Friday, July 25, 2008

The Subway Series of Public Relations

In the high-power media capital of the world, the two Major League Baseball teams have one thing in common: they both have brand new baseball stadiums opening in spring 2009. They also both face huge fan backlash when they eventually unveil the absurd prices they will charge for tickets and season plans to these venues.

It will take a carefully planned communication strategy from each team to anticipate and hopefully dissipate the greed accusations bound to come, especially in the microscopic fishbowl known as New York City, where the fans are extremely passionate and vocal, and sportswriters love to stir up trouble at the slightest provocation. Just wait until this one blows up -- you can see it coming a mile away.

On one hand, the Yankees' new stadium hold the same amount of people as the old one, is running over-budget at $1.3 billion, will still be called "Yankee Stadium" and the team executives have kept next year's prices close to the vest. In addition to their in-house communications staff, they have been counseled a long time by New York crisis legend Howard Rubenstein and his firm.

On the other hand, the Mets' new stadium will hold 13,000 less people than Shea Stadium, is right on budget at $800 million, Citibank is paying $20 million a year for naming rights (Citi Field), and word is just leaking now about next year's season ticket fees.

However, the Mets have notoriously been public relations stumblers. Their recent overnight firing of manager Willie Randolph was such a public relations debacle, that it will probably be taught in college courses for years as an example of why timing is everything. The Mets top PR guy, Jay Horwitz, either seems to be over his head or overruled by top management, which raises the odds for inept communications. As far as I know, they have no outside communications counsel.

Those smaller seat numbers at Citi Field loom very large for thousands of fans. Baseball has always been a sport where the average guy can buy cheap nosebleed seats to many games. The view may not be great, you may be seated in the stratosphere, but you were inside the stadium for the ballgame. You could bring your family and enjoy the game -- baseball was always an "everyman's" sport.

It was just a matter of time before the press jumped in to this Citi Field equation of accommodating many less fans for way more money.

NY Post sports media writer Phil Mushnick opened the doors on July 11th when he reported that a friend of his who holds Mets full season tickets will see the price rise from a present $33,000 to $56,700 when Citi Field opens next year. Three days later, Mushnick continued his tirade: "It's new ballpark gentrification: Throw out or move the moderately wealthy and replace them with the indiscriminate stinking rich and corporate buys. So long, folks, and thanks for all you've done for us all these years, you suckers. Arrive home safely and don't come back."

When I was at Shea Stadium last Wednesday, the fear of Citi Field ticket prices was the topic du jour. "We should enjoy this now why we can still afford it!" said one guy in front of me.

The signs already do not look good for a smart PR plan in place for the inevitable fan backlash that sportswriters are beginning to stoke. The NY Daily News fired their first anti-Mets ticket shot by interviewing fans about pending out of this world prices and lack of ticket availability. One fan says: "They're [fans] going to lose interest in the Mets. I know I will if I won't be able to see the game."

What the Mets executive VP of business operations Dave Howard said in response tipped me off that the team's PR wizards are already unprepared and stumbling: "That's almost like 'No one goes to that restaurant anymore because they can't get in.' I don't think that's going to be the case." Howard adds that ticket marketplaces such as StubHub (the official ticket marketplace of the NY Mets, incidentally) would provide sold-out CitiField game tickets.

Last week, Crains NY Business went to town with more specific ticket price increase information and more fan complaints, including from affluent ones. The Mets' response? The Mets did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

If this is the company line, this is going to make the Willie Randolph firing look like a Catskills warm-up act.

Comparing the smaller amount of seats to not getting into a popular restaurant? Does Mr. Howard realize that while people can choose to go to many, many restaurants -- ones that have available seating at all kinds of prices -- there is only one NY Mets team and a stadium they can be seen locally? Talk about bad comparisons. And then steering fans to StubHub for sold-out game tickets, as if that will remove the pain of the situation? Those prices will be only higher than the exorbitant ticket face value, and a piece of that goes into the Mets' pocket as commission.

Mr. Howard demonstrated that his organization is out of touch with reality, and implied greediness.

The Mets need a serious public relations shakeup now if they plan on intelligently dealing with the oncoming damage control once they reveal all their ticket pricing options to current plan holders and fans. How are they going to explain where Citibank's $20 million annually is going to in a smaller stadium?

Blog backlash is already picking up steam too and that's where the fan voices are really going to break out ("Is This The End of Baseball in New York City," "Read This and Weep," "...every seat [at Citi Field] will be a club seat," and "Today's young Mets fan won't be able to follow their team tomorrow from anywhere other than their TV or radio").

When the NY Giants football team recently announced a "personal license program" -- where each season ticket holder will be charged $1,000 to $7,5000 to buy the tickets in the team's forthcoming $1.6 billion "state of the art stadium," team family owner John Mara went all over local radio to explain the pricing, how they wanted to work with each plan holder to accommodate them, and present at least some sense of sympathy.

While there was howling outrage, compare this outreach to the Mets' PR plan of action so far and you know this team is going to have a very huge problem on its hands.

Whatever they say, it will be compared to the Yankees' communication when they announce their ticket pricing. So far for the Yankees, silence is golden, but that will change.

You can call it the Subway Series of Public Relations, a championship played off the field -- who has the better damage control plan? Who will get the fans on their side and knock it out of the park? Who will choose their words correctly?

Stay tuned as this will have more long lasting effects on fans than any current race for the pennant.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The great art of playing dumb

When in doubt... when confronted with out of the blue questions... when you just don't want to say something to a reporter at that very moment... when you need some time to sort it all out... you can just use those magic three words and they'll set you free, at least for a little while...

"I don't know."

I've been phoned by reporters over the years asking if this client's property is up for sale, if that person is leaving, if this company is buying that company, and plenty of queries, some actually veering into the ridiculous.

The corporate world is full of leakers, motivated by revenge, competition or nothing better to do. Not all these leaks are true, as they can merely drag somebody through the mud and play head games through the press. With bloggers and journalists relentlessly competing for news and rumors, they often (but not always) have to check on their truthfulness, no matter how far-fetched the news they've been given. So the odds have increased of public relations reps being on the receiving end of these queries.

Now it is quite possible that you may genuinely not know the answer to the question. Or you may very well know the answer, but you haven't articulated it yet or need to buy time to develop a suitable response.

And that's where those magic three words come in -- "I don't know."

The words "I don't know" are innately born into just about every human being. It develops as a Pavlovian reaction when quizzed by a parent at an early age. For example, a parent asks, "How did those drawings of flowers get on the ceiling?" Or "Who cut eye holes into my hat?" And your reply was instantaneous: "I don't know."

"I don't know" can mean a whole world of things, if you stop and think about it. You don't know the answer... perhaps there is no answer... or there is an answer and you just don't know it yet... or the question is just too hard to answer. There are many mysteries in this universe, ranging from crop circles to just why your first girlfriend broke up with you, and you can't always be in a position to know the answers the exact moment the phone rings, right?

There's nothing insulting about saying "I don't know." Wheels turn internally in many ways and ideally, you're in the loop corporately, but the larger the company, the tougher it is to know every little deal or quirk of human behavior playing out on different floors and myriad departments. Sometimes you just need to see for yourself if what the reporter is asking about is actually true -- not the most pleasant way of discovering news, but better late than never.

"I don't know" is the great placeholder, the pause button to buy time. You are not giving false information for the record. You are not putting your foot in your mouth. You actually appear to be a human being with real faults. You're not saying the infamous "No comment" (yet). Nobody is forcing you to say anything on the record.

After saying "I don't know," you then say the following words: "What's your deadline? I'll be back to you as soon as I find out and I'll give you an official reply."

Now you do one of two things: 1) Find out what the heck is going on or 2) come up with a suitable response. Ahh. Now doesn't that feel better?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How to keep me awake at the next conference panel

Some industry conference panels are more sleep-inducing than reading about Madonna's divorce denials.

The last thing I want to see at a conference I've paid good hard-earned money for is a bunch of presidents, CEO's, marketing VP's and public relations directors explain what their company is and the philosophy behind it.

Too many times I've gone to panels where the speakers are clients of the people producing them, and their presence is more like a returned favor than an invitation to bring something actually new to the table.

In my book, there are a few critical requirements to make any panel worth attending:

* Put yourselves in the audience's shoes. Every attendee should walk out after the panel is over with at least three ideas on how to be better at their job. People go to panels and conferences to be educated and inspired (and network, of course). Panelists should spend two or three minutes explaining their company, that's it. Then they should move on to teaching and informing. Yes, I believe being on a panel requires you to get in teacher's shoes, as corny as that sounds.

* Make the panelists work. For the moderator, the instructions have to be more than "I'll introduce you, tell them about what your company does, and bring your PowerPoint." There is nothing worse than when a panelist shifts to autopilot and brings the same song and dance they give to investors, new employees, and potential clients. Moderators should give panelists a little homework assignment, perhaps challenging them with a "what would you do in this situation" question or "what are the three books that you think everybody should read to do a better job and why?"

* Always have "leave behinds." Not corporate propaganda but one sheet from each panelist containing some key information that would make every attendee a better educated professional. Tips, advice, and beat and department phone numbers/e-mails would do the job.

* The venue should be wi-fi ready. Think of all the buzz mileage you get when attendees live blog from your conference.

* Make sure everybody on the panel has important things to teach, especially if they're sponsors or clients. Yes, they may have gotten an easy ticket on the panel because they already spend money with you, but that doesn't mean they can get away with an empty presentation. All panelists should be held to the same high contribution standards.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Crossing the line with "control"

This is based on a true story about a debate over whether the cart should come before the horse, or vice versa, when it comes to unveiling a new product.

There's a cool new product, something that's quite visual and bound to get a great deal of consumer attention. The PR firm, in conjunction with the product's in-house communications mojos, arranges both in-person and phone briefings with top journalists and bloggers to discuss the product over the two days before the product press release is being issued widely. There will be no exclusives to any publication.

Journalist tick-off #1: give them very little time to write this story which is so important to your product.

A number of journalists ask the PR firm for an advance piece of information and/or artwork so they don't go into the interview blind. However, their client is so paranoid, that they turn down the request. As a matter of fact, the artwork is distributed after each interview.

Journalist tick-off #2: provide no opportunity to develop good contextual questions to ask about your product.

If our profession is truly about public relations, why do corporations and their PR firms abuse this last concept of "relations?" I realize that the fundamental concept of public relations is control, but at what point does it turn against you?

Clearly there are a small group of companies that can get away with this overreaching demand of faith because they are riding a crest of great buzz and admiration, like Apple Computers. However, most companies are not Apple Computers, and it is in their best interest to educate the journalists and bloggers who cover them.

I do not believe in springing information cold on journalists at key executive interviews. I'm not advising to show your entire hand beforehand, but you're doing a reporter an immense favor by sharing some basics on what's to come.

Never in my experience have I seen a journalist cut off an executive at the start of an interview saying they know the story, so let's get right to the questions. The executive always gets their time in to explain their announcement and put it in perspective. Then come the questions and the back and forth. And the questions usually tend to be better thought out as well.

At some point, with enough of this unfounded fear-driven handling of what can be shown and not be shown, what can be said and not be said, is going to backfire by provoking reporter anger. If there's some kind of safety net needed, ask them sign a fair NDA. But at some point, if corporations and PR firms are to establish a bond of trust over the long run, they have to help reporters out in advance a little.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

When a sense of humor is better than saying "No comment."

I'd like to make a comment about "No comment."

For communications professionals, these two magic words are the catch-all for saying to the press that they or their client have nothing to say to a reporter. In many instances, it is probably the only thing that can be said to a reporter, such as any query involving a potential or current lawsuit, or perhaps the time is too early for being quoted on the record for a very important deal or announcement.

There are a lot of people who don't wish to comment out there, judging by merely typing in "no comment" into Google News. Today, there were over 10,000 instances of "no comment."

There are two sides to "no comment." The beauty of it is that there is no lying involved, no words that can come back to haunt you. It functions as a place holder that the reporter may go back to or not. On the other hand, "no comment" can imply guilt and hiding, so in the court of public perception, it may raise eyebrows. It's also a license for a reporter to write or say whatever they want, allowing them to stack the deck in the other guy's favor.

In his book "Spin" (which I can't help referring to because it's so good), crisis manager Michael Sitrick strongly advocates to "always respond -- and respond fully -- to a press inquiry, no matter how off-base. Merely saying, 'No, that's not true' isn't sufficient. You've got to do two things. First, you've got to find out what the reporter's mistaken impression is based on. Then, using that knowledge, you've got to refute it, point by point."

Great advice when the reporter is about to do a slam job, because this is the essence of reputation management.

But what about when the situation is trivial or silly, where a reporter is about to make a tempest in a teapot over something truly superficial? It happens all the time with tabloids and blogs, because sometimes the most insignificant incidents can be magnified into a five or six paragraph story or post.

To this, I say like Sitrick, always respond, but do it with a sense of humor. I just don't see enough PR spokespeople who know when to apply a clever retort to a silly query at the right time. Especially in the celebrity world, where having a sense of humor about the nuttiness of the requests and accusations would be required. It's much easier for any spokesperson to go on autopilot and say "No comment."

I'm not saying that every press response merits a joke or even most of them. You have to suss out the seriousness and nature of the query, because treating a request the wrong way will surely backfire. It's got to be a smart judgment call of just who is asking, where it will appear, and the levity of the situation. Then once you've decided to go this route, it has to be an as-close-to-100% bulletproof reply as there can be, where everybody will get the joke and nobody gets offended.

Sometimes the more ridiculous a query, the more ridiculous a response is warranted. Why? In England, they call it "taking the piss" out of something. I like to say it's taking the air out of the balloon. It subtly signals to the reporter a few things: 1) you've got a sense of humor about the whole inane thing, 2) you're treating it with it proper due, and 3) you're not giving them the same old convenient "no comment." In an unspoken way, you are both in on "the joke." You are also telegraphing to the readers, "This is silly and you know it too, so let's have a laugh and move on."

For example, let's turn to an item in today's Page Six, where a Yankee stadium worker tipped them off that team radio announcer John Sterling for making "a habit of walking over to the dessert table" at the press dessert table "and dipping his finger into the ice cream barrel." The worker adds that Sterling "used the same tablespoon to repeatedly take samples."

Of course, the CBS rep "declined to comment" and the Yankees spokesperson said the team knows "nothing about it."

Something this mad needs an equally mad response. It's the perfect scenario for this tactic because it's just so petty and silly that you just can't treat it seriously. When I read the item, I thought my "spokesperson" response would have been along the lines of "Mr. Sterling knows that the First Law of Seinfeld is to never double dip."

I employed this technique a couple of months ago when my client Felix Dennis, in a highly inebriated state over dinner in the UK, blurted out to a journalist that he had killed a man 20 years ago pushing him off a cliff. The British tabloids ran crazy with this for a couple of weeks and it eventually seeped into a few American media locations. When the NY Post wanted a comment from me, asking if Felix Dennis had really killed a man, I sat down, wrote a few drafts of an appropriate response and told them this:

"Felix has killed many people with his jokes and he has certainly killed a few magazines along the way—his own and others—but as for human beings, that's ridiculous."

The day the quote appeared, I received a number of complimentary phone calls and e-mails, and even the NY Observer tipped their hat in their Media Mob blog.

Reporters all know who gives "good quote." There's nothing wrong with the spokesperson having that honor in the right circumstances.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Marc Ecko and Barry Bonds -- a $750,000 PR stunt bares a shared trait

When hip hop designer Marc Ecko bought Barry Bonds' 756th home run ball last September in an online auction, only to turn it around on his web site and ask if it should be marked with an asterisk, I thought it was the most brilliant PR stunt of the year, if not the most expensive. It cost Ecko $752,467 to buy the ball, and for that kind of money, you could buy a nice house in a ritzy suburb.

Now that the ball was delivered today to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY for one last media coverage rush, I'm not quite sure in the end what the point of it all was, especially for that kind of price.

Ecko offered a poll on his web site: what should he do with the ball -- give it to the Hall of Fame with an asterisk, give it to the Hall untouched, or launch it into space? It didn't matter what the result was -- 10 million people voted on his web site. Ecko was interviewed on national TV, newspapers and wire services about what he planned on doing with the ball. When Barry Bonds called Ecko an "idiot," another surge of press came rushing in.

Now first the mea culpa: my agency handled Marc Ecko Enterprises' PR for a one year engagement around 2003 - 2004. In that time, the only sport I had seen Ecko show any interest in was NJ Nets basketball, where he had a courtside seat at every game.

Certainly a huge hats off to the person who thought to buy the Bonds ball, whether it was Ecko, his public relations VP, an agency, or a friend. Nobody in the press had to ask Ecko even if he followed baseball -- they were just impressed with the huge wad of money he forked over, and the reasoning behind his little poll.

But when you come right down to it, how did this very expensive stunt help Marc Ecko Enterprises? How many more people bought his hoodies or tees because he won the Barry Bonds ball auction? Did any new partners or investors come forth because he had the fate of Barry Bonds' ball in his hands?

Perhaps that was never the goal. Perhaps this may have been a way for Ecko to create a legacy for himself as the man who bought the ball, asked the fans what to do with it, and then donated into the Hall of Fame branded with an asterisk.

One can't help feel that way when reading today's New York Times account, which featured this information not carried on the AP wire story (italics are mine)...

She [Ecko's spokeswoman] said an asterisk was laser-cut into the ball above the Major League logo by a master engraver and that the ball was delivered in a specially designed glass case. The case includes the details of how Ecko decided to plant an asterisk on the ball... Although the ball is in a case, Baker says Ecko understands the Hall may remove it and display it as it sees fit.

This says to me that Ecko wanted to write himself into the Hall of Fame (for a sport I'm not even quite sure he really pays attention to), which seems not too subtly ego-driven to me. Then again, an apt reflection of the man who hit the ball. Perhaps fate really did bring these two together.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Bonnie Fuller proves Michael Sitrick's adage about "finding a lead steer"

You have to hand it to magazine "editrix" Bonnie Fuller for persuading New York Times reporter David Carr write up a great big kiss in front of this past Sunday's business section.

She showed everybody that no matter how despised you are by colleagues and underlings, having cultivated a reputation as a brilliant but very difficult person, being friendly with the right reporter over a long period of time can pay off at just the right time, when you are trying to persuade investors to pony up money in your new venture.

In his out-of-print but very valuable 1998 book called "Spin," crisis communications expert Michael Sitrick advocates "Find a lead steer and the media herd will follow." He writes: "The curious thing about herd animals -- say, cattle -- is that even as they gallop with the group, they sometimes find themselves wondering uneasily if perhaps they're being taken for a ride. Not so much, mind you, that they'll actually break away from the crowd, but enough to keep them watching to see if anyone else feels the same way. All it takes, in this situation, is for one steer to change direction on its own, and the entire herd may wind up executing a complete about-face without missing a stride."

Fuller, one of the most talented women's magazine editors, is legendary for going from publishing house to publishing house, working wonders for each one's business, making everybody internally miserable at the same time, until she is pushed out the door. Each company learned that with Fuller's success there is a tremendous price that was paid -- literally in salary dollars, and figuratively with the hatred she garnered from employees and eventually executives.

American Media, publishers of the National Inquirer and The Star, recently cut short their contract with her. So of course, everybody wants to know what the next act will be. Perusing Carr's article, which reads like an extended version of one of his Monday "Media Equation" columns, it's there 14 paragraphs in and it's not much -- a former Viacom head is seeking to raise "tens of millions of dollars" for a new digital entity called "Bonnie Fuller Media."

That's it. Nothing more. Nothing about what Bonnie Fuller Media will be. That was the news.

Ninety-seven percent of the story was a tribute to Bonnie's publishing world legacy, the highs and the lows, with some choice quotes about her along the way (the best one: "She is a lot like Bill Parcells," said Kent Brownridge, who often battled with her at Wenner Media and is now chief executive of Alpha Media, which publishes Maxim. "He comes, the teams suddenly make the playoffs and maybe the championship, but then wears out his welcome. He will be in the Hall of Fame, but Bonnie, who is truly great at what she does, never seems to get the same credit").

Clearly, David Carr likes Bonnie, despite the baggage she brings, and he's entitled to. She's probably helped him along the way by letting him know of her various career moves -- and that's wise considering she's had bad relations with a number of reporters, notably the New York Post, which goes out of their way to bury her. You can bet that this one "lead steer" made the phones ring at Bonnie Fuller Media on Monday morning.

Will Carr's long and flattering profile change the direction of "the media herd?" For one thing, it's got a few of them positive and curious -- is already wondering "We will ask her more on it at our EconCeleb conference in Hollywood next month on July 23rd, where she is a keynote speaker." But others are clearly not changing paths.