Friday, October 31, 2008 reprints my blog post on bad press release writing

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

You can find the article here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reverse psychology

When can a negative be a positive in public relations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Giving it all away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The tunnelvision of tech PR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

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

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

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

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

Don't meet the press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Silent but deadly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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