea."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Baseball agents know how to pitch as well as their clients

Pay attention, personality publicists. If you want to see how to negotiate a contract through willing journalists, it's time to pay attention to the back pages of the tabloids.

Not surprisingly, today's New York Post carried the first excellent example. Relief pitcher Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez's agent Paul Kinzer played Mets beat writer Bart Hubbich perfectly just before free agency season opens after midnight tonight, using the exact approach and similar phrasing I discussed just last week.

K-Rod's agent told The Post yesterday that Rodriguez is excited about the Mets and considers them "a good fit" among the four teams supposedly hottest in pursuit of the strikeout artist.

"K-Rod's pitched in high-pressure games, he's been in a pretty big market since he was 19 years old and thrives on it," said agent Paul Kinzer, who wouldn't name the other three clubs interested in his client. "New York and the Mets are very attractive to him."


Those two paragraphs alone are a text book example of how to play the game and get all your key messages in the shortest amount of space.
  • Said client would be a "good fit" in New York - CHECK. New York teams have the biggest payrolls in the sport, so just aim right for the top by planting an item in the local market.
  • Said client can thrive in high pressure games and has worked in "a pretty big market" - CHECK. Let the press quote your client's qualifications. After all, you are pitching as much as your client does for a living!
  • Don't name the other teams who you say are interested in your client - CHECK. Make it seem that your client is desired by many, driving up interest and hopefully the payday at the same time.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I sponsored HARO and here's who replied

On a whim, I decided to sponsor a recent Wednesday afternoon edition of Help A Reporter Out (HARO) and see if I could acquire any business from it.

With enough exclamation points to rival a high school senior's yearbook and more smiley faces than my son's IM conversations, proprietor Peter Shankman breathlessly e-mailed me the benefits, including having more than a "96% open rate" and reaching over 35,000 people.


OK, I was in. I requested any afternoon but a Friday (typical publicist's allergic reaction to Bad News Friday), sent Shankman a couple of paragraphs about myself, and rolled the dice to see who would respond.

First, my escape clause: in explaining who the respondents were, I will say that I am just one person putting up an ad, and clearly not representative of everybody who sponsors an issue of HARO. There have been a few solo agents who have posted on the newsletter, and their experiences could have been very different from mine. I am not making any judgments on the respondents. I am just going to tell you who they were in general because HARO receives an awful lot of buzz and others may want to consider sponsoring an issue.
  • The dozen people who contacted me were either a small business, an author or an expert.
  • Almost none of them knew what the cost of public relations was.
  • When I told them what public relations cost (and I was quoting them on the low side, knowing their small size), I could tell it was far more than they had anticipated.
Here are examples of the people who contacted me:
  • A self described "struggling author" publishing a book with a small publisher. He received 50 cents for every book sold, so wanted to know how much a PR campaign would cost.
  • The editor of an online teenage magazine wanted to know if I had any clients to feature.
  • A one-woman PR shop in Arizona handles a spiritual/self-help author whose third book will be published by a Simon & Schuster imprint. She wants me to book him on NYC-based national TV like "The View," "Live with Regis & Kelly," Fox & Friends, and MSNBC.
  • The NJ man who runs a site devoted to dividend-paying stocks. Thestreet.com sells two ad spaces on the site and he has content deals with Forbes.com, AOL Money & Finance, and Yahoo! Finance. He spent more than 35 minutes on the phone discussing publicizing him and his site.
  • A Long Beach, NY-based spiritual counselor "interested in adding a 'one-to-many' element to my work, so that my counsel may reach my intended audience in an effective way. I would love to have a column in a magazine, be a contributor on a morning show or be a guest on a radio show."
  • A North Carolina-based woman who ran a site selling at-home menu subscriptions, videos and books, who had a lot of on-set TV experience from a previous life acting as a VNR spokesperson. She was looking to drive traffic and build up her brand nationally.
  • A New York-based psychologist who has had many TV gigs, some of them long-term national ones, who was looking for a publicist for the first time to help her book new appearances.
  • A Rockland County, NY-based woman who asked if I had any clients who wanted to donate items to her corporate gift basket distribution business.
Draw your own conclusions or not.

I think HARO is a great and valuable free product for both journalists and publicists. My hat is off to Peter Shankman for making a business of it. I don't know how he has enough hours in the day to assemble it, but somehow he does and makes money.

Outside pitch: what publicists can learn from off-season baseball

"I'm your vehicle, baby, I'll take you anywhere you want to go...."
-- The Ides of March, 1970


Now that the 2008 baseball season is in the rear view mirror and the general managers' meetings are on in Dana Point, Calif., let the scurrilous and questionable rumors begin!

For the next five months, fans will be subjected to more professional agent sell jobs masquerading as newspaper and web "column items" than a year of TMZ.com viewing.

Parrying the other way will be general managers, who have their own worn-out stock phrases to carry a message of their own.

You think Fortune 500 executive can be mercenary when it comes to playing mind games in the press?

Sports fan or not, this is public relations at some of its most manipulative and worth examination by everybody.

Between now and through 2009's spring training, sports agents not only have to get truckloads of bucks for their marquee clients, but the ones who are moseying along or past their peak and looking to get a gig or invited to camp. So they float carefully-worded missives to reporters, using them as vehicles to somehow get the attention of general managers, scouts and executives about their client.

You'll easily recognize these slickly planted stories in the back pages of your newspaper.
  • You can expect to hear the names of the highest paying markets, like New York City, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles.
  • Those cities will often be inserted into the phrase, "He'd like to play in...."
  • Agents saying that two or three teams are interested in his client, but refusing to name even one of them.
While it seems tabloid sportswriters will take any item they can get, most carry as much credibility as Britney Spears pleading her case for good motherhood. Every day it seems there's another volley of rumors and innocuous statements, meant to heighten client value and appear in demand (for the highest dollar, of course). Celebrity publicists are good at this little game, and really, how far apart are they from athletes these days?

Well, two can play that game, so you can bet GM's know their way around a backdoor through another hungry baseball writer or they'll just come up with their own poker face statement right out in the open. If you think GOP political candidates repeatedly calling themselves "mavericks" was a study in obsessively staying on message, here's where the big boys come to play.

Mets general manager Omar Minaya is a master at this game. He's got one phrase he loves to use to reporters, with slight variations, in just about any scenario, whether he's negotiating with at least one agent over an open position or being asked by a reporter if he's interested in acquiring a particular player. As a matter of fact, Minaya used it today for the first time since the baseball post-season began last Wednesday.

New York Times sports reporter Jack Curry wrote that "if the Mets ate most of the $18 million left on [present second baseman] Luis Castillo’s contract and traded him, they could sign [free agent Orlando] Hudson."

To which Minaya uttered his famous reply: "Right now, I think Luis Castillo is going to be our second baseman."

This is a variation of his more commonly used "I'm satisfied with our team as it is."

Every publicist should take note of these words because they can serve great purpose in the corporate world with their connotations:
  1. I'm satisfied, but it does not mean I'm done wheeling and dealing.
  2. All that matters is how I feel about this team, not you.
  3. Unless somebody has an offer to blow me out of my socks, then don't both calling my mobile number.
This is a brilliant compact package of holding your cards close to the deck and not budging one inch to pressure, while implying some kind of optimism.

Rich divorce cases, celebrity tantrums and off-season baseball: it's a wonderful world of insinuation, accusations, denials, and a crock of BS.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Ragan.com reprints my blog post on bad press release writing

I am honored to say that public relations megasite Ragan.com has reprinted my blog post on why bad press release and pitch letter writing will never go away.

You can find the article here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reverse psychology

When can a negative be a positive in public relations?

When it's one of those delicious unscripted reverse psychology moments when somebody's slam or silence has the unintended opposite effect. These are the kinds of situations that when they fall out of the sky and into your lap, you've got to run with them, brothers and sisters.

When some local TV stations and the city of Philadelphia ban ads on air or in bus shelters for the forthcoming movie "Zack and Miri Make A Porno," we may be lucky enough to see reverse psychology in action this very weekend.

The basis of a reverse psychology move is that people want to see, buy and touch what they can't have. It's that basic human instinct you had when you were an infant when your mother told you not to put something into your mouth, and as soon as they turned the other way, bam, that thing was halfway down your esophagus!

In the 70's, there used to be movie ads proclaiming "Banned in 27 countries!" and that was enough incentive to line up in front of the ticket booth the next day. When some rap star freaks out "angrily" about tracks from their new album "leaking" on the Internet, you know fans will be scouring every bit torrent site to find those songs. If you think about it, wasn't it Lot's wife who turned to salt because she was specifically told not to look back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Those same principles apply to public relations and it happened just the other day in a classic case described in a story recounted in the New York Times. What I especially love is its involvement with the infamous spokesperson cop-out of not commenting:

Larry Olmsted has been blacklisted by the Guinness Book of World Records. Who is Larry Olmsted and how can a man possibly earn such a fate?

The answer to both questions is that he is the author of “Getting Into Guinness: One Man’s Longest, Fastest, Highest Journey Inside the World’s Most Famous Record Book” (Collins, Sept. 2008)...

Mr. Olmsted, 42, said that when he was finishing his book, he applied to Guinness to break three more records, hoping to attract more publicity.

Guinness World Records Ltd... did not cooperate with Mr. Olmsted on the book, denying requests for interviews and access to historical files.

“While Guinness World Records lawyers are investigating serious concerns regarding the content of your book and its unauthorized association with Guinness World Records, we will not be in a position to consider any record applications from you,” stated the fax as quoted in Mr. Olmsted’s book.

Teresa Brady, a spokeswoman for Collins, the publisher of Mr. Olmsted’s book, said her company’s lawyers had responded to Guinness saying there was in fact no legal violation of Guinness’s rights. They received no response, she said. Brian Reinert, a spokesman for Guinness, did not reply to requests for comment.


Did Guinness not see this coming from a thousand miles away? By faxing the note, they were just waving a red flag in front of the bull. Instead of the author going away sulking that he couldn't compete for a world record, he (or a clever representative) turned the rejection into a press opportunity, making Guinness look like thin-skinned divas! By not commenting, Guinness provided the veritable cherry-on-top-of-the-cake making them look guilty in the process.

I've had the pleasure of being given the gift of reverse psychology a few times over the years. My favorite was back in the mid-90's, when my then-client Redbook magazine did a cover interview with the interminable Kathy Lee Gifford, then the co-host of the ABC-TV morning show with Regis Philbin. In the article, the writer questioned her about exploiting her son Cody for selling new clothes lines with his name. As usual, she stuck her foot in her mouth by replying that it was okay to do it and the revenues would be admirable. Later in the article, her husband Frank Gifford complained on the record that his wife was taking this branding exploitation too far.

One week before the issue hit the newsstands, I messengered a few advance copies of the issue over to the "Live with Regis and Kathy Lee" TV show. The next day, Kathy Lee was visibly upset as the show opened, not far from being teary. Regis asked what was wrong and she proceeded to lay into the article and how unfair it was, how they got it wrong, Frank would never say that... and then she did Redbook the biggest favor of all -- she held it right up to the camera in full view and shouted: "Don't buy this magazine! Please don't buy it!"

Within minutes, my phones lit up from friends and Redbook staff who heard Kathy Lee's tirade. I called up VMS and ordered a few rush job tapes of the show sent to my office (this was WAY before the streaming video era). I took one and sent it over to Page Six's Richard Johnson, alerting him as to what just happened, and the next day, he had a big story about it.

Six weeks later, we found out that the Kathy Lee issue sold nearly 20% more copies on the newsstands than the year before, making it a very profitable call to arms. Thank you, Kathy Lee.

Sometimes, you don't have to do anything to let reverse psychology have its effect and the script writes itself. When my client Maxim was breaking all kinds of records and becoming a phenomenon from 1998 through 2001, the competing publishers would go on the record bashing it. The late GQ editor Art Cooper legendarily said Maxim was a magazine for men who "not only move their lips when they read, they drool when they read." The more and more they attacked Maxim, the more and more advertisers wanted to know why everybody was talking about it. Soon afterward, Maxim won Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year and landed atop Adweek's "Hot List" of hot magazines.

So know your enemies and maybe even welcome them because they can be your greatest benefactors.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Giving it all away

If for any reason you are short on dough and want some freebie food and drink, there's nothing like using PR stunts to fill the old belly.

I'm not guaranteeing you any high nutrition value, but for pure press mileage, these two massive giveaway stunts in one week are better than 1,000 lined-up Mini-Coopers at the Sunoco station.

Credit Ben & Jerry's for giving away free ice cream cones on Earth Day years ago to pioneering this stunt. Every year, the kids in my neighborhood show up like clockwork to get their gratis cones.

I love when people think big with their PR stunts. It doesn't happen enough or the concept just doesn't jump out of the gate (NYC subway musicians performing songs from the new Oasis album on the day it's released?).

Taco Bell gives a free taco away to America for every stolen base... love it! Dr. Pepper makes good on giving away a free can if Guns 'n' Roses ever delivers their Chinese Democracy album... suspicious, but I'll take it!

In AdAge.com, Taco Bell says last year's promotion generated 900 stories and 234 million total media impressions. I wonder how much traffic is pouring in to www.stealabasestealataco.com since last night's game? Regarding the 17-year-wait for the Chinese Democracy album, Dr. Pepper's vp of marketing issued this statement: "We thought this day would never come. But now that it's here, all we can say is: The Dr. Pepper's on us." Hmmm. Doesn't sound too shocked to me, but hey, if it's free soft drinks for everybody, bring it on! We can feed the homeless with this idea!

If other companies see the branding successes of this concept, perhaps they'll start their own nationwide giveaways. Hey Apple! Didn't you promise a new iPod Nano to every American if David Lee Roth ever got back together with Van Halen?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The tunnelvision of tech PR

If some tech PR firms can't find enough people to hire, it may be because they are far too rigid in defining the skills that will help their clients.

Over the years, I've seen the shortcomings of many tech PR firms, a number of them borne out of Silicon Valley and setting up New York City outposts. These drawbacks have periodically helped me win new clients, yet it's been striking that the reasons they've been fired have been as repetitive as a broken record.

Many tech PR firms always fall prey to the same malaise a number of the music business publicists I ran into in the 80's did: they are tremendously insular to the point of not knowing about anything else outside their world. In the music business, it was all about begging grungy rock critics for album reviews and interviews with new artists. In tech PR, it's about hammering the same group of journalists and bloggers without any stepping back to think of different, bigger, better and more creative roads.

Since the dot com boom, tech publicists have been cranking out press releases non-stop on their clients' dimes over the paid newswires in hope something will stick. To me, it seems like a convenient excuse to tell their start-up client that they issued a press release and here's the proof.

Public relations is not just writing and issuing releases, but finessing and relationships, and finding new ways of telling interesting stories. It's an easy fallback to go to the same group of journalists and bloggers time and time again.

Recently, I sent a rundown of my accomplishments to a San Francisco-originated tech PR firm and the co-founder e-mailed me that one of the reasons I was not a right fit for working with them was because my background was not "majority tech-focused." I'm not quite sure what constitutes a "majority" in this person's mind or how much tech-focused PR means you know what you're doing. I was working with Scholastic's joint Internet venture with AOL back in 1997, won a few Internet PR awards along the way, won my first round in PR Week's PR Blog Competition by beating Edelman Worldwide's social media guru, and spent about one third of my last 10 years working successfully with some major digital clients, producing some terrific results that I post on my own portfolio site.

In the end, tech and Web 2.0 companies want to build and maintain their brands with power and intelligence. This is what they are looking for in their public relations partners, to build their brands, be influential, win many constituents, become known to marketing and advertising partners and ideally, draw more rounds of investment. They want their PR partners to not only be acclimated to what they do, but think outside the box and bring something fresh to the table, not robotically issuing press releases over PR Newswire and expecting that to do the job. They do not want them confined to that same group of tech media, forever imprisoned by the musical chairs within those quarters, or else they are just plain short-sighted.

Without a growing and loyal audience, along with an ad clientele, the investors will have their doubts. The best way to draw an audience and ad clientele? Public relations that pays its dues with that tech media corral while at the same time branches off into wider business and consumer media, drawing them into the applications, the stickiness, giving them an emotional stake to come back and use the product again and again.

To do that, it takes creativity and having a greater understanding of how to exploit your client's capabilities and stories into popular social media, word of mouth, business press, and spilling into consumer media... even the ink-on-paper pages of a real honest to God newspaper!

A few years ago, hip hop clothes designer Marc Ecko made it clear that he was hiring us because we were not a fashion PR firm. His marketing director called me saying that they dismissed Paul Wilmot because not only did they handle competitor Rocawear, but they pitched the same small circle of journalists. They approached us specifically because we built the Maxim brand into a household name and they wanted that same kind of firepower.

Recently, one of my corporate executive friends was pitched by a typical NY branch of a well-known San Francisco-based tech PR firm. While their presentation was classy and immaculate, my friend was unimpressed that they didn't know what he called "the New York City media landscape." He asked them who they knew at the NY Post, and they drew a blank. They were history.

Until they learn to widen their horizons about what it takes to grow a brand -- Web 2.0 or not -- many tech PR firms will continue to roll that same rock up the hill, only to find it crashing back down on them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

5 ways to pick a better PR firm than the last one

Who knew that back in 1971, the brothers Osmond would sing an immortal chorus with a philosophy that would resonate in the public relations world many years later:

"One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, girl."

I'll admit, I've had to cite that slogan several times (dropping the "girl" part) when trying to convince a potential client to ignore being burned by past PR firms and go with me. I've used other examples to make my point such as "If you go out to see a movie and you don't like it, it doesn't mean you're never going to see another movie again, right?"

The potential client wants to hire another PR firm, maybe even me, but just like after dating a long line of losers, they don't want to be heartbroken again. At the same time, you're convinced that you're the right guy and you know what to do that the past firms fumbled at, so why can't they see that and move ahead?

Some people have burned through so many PR firms that by the time they are auditioning for the next one, they are looking for the impossible to make up for past perceived (and real) transgressions. I've got one of those on my hands right now, where the potential client has made it clear they will accept nothing less than the Today show and NY Post for their upcoming yet unknown "career lifestyle expert." Those are guarantees you can't make unless your last name is Zucker or you are a major NBC-TV network advertiser. I am trying to educate them now on the proper way to build a brand and hopefully, they will have the patience and see the light.

Just because you picked the wrong firm(s) in the past does not mean the whole profession is incompetent and should pay for it. Just like contractors, auto mechanics, gardeners, barbers and any service profession, some people perform their jobs well, many are mediocre, and a small group are just plain bad but stay afloat.

While it's the PR firm's job to meet and ideally surpass expectations on a long-term basis, the burden is on the client to pick the right firm to accomplish just that.

If you've gone through more than two PR entities in 18 months, then the problem most likely lies with how these agencies are chosen.

While there are no guarantees in picking PR firms either, you can certainly improve your odds that you've hired the right one.

  1. They should genuinely have relationships with the press that matters to your area. Ask journalists if they've worked with them and what their experiences were. Examine the firm's track record with those publications.
  2. They should know exactly what to do with you in getting your message out. If it sounds like they're guessing, that should be a red flag right there.
  3. Make the effort to speak with at least two of the firm's present clients and find out what it's like working with them, if they still are producing ideas and executing.
  4. Meet the account team you'll be working with at least a couple of times. Let's face it, you may not be working with the firm's founder or president most of the time, no matter what they sell you, so you may as well get to know your day-to-day team well beforehand. Do they speak up? Do they have good ideas? Are they enthusiastic? What's their background? What's their game plan? Are they conversant with your area and the media? Could you see having a beer with them and enjoying it as people, not just client/agency?
  5. Give them a six-month agreement with mutually agreed-upon achievable goals. You need to set the path ahead together so you both have a stake in the results. If the results are there, don't hesitate to renew the agreement as a vote of confidence all around.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Wall Street crisis = messed hair, covered faces and pulled noses

Below is a gallery of actual press photos depicting the people who work on the New York Stock Exchange floor and in other countries during the current global financial crisis.

In visualizing this crisis, press photographers have chosen to consistently shoot these traders doing all kinds of things to their noggins on a daily basis for the past two weeks: covering their faces, rubbing their foreheads, pulling down on their cheeks like the melting people at the end of that cheesy 70's horror flick "The Devil's Rain," picking at their hair, and my favorite, pulling at their noses.

Somehow these activities represent the world financial markets in trouble. Heck, even the news photographers at the Kuwait, Moscow and China stock markets must have read from the same playbook!


Don't meet the press

One of the biggest public relations theory tests of all time is playing before us with the vice presidential campaign of Gov. Sarah Palin.

Can somebody run for the vice presidency of the United States with a press strategy based on avoiding the press?

Since her candidacy was announced at the end of August, John McCain's public relations team have prevented Palin from speaking with any reporters with the notable exceptions of ABC News' Charles Gibson, CBS News' Katie Couric. the unsurprising Fox News Channel when those first two interviews backfired, and the one vice presidential debate last week.

While everybody else on the campaign trail has granted hundreds of interviews, most of the press coverage Palin has received has been her speeches at campaign rally stops.

As anybody familiar with the overuse and implications of the phrase "no comment" knows, a public figure avoiding going on the record has the distinct implication of something to hide. Nobody could be more under this microscope than a politician running for one of the highest offices in the land. Except, instead of the typical stonewall silence of somebody who does not wish to comment, reporters are forced to capture Palin with scripted speeches and that's all they have to run with.

This strategy has enraged a number of journalists, notably CNN anchor Campbell Brown, who has become kind of a cult hero when she broke out from her typical role not long ago to do some on-air editorializing.



It's age old parent psychology that the more you don't allow your kid to do something, the more they want to do it. When something is taboo, it becomes so enticing you have to have it. Thus, the curiosity factor about the cutoff Palin -- an attractive "hockey mom" who was nominated out of nowhere, from a state seems to be another world from the "lower 49" -- has just multiplied. Less is more.

At a time of fast social media news delivery, special interest groups sponsoring TV commercials and film screenings, independently published political books and grassroots door-to-door campaigning, can the traditional news media spurned by Palin make or break McCain's campaign? Is it possible to win on a "no comment" campaign?

I understand what it's like to be the gatekeeper of a potential news bomb. For nearly a dozen years, I was the US press representative for wily UK media mogul Felix Dennis, who always had a propensity for saying outrageous things during press interviews, veering wildly off topic into dangerous territory, and even drinking a few too many bottles of wine, leading him to say things he wished he hadn't.

I found myself turning down at least half of Felix's media requests because I had to reduce the chances of a blooper slipping by, especially if there was no news involved and they just wanted a juicy morsel from Mr. Dennis. As quotable as Felix was, my job was to reduce the odds of anything damaging being said.

I know that turning down some interviews can be a legitimate press strategy, as long as you still avail yourself when there is news and it's not canned.

However, it feels like kids stuff next to running for high political office, where every American is entitled to find out where you stand on issues day to day. As Peter Himler noted today on his blog, the pundits are blogging away, saying cable news should just pull out from Palin coverage until she gives her first press conference.

So far, it's just a lot of talk and Twittering. On November 4th, we'll see if America really cares about who is running for vice president, and if so, will Gov. Sarah Palin's end-run around mainstream press interviews make a difference to the typical voter and legitimize this PR tact? It would be very sad to think that nobody would care.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Silent but deadly

Choosing a PR firm and choosing whether to date somebody have a lot in common. Mainly, you want them to be excited about you so you have to be excited about them.

Several years ago, I was sitting in my conference room with the marketing director of the Philadelphia-based company that was about to acquire my client, iPing. In attendance were two top iPing executives, and my two-person team which handled iPing publicity.

The marketing director was checking us out to see if he'd keep us on board as the PR agency of record. He asked all kinds of questions about what we thought of the product, how we went about our business, and where we found success. One person on my iPing team pitched in with some anecdotes and explanations. The other one said nothing the whole time.

At the end of the meeting, we were all getting up when the marketing director looked at the person who had said nothing and said to them point blankly "Do you talk?" They stumbled for a second, and said yes, I do. The following week, the marketing director called me to say he'd keep us on but to drop the silent person from the team. I understood and complied.

Switch to another scenario. Conde Nast had advised founding Allure magazine editor in chief Linda Wells to meet with my company to handle the publication's publicity until they found a permanent in-house replacement. I dressed to the nines and brought two successful young staff members, so we could have a discussion together and Wells would get to know people at the company other than me.

Big mistake. My two staffers spent the meeting periodically laughing and giggling at each other. While they were not silent, they treated the situation far more casually than it merited. The next day, Wells called me up and said she welcomed working with my company, but the two people I had brought could not be part of the team.

These were tough lessons for me in my company's early years. I felt burned and for a long, long time was very hesitant to bring anybody with me to meet a potential client. The downside to that was that every client expected they'd be working with me alone, and that was quite difficult as my business was growing and I certainly couldn't do it all. I had to make sure my staff instilled confidence in clients so they knew I was not going to be the day to day person. Slowly I brought staff back into new client pitches, but only after I wrote up a strategy guide for them on what to do for these occasions and talked with them about it.

Public relations does not seem to be the profession meant for the wallflower or the meek. After all, you are pitching the media in person and over the phone, providing key packets of information, helping them out and forming an emotional stake. If your personality was too low-key or humdrum, how were you going to do your job successfully?

Clients envision their publicists to be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. There's no way around it. You don't want to present them a screaming lunatic, but not Droopalong the dog either, so it's got to be somewhere in between those measures.

The number one thing clients want to see, I believe, is enthusiasm because it stirs passion, aggressiveness and the determination to succeed. That became one of my main job candidate criteria -- if you want to work here with my clients, show enthusiasm. Not just by words but with emotion and attitude, because they go a long way.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Bonus Round for PR Employees

In public relations, we don't make cogs or widgets.

We can't measure productivity by how many ball-bearings our employees make. In public relations, things are a little, shall we say, less tangible.

Yet, we want to give our management and staff incentives and bonuses that are meaningful and reflect what our clients and ourselves value the most.

When I hired my first employees in the 90's, I had to be creative with these perks because tech firms were changing the game, offering flex time, free pizza every Friday, massage breaks, and ping pong. I had to re-think the traditional bonus system so that the rewards were not arbitrary and the subjectivity was minimal. There's no point to giving out bonuses for bonuses' sake. It had to be clear what you had to do to get a bonus.

I firmly believed that bonuses were for work "beyond the call of duty." Not impossible. Not science fiction. Employees were paid salaries and had all their benefits paid for and were expected to do their jobs. But there should be rewards for going one step further, aiming high and then delivering.

So with some trial and error along the way, I devised a bonus system that I felt fit the public relations profession in my eyes, and I'm going to share it with you.

My underlying theme was ambition. Bonuses were twice a year, June and December. Why have employees rack up the goods once a year when they should be doing it all year long?

These were my two ways of getting a bonus:
  1. An unsolicited original creative idea that is executed for a client.
  2. Getting substantial press placements about a client, from a very specific list of "harder hits" ranging from NPR's "Fresh Air" and "Oprah" to a profile in the New York Times or Fortune.
I even gave a bonus on top of a bonus if an employee got a regular gig for a client on TV, similar to the one I got for Jean Chatzky on the Today show years ago.

I still feel that for many agencies, this is a very viable and fair bonus system for everybody. First of all, it takes most subjectivity out of the equation, dramatically reducing arguments and grey areas. Everybody knows exactly what they have to do to get a bonus and the more they did it, the higher the bonus. Secondly, it tied in two highly valued criteria -- ambitious hits and creativity -- with the extra paycheck money.

They say money is the number one reason people get divorced. I'm sure it's the number one reason why people switch jobs. If publicists knew exactly what they had to do to get it and more of it, there may be less arguments over it. We make not make ball-bearings, but we do have other yardsticks we can use for measuring success.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Great PR Scams of Our Time #2 -- "The Special Delivery Package With A Message"

The second in a periodic series about astonishing public relations scams perpetrated by various notables desperate to get the almighty hit for their clients.

In a moment of total quiet and solitude, when all is peaceful and harmonious in the world, did you ever sit back and say to yourself:

"It's such a shame that Alec Baldwin felt suicidal after that screaming tirade voice mail he left for his daughter was leaked to the public. If I sent him 20 cases of my client's perfumed soap to wash his mouth out, not only will he get the message about using that kind of language, but I've got to alert the media what a public service I have performed!"

If you have not thought about taking this route to promote your client's cleaning product, hey, what's wrong with you? You must immediately find Alec's address in the Hamptons and ship those little bars of detergent right there, while at the same time keeping your finger dialing the NY Post's city desk.

About as priceless and suspicious as the previously posted deli polls, sending the symbolic special delivery package to a celebrity or politician was an amusing periodic feature in New York City's gossip columns through the 90's. Clearly related to the genuinely humanitarian gesture of giving a homeless guy a job after reading about their Good Samaritan rescue effort in the local tabloid -- but far more dubious -- these "packages" were usually big and came with that unique message that only finding a horse's head in your bed could rival.

For example, for the local politician getting caught in a growing scandal? Announce you're sending them 100 bottles of your client's headache relief pills. Celebrity broke up with her boyfriend? Plant an item that you're shipping 30 DVD's of your client's cable series to get their minds off their heartbreak.

You see, it was never good enough to send one item to a notable person, when a quantity of at least 25 was necessary to make such a grand gesture.

And then there was that question of where to mail all this stuff. Sure, it was easy to look up the corporate headquarters for those CEO targets, but just where to send the three dozen five-year subscriptions of Psychology Today to Tom Cruise after pouncing on Brooke Shields?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Why there'll always be bad press releases and pitch letters

It's a big bad world of mediocrity, son. It's just the law of nature and there's nothing you can do about it.

I should know. Mediocrity starts at graduation. I've received hundreds and hundreds of cookie cutter cover letters from across the nation which all seemed to have been cribbed from the same career advice book: "I am a senior who will be receiving my bachelor of arts degree in communications this June from Buckwheat College..."

Mediocrity inspired a famous Hallmark store poster depicting the Tower of Pisa: "It takes a lot less time and most people won't notice the difference until it's too late."

I once had an employee who wrote a letter with numerous mistakes, didn't show it to anybody, and mailed it, so I made her go to the post office and retrieve it.

Technology has made things so easy to do, that for some people, spending more than a token effort writing a press release or pitch letter can seem daunting.

Most of the newspapers and business magazines which we had delivered for office reading daily went unopened by the staff, until I made it required reading. Every year, I taught a company workshop on writing better press releases and pitch letters, and utilized two publications which had the best leads: The Wall Street Journal and Advertising Age. In their first paragraphs, you always knew what the story was going to be about, even with a little clever perspective.

The funny thing is that it's no secret we're all crunched for time: journalists are more pressed than ever before. Bloggers can post in an instant and are competitive with their ink-on-paper counterparts. Publicists are getting their information in short pieces over RSS feeds, reading blogs and shorter and shorter news stories. Everybody is trying to get the most information in and out in a shorter and shorter window of time.

So why do publicists still write as if none of this is happening? Why do they write long-winded press releases and pitch letters that don't cut to the chase in the very first paragraph when they themselves often don't have the patience to read those very same stories? Who is managing these people and letting them get away with this?

Don't believe me? I'm dipping into PR Newswire and Business Wire right now today to see what's being cranked out there and being paid for by good money. Here are three sample press release first paragraphs with their respective links. I look at each one, and try and nudge myself awake. Who are the audiences for these releases and do they care? Will they care? See each of my comments below each lead.
NAPERVILLE, Ill., Sept. 19 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Financial companies have certainly been in the spotlight, and recent high-profile events have rattled the investment markets. From the collapse of Bear Stearns in March to more recent events such as the federal government's takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy, the sale of Merrill Lynch and the government's $85 billion rescue plan for AIG, investors are understandably anxious about the nature of their investments.

"Yes, financial companies certainly have been in the spotlight. Tell me something new because you've lost me with your long-winded lead."
SILVER SPRING, Md., Sept. 19 /PRNewswire/ -- Captain Paul Watsonfounded his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977 because he believed his new organization had to go even further to eradicate whaling, poaching, shark finning, habitat destruction and purported ocean law violations than the Greenpeace group he had co-founded. For several years, Watson's group of staff and volunteers have engaged in a campaign every winter to find and stop Japanese ships that hunt whales in the name of research, attempting to stop them by any non-violent means necessary. The eclectic group -- labeled activists, heroes and/or eco-pirates -- leave port in Melbourne, Australia for a two month campaign that is dangerous, controversial and has garnered international media attention. Sea Shepherd's dedicated, international crew have spent their holiday the last several years and risked their lives at the bottom of the earth to save whales.

"My eyes just glazed over. Did I mistakenly pick up my son's 7th grade history school book? I don't even know if I'll ever make it past the first 10 words of this. What's this got to do with the Discovery Channel?"

NATCHEZ, Miss.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Callon Petroleum Company (NYSE: CPE) reported today the effect of Hurricane Ike upon its principal production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

All of the companys deepwater offshore drilling and production activities were suspended prior to the arrival of Hurricane Ike, and all employees and contract personnel were safely evacuated prior to the storm.

"And...? And...? If you're reporting it today, then just come right out with it, for Pete's sake!"


I speculate there are a few reasons why we'll always be seeing bad writing escape into the public domain:

  1. Nobody is advising college students that you've got to give them the old "who, what, when, where, why" in the first paragraph. Perhaps every student should be required to take Journalism 101 to learn it.
  2. Employers are willing to overlook bad writing for other qualities when hiring. That's okay if you're committed to keeping them away from corresponding with anybody.
  3. Nobody wants to spend the time to teach publicists how to write better. They'd rather send them to a one-time PRSA writing workshop or just let it slide.
  4. Publicists dismiss these things as "little." But little things do matter. If I had a dollar for every employee who incorrectly used "its" and "it's," I could retire right now.

If the better a press release or pitch letter is written increases the odds of achieving a response, then it should behoove whoever is in charge to raise the bar of all written materials. The responsibility ultimately lies with them.

If you sit down with your staff and get them to unlearn their bad habits, show them examples of great releases and pitch letters that work, it will demonstrate that this means a lot to you, you value excellent writing skills, and you want them to be better at their craft. It will be worth more than any amount of money you can pay for an outside workshop.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The power of positive e-mailing

For many years, I preached to my staff that they should never be too reliant on e-mail pitches. The reasons were many: they could be deleted in one fell swoop without opening them, blocked by filters, sitting in an in-box along with hundreds of others for a long time, and just easily ignored.

Nothing replaces the effectiveness of picking up the telephone and call. Yes, it's old school, but it still works and I believe in it to this day.

However, twice in the past month, I was reminded of the power of e-mail, despite its heavy dependency in the public relations field.

The first involved this very blog, which was incredibly lucky and fortunate enough to have grabbed one of the 32 slots in PR Week's PR Blog Competition. In my first round, I faced Steve Rubel's Micro Persuasion blog, written by the social media guru of Edelman Worldwide, the largest independent public relations agency in the world. I knew how David felt facing Goliath and the prospect was quite intimidating.

Instead of a slingshot, I sent out an e-mail to just about everybody I knew asking them to vote for my blog. I e-mailed relatives, current clients, former employees, neighbors, friends, parents of my Little League team, my kids' teachers, my attorney, my various doctors, my neighbors, and just about anybody who I thought would click a vote for me.

When the polls closed, I shockingly had 65 % of the vote, despite a surge when Rubel asked people to vote for him on his Twitter feed.

When the second round came, I was up against the Communications Overtones blog by Kami Huyse, well-loved in the PR world. Again, I went back to my huge e-mail blast to the world. In a down to the wire race, Kami took 51% of the over 500 votes, but I was amazed and gratified to see I got 250 votes!

In a weird way, it was like getting 250 replies to the same pitch letter, an incredible rate of response. There was no reason to stop at blog competitions. I should probably offer my e-mail marketing services to a Presidential campaign!

Lately, the power of e-mail took on another meaning. On Labor Day, I tore my Achilles tendon while making a play at second base during a weekend warrior choose-up softball game. I pivoted one way but my foot decided to stay planted with my cleat. After surgery, I was told that I'd be on crutches for 4 - 6 weeks, followed by 2 - 3 months of physical therapy.

Suddenly, commuting to Manhattan down from Westchester seemed like climbing the Andes. Public transportation would be out of the question. So I returned to my e-mail PR blog campaign tactic asking around for anybody who was crazy enough to drive to Manhattan and give me a lift. I got several responses, including one from a local guy I didn't even know, offering a ride.

Have these experiences changed my mind about leaning on e-mail too much for PR pitches? Not at all. While I could not have mustered speedy PR blog campaign support or rides back and forth to Manhattan with a one-man telemarketing blitz, e-mail still reminds me of something I am now very familiar with since my injury -- it's a crutch.

But I have been enlightened about e-mail's power to ask for help. And that is why our own e-mail boxes will always be plundered by spam offering great mortgage rates, how to Google to make money, new pills for sexual wonders, assistance for moving bank accounts out of Nigeria, and getting the best meds anywhere.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Who's SpinSpotting Who? -- A Short Play In Three Acts


ACT ONE


Participants at the Demo show include SpinSpotter, a start-up that plans to show an early version of software that is designed to identify bias and inaccuracy in online news stories. The Seattle-based company's Spinoculars program, which is designed to appear as a toolbar on most Web browsers, relies on software and input from its users to find opinionated language, sources with conflicts of interest and an over-reliance on text from corporate and political press releases.

-- The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2008


ACT TWO

Press release issued on the same day this story appeared...
Leading writers, media critics and journalism professors help establish guidelines for identifying bias in the media

SAN DIEGO, Sept. 8 /PRNewswire/ -- Today at DEMOfall08, SpinSpotter
unveiled a new online service designed to surface specific instances of bias
and inaccuracy in any news story online. By installing a SpinSpotter toolbar
called Spinoculars, users of the SpinSpotter service can easily see, share,
and edit any clear sign of bias anywhere on the Web.

To develop an objective methodology for identifying media bias,
SpinSpotter executives assembled a team of distinguished writers and
journalists, including professors at some of the country's top journalism
schools. Their expert knowledge, along with the Society of Professional
Journalists' Code of Ethics (http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp), were then
combined with guided user input and sophisticated algorithms to identify each
instance of bias and inaccuracy in online media, whether it is a reporter
stating opinion as fact, an unattributed adjective, a paragraph lifted from a
press release, or an expert source with a clear conflict of interest.

According to studies by the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Americans
say they want unbiased news, while 66 percent consider the press "one-sided".
And while more Americans (55 percent) trust the military to deliver an
objective view of the war than trust the press' war coverage (42 percent),
only nine percent of journalists are concerned about the media's credibility.

"SpinSpotter considers the press' mission profound: to inform the public
and keep power in check. But there is a major difference between working to
inform and writing to persuade," said Todd Herman, founder and chief product
officer of SpinSpotter. "SpinSpotter makes news reporting transparent while
empowering readers online to see, share, or edit spin -- and ultimately avoid
it. With Spinoculars installed, readers have an editorial seat at the table of
every news page online."

SpinSpotter CEO John Atcheson says the question of media bias is much too
important to be taken lightly. "SpinSpotter will make it harder for people on
both ends of the political spectrum to hurl vague accusations of bias. With
SpinSpotter, we will finally be able to have rational discussions about bias
in the media, informed by SpinSpotter's rigorous analysis."

Chris Shipley, product analyst and executive producer of the DEMO
Conferences, believes SpinSpotter's introduction is particularly timely. "As a
former journalist, I can tell you that SpinSpotter brings much-needed
transparency and accountability to online news media. With all eyes on the
November election, it is particularly important for people to be able to tell
when there might be a hidden agenda at work."

The beta version of Spinoculars can be downloaded starting today at
http://www.spinspotter.com.

About the Company

Based in Seattle, SpinSpotter is led by veteran technology executives and
entrepreneurs who also happen to be self-confessed news junkies. Todd Herman,
the founder, worked as a radio talk show host before launching his first
start-up and then joining MSNBC.com and Microsoft, where he was an executive
for several years. SpinSpotter CEO John Atcheson is a serial entrepreneur who
also served as a senior executive at RealNetworks. The company employs people
of all political and intellectual stripes: Herman is conservative, while
Atcheson is liberal. Initial funding for SpinSpotter was provided by Epic
Ventures and angel investors. For more information, visit
http://www.spinspotter.com.

ACT THREE

Here is a Google News link to all the places that picked up the press release so far about SpinSpotter's Spinoculars software.