Saturday, August 23, 2008

March of the Wooden Publicists

With Labor Day approaching, it's time to check the pulse of agency employee mental health: do they work with accounts they love and have a vested interest in, or is it a forced march because they're scrambling to work on a project that is less attractive to them than a visit to the endodontist?

Employee happiness is a trickle-down effect that comes down from above, the founders and top level executives who decide what clients to pursue and who handles them if they come aboard.

Some agencies never met a dangling check they didn't want to grab, even if their staff couldn't care less about the client hanging it from the end of a pole.

I've heard of agency presentations where it's a lot of smoke and mirrors -- "yes, of course we handle that!" -- dazzle them with the well-known names of irrelevant accounts, show them some blogs they've done, and somehow the client gets stars in their eyes and says "where do I sign?"

The agency profit grows, there may even be one or two additional headcount, but the price is paid by the staff who works on these accounts. "What do I know about this?" "Where do I start?" "Bo-o-o-ring!"

When there's no emotional stake in a client, when you know you've just been given something to work on that doesn't reflect your expertise or interests, coming to work becomes a chore. This is where you start to dread waking up early, commuting, and then entering your office, knowing you'll be pitching something you frankly have no interest in.

Every agency should have a philosophy of who they want to work with and just as importantly, who they will not work with. I'm not talking just about the proverbial "client from hell," because those can be just about anybody, but what they do and does it pique our interest deep down inside.

For example, my own personal client philosophy: "You didn't go into all the trouble of being in your own business to work with clients you or your staff have no interest in. Because sooner or later, they're going to find out, and in the end, you're going to fool nobody."

When I'm at a presentation, I'll be asked what my client criteria is, and I'll reply: "They have to be something we can really believe in, they have to be people we like, and they have to be something we know we can do a great job with. Also, they can't conflict with any of our present clients."

While this kind of gatekeeping was never going to turn my business into one hundred employee behemoth, it kept us small, nimble, happy and exciting. You see, being the "fastest growing" PR agency means nothing to me compared to being the PR agency who has the most interesting clients. And compelling clients often means satisfied employees who have their hearts in what they're doing, which to me, is the ideal scenario.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Testimonial from a member of the Flack Anti-Defamation League

I used to be called a publicist.

I'd send pitch letters in the mail to the Today Show and Good Morning America, asking them to book my client, wait patiently for a week and then follow-up to find out if they'd do it. I'd fax my client's polls overnight to TV and radio stations with my contact information written on top. I'd pitch Wireless Flash quirky stories with my clients as experts, and if they liked it, they'd distribute my contact information free to thousands of radio stations.

When my friends and I met girls outside a Fire Island bar, they'd ask what we all did. My friends would reply, "Doctor." "Doctor." "Doctor." "Doctor." "Doctor." And I'd proudly say "I do public relations" because it was different and cool. Of course, the girls went straight for my friends because being a doctor was a pretty straightforward job description, and "doing public relations," well, nobody really knew what that meant. "You mean you make the commercials I see on TV?" "No, that's advertising." Yes, it took some explaining to do sometimes.

But then one summer night, I was walking home to my apartment and thought nobody was around. I heard some footsteps behind me. I turned around, but nobody was there. I kept walking and suddenly ran right into three big grungy guys poking at me with their smokes. They surrounded me and sneered, "Where you goin', flack boy?"

"F-f-lack boy?"

"Yeah, flack boy," said the tallest one. "You look like a flack boy to me. Blisters from your typewriter. Red ears from being on the phone all day. What's that, a copy of the AP Stylebook stickin' out of your knapsack?"

"No comment."

"See, boys. I told you if he said that, it would be a dead giveaway."

From that moment on, me and others of my kind had a new label: flack. At first, I thought it was something I did to my clothes -- "Hey, I'm going to the cleaners to get my pants flacked" -- but no, that's not what it meant. It was a name that lumped all of us publicists into some kind of social outcast society where nobody would ever look at us the same way again.

Suddenly, I was not my client's publicist any more. I was their flack. And what I did for them? Flacking. And my profession? Mere flackery.

"Mom, oh mom," I cried to my mother the next time I went home to get my clothes washed. "Why do they call us flacks? Isn't that antiaircraft artillery?"

And she'd reply, with a sad look in her eyes, "Son, there's nothing you can do about it. I told you to go to law school, didn't I? But no, you had to be an English major and apply for a job as a publicist? Now I have to go shopping for groceries just before the store closes because they know... they know I'm your mother!"

My father would take a swig of Jack and say: "I lost my job yesterday at the plant when they found out what you do for a living. Son, it's bad enough that you're a flack, but whatever you do, do not become a hack flack. No, that's the lowest of the low."

Flacks multiplied, like rabbits. The e-mail pitches I once sent to TV producers? They were piled high into in-boxes with all the other flack e-mail. I'd call up reporters and they say: "Who're you flacking for?" When I was quoted in the newspaper, was it as a spokesperson? No, I was "so and so's flack." And Wireless Flash? They now charge flacks $800 a year to run their stories if they feel they're good enough!

I've run into superflacks... ├╝berflacks... people "taking flack"... the "flack community"... "highly paid flacks"... "ex-flacks" (and they weren't laxatives, either)... "flack" jackets... Roberta Flack....

We are now a huge global community of flacks, and we've grudgingly accepted this name thrust upon our profession. Our mission is to fight the defamation of flacks, to secure justice and fair treatment for all. Yes, that means you, Michael Arrington, Robert Scoble, and anti-flack flack Steve Rubel!

There's a lot of flack hate floating around the Internet, whether it's petty little personal blogs to major newspapers spouting "Why People Love To Hate Their Publicists" or "Pushy publicists are easy prey for teasing." We've found cases of Flack Denial, people who firmly believe that there are no such thing as publicists, that press coverage magically happens by itself.

Just be warned that if you see me on the street, and call out, "Hey, flack boy," in a weak moment, I may lose it and cry out to you:

"I am not a flack! I am a human being!"

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Great PR Scams of Our Time #1 -- "The Deli Poll"

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

In the early 90's, getting publicity for delis was difficult. After all, how do you get frequent media placements for pastrami on rye sandwiches? As a matter of fact, things probably got a bit desperate to get the deli anything in the press or they would take a walk from their PR firm. There's only so many times you could pull the old matzo ball eating contest.

Suddenly, the New York Post's Page Six and its rival Daily News gossip column would run these periodic items about polls taken at some deli on major issues of our time. Whereas polling companies like Harris and Zogby used scientific methodology to create a fair sample of the US population utilizing random phone calls in strategic locations around the country, it seems merely consuming lentil soup and half-sour pickles at a midtown deli constituted the ideal cross representation of American thinking.

So you'd open Page Six and read something like: "Nobody makes western movies anymore, but it seems they are still held in high esteem. At a survey taken at Ben's Deli, the majority of customers agreed that John Wayne was the greatest American hero who ever lived, followed by astronaut Neil Armstrong and baseball player Joe DiMaggio."

Or "The Beatles may have broken up 20 years ago, but they are still considered the best live band ever in a survey conducted last week at Ben's Deli. The Rolling Stones, whom many consider the greatest live band, came in a close second while Bruce Springsteen was third."

I don't know about you, but I can't ever recall being stopped at a delicatessen to be asked any kind of burning questions like "Do you think we'll ever find life on another planet?" or "Should Staten Island secede from the rest of New York City?" I must have been eating at the wrong eating establishments. Usually I'm asked things like "What kind of bread would you like your sandwich on?"

When gossip columnists were fed these items, I'm sure they had a good laugh, yet they happily went along and published them. Probably in exchange for items on more noteworthy clients.

Now I'm not saying these polls were not true -- no, no, no -- but I do miss the good old days when I could read about current events taken from delicatessen surveys.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The new mobile marketing: publicist vanity license plates

If you were driving down the highway and noticed that the SUV next to you had a license plate that read "PRSSRLSE," would you honk and wave at them?

Would you roll down the window and shout, "Say, is that for immediate release or embargoed?"

Public relations professionals never hesitate to hand out their business cards at networking events and neighborhood barbeques, so are you proud enough of your profession to put it on your license plate?

I'm going to a new business development PRSA seminar this Thursday and I bet they haven't thought about the viral power of license plates, which has the double advantage of working on the front and back of your car.

I'm contemplating switching to vanity plates promoting my business, about as offline and old school a vehicle as there could be. I'm already the proud owner of a Grand Funk Railroad license plate frame, which promotes my quirky taste in classic rock, but could definitely be the viral marketing tool of the future.

My late father had a license plate frame on his car that read: "I'd rather be dancing." I think we should be promoting our profession with frames that state: "I'D RATHER BE PITCHING."

Contemplate these vanity license plates which public relations professionals can consider for their precious automobiles:

FLACK (paging Peter Himler!)









Do you have any vanity license plate suggestions for publicists? They can't be more than eight characters long. Or perhaps a license plate frame idea?

Please send them in as comments!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Publicist or party planner? The 10th anniversary of "Welcome To The Dollhouse"

Lizzie Grubman -- publicist or party planner?

Lara Shriftman -- publicist or party planner?

Would you trust Howard Rubenstein to plan your son's bar mitzvah reception?

In the 10 years since New York magazine published their renowned story "Welcome To The Dollhouse" about the city's "power girl publicists," the line between publicists and party planners got as skinny as a Vogue magazine editorial assistant's waistline.

I know, I keep calling them party planners and they probably would cringe at calling them that. Yet, like them or not, Grubman and Shriftman are still around and have spawned all kinds of imitators in their wake, like Fingerprint Communications, where they market themselves as public relations firms... but are they really?

The term you hear with all these companies now is "branding agency," since they specialize in throwing events for big corporate clients, trying their best to wrangle talent who can walk the red carpet, inviting "tastemakers," opening the doors to tabloid photographers, and attempting to plant items in Page Six the next day. In my experience, there are always a lot of promises by these firms for celebrities attending their clients' events, but it is essentially a risky gamble in which they still get paid whether Blake Lively shows up, or it's an actress from a canceled Fox TV show from two years ago.

OK, I'll buy that description of "branding agency." But it all seems like a gussied-up version of party planning to me, with very little public relations involved.

I guess it all depends on your definition of public relations. If it's knowing to invite the Entertainment Tonight crew and photographer Patrick McMullan, and where to place them for the grip and grin, then I'd say there's a token amount of publicity skill involved. Knowing the right names to call in to Page Six and Rush & Molloy on the morning after the party qualifies as minimal junior-level PR skills.

Yet, there does not seem to be much strategy involved except to keeping exes and camera crews apart at the party. What's the end-game ambitious play? Does scoring an item in Page Six reap huge rewards? For most clients, having your logo on the wall behind the celebrity is a big score, and you pay these firms serious money to arrange it that way. Has there been enough "cool" delivered for clients to make this a successful return on investment?

A Grubman employee interviewed at my office once who explained why she was looking for a new gig. She was in her mid-20's, promised a health insurance plan for months which never materialized, and paid below a typical entry-level salary. She described the agency as a constant turnover whirlpool, and as soon as somebody left, another desperate-for-a-job-right-out-of-college attractive woman would replace her. As a business owner, this would seem like a rather cold-hearted but extremely profitable way to run a firm, but in reality, it was morally reprehensible as an employer and role model. The operation didn't offer much training, finessing, growth or longevity, just barely-paid bodies setting up events and moving glamorous celebrities along.

Last month, Shriftman and her partner Elizabeth Harrison published their latest book. Was it about public relations strategy, social media, how a woman can succeed in public relations, or crisis communications options?

The name of the book is "Party Confidential: New Etiquette For Fabulous Entertaining."

The Eight Most Overused Phrases in Public Relations

In public relations college courses around the country, they're teaching how to write a press release, plan a campaign, draft a corporate speech, and how to work with journalists.

But one thing you won't find in the textbooks are the oft-used go-to phrases that public relations professionals lean on when a reporter calls or e-mails looking for comment. These phrases and responses are written in stone and probably go back to the Paleolithic Era, when some caveman had to explain to the rest of his tribe what the large mysterious black monolith was that just appeared outside their home on the rocks.

At one time, these phrases may have carried a lot of weight in the press, but now they seem as fresh as doing "the wave" in a baseball stadium. Yet, they are still used often to make (or not make) a point. Somebody crafted these words carefully to avoid misinterpretation or perhaps really saying anything at all, so I would not be surprised if a lawyer was somehow involved in their creation.

Perhaps it is high time to retire some of these phrases, since they are used verbatim over and over again. You would think the same spokesperson wrote everybody's script that they kept in front of them. And with that retirement should come new phrases to replace them, just to keep the media intrigued and on their toes.

Here are the eight deadly phrases, and possible new replies that the able-bodied publicist can add to their bag of magic media relations tricks. Beware, as all of them have high annoyance factors and may cause journalists to despise the profession even more.

  • "No comment": I have to start with the most common one, which I wrote about at length previously. An all-purpose "I have nothing I want to say" pair of words that truly has nothing to add or subtract to the conversation, will not admit guilt or innocence, and is basically a placeholder until one hopes the reporter goes away or there's something more clever to say. Despite best intentions, it usually implies you're hiding something, whether you mean it that way or not.
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "Fuggedaboutit!" More intimidating than the original, especially when used with a heavy Brooklyn accent. I suggest you watch the film "The Warriors" a few times to perfect the tone and emphasis on the "ged" syllable. The reporter may think twice about calling back for a response.

  • "He/she is leaving to spend more time with their family" or "He/she is departing to pursue other interests": When a company takes the high road and doesn't want to get their fingers dirty in whatever mess has been dwelling internally, these are the old stand-bys lines when somebody is leaving and they just don't want to talk about it. Employment can be a litigious minefield, so the less said, the better. There's an ironic humor to these particular phrases because let's face it, if they are now unemployed, they probably are spending more time with their family or working on their tennis or golf game. However, when you read these lines, you just don't buy it, though. They've been stated millions of times as part of statements and press releases, and by that very overuse, you know there's more to the story. So let's just drop the pretense!
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "We've got an amazing job opening here at one of the hottest companies in the business!" Turn the tables and take advantage of this sudden open position by promoting it to potential job candidates! Yes, you can wish the sucker well as they're leaving out the front door, but don't forget, you have to replace them right away. So you may as well make it a call to potential job candidates and look good in the process.

  • The lawsuit... "has no merit"/"is frivolous"/"is an abuse of process": In this great litigious land, there are two sides to every argument, and the one on the suit receiving end basically wants everybody to know this matter is a lot of BS. You can bet the defense will come up with one of these handy phrases to explain what a waste of time and money the suit is. It's usually followed by something along the lines of "The truth will be proven in court" or some other virtuous statement. I'm always expecting the plaintiff's attorney to say something like, "Well, you'll see who has merit, bud."
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "Can't we all just get along?" An absolute direct plea for sympathy from the public, implying that you really don't want to fight, you may even be an innocent bystander and that you'd rather just settle this over a beer and game of darts than take up the court's precious time.

  • "We don't comment on stories based on rumors and speculation" or "We don't comment on speculation and rumor": Well, what do you comment on? In a shaky economy of takeovers and plugs being pulled, surrounded by lots of blogs, speculation and rumor are practically a commodity. And everybody knows that if you read it on a blog, then there must be a kernel of truth to it, right? Who does not want to know who is in trouble, who is on their way out, who is being acquired and who is doing the acquiring?
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "If I find out, you'll be the first to know." The ultimate in service and friendliness to a reporter. If they weren't your pal before saying this, you'll be tennis partners in no time with this helpful reply. Of course, if you say this to more than one reporter, you may have to do a conference call with them when you do find out.

  • "They're on vacation and can't comment at this time": Very similar to the first classic phrase but with a twist. It's not like the CEO doesn't want to speak with you... they're on vacation, so they're unavailable to communicate! I wish I could give you a comment, but, dang, the CEO's just not around so I'm just plain out of luck! Of course, Carl Icahn may have just announced a hostile takeover of your board, at the same time the CEO decided to go skeet shooting in Pennsylvania. Let's face it, the CEO gave you orders -- "You are never to interrupt me while I am on vacation or I'll have your head! And don't say anything to anybody until I get back! Not even traffic directions!"
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "They went on a train trip through the mountains of Outer Mongolia, and the cell phone reception is really bad there. Can this wait until they text me back?" Going on vacation doesn't sound far enough. Your CEO really needs to be out of touch so basically everything stops until your CEO's return. Upping the ante, you can also opt for: "They are on a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, and told me before they left that any interruption would untangle complex negotiations that may accidentally set off a war in the Middle East and escalate to a global conflict in which we may never recover." Well, heck, it's hard to argue with that!

  • "They have ended their romance, but remain friends": Celebrities break up just like you and me, except they often have spokespeople announce it for them. It's an admirable ploy since publicists want to make their clients seem like civil mature adults like that famous trio Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. However, life is usually not this tidy. Wouldn't you love the publicist to actually say what the rest of the mere mortals do when they break up: "They ended their romance, so now he's a total wreck, drinking heavily, and writing some new song lyrics about how badly it all ended. You can read about it on his blog."
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "He's back on the market so let the canoodling commence!" Let's face it -- your client will be "exchanging more than glances" with somebody else in the immediate future, so you may as well let the cat out of the bag to Page Six and other gossip columnists. No tears are involved and it still does not show that any real heartbreak has been experienced, so your client's dignity is intact... somewhat.

  • "They ask everybody to respect their privacy at this difficult time": The newest phrase on the list, a result of scandal, divorce, and embarrassment becoming the soup du jour with the advent of blogs, TMZ and investigative reporting, it is essentially a plea to "back off, bud." Employed by actors (i.e. Christian Bale for allegedly slugging his mother and sister in a London hotel) to politicians (i.e. former Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani's estrangement from the rest of his family), the statement implies that somehow any further reporting on the story is an infringement on privacy. Now when did that ever stop anybody? Just for the record, Lindsay Lohan's publicist asked that people "please respect my privacy at this time" after the actress checked into rehab in January 2007. I guess the statute of limitations on privacy respect ended pretty shortly after that.
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "My client has dug them self into a hole all the way to China, therefore there's just no point writing about them anymore." Back in the 70's, the very warped writer Chris Miller said in National Lampoon magazine that if you didn't know how to end a story, just have all the characters run over by a truck. So why can't this theory be applied to public relations? There's always the religious salvation approach: "My client has found God written on the cap of a Snapple bottle and has decided to devote the rest of their life to working in a garden on a hill in Italy." Not only will you get privacy, you'll get admiration!

  • "We have not seen the lawsuit": The ultimate time killer when "no comment" will not do. When a lawsuit is filed, somehow it seems to take long, long time for the defendant's attorneys to actually lay eyes on it. That suit could be on the bottom of a towering pile of papers or they are at a McDonald's for lunch all the way across town from where the lawsuit is filed. Ever wonder why nobody in the legal profession has ever publicly stated how long it takes to get possession of a lawsuit? Or how long it takes to read it? While a great device to provide a little time while you figure out something better to say, the distinct disadvantage is that the plaintiff's lawyer has already piled on the sordid details of the case to the press, with juicy quotes and making you look like dirt.
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "I'm legally blind, such bad cataracts you shouldn't know from, so I have actually not seen the lawsuit. I'm waiting for my secretary to come back from lunch and read it to me, and then I'll let you know what I think." This seems a little more legitimate, don't you think?

* A special thanks to my wife Valerie and friend Nora for suggesting a couple of these prizewinners.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The building sports fan backlash, part 2

Another gauntlet was thrown down in the press today regarding the absurdly high price of renewing season tickets at new professional sports stadiums, this one with the NY Giants. As I wrote the other day, this is a public relations nightmare in the making.

How will the NY Giant-owning family respond publicly to large articles like this column written by the New York Times' Harvey Araton? My reaction to reading it was: "Ouch!"

Once these stories like this reach ground level real people proportions, it's like igniting tinder in a forest. Araton paints the sad tale of 75-year-old lifelong Giant ticket holder Lou Palma:

"Palma never left during the lean years, and might even have talked himself and his sons into cobbling together $700 per ticket per game in the new stadium for the equivalent seats that he said this season will cost $100 per.

But $80,000 in four installments for the right to pay a staggering ticket markup in the midst of an economic downturn? He could go to Europe and live lavishly, or finance his grandchildren’s college educations. After all these years, all the money spent, he was put on the clock, given a month to respond, to peel the sticker containing his personal information, attach it to the application on the interior back cover and surrender to a $371 million fan-fleecing scheme."

The final part of the column just nails it right through the heart:

“There is no sports franchise in the world with a greater history than the New York Giants, and no sports franchise has more loyal fans.”

And Lou Palma says, “Where is their loyalty to me?”

OK, Mara family and their public relations machine... how do you respond to this?