Monday, December 22, 2008

Value investing in public relations

The public relations profession is ending 2008 getting a good smack, but somehow, the boat rights itself and sails on.

TechCrunch domo Michael Arrington stomps his feet and declares the embargo is dead because some "PR firms are out of control" so everybody has to suffer.

Brunswick Group partner Nina Devlin was allegedly the unwitting "golden goose" of her husband's inside stock trading scheme. As an additional consequence, her firm lost the Dow Chemical M&A account.

Tech client turnover was 30.4% in 2008, according to StevensGouldPincus, yet the overall industry was a 22% rate, one percentage point lower than last year.

And although there are no official numbers, business is tougher than usual, but not as bad as being an investment banker for Lehman Brothers or Citigroup.

Global advertising giants like Omnicom and WPP may lay off thousands of employees, but somehow, despite the rocky waters, PR hangs in and there are still opportunities to be found with enough patience, networking and referrals.

The saving grace for PR has got to be value. That's the magic watchword these days -- "value" -- for consumers and businesses alike. For holiday shopping season, everybody is looking for the best bang for the buck, where they will get the most for their money. It leads them to JC Penney and Kohl's over Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.

Unless a company invests thousands or millions of dollars in an advertising campaign, or goes on a blitz of buying Google Adwords, neither of which is high on the scale of ROI and credibility for a serious ramp-up, nothing equates to a smart, creative, well-executed public relations campaign. That is, as long as it's done by somebody who knows what they're doing.

A one-time New York Times or Wall Street Journal ad may cost $120,000 out of pocket, but for that amount, you can get a year's worth of actual credible press about you, done with finesse and strategy. That kind of action can move lips... and incoming revenue figures.

As bad as the economy looks, with relentless stories of layoffs, unsold cars sitting on shipping docks, bailouts, cut benefits and services, this may be the redeeming time for the public relations industry. There will always be a few bad apples just like any other profession, but when companies seek the most cost effective way to communicate their messages and sell their product, suddenly, PR looks like a damn good deal. Cheap chic, like shopping at Target.

Just because we're in the middle of the worst recession in 40 years doesn't mean companies are taking a vacation from expanding into fertile territory for new revenue streams and pumping up their brand names. Some of those companies are 800-pound gorillas which can steal market share dramatically.

Do you sit idly by, hoping that your sales force will somehow save the day or do you put public relations into action and take turf for yourself before others do?

This is the time for a value investment into the public relations professionals who can act like your own personal Cabinet advisers and executors. While online click through rates fall and companies switch ad agencies like musical chairs, a good PR counsel knows how to master both traditional and digital media to keep the drumbeat going.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I'm taking a holiday from holiday cards

This is my official "get well soon" card to the greeting card industry.

In the last week, I have never seen more lame, bland and boring holiday greeting cards than I have in years.

I admit, I've had a beef with card companies for years for their never-ending narrow-minded views. Father's Day cards assume all men are slobs who watch TV like couch potatoes or blow off everything for a golf game. Mother Day's cards assume all women wash clothes and pick up stuff from the floor all the time. I don't know how you could fit everybody into these outdated stereotyped little "downer" boxes. There's nothing empowering about these card's intentions.

The world has become culturally more sophisticated and diverse, but for the major greeting card companies, it hasn't.

Maybe the economy has forced Hallmark and American Greetings to recycle the same designs that they've had for decades, making them very profitable. But I feel like I'm watching the recent baseball playoff season on Fox TV again with the same mind-numbing DirecTV "Vacation" parody commercials played endlessly until I want to sign an affidavit that the last thing I would ever purchase is a satellite dish.

I rifled through Papyrus in Grand Central Station and was appalled by the same card packages I've seen every year: tumbling polar bears, Santa hitching a car ride with his reindeer, skaters at Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral in the snow, and a dove with a branch in its beak. I went to one of these "paperie" stores: same thing. Today, I went to the local card store and turned right back out the door.

In bad economic times, people need cheer, not overabundant morose sentiments. Yes, comfort and warmth and all that stuff is good too, but not monopolizing all the greeting card racks.

Hallmark, American Greetings and other manufacturers seem really out of touch by not providing a pick me up to consumers who need a smile when they are cutting back and/or out of work. Until they come out of the stone age, I am buying my cards elsewhere.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mission Impossible IV: Tom Cruise eating humble pie for his new movie

Over the past two years, actor Tom Cruise has done his best to come off as a weirdo and damage his career. From jumping on Oprah's couch followed by bashing psychiatry and post-partum depression on the Today show, and then being publicly whipped by Viacom's Sumner Redstone when Spielberg's War of the Worlds came out.

Cruise was like a rock rolling down the hill gathering moss with no way of stopping him. The film he produced, Lions For Lambs, bombed. His partner, Paula Wagner, left the company. This was one "golden boy" who was seriously tarnished.

Which leads to his rather fascinating appearance on the Today show this morning. Ostensibly to plug his next big budget movie Valkyrie, which opens Christmas Day, there was a lot more riding on his guest spot than just that movie. Having lost his step with the public and ruffled feathers in Hollywood, Cruise is now on a new Mission Impossible: to win back the goodwill of those who lost faith in him.

This "mission" is not an easy one: in the forthcoming thriller, he plays a World War II Nazi officer who attempts to assassinate Hitler, in an English accent.... and since it's based on a true story, everybody knows how it turned out. Will the world be willing to forgive Cruise?

I thought he did a terrific job, so my hat is off to whoever is masterminding his campaign.

He got off to an impressive start this morning, popping up during an outdoor segment and then spending several minutes shaking hands with the squealing public. Big points for seeming to be a regular guy and doing that.

Lauer started his interview right off the bat by addressing Cruise's run of weird behavior in 2005. The actor treated it seriously, had all the right body language and said the correct things:

“I thought about it a lot. It’s a subject matter that was important. After looking at it, I really thought, it’s not what I had intended. In looking at myself, I came across arrogant. I absolutely could have handled that better... I learned a lesson. I think I learned a really good lesson.”

And the cherry on the cake, which really nailed it for sympathy:

“I’m here to entertain people. That’s who I am and what I want to do.”

Apologies are generally one of the hardest things for a public figure to do. They feel they are above everything, kid of living in their own bubble and surrounded by "yes men." However, when push comes to shove, and this would certainly be the case with a lot of big money and people's reputations affected by Valkyrie, it it time to come back down to planet earth, eat humble pie and appear remorseful and "real."

I am sure we'll be seeing a lot more of Tom Cruise until this movie opens up. In 10 days, we'll find out if his "Mission Impossible" succeeded.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Coldplay writes excellent words to its lawsuit response

Coldplay writes excellent songs. They also write excellent responses to lawsuits.

Last Thursday, cult rock guitar hero Joe Satriani filed a copyright infringement lawsuit, accusing the British quartet of lifting "substantial portions" of his song "If I Could Fly" for their megahit "Viva La Vida."

Usually when these lawsuits are filed, it's some unknown songwriter appearing out of nowhere, and the case almost always gets tossed. However, Satriani is certainly above the radar publicly, so it was taken seriously.

At first, Coldplay and their label Capitol Records went immediately into "declined to speak" mode. Within 24 hours, a video appeared on YouTube comparing the two songs, garnering more than 1.5 million views. So it was not looking good for Chris Martin and company, letting Satriani and the public air it out first.

It appears Coldplay did not sit around twiddling their thumbs. Today, they came out with one of the most carefully crafted lawsuit responses I've seen in a long time.

"With the greatest possible respect to Joe Satriani, we have now unfortunately found it necessary to respond publicly to his allegations. If there are any similarities between our two pieces of music, they are entirely coincidental, and just as surprising to us as to him. Joe Satriani is a great musician, but he did not write the song 'Viva La Vida.' We respectfully ask him to accept our assurances of this and wish him well with all future endeavours."

It is so easy for artists, individual and corporations to become full of legalese in these siutations. They usually turn to those famous cliche phrases -- "This lawsuit has no merit" or "This lawsuit is frivolous."

So you have to hand it to Coldplay for taking a refreshing route and actually show admiration for the plaintiff, using carefully chosen words implying astonishment, and then being directlly sincere, and saying there is really much ado about a mere coincidence.

Responses like this are so rare and clever, that as a public relations professional, you have to stop and take note. In four deft sentences, not only does Coldplay take a believeable high road, but it puts the ball in Satriani's court -- if he aggressively pursues the suit, he appears to be an unreasonable, stubborn diva in the eyes of the public.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

You cannot win if you do not play

About one month ago, I flew up to SUNY at Buffalo to give career advice speeches to two very different groups of students.

One was a class of freshmen and sophomores who were undecided about what major to declare. The other was a standing-room-only conference room full of English and communications junior and seniors.

Yet, they both had two things in common: uncertainty about what lie ahead, and some degree of fear to solicit help from the outside world.

Before I spoke to both groups, I told the English department chair that students periodically contact me about internships and job opportunities. Their letters are often cookie cutter and a few are absurdly short. When I e-mail them back that I have no open positions, but offer to chat with them about looking for a job and networking, they almost never take me up on the offer. They are afraid of speaking up and making a personal connection with somebody who may give them invaluable advice and help their careers.

Fear manifests itself when asking businesspeople for advice or what it is like doing what they do for a living. Students think their heads are going to be bitten off. My retort to that is: people love talking about themselves. I asked one student what they were good at, and he said javelin throwing in athletic competitions. Wouldn't you be flattered, I asked aloud in his class, if a high school student expressed their admiration for what you did and wanted to know how you built up your stamina or threw for distance? Of course, he said. So why wouldn't it be any different if you asked your friends' parents about what they did for a living and what it was like?

Fear doesn't end in college. I've met my share of public relations peers who don't like to, for lack of a better word, "schmooze." There are others who are afraid of pitching TV producers or business reporters because for some reason, they found them intimidating, so clients are left languishing in those departments. I think of the publicists who pitch the same group of contacts over and over again, without expanding their circle of placements. Some things just don't change.

I don't know if there's a surefire recipe for getting over professional fear except the realization of running in the same place. That's what separates the truly ambitious from the vast mediocrity. Some people are content, as you know from watching shows like "The Office," to just do a few things and stay within that circle of competence. However, in a horrific economy where it pays to be adept at many skills and adhere to "knowledge is power," that old model diminishes the chances of even getting a job interview or staying employed.

Somehow, you've got to suck it up, roll the dice and be a player.

At the end of both classes that day in Buffalo, I offered my e-mail address for any of them who wanted to contact me for further questions or have me review their resume. I don't ever recall anybody offering a direct contact opportunity like that to me when I was in college. Of the approximately 65-75 students I spoke to that day, two of them LinkedIn to me and two others e-mailed with with follow-up questions. I'm hoping at some point in the future, they are brave enough to take me up on my offer.

My parting words to each group was the title of a 1978 Steve Forbert song: You cannot win if you do not play.