Friday, June 27, 2008

Hiring the man or woman whose name is on the door

Sometime in the 90's, New York City public relations fixture Howard Rubenstein changed the name of his company from "Howard Rubenstein & Associates" to "Rubenstein Associates."

On the surface, this may seem like a pretty artificial change but there was a good reason behind it: anybody who wanted to hire the firm would ask for him personally, and he no longer had the time to field all those calls when he had two sons working at the company. So if you couldn't get Howard Rubenstein, you'd get another Rubenstein.


While it's very common for large corporate entities to hire the mega-names of public relations -- Edelman, Porter Novelli, Ruder Finn -- the client is almost certainly not going to have Daniel Edelman, the founders of Porter Novelli (who are not even mentioned on their web site's history page), or David Finn working on their account.

So what do you get when you hire a company named after its founder?

I bring this up because of the Variety article this morning that Dan Klores, whose Dan Klores Communications is ranked by O'Dwyer's Company Inc. as the #9 PR firm in the country with $21.7 million in revenue, has been signed by HBO to direct a feature film of a documentary he made a couple of years ago. With all due respect to Klores, his name may be on the door, the web site, and the stationery, but he has not done public relations for at least three or four years -- he has been a filmmaker.

Klores has not left the company. He is not chairman emeritus. He is not mentioned in the "About Us" section of the company's web site. He does have a bio on the Leadership section of the web site, but here's how it starts:

Director Dan Klores’ “Crazy Love” captured the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. A few months later he completed "Black Magic," a four-hour, two-part epic that aired commercial-free on ESPN to tremendous critical success. The New York Times calls the film, “remarkable,” The Washington Post says it “engages the senses,” and The Charlotte News and Observer wrote, “Black Magic” is mesmerizing, harrowing and uplifting.” “Black Magic” tells the story of the injustice that defines the Civil Rights Movement, told through the lives of basketball players and coaches who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's).

The rest of the bio rehashes "Crazy Love"'s reviews and awards, followed by other past film information, a play he wrote last year, and other production work he's doing. You'd never know he used to be a top dog at Rubenstein until he broke away to form his own PR firm, and his own history of a public relations professional.

Now I am sure Dan Klores has an excellent senior management staff running the ship, since they are still raking in plenty of fees. But if I'm a company looking for public relations recommendation, I have to know going in that Dan Klores will come nowhere near my account and probably not even know about it. I'd be getting his capable staff and hopefully assigned to a team that knows what they are doing.

When you hire a public relations firm named after somebody, are you hiring the man or woman who the company is named after, or are you hiring their firm?

I had this same conversation this morning with Jane Cruz, director of Texto & Imagem, a public relations firm based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She was complaining about some of the companies who go right to hire a "name" in that country -- Edelman, Ketchum -- especially because of their attraction to "English sounding companies." I explained to Jane:

"While you may not have two dozen people to throw on an account, you have you. How many clients can actually say they work directly with their public relations firm's top person? There's no way a large PR firm can replicate that."

Trust me when I say she felt a lot better after that.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Staying one step ahead of the privacy police

Online privacy comes into the public relations wheelhouse because of viral ripples that can extend throughout the web and sometimes into print. There are ways to take the air out of that alarming balloon with some intelligence done in advance. Let's face it, a great offense is a good defense.

There are many online start-ups that have to worry to varying degrees about the privacy police spanking them for abusing consumer data.

In order to create a viable financial model, these companies end up touching opt-ins, opt-outs, and personal and marketing data collection.

Stoking this concern was Facebook's Beacon advertising program late last fall, which caused such an over reactionary uproar from privacy advocates, Facebook had to quickly go into crisis control mode and calm everybody down. This tempest in a teapot had many targeting companies ducking for cover except for a very few like ISP behavioral targeting firm NebuAd.

In my experience, there are a few solid public relations tactics that can prevent a lot of headaches:
  • Always assume that your privacy policy will be scrutinized sooner or later. The further in advance you act to allay concerns, the less the odds of feeling the heat later on.
  • Appoint an executive with the additional title of Chief Privacy Officer. The executive should belong to an industry or advertising standard committee or board. Both internally and externally, it should be known somebody with the right credentials is overseeing privacy matters. Make sure the title is added on to all corporate materials, including the company web site.
  • In all press releases, include a sentence that the company conforms to the industry standards set by a recognized organization. This sentence can be inserted down the first page or even on the second.
Of course, these tactics are not solutions for being careless and criminal with private data.

A smart public relations professional always has to think ahead about nipping problems in the bud and I've found these techniques to be effective.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Mis-firing of the NY Mets or Just who is in charge of the PR here?

You don't have to be a New York Mets fan to appreciate the multiple reasons why the team management's firing of manager Willie Randolph and two of his coaches was a public relations disaster.

From a purely public relations point of view, the damage that was done has cracked in so many ways and will continue for so long, that you have to wonder what was going through their heads and who they consulted to make their termination decision. While this was a baseball management decision, the scenario could have been any industry.

The New York Mets have a new $800 million stadium opening next spring and a long sports legacy and fan base in one of the country's largest cities. Now the simple firing of three employees has shaken all of that up, causing a tremendous media and fan backlash, and throwing into question who wants to be associated with what the New York Times' William Rhoden called "a Mickey Mouse operation."

To sum up the situation: With a $140 million payroll, the Mets have underperformed for the past year, with growing displeasure for the way manager Randolph motivated the team and his various in-game moves. While Randolph is a New York sports legend, as dignified and classy as they come, he was getting more and more in the firing line, despite the fact that the aging, bumbling team was assembled by his boss, general manager Omar Minaya. Then last night, after his team beat the Los Angeles Angels out in California, Randolph was surprised to go back to his hotel and find Minaya waiting for him to fire him and his coaches. The Mets sent out a press release at 3:14 am EST announcing the firing. Because of the timing, the story was in no morning newspapers, but quickly hit the wires, the web, television and radio.

Here's the damage report:
  1. Mets beat reporters feel blindsided by a huge announcement sent to them in an e-mail at 3:14 am, appearing to circumvent their deadlines for the next day's paper. They are also miffed because of the way Randolph was dismissed, a few reporters likening it the Grim Reaper waiting for his victim to arrive. RESULT: Vicious nasty stories all over the web filed by those same reporters berating the ownership, calling them cowardly and classless. Instead of having the reporters on their side discussing why the firing was done and Randolph's tenure, the conversation was about the way the firing was done and how the Mets tried to sneak one past them at three in the morning. I know for a fact that daily papers are now working on features about people and their true life inept stories for tomorrow, so the stink of the firing spreads even further than the sports pages.
  2. Fans were divided about Willie Randolph's managerial performance in the past, but now they are united in their disgust for Mets management bumbling the way they fired him. RESULT: Willie Randolph becomes a sports martyr.
  3. With a new expensive stadium in the wings and the SNY cable television network carrying their games, the Mets put themselves in a more vulnerable position with advertisers and fans to support them.
  4. Job candidates are going to have to think twice before working for the Mets organization.

While anybody with foresight could have seen the damage as subtle as a flying sledgehammer, who is running the public relations show at the New York Mets?

* If it's the owning Wilpon family, then that's big problem number one. When executives who are unqualified to handle the press and comprehend public relations strategy take charge without listening to anybody, that's usually a surefire recipe for disaster. The Wilpons should act like good owners and stick only to what they do best: counting money.

* If it's vice president of media relations Jay Horwitz or an outside public relations firm, they should be dismissed. When everybody has turned on management, that is not a sound PR strategy.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Replacing the Pope

NBC Universal has one of the hardest balancing acts to accomplish in a very short time: how do you replace Washington bureau chief and "Meet The Press" host Tim Russert, who died on Friday of a sudden heart attack, heading into the Presidential elections without offending the public and his colleagues?

The New York Times devoted two articles today to the topic: columnist David Carr opining how "Tom Brokaw and others referred to him variously as a priest, a cardinal and even, in the words of his friend Mike Barnicle, a pope." The other piece ponders who replaces a "man of many roles." NBCU president Jeff Zucker says all the right things: "Anybody who thinks they can replace Tim Russert is kidding themselves."

Russert's loyal TV audience is still in shock and mourning. However, by week's end, it will be time to move on and choices will have to be made and announced. Newsday's Verne Gay is already calling for Tom Brokaw to host "Meet The Press."

Replacing an icon is one of the public relations world's most difficult tasks. You are suddenly faced with replacing somebody who is so ingrained in people's minds and hearts, it's more than inserting an implant where a missing tooth used to be. From a public point of view, you have to give them grieving time, understanding and sympathy while somehow finding a way to lead them onwards towards the future. When John Ritter suddenly passed away while shooting his ABC-TV series, the mourning period didn't stop the show but altered the plot. The revised show, which turned its theme into getting past a loved one's death, staggered on for another season before ending.

However, there is no time to stop and change the plot for Russert's role -- the election campaign process still steamrolls along towards November. With NBCU handling the situation deftly so far, the best way to make a favorable public impression is to take Gay's suggestion and at least put Brokaw in the "Meet The Press" seat. Unlike other company stars like Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough, who pack a lot of political heat and are more of "dividers" than "uniters," Brokaw is the folksy midwestern familiar guy that middle America can move ahead with. He is a proven commodity who will not rock the boat and that will allow Russert's audience to heal and be comforted.

Running the NBC-TV Washington bureau is a behind the scenes gig that merely will take a very well qualified person to do, not necessarily a televised personality.

Whoever the face is that NBCU puts in to replace Russert after his funeral, they will have to be a friend and trusted for the public to not feel betrayed.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The new tech company PR defense for dramatic price cuts

Somebody once said the greatest job in the world is doing public relations for Apple. Reporters come to you. Most of the time, you don't say anything. Everything is a big secret until it's revealed. I would have to think most of the job is plugging leaks and not talking to the media.

Apple's cool has made them basically Teflon in the eyes of the media. So when Apple CEO Steve Jobs revealed the latest version of the iPhone would be an astounding $199, nobody questioned him about the possible backlash of customers who paid $599 for each of their original iPhones when it came out almost exactly one year ago.

Less than three months after the original iPhone appeared, the price dropped to $399, angering many of those first timers. Apple quickly offered them $100 store credit to calm them down.

How is the cheaper, more technology revved-up iPhone going to appease all those customers who forked over anywhere from $399 to $599 in less than a year?

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Jobs flicked it away like a tennis ball: "This is the way technology markets work."

It's been a few days since that announcement and I have yet to hear a peep from those original customers.

Credit Steve Jobs for creating the new tech company excuse to the media on customers foolish enough to pay big bucks for version 1.0 of any product -- blame it on the way technology markets work. The public is now supposed to know, understand and assume that what you paid $600 for last week may be a fraction of that price in a matter of months and there's nothing you can do about it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Twitter -- an entertainment industry branding tool in 140 characters or less

Corporate America still hasn't gotten it right with Twitter as an effective marketing vehicle.


Look at the examples cited this week in Adweek, where it's hard to get particularly excited about a Twitter feed from "DellOutlet," which is merely a coupon giveaway. The "RichardatDell" feed is done by an employee with 1,000 followers, but considering that I don't even know more than half the people following me on Twitter, I don't put much credibility in that number. On the micro-blog service, there are plenty of people who will follow just about anybody. That's like signing up for a subscription to a magazine you don't even bother reading -- they don't constitute an invested audience.

Personally, I have gotten very little out of it as a public relations professional. I have to run a business and keep on top of my Facebook page, so the ability to follow dozens of people carrying on tiny non-sequitur "tweets" is like trying to follow raindrops falling from the sky and trying to catch them. I honestly don't have time to poke into my PDA "Going to lunch to buy a meatball sub" and expect it to excite the dozen or so people following me.

But that doesn't mean that for some public figures and marketers, Twitter can be a buzz gold mine, yet to be fully exploited. Twitter can be the ultimate instant fan club.

Take uber-geek web TV host Veronica Belmont. She was going to be named the host of Qore, Sony Computer Entertainment's and publisher Future US' new monthly "program" on the PlayStation Network. While researching her bio, it was brought to my attention she had more than 24,600 Twitter followers, many of whom are probably raving tech dudes who have stalked her since her CNET days. So it was a no-brainer when I suggested to Future US that on the Qore announcement day, Belmont tweet that she's the new program host to her fan legion who clearly follow her every little tidbit. To me, that's an excellent instant viral pipeline of putting Twitter to marketing work.

Another Twitter clever marketing ploy that I am waiting for is taking the guise of a TV show or film character to promote a forthcoming debut. This is the next generation of Cloudmakers.org, the elaborate Internet puzzle game the producers of Steven Spielberg's AI film concocted in 2001. If I'm Warner Brothers, I'd be shooting out stream of consciousness feeds from Bruce Wayne, Alfred the butler, and other "Batman" characters... and for Universal, I'm tweeting as Bruce "The Hulk" Banner.

For non-comic book types, imagine the talk that could be generated by Twitter feeds from intelligence agent-turned-beautician Zohan, Fox-TV's heroine Sarah Connors, Michael Myers' "Love Guru" or Survivor's Jeff Probst.

Down those avenues, there's a genuine emotional and creative bond created between the Tweeter and the followers, not doling out 5% off clips. And talk about low cost -- there's no elaborate web site construction or long turnaround time involved -- you just need somebody to "stay in character."

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Type the word "apology" into Google News and more than 21,000 results appear, taking up more than 100 pages.

Apologies from celebrities to their fans... from celebrities to countries... from newspapers to celebrities... from CEO's to their stockholders... from CEO's to the public... from state legislatures to Native Americans... from countries to other countries... from athletes to their fans...

There are second and third apologies.

Then there are the demands to apologize, and the question lies in the balance if it will ever come.

Today, MSNBC quickly doused a fire when their reporter Courtney Hazlett referred to Spike Lee as "uppity" (and all the baggage that comes with that word). The PR department wasted no time issuing this statement from Hazlett: "Today on 'Morning Joe' I chose my words poorly in describing the relationship between Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee. I take my responsibilities as a journalist seriously and know that words can have a strong impact. I sincerely apologize to Spike Lee and to the viewers for my comments."

How does one measure the sincerity of apologies? There's no question that "apologizing" is a whole sub-genre of public relations, and if the public already casts doubt on publicity, what makes them think an apology is real? Can an apology save a brand that accidentally (or perhaps unthinkingly) offended or harmed people?

It still amazes me that no matter how many articles are written about handling a crisis, with all the world's crisis experts pontificating about every incident in hindsight, some companies still don't follow the basics.

People sometimes have a hard time apologizing for their personal matters, so when they are on the great corporate stage, it's a knee-jerk reaction to to clam up. Inflated egos won't permit any kind of humbleness. Nobody wants to let the public have one iota of doubt about them, lest they appear inferior.

However, if you truly believe apologizing is a tool in public relations, then it's time to bite the bullet, remove your hat and eat humble pie. I consider it a bee sting -- it hurts at first, then it gets better and you move on. After you apologize, you always follow that by explaining how you improve things in the future because what matters most, next to the act of apologizing, is how things will be better moving forward.

Not all situations are as cut and dried as passengers being stranded for hours on an airplane with no food or drink. When we counseled Maxim magazine, there was plenty of irreverent humor, some of it dark, some of it juvenile. If you're an equal opportunity offender, somebody is going to be thin-skinned and not laugh along with you.


In 2003, Maxim illustrated an article about self-defense using a cartoon figure of peace figure Mahatma Gandhi performing various martial arts moves. The Indian community didn't take it too peacefully and before you knew it, message boards were being filled up, op-eds were written and letters were flying. For a while, the editor's reaction was "We're Maxim. Can't you take a joke?" and actually wrote a rebuttal draft to this effect. No, you can't do that -- you have to respect that some people are not going to get the joke. Finally convincing the editor that it's possible for dear readers to get offended and not like the joke, he relented and wrote the right kind of apology, which I immediately shot over to journalists, assuring them it would appear in a future issue of the magazine.

Not apologizing the right way? Well, I will never set foot in another National Amusements movie theater if I can help it. After a disastrous experience taking my family to the company's Cinema De Lux in White Plains, NY, where the ushers put us in the wrong seats and the popcorn stand was unmanned and closed, I wrote a letter to their customer service in Dedham, MA explaining it all and asking for free passes to make up for the terrible time we had. Five days later, an operations manager sent back a short letter saying they were sorry for the trouble and if I ever had another problem, to speak with the theater manager, Sergio. "We hope to see you again at our theater... see you at the movies!" No, I don't think they will.

The fact is, in the public eye, apologies have to come right away. If you've followed the Democratic primaries and read the recent Wall Street Journal article on how Hillary Clinton's campaign stumbled, they explain how her team failed to "humanize the candidate." It is human to apologize. It is good to apologize and perhaps deep down inside, your heart will agree. Lawsuit filings have been stopped, smear campaigns avoided, firings averted, and public sentiment swayed by the simple act of a heartfelt "I'm sorry" or "We blew it." Followed immediately by announcing how things will be better in the future. You've got to make it up your audience.

With discipline, this is template stuff that brings closure to most messes more often than not. Imagine how it feels for you to be apologized to and you'll understand how potent a tool this is.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Forget what they taught you in college about searching for a PR job

June means a whole load of unsolicited resumes arrive in my e-mail box from college graduates around the country. Having been at the receiving end of thousands of cover letters and resumes over the years, I can tell you that nearly all of them are badly done and ineffective.

I am always puzzled as to what career counselors are telling graduates about their job hunting material. It's like they are all living in a time warp where everything is so cookie-cutter and unimaginative.

So to start this blog off, I'm giving out my veteran advice to anybody looking for a public relations position, not just college graduates. You know how they tell you to forget everything you learned in college when you get to the real world? Same applies here.

Your goal is to improve your odds in getting in the door for an interview. If you are a college student, you are up against every graduate who wants a PR job like you. If you already have a job, you're up against internal candidates and a growing pool of unemployed people in a crummy economy. So the burden is on you to absolutely stand out among the vast mediocrity that is out there. If you are smart, think the right way and do the work, you will improve your odds to get the interview.

This is public relations, not pharmaceuticals. So if your job search materials are boring, how can an employer feel you are going to drum up attention working for them in this field?

The person who opens your letter has 3 -5 seconds to decide whether they will keep reading your letter or trash it. So you had better grab them from the very first words. Think of the biggest public relations-related accomplishment you’ve done so far in your career. Start with that. If you interned somewhere and helped with a campaign, begin your letter with: “I helped Joe Blow’s PR firm launch the new brand of Fuzzbucket toothpaste by calling reporters, organizing a press conference, and writing the media alert for the event.” Elaborate a little. Tell them very quickly about other accomplishments. And what you can do for the company you’re writing to.

  • If you’re responding to a blind ad, make sure to address a couple of the ad’s points. If the ad says: “Must be a sports lover,” make sure to say not only how much you love sports, but give a couple of examples of what you’ve done in sports.
  • If you are targeting a company or firm for a job, tell them within the first two paragraphs that you know something about them. Mention a couple of clients (if they are a firm), or what announcements they’ve made lately (if it’s in-house). Show that you have done your homework.
  • Do all the research. Find copies of PRWeek (www.prweek.com), so you can learn what is going on in the industry on a consistent basis. Advertising Age magazine (www.adage.com) will be covering PR more this year. Check out books like Michael Sitrick’s “Spin!” which really give you a flavor for what goes on behind the scenes in publicity crises. Seek out meetings of the Publicity Club of New York and the Public Relations Society of America. Go out of your way to get a public relations internship and see what it’s like from the inside. Visit the web sites of PR firms. Read a copy of O’Dwyers Guide to Public Relations Firms in the library to research potential employers.
  • Show that you really read the ad. Companies get thousands of resumes and cover letters every year. 98% of them are terrible and are immediately discarded because of boring writing, lack of care, not reading the ad, irrelevant experience or a combination.
  • Write a killer cover letter. If you start your letter with anything resembling, “I am writing to you regarding the position you have posted…” or “I am a senior and will be graduating from college in May,” you’re out. B-O-R-I-N-G. Everybody starts their letter like that and it says nothing.
  • Put your accomplishments on your resume and embellish. Even if you’re repeating what you said in the cover letter, this is your chance to embellish. Use bullet points and expand on saying “wrote press releases” or “answered phones” by explaining some specific things you did (i.e. “wrote media alerts for store opening, attracting local TV and newspaper coverage from all outlets” “pitched radio and TV about new product, resulting in five media interviews with company president”). Employers want to hire do-ers, people who accomplish things.
  • Be contrarian -- send an ink-on-paper letter and resume instead of e-mail, which can be easily deleted.

  • Don’t send letters with unusual fonts or colored paper.

  • Be creative if it means something to the person you’re sending it to. But don’t overdo it.
  • Show up 5 to 10 minutes before your scheduled interview time – no earlier. Walk around the block if you have to kill time.
  • Ask for informational interviews if there are no job openings. Networking is critical, so ask if you can meet for 15 minutes for advice and guidance. Many executives who would normally not meet with you feel good about career counseling and will see you. Bring your portfolio of clips or public relations-related work. You never know who they know who can help you out. You want to see as many people as possible and build your network.
  • If somebody offers you an internship, seriously consider taking it. Nothing beats getting real world experience and your foot in the door somewhere. Not only does it look better on your resume, employers like hiring people who have some chops under their belt. Additionally, internships can lead to full time jobs.