Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some executives should not be speaking to the press

This was a little scary to read coming from the mouth of a high-ranking executive of a public company. Didn't anybody on the company's communications staff review what this man said to Fortune magazine?

In the December 8, 2008 issue, the publication has its regular "Three-Minute Manager" feature where they ask three top executives three questions on a big overall topic.

The subject this time: I need to cut costs dramatically. How can I find smart ways to do it?

Opening question: How do I identify where I'm spending too much?

James Dallas, SVP of quality and operations, Medtronic: "Bring in third-party groups that specialize in benchmarking. For example, we hire experts in areas like telecom to help."

Third question, one inch below the first one: What are some reductions companies often overlook?

Dallas: Hired consultants and contractors are big expenses that often get overlooked. While most companies pay very close attention to their internal headcount, they don't focus as much as they should on how much they are spending on these third-party resources."

Uh, Mr. Dallas, make up your mind -- do you hire "third-party" groups to "benchmark" for Medtronic or are they "big expenses?"

Friday, November 21, 2008

A-Rod is no hero for Guitar Hero World Tour

I love the new ad for Guitar Hero World Tour that parodies Tom Cruise's famous living room air guitar scene accompanied by Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll." However, they cast four name-brand superstar athletes when in fact, only three of them merit the title of "hero" to be looked up to.

Tony Hawk is a hero.

Michael Phelps is a hero.

Kobe Bryant is a hero.

But A-Rod is no hero.

A-Rod may be an excellent athlete and one of the greatest baseball players of the last decade. But as a human being, he's pretty despicable and does not set a good example to any kid.

Did the people who cast this commercial have sudden memory loss about his recent escapades cheating on his wife Cynthia -- notably Madonna -- and getting caught with the paparazzi in the act? Did they remember A-Rod's announcement during the pinnacle game of the 2007 World Series that he was opting out of his Yankees contract so he could greedily get an even more lucrative deal?

There's a nice long list of great baseball players who really could be the "hero" in the new Guitar Hero World Tour game instead of A-Rod: Derek Jeter, David Wright, and Ryan Howard are just a few of them.

When I see A-Rod slide onto the floor with his scowl at the beginning of this ad, he just should have kept skidding right out of sight.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Do you really need a press release to do the job?

Do you really need a press release to break news and make an announcement?

If you are a publicly traded company, it's required by the SEC to issue releases and information on approved newswire services such as Business Wire.

But beyond that? Certainly many company executives believe that just about everything merits a press release: deals, personnel, new offices, closed offices, product launches, product expansions, you name it. Our business culture has enforced the Pavlovian trigger of sending out releases for all those reasons.

Let's put aside the issue of raining down press releases on every journalist's and blogger's head. How many of these things do you really need to issue a press release for? Why use a press release at all to get the job done? Are we so used to drafting, editing and issuing them, that it's autopilot for every public relations professional without thinking to stop -- can't I get the job done without this?

To be sure, there are agencies whose sole mission in life seems to be to crank out releases, issue them over the paid newswires, charge them back to their clients, and somehow pretend that's going to generate the placements. It amazes me that this ruse, which seems to be particularly heavily practiced in the tech/web sector, Silicon Valley and the entertainment industry, is still pulling the shades over the eyes of so many clients. No wonder why they end up feeling burned by their PR firms.

However, sometimes the situation is not handed on a platter to publicists. There have been dozens of times when my clients want to issue a press release, but one of their partners in the announcement does not want one, yet they are fine with getting coverage. For a number of publicists, this would put them in a complete bind because it would actually force them to pitch a story cold with no release to fall back on.

It all boils down to this: a press release is no substitute for great strategy, relationships with the press, and the execution of that plan.

A good publicist should be able to break news and create finessed stories by contacting the reporters, producers, bloggers, editors and bookers they know. Either by picking up the phone, sending off an e-mail, or ideally, both.

If you've got a well-planned strategy of who to reach out to, knowing what reporter would like the story, aiming high for impact, and taking into account the best timing, then there's no need to play "let's throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks" by issuing a press release cold.

Any non-public company who watches their in-house publicist or outside PR firm spend their money issuing paid newswire releases or blasting them out shotgun style with no advance game plan for impact is only fooling themselves.

If you really want to see what your PR people are made of, challenge them to make an important announcement without a paid wire service press release and see what they deliver.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sports agent uses the press to get over the hill client one more contract

In today's NY Daily News, you can see why sports agents get paid the big bucks. They have no shame when trying to shill for their clients to get a fat contract.

Today's case is all the more interesting because it's the agent for pitcher Pedro Martinez, who has spent much more time on the sidelines injured for the past two years than actually pitching.

Pedro wants to squeeze one more year of money out of somebody, and why shouldn't it be his former employers at the NY Mets and their super-sized payroll? With no subtlety whatsoever, Pedro's agent has his day in the press to beg, er, ask for one more contract.

Pedro's agent went exactly by my public relations playbook in making his case -- saying your client would like to play in New York, and saying your client has numerous suitors, but not indicating how many or who they are.

I don't understand why sportswriters allow themselves to be willing vehicles for such obvious smoke and mirrors. Try not to laugh when you read this excerpt.

Pedro Martinez still has "a lot of baseball left in him" and would like to finish his sure-fire Hall of Fame career in Flushing, according to his agent.

Fernando Cuza told the Daily News yesterday that Martinez would "like to stay in New York." Cuza added that while the Mets are Martinez's top choice, they are only one of many possible suitors for the 37-year-old pitcher.

"He's not ready to retire. He had a tough year, first with the injury and then with the death of his dad. It took a toll. But Pedro's put all of that behind him. He's very competitive and would like to finish his career strong," Cuza said. "He feels fantastic and he's been working hard."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The cat and mouse PR game continues -- it's the Mets' turn to volley

The crazy cat and mouse PR game between pitcher Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez and the NY Mets, as we've been following it all this week.

A couple of days ago, K-Rod's agent said to the NY Post that his client would be a "good fit" for the team and can pitch in pressure situations.

Today, it's the Mets' turn to volley back through the press, now via Newsday's David Lennon. Everything is playing exactly to script, with the reporter using the famous tag line of "a person familiar with the club's thinking."

Another person familiar with the club's thinking indicated that the Mets are not completely sold on K-Rod, but that could have more to do with the agent's early talk of a five-year deal. With injured closer Billy Wagner still collecting $10.5 million this season as he rehabs from elbow surgery and the Mets' reluctance to go long-term on pitchers, they'd happily sign Rodriguez to a three-year deal and increase the annual salary to make it more palatable for him.

The unsubtle message being tossed back in K-Rod's agent's court is "we don't want to give your man a five-year deal, so don't hold your breath!" Of course, with a little subtlety, they are also saying "There are other fish in the sea."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Baseball agents know how to pitch as well as their clients

Pay attention, personality publicists. If you want to see how to negotiate a contract through willing journalists, it's time to pay attention to the back pages of the tabloids.

Not surprisingly, today's New York Post carried the first excellent example. Relief pitcher Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez's agent Paul Kinzer played Mets beat writer Bart Hubbich perfectly just before free agency season opens after midnight tonight, using the exact approach and similar phrasing I discussed just last week.

K-Rod's agent told The Post yesterday that Rodriguez is excited about the Mets and considers them "a good fit" among the four teams supposedly hottest in pursuit of the strikeout artist.

"K-Rod's pitched in high-pressure games, he's been in a pretty big market since he was 19 years old and thrives on it," said agent Paul Kinzer, who wouldn't name the other three clubs interested in his client. "New York and the Mets are very attractive to him."

Those two paragraphs alone are a text book example of how to play the game and get all your key messages in the shortest amount of space.
  • Said client would be a "good fit" in New York - CHECK. New York teams have the biggest payrolls in the sport, so just aim right for the top by planting an item in the local market.
  • Said client can thrive in high pressure games and has worked in "a pretty big market" - CHECK. Let the press quote your client's qualifications. After all, you are pitching as much as your client does for a living!
  • Don't name the other teams who you say are interested in your client - CHECK. Make it seem that your client is desired by many, driving up interest and hopefully the payday at the same time.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I sponsored HARO and here's who replied

On a whim, I decided to sponsor a recent Wednesday afternoon edition of Help A Reporter Out (HARO) and see if I could acquire any business from it.

With enough exclamation points to rival a high school senior's yearbook and more smiley faces than my son's IM conversations, proprietor Peter Shankman breathlessly e-mailed me the benefits, including having more than a "96% open rate" and reaching over 35,000 people.

OK, I was in. I requested any afternoon but a Friday (typical publicist's allergic reaction to Bad News Friday), sent Shankman a couple of paragraphs about myself, and rolled the dice to see who would respond.

First, my escape clause: in explaining who the respondents were, I will say that I am just one person putting up an ad, and clearly not representative of everybody who sponsors an issue of HARO. There have been a few solo agents who have posted on the newsletter, and their experiences could have been very different from mine. I am not making any judgments on the respondents. I am just going to tell you who they were in general because HARO receives an awful lot of buzz and others may want to consider sponsoring an issue.
  • The dozen people who contacted me were either a small business, an author or an expert.
  • Almost none of them knew what the cost of public relations was.
  • When I told them what public relations cost (and I was quoting them on the low side, knowing their small size), I could tell it was far more than they had anticipated.
Here are examples of the people who contacted me:
  • A self described "struggling author" publishing a book with a small publisher. He received 50 cents for every book sold, so wanted to know how much a PR campaign would cost.
  • The editor of an online teenage magazine wanted to know if I had any clients to feature.
  • A one-woman PR shop in Arizona handles a spiritual/self-help author whose third book will be published by a Simon & Schuster imprint. She wants me to book him on NYC-based national TV like "The View," "Live with Regis & Kelly," Fox & Friends, and MSNBC.
  • The NJ man who runs a site devoted to dividend-paying stocks. sells two ad spaces on the site and he has content deals with, AOL Money & Finance, and Yahoo! Finance. He spent more than 35 minutes on the phone discussing publicizing him and his site.
  • A Long Beach, NY-based spiritual counselor "interested in adding a 'one-to-many' element to my work, so that my counsel may reach my intended audience in an effective way. I would love to have a column in a magazine, be a contributor on a morning show or be a guest on a radio show."
  • A North Carolina-based woman who ran a site selling at-home menu subscriptions, videos and books, who had a lot of on-set TV experience from a previous life acting as a VNR spokesperson. She was looking to drive traffic and build up her brand nationally.
  • A New York-based psychologist who has had many TV gigs, some of them long-term national ones, who was looking for a publicist for the first time to help her book new appearances.
  • A Rockland County, NY-based woman who asked if I had any clients who wanted to donate items to her corporate gift basket distribution business.
Draw your own conclusions or not.

I think HARO is a great and valuable free product for both journalists and publicists. My hat is off to Peter Shankman for making a business of it. I don't know how he has enough hours in the day to assemble it, but somehow he does and makes money.

Outside pitch: what publicists can learn from off-season baseball

"I'm your vehicle, baby, I'll take you anywhere you want to go...."
-- The Ides of March, 1970

Now that the 2008 baseball season is in the rear view mirror and the general managers' meetings are on in Dana Point, Calif., let the scurrilous and questionable rumors begin!

For the next five months, fans will be subjected to more professional agent sell jobs masquerading as newspaper and web "column items" than a year of viewing.

Parrying the other way will be general managers, who have their own worn-out stock phrases to carry a message of their own.

You think Fortune 500 executive can be mercenary when it comes to playing mind games in the press?

Sports fan or not, this is public relations at some of its most manipulative and worth examination by everybody.

Between now and through 2009's spring training, sports agents not only have to get truckloads of bucks for their marquee clients, but the ones who are moseying along or past their peak and looking to get a gig or invited to camp. So they float carefully-worded missives to reporters, using them as vehicles to somehow get the attention of general managers, scouts and executives about their client.

You'll easily recognize these slickly planted stories in the back pages of your newspaper.
  • You can expect to hear the names of the highest paying markets, like New York City, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles.
  • Those cities will often be inserted into the phrase, "He'd like to play in...."
  • Agents saying that two or three teams are interested in his client, but refusing to name even one of them.
While it seems tabloid sportswriters will take any item they can get, most carry as much credibility as Britney Spears pleading her case for good motherhood. Every day it seems there's another volley of rumors and innocuous statements, meant to heighten client value and appear in demand (for the highest dollar, of course). Celebrity publicists are good at this little game, and really, how far apart are they from athletes these days?

Well, two can play that game, so you can bet GM's know their way around a backdoor through another hungry baseball writer or they'll just come up with their own poker face statement right out in the open. If you think GOP political candidates repeatedly calling themselves "mavericks" was a study in obsessively staying on message, here's where the big boys come to play.

Mets general manager Omar Minaya is a master at this game. He's got one phrase he loves to use to reporters, with slight variations, in just about any scenario, whether he's negotiating with at least one agent over an open position or being asked by a reporter if he's interested in acquiring a particular player. As a matter of fact, Minaya used it today for the first time since the baseball post-season began last Wednesday.

New York Times sports reporter Jack Curry wrote that "if the Mets ate most of the $18 million left on [present second baseman] Luis Castillo’s contract and traded him, they could sign [free agent Orlando] Hudson."

To which Minaya uttered his famous reply: "Right now, I think Luis Castillo is going to be our second baseman."

This is a variation of his more commonly used "I'm satisfied with our team as it is."

Every publicist should take note of these words because they can serve great purpose in the corporate world with their connotations:
  1. I'm satisfied, but it does not mean I'm done wheeling and dealing.
  2. All that matters is how I feel about this team, not you.
  3. Unless somebody has an offer to blow me out of my socks, then don't both calling my mobile number.
This is a brilliant compact package of holding your cards close to the deck and not budging one inch to pressure, while implying some kind of optimism.

Rich divorce cases, celebrity tantrums and off-season baseball: it's a wonderful world of insinuation, accusations, denials, and a crock of BS.