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


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


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 (, 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

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 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


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

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Lawyers, Guns And Money: What Publicists Can Learn From The Legal Profession

I don't know where lawyers and publicists rank in the public's view of occupations -- perhaps not far from car salesmen and David Hasselhoff's hair stylist -- but the two professions have more connections than anybody would care to admit.

Of course, lawyers (or the fear of lawsuits filed by them!) are often behind some of the most overused phrases in public relations, as discussed earlier.

Prominent lawyers often act as their own publicists, as they've mastered gossip column leaks and theatrical quotes to paint their clients as innocent victims and their adversaries as greedy, unethical dirt slugs. Isn't it always "the legal department" who holds up the approval of a press release the longest?

As a publicist, you have to admire how some lawyers can run the media circus, become regulars on CNN and Fox News Channel, and sway public opinion better than global communications conglomerates.

However, unlike lawyers who borrow from the PR handbook, there's very little the public relations profession takes from lawyers. As despised as lawyers can be seen -- and boy, can they muck up simple contract negotiations -- you have to admire some of their most common practices.

One of them is their elaborate and constructive system of business referrals. In the legal world, there seems to be an understanding that if a case or client comes your way that you don't want to or can't handle, you can refer them to somebody who can, and in return, get a small piece of the action.

I know one attorney who was tired of his staff, fired them all, and now works alone, spending most of his time making money referring clients to other lawyers. This arrangement enables him to keep shorter work hours and play more tennis, and let's face it, what a sweet deal that is.

However, you couldn't do this if you were in public relations. "Referrals" is a dark, gray area where there really are no rules. Yes, I've heard of a few very large firms who toss off smaller clients to PR firms for a fee, but those are in the small minority. In public relations, referrals seems to be a "gentleman's game," where mostly nobody asks for a fee, and there's a hopeful understanding that the gesture will be reciprocated.

While that's generally a nice format, it takes the whole motivation aspect out of the equation. It's very easy for a PR firm to say "I"m sorry, we can't help you with that, our hands are tied, good luck with your endeavor" and let it slip out the back door. You don't want to help this spurned client into the hands of a competitor either. So nobody wins at all -- the client has no PR firm, and neither you nor anybody else gets any kind of benefit.

However, if there was referral money involved, the game would change dramatically for everybody. Suddenly, you'd have a good reason to refer a client to a better suited firm -- to make money for doing nothing. And the other firm benefits from getting the new business they ordinarily may not have been privy to. And the client loves it that you've spared them further searching and given them what they need. A side benefit: the other firm will be thinking of you when the same situation arises there. Everybody wins.

In the many years I've been in business, I've only been hit with the referral fee deal twice and both were the same conditions: 10% of the monthly fee for the first year, billed on a monthly basis when the client's check comes in. This seems fair to me, especially because it has the one year end time, as opposed to dragging the fee on forever.

I'd like to see the referral fee area be brought more out into the open at PRSA and IABC panels because it's a topic that truly can help the whole profession profit and succeed, while establishing new relationships between companies that may have never existed otherwise except to outduel each other on RFP's.