Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The invisible publicist

The press should always be about the client, never about the publicist. The closest a publicist should get into a story is as a spokesperson, and that's only if warranted. Otherwise, you stay invisible.

Yet, some publicists can't seem to put their ego in check and get carried away once an opportunity presents itself.

Something deep inside them is convincing them to be a "celebrity publicist," without realizing that the last thing a client wants is their publicist stealing the spotlight. They believe that somehow if they become part of the story, some buzz and perhaps business will rub off on them.

Very, very few PR people are larger than their clients, and mostly it's just by reputation and longevity (i.e. Howard Rubenstein). Ideally, they don't seek the attention, it just comes naturally out of respect, not notoriety.

When egos bust out of control, there's a little empire building that goes on. Usually that leads to lying because you're doing what you want to do, and it may not be in the best interests of the client. As I said in an earlier post, Michael Sitrick says the number one sin for a publicist to do is lie. If you keep lying, you end up on Gawker's list of the "most lying flacks." In this era of transparency and the media calling out publicists for their sins, the last thing you want to do is lie or become the story because they'll hang you for it.

So when do you know when your ego is crossing over the line?

Exhibit A: The first paragraph of a press release that was issued today by the Florida-based Publicity Agency, which has already drawn some fire for its nonsensical "non news" press release about the fact that it had a Twitter stream. Currently, they handle Illinois Governor Rod Blogojevich, one of the most red hot national news figures this week, who has been on a whirlwind media tour while his impeachment trial is going on.

Here is the very first paragraph of the release:

Gov. Rod Blagojevich will go to Springfield tomorrow to present his case to Illinois senators preparing to impeach him, according to The Publicity Agency, the outside PR/publicity firm hired by the governor.

Statements like this are why publicists are berated and made fun of. The sentence is great until the part after the comma, which is basically the firm's non-subtle advertisement for itself. Their client is fighting for his political life and the governor's public relations agency is not subtly saying between the lines: "Hey, look who is paying us to represent him! You should hire us too!"

Here's what else is so wrong with this sentence:
  • The governor is going to Springfield, so he should be making his announcement. This is his career, his decision.
  • Because you're "outside," does that mean your offices are literally on the sidewalk of Gunn Highway in Odessa, Florida? Doesn't it get kind of noisy there conducting your business outside?
  • You are both a PR firm and publicity firm? Can you please explain the difference because we didn't know who you were issuing this release and frankly, what else could you be?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nielsen's dismantling of "reply all" does not beat instant messaging

In what is probably one of the great quixotic corporate communications moves of recent times, Nielsen's CIO announced that is was disabling the "reply all" function on all corporate Outlook programs, according to Folio magazine's Dylan Stableford.

The Nielsen Executive Council solicited its employees for suggestions to eliminate "bureaucracy and inefficiency" in December and have now decided to implement one recommendation.

Eliminating the “Reply to All” function will:

• Require us to copy only those who need to be involved in an e-mail conversation
• Reduce non-essential messages in mailboxes, freeing up our time as well as server space

While it's no secret that it's an unfortunate part of corporate DNA to "reply all," much like long boring company meetings, this decree seems to be a dubious noble gesture meant to garner industry admiration but not grounded in practicality.

I say this based on one simple tenet: conversations don't necessarily have to take place between two people. And it all spirals out of control from there.

People do need to CC their colleagues when they are working on projects. I can't even begin counting how many times an editor asked me to send a graphic to their art person and copy them on it. Or dealt with colleagues or clients on a team project, such as an important event.

The other downside is that the dismantling will force employees to send out multiple singular e-mails to critical people, thereby spending more time than before on e-mail. Then when those people e-mail back individual replies, the result is actually at least as much in-box clutter if not more so than before.

While the notion of reducing bureaucracy and inefficiency is admirable, it should not come at the cost of community or actually getting the job done. You want to make things a little more lean and mean? Here are my few simple suggestions:

  • Speak to your employees about overzealous e-mailing, roping every person in a division on the CC list. Tell them who is essential to be part of an e-mail chain and who is not.
  • If for some reason you don't think you should be part of an e-mail chain, politely let the sender know that you don't need to be on it in the future.
  • Introduce instant messaging and group chats between employees. AOL's AIM is free and allows everything you ask for for direct communication, including short messages and attaching files. Have everybody create a brand new IM handle for corporate use, so that everybody collaborates quickly and easily without letting the world barge in.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The most worthwhile PR book you can buy

A little more than 10 years ago, I bought the only public relations book that I ever felt had long-lasting value, Spin! How To Turn The Power of The Press To Your Advantage by Michael Sitrick.

Back then, Sitrick handled crisis communications for mostly corporate clientele but because of his company's reputation, Hollywood celebrities came calling when they found themselves in hot water. He's received many accolades over the years from the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, and Forbes. I remember his name popping up recently with his representation of supermarket magnate/Democratic donator/media mogul Ron Burkle.

Being based in Hollywood, red flags can certainly go up that this would be another shallow "you can learn everything about PR by watching Entertainment Tonight" screed like Howard Bragman's current "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?" book.

Thankfully, the book is far more grounded than that. Yes, there's an undercurrent of strong ego running through it, as it seems everything Sitrick does is flawless and magic. Yet overshadowing it is an overwhelming practicality and organization that every publicist can find invaluable.

Instead of tales of rookie mistakes or how to write a press release, Sitrick gets right into the psyche of reporters and how the media operates. He does not treat them in a condescending way, but very matter of factly in what they need and how they tend to think.

There are nine rules of spin, according to Sitrick. In each chapter, he explains each one in detail and why it is so, then gives autobiographical corporate and show biz anecdotes where he applied these conventions. Although he does not name names, you can kind of figure out a couple of them (like actress Kim Basinger).

Don't be fooled by the fact his stories involve the entertainment business, but unlike something shallow like making up fake quotes or escorting a star across the red carpet, it's really down and dirty reputation and corporate matters which are applicable to many fields. In every sense, it's like the Wizard of Oz pulling back the curtain so you can look inside and see how thinking strategically can pay off handsomely. Sitrick is ruthless, and you have to admire him for showing how it's done.

I always believed that a large part of what separates PR greatness from hacks is how you think. You may debate Sitrick's stature in the field or the methods he advocates, but he's proven amazingly right on the money when I've employed his theories.

I was so impressed with his dissection of the rules of spin, I summarized them and handed them out to new employees for many years. I will share them in a nutshell with you using his words because I can't say them any better, but I certainly repeat them often in the course of business:

  • NEWS MEDIA ABHOR A VACUUM: If you don't tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. And chances are, theirs won't be a version you will like.
  • ALWAYS RESPOND -- AND RESPOND FULLY -- TO A PRESS INQUIRY, NO MATTER HOW FAR OFF BASE: Never let a mistake or a misrepresentation go unchallenged.
  • PREEMPT THE SITUATION: Seize the momentum and put the other guy on the defensive by getting your story out first and defining the issue. The first major media story invariably sets the tone for the media coverage that follows.
  • THE FACTS DON'T SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES: Be accessible -- and be prepared to educate the press. It is not the media's job to get it right -- it is yours.
  • THINK STRATEGICALLY: Understand your fundamental objectives and stay focused on them. Thinking strategically means refusing to accept situations at face value.
  • FIND A LEAD STEER AND THE MEDIA HERD WILL FOLLOW: Find one reporter willing to push your story in a different direction, and the entire media pack may change its perspective in the blink of a news cycle.
  • FIGHT BACK: When and where it's called for, don't be afraid to put your adversaries under the wheel of pain.
  • FACE FORWARD: Don't defend past mistakes or get bogged down in apologies; instead, explain how you'll make the future better.
  • THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE: Credibility is the spin doctor's ultimate resource. Think before you speak. No matter what, don't lie -- lying is the one sin the media will neither tolerate nor forgive.

Sitrick's book is out of print but you can find many used reasonably-priced copies on Amazon or eBay. It's a veritable bargain when you can learn how to think strategically and aggressively from a pro who doesn't mind revealing the rough stuff.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Link of the Day: "What All PR People Should Know About Journalists"

My friend Rob sent me a link this morning to Rohit Bhargava's Influential Marketing Blog and his post on "What All PR People Should Know About Journalists."

It was so good, that I recommend all public relations pro and their clients read it. You can find it here.

Rohit works at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, which is buried all the way on the bottom right column of his blog. It's nothing to hide!

Monday, January 19, 2009

National Take Your Publicist To Lunch Day is February 4th

I have declared February 4th (or the first Wednesday every February) to be National Take Your Publicist To Lunch Day. I invite you all to join the Facebook group and participate!

I have even set up a simple web site devoted to this new holiday that I hope will be made official by the U.S. government some day (or at least considered by Hallmark Cards, which seems to really have the ruling power over what is a holiday).

CNBC wins today's clever comeback award

Bravo to cable channel's CNBC for not succumbing to "No Comment" in today's New York Post when the temptation to do so was most definitely there.

Page Six, never much of a friend to any NBC properties because of the Fox cable channel rivalries, got the usual "unidentified disgruntled employees" moaning about the fact that "Squawk Box" host Rebecca Quick is now married to the show's executive producer, Matthew Quayle.

Quayle, 38, who has been with CNBC for 16 years, was also married with two kids before he and Quick started dating. "He is a big Christian and would always talk about the church. And then he left his wife and babies for her. What a hypocrite," snips an insider.

Reached for comment, CNBC's spokesperson smashed an ace right back into Page Six's court, proving that in the right circumstances, you should take advantage of your response opportunity and use your wit to dominate the story:

"All three anchors on 'Squawk Box' - Becky Quick, Joe Kernen and Carl Quintanilla - have married CNBC producers. Love is in the air when you're first in business worldwide."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Is the Obama inauguration too overhyped?

On the same day that Circuit City announced it is liquidating all of its stores and letting 30,000 employees go, the Minnesota Star-Tribune said it's filing for bankruptcy, and Citigroup posted an $8.29 billion loss for the fourth quarter, The Wall Street Journal and New York Times had big spreads on all the entertainment hoopla at Barack Obama's Presidential inauguration.

The Wall Street Journal called it, rather accurately, "The Inaugural Pregame Show." The listing of star-studded events and exhibitions is staggering, ranging from the Richard Avedon "Portraits of Power" retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery to a Clinton/Gore Alumni Reunion Bash.

Top all of that off with the Hip Hop Caucus' Icons Ball with Mary J. Blige and Common on Saturday night and a Sunday day-long musical and reading celebration at the Lincoln Memorial with Bono, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Stevie Wonder.

Let's say it right now: it's gratifying that the United States has elected it first President of the United States. It's a hopeful and course-changing moment in the country's history, and I could not be more encouraged by the change in leadership at the top. A celebration is definitely merited, in my book.

But stepping back in the cold light of day, with all of this horrendous economic news hammering away at our psyche, should all this craziness be tempered down somewhat? Would more modesty be the better public relations move? Because with huge hype comes colossal expectations.

I can't help but think about renowned editor Tina Brown's overblown launch of Talk magazine in the 90's, when she had celebrities and the media shipped over to Liberty Island for a gala befitting royalty. By the second issue of the magazine, the bloom was off the rose and a couple of years later, Talk folded.

Except now we are talking about a grander stage. The country is in the middle of a financial crisis that has rippled around the globe. There is hardly a soul it has not touched. There are a tremendous amount of expectations and pressures surrounding Obama to turn all the setbacks around and get us all back on the right path. I'm all for that.

During the winter, most major corporations scaled back their holiday parties dramatically, some were cancelled, because they seemed frivilous and wasteful in light of the economic downturn. From a public relations viewpoint, those were savvy moves because otherwise, these events would have sent the wrong message to employees, investors and the media. When there are layoffs and revenues are down dramatically, you don't party it up in the corporate headquarters penthouse.

While there are plenty of reasons to celebrate history being made, you know all these inaugural events are costing millions of dollars to produce. They will equal several Super Bowl half-time shows rolled in to one. Millions and millions of children and adults will be watching from their televisions and computer screens, and listening to the radio.

A couple of days later, when the last shred of confetti is cleaned up, Obama and his team will be hard at work. Yet the specter of expectation is hanging over their heads even more glaringly because the world just spent two or three days watching real show biz, over-the-top parties, concerts and events unfold before them.

Is it good PR to wildly build up a new Presidency when there is more at stake than ever before? The Presidency is a marathon, not a sprint, to borrow that cliche. Most things in life don't live up to their hype. I hope despite the Hollywood treatment, Obama shuts it all out and is the exception to that rule and he's the real deal.

The Pandora's Box of PR spam is press credentials

Journalists are tired of mass deleting their in-boxes, and now it's played out like that cheesy 2008 M. Night Shyamalan film "The Happening" where after decades of abuse and negligence, nature turned against mankind and began killing humans. Except this time it is the media turning against PR.

Ironically, when members of the press register for large scale events like the recently completed Consumer Electronics Show (CES), their information is passed along to numerous in-house PR entities and outside firms, who seem to take it as an invitation to e-mail blast.

After all the unwanted attention publicists have received over the past year from their e-mail blasting ways -- from Wired editor Chris Anderson blocking out all the incriminating domains in October 2007, to Gina Trapani's creation of the PR Spammers Wiki -- you'd think publicists would hold up on the group e-mails and irrelevant pitches? Apparently not.

One prominent blogger explained to me that acquiring CES press credentials brought him a mountain of irrelevant publicist missives to his inbox. "Supposedly if you sign up for CES as press, the tradeoff is you agree to be spammed... Pretty much makes (my) inbox unusable," he said.

He e-mailed me one example from a PR firm blindly pitching him about meeting a Swedish phone designer at the Las Vegas event. If the publicist had read this person's blog, they'd know mobile phones do not enter the picture.

Another national newspaper reporter IM'd me: "Ah, the CES list. In the past, I've found that it can be mitigated if you carefully fill out the registration forms. Lots of check boxes on what you're interested in. Some reporters don't bother... but then complain when some random company starts pitching."

I asked him if there was an opt-out for being contacted by PR firms? "Hmm, I don't recall, but there should be one."

It turns out there is one, according to CES' senior director of communications Tara Dunion: "There is an opt-out on the reg form but perhaps we should look into making it bigger or more noticeable."

Let's put aside the important issue of the availability and size of PR contact opt-out at press credential tables. It boggles the mind that the concept of quality over quantity has still not been taught or enforced by so many people in our profession. We live in an age of personalization. If Nigerian bank account scammers have it figured out, why don't publicists?

If every publicist who had somebody tied into CES reduced their target list to 10 reporters or bloggers who were relevant and whose work they had read, there'd probably be a lot of media people grateful for emptier in-boxes. Reporters wouldn't fear the downside of being credentialed. The odds would improve for meaningful stories written and relationships would be built on this mutual respect.

I can dream, can't I?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kicking Bad PR Habits (the highly abridged version)

This post is a very abbreviated version of my luncheon presentation to the Westchester/Fairfield branch of the PRSA on January 14, 2009.

The public relations industry is under attack like never before, and a lot of it is our own doing. In the past, if a publicist made a mistake, they caught hell from their boss, maybe it appeared in the newspaper and it was pretty much confined to a small group.

Nowadays, thanks to the Internet, the PR industry is getting its dirty laundry hung out to dry all over blogs.

The stupid mistakes that publicists have made for a long time are now transparent to everybody and now there's hell to pay. If publicists were viewed as a slick profession before, we're now being pushed down there with car dealers, ex-Governors and investment bank presidents.

And if that's not bad enough, we even have publicists taking the police role and calling out other publicists for doing a bad job. We're even at war with ourselves.

In order to improve our habits, we need to examine some of our bad habits, face them, realize what we're doing, why they are wrong and correct the siutation. Little things do matter because clearly those are the things that are killing us.

One of the ways we are hurting ourselves is with the things we use the most -- words. We've become sloppy, careless and lazy with them. No wonder why we end up like this fellow here all the time:

Remember that movie "Mean Girls," where Lindsay Lohan talked about how she couldn't help letting out "word vomit" and getting her into unwanted situations and trouble? Publicists not only suffer this horrid affliction but they also come down with an additional case S.O.W. -- Same Old Words. You know, the words that publicists hand down from generation to generation, like folk tales, urban myths, Bible stories, and we don't stop to look up and say, "Hey, aren't there any other words we can use?"

Viral marketing strategist David Meerman Scott calls some of these words "gobbledygook." He even has a Gobbledygook Manifesto, explaining why many phrases need to be banned from every marketing and PR person's vocabulary. He even has this fabulous chart demonstrating how these words have been infiltrated press releases sent out over the wire services.

My favorite one is "world class." There's a progessive rock station in Westchester called "The Peak" whose tag line for the last four years has been "World Class Rock." They say it repeatedly over and over again during their ID's and in their ads, until you don't even know what "world class rock" is. One of Sirius Satellite Radio's stations called themselves "world class rock," so now the phrase really was nebulous. I wrote an e-mail to one of The Peak's programming guys saying that the term was saturated and could they please come up with something new. He replied it was the best they could come up with, essential to putting themselves in a "brand category," and he sincerely asked if I could come up with something that would replace it that would "still imply rock."

I said, "How about, uh, rock?"

I have my own collection of The Most Overused Phrases in PR. There should be some kind of mandatory retirement for these combination of words, such as "No comment," "He/she is leaving to pursue other interests," "We're taking it very seriously" (which the web site Consumerist calls "disaster ketchup"), and those immortal three used in quotes: "excited," "thrilled" and "honored" (which I discuss here and here).

Speaking of press releases, firms and in-house entities are so in love with them sometimes, they come down with what I call Press Release Dependency. This is the overwhelming urge to crank out press releases for everything, even if it's not news, and hope that somehow by putting it on the paid newswires, it will be written about. Most of the time, it ends up on these obscure sites like and clogs up Google searches.

A press release is no substitute for the credibility of news. It can not replace great strategy, relationships with the press, and the execution of that plan.

Turning around bad PR habits is a top down endeavor. If you are enough about the quality of not only your work, but your colleagues and staff, you have to take up the cause as a personal mission. Nobody wants their bad judgment calls and silly errors paraded out across the web.

The fact is: most of these habits are preventable and it's really up to you to enforce high standards. You want to lead by example.

Here are some suggestions to get everybody on the same page:

Explain the benefits of personalization.
Put people names in the subject lines of e-mail.
Show that you are familiar with what you they do.
Quality is far more important than quantity, so avoid blasting out e-mails.

Make staff meetings more educational.
Have writing workshops twice a year, emphasizing how to create a lead and capture a person's attention quickly.
Have everybody share news and things that they have learned about what's going on in the media and with journalists they deal with.

Share your personal mottoes.
Everybody has credos that have meant a lot over time.
Here are a couple of my favorites:
"If you can't move a mountain, go around it."
"Aim high, then deliver."

Have staff listen silently to some of your calls with the media.
Sometimes the most effective learning is by watching how you actually perform your job. Show them how you relate to the reporters you speak with, pitch them, and seal the deal in a strategic, smart way.

When it comes down to it, what we all want is personal happiness on the job.

Not the kind of happiness you find on Hallmark posters like this.
That's your life outside of work.

Double happiness is nice.
But it makes a better Chinese takeout dish.

It could be the kind of happiness that would make you dance through a beautiful green meadow in the Austrian alps singing as if nobody was there.
But you'd look silly doing it if you weren't in a movie.

I'm talking about not being a wooden soldier. You want employees who come to work every day with an emotional stake in their work. If you are a firm who chases checks dangled in front of you, as opposed to partners who actually interest you, that's also a mistake. Everybody wants to love what they are doing. Being the biggest or fastest growing PR firm doesn't mean you're the most satisfied.

Eventually, with the hatchet buried with bloggers and journalists, and a new found respect for the PR profession, we may be able to see something like this in our lifetime:

Monday, January 12, 2009

Your words to be banned in 2009

It seems that "excited," "thrilled" and "honored" aren't the only words you want to see banned in 2009.

Here are a few e-mails I received in reaction to's reprinted version of my recent post on "The three words to be banned in 2009."

Good story. I am waiting for the sidebar story, to recommend the banning of the go-to phrase: "We're very pleased..."

Alen Beljin
Public Relations Manager



Thank you for writing this article.
Btw, here's another lazy phrase I work hard to kill:
January 9, 2009 - Dateline - ABC Company has announced today ... .
Announced today? Well, duh?, the dateline tell us that it's today. And, clearly, we can read who's issuing the news release, so why write announced in the lede?
Better to write a lede like: Executives from ABC Company said they have put together an offer to buy 40% of XYZ company in order to gain a foothold in the automotive aftermarket parts industry.

Bill Perry
Managing Partner
MARCH 24 Media, LLC


Agree with your 3-words-to-ban. Suggest you add to the list The One misused/over used word that drives me crazy - “held” !!!!!!!!

“The event will be held Tuesday….” Can you hold the event in your hand?

“The event will be Tuesday…..”

Will never forget the first 60 seconds of an Intro to PR class I had at Ohio State. My prof and adviser, Walt Seifert, stood at the back of the lecture hall and declared that the first person to use “held” for something other than that which could be contained in one’s hand…would earn an F for the quarter.

He made an impression.

Debra S. Bloom, APR
Associate Administrator
Emory Healthcare



Thanks for the article. I had a grad school prof that also made a big deal about the word “very.” She contended that if you substitute “damn” for every “very,” you’d see that the word is almost never actually called for. Kinda of like “most unique.” Whoever taught jocks to say that should be shot.

Steve Frank
Public Information Officer
Metro Wastewater Reclamation District

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The three words to be banned in 2009

"You're just talkin' a lot and sayin' nothing"
-- James Brown

If you want to make a professional New Year's resolution, start by banning "excited," "thrilled" and "honored" in all press releases.

It is the duty of every public relations professional who is called upon to conjure quotes for executives to remove these three words from their vocabulary immediately.

This habit is far worse than buying Aramis cologne for your dad's birthday 30 years in a row. He can impress his neighbors at Boca Vista Village in Florida and wash it off at the end of the day, but your name is stuck on that press release forever.

This is going to be a tough one to conquer. Just a look through Google News for the words "we are excited to be" and you can see how deep this lazy publicist's pattern is ingrained in our profession's DNA. Here are three examples of the 500 I found in the last 60 days:

"We are excited to be playing in the Bowl." -- Rutgers Scarlet Knights head coach Greg Schiano

"We are excited to be part of the community and we welcome our new neighbors in for breakfast, lunch or anytime." -- Garry Teal, regional business director for Einstein Bros. Bagels

"We are excited to be working with RecoverCare in the wound care marketplace." -- David Saloff, Executive Vice President, Chief Business Development Officer for Ivivi technologies.

I think everybody should assume that if you were not excited, honored or thrilled, you would not be there in the first place, forming a partnership, making the deal, hiring the person or entering the competition. If you've gone to the trouble of issuing release about it, clearly there's a horn blowing undercurrent to the whole enterprise.

Those three words are generally just a lot of hot air blowing, filling up space and pumping up egos when the real point of a quote is to put context into the announcement.

So instead of saying you're "excited be be working with" your new partner, explain the significance of the deal -- what does it mean to your company and what are the ramifications?

Instead of saying you're "thrilled" to have hired this new head of marketing, why don't you say a few unadorned specifics about what they bring to the table, and what they'll be digging into first.

Let's elevate the art of quote creating so that instead of being a lot of self-congratulatory and kiss-blowing jumble, they actually make executives appear to have depth, personality and insight.