Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The clients that got away

It starts with the old fisherman's story of the one that got away. I'm sure you've had one like it.

Like an NCAA tournament, you've made it past the initial rounds and into the final four. Maybe you know the competition, maybe you don't. But damn the torpedoes, you're on a roll and put on a killer final presentation because you know exactly what to do with this potential client, where to start, how to pitch them, you handle every question like Nadal crushes a speeding backhand rocket, and besides, you like the people you've met every step of the way.

They tell you that as soon as their choice is made, they want to start right away meeting media, becoming thought leaders, and getting all the attention they feel they deserve. In your gut, you know it's do-able because they have so much cool stuff going on.

Your submitted proposal is succinct, shows great value, and you feel like you're locked in like a Vulcan mind meld.

Except amazingly, the potential client has other ideas. Somehow, somebody on the board wants to bring aboard their cousin's PR firm. Or the other firm bedazzles them with all their other "name" clients and glittery awards that the London Boys Choir can be heard ringing from above. Or the CFO insists that the firm with the lowest fee must be hired. My favorite was the Silicon Valley mobile coupon company which went with a firm run by two former banking communications executives simply because they were located closer to them than us in New York (they lasted less than four months).

You can't believe it. It's like you just sang your heart out on "American Idol," Simon Cowell gives you a rare rave review, Paula Abdul wants your children and J.J. Jackson wants to produce your album, but the TV audience picked the goofy dude who can't hold a note because he's so bad he's good.

In the aftermath, you wait to see the winner's first move and one month later, they spring into action... by issuing a paid press release about what a great year their client just had. It's picked up by exactly nobody, of course.

Two more months go by and it's so quiet, you can see the tumbleweeds blowing up and down the PR highway. While you're racking up superb hits for your clients, the one that got away is so dead and gone under the radar that it's as if they didn't hire anybody at all. The only things that show up on Google News about them are their paid press releases, if anything at all.

What do you do when you know these guys hired the wrong firm? How do you make them come to their senses and stop throwing their time and money away and hire you?

Many companies are in sheer denial that they could make such a mistake. Deciding they would be hiring a new firm or adding any PR function at all was a big step, and they're just not ready to admit they blew it. They may never admit it. It's like a gambler who keeps losing money because they are waiting for that one big hand to make them rich... they don't know when to cut their losses and move to another game or table.

I advise not giving up if that client that got away still sticks in your head. You stay in touch. Send articles of value to them ("Thought you'd find this interesting..."). Congratulate them on some award they may have won. Share your valuable blog posts.

Then ask them after five or six months of seeing nothing... oh by the way, what kind of return on investment are you getting on public relations these days? I got that good advice from Ketchum's Paul Wood.

Sometimes the replies are quite honest ("we could use better traction") or they dodge the question altogether (but you know it's bothering them), and other times, they say things are hunky dory, which makes you wonder just how high their standards are, if there's something in the wings or just how truthful that answer is.

For years, I told my staff it was "like holding up a mirror." Of course, they may not like what they see, but will they do something about it?

However, they are still not ready to admit their error. Another month or two goes by. You've kept in periodic touch, and maybe by then, they are quoted somewhere or they are mentioned as an afterthought in another company's news story. Their PR investment is beginning to look like the equivalent of a bait and switch scheme.

I once spent an entire year dropping monthly mailed letters to "one that got away" filled with press clips while pointing out that they were eliciting far less coverage than they deserved. They finally succumbed and we ended up working together for three years.

Sometimes the reception you get can be outright hostile when you drop a line about how things are going. You should not take it personally. They're either mad at themselves and determined to stick to that horse, or other matters are taking precedence. Those are the cases you just have to write off unless they come to their senses and contact you out of the blue. Then you're entitled adjust your fees accordingly for a "turnaround job."

Without being in serious "live presentation mode," you can glean a lot from these clients that got away, such as how they perceive running the business and making a go of it. I have learned a few times that in hindsight, perhaps I was lucky I didn't get the gig because their perception of public relations was so way off base that it wouldn't have been the right fit. Fate has a wonderful way of preventing frustrating scenarios that way.

There are some questions in life that can not be answered, and periodically under that category falls why somebody got the nod over you as the winning agency. From my experience, the agony stings and then you move on.

Nobody wrote a guidebook for selecting publicists, so how can you expect all choices to be clear cut and rationale? My fellow PR bloggers and I have posted plenty of advice about choosing the right agencies, but do you think anybody races online to do that research? Highly unlikely. And you certainly can't teach a CEO or CMO how to choose a PR firm while you are pitching them at the same time.

So if you're brave enough for new business development, make sure you've got thick skin and a serious belief in yourself. Don't forget the fishing poles for the tall tales you'll be telling.

Friday, March 27, 2009

AllThingsD's Peter Kafka has had it with Vocus-generated "spam"

This morning, AllThingsD's MediaMemo writer Peter Kafka posted the tweet you see on the left, taking aim at Vocus PR and their clients.

There's nothing more embarrassing than when a journalist airs the PR profession's dirty laundry to the web-o-sphere. Here, it's more than publicists but the ones who are using Vocus' "on-demand" software, although Kafka adds his biting "spam" descriptor.

After I saw this tweet, Kafka told me that "his in box is just about broken" and that he will "have to resort to blacklisting" the individual PR pros who spam him. He termed the whole thing "counterproductive" and "a waste of time" for all involved.

So now a whole lot of PR professionals, who really should know better than to do this, are going to get deservedly punished and shut out. Where are the managers and supervisors who are letting this happen? There never seems to be enough hand-wringing over PR spam from widely-read and respected people like Peter Himler, Brian Solis and others through their blogs and panel appearances, so what does it take to stop the spam?

Think about the perilous state of the media right now -- newspapers are closing, magazines are shutting down and the financial faucet for start-ups is tighter than ever. The windows of opportunity for PR professionals are sadly shrinking due to the very sad scenario. Why are companies allowing publicists to shoot themselves in the foot by not establishing relationships and understanding what people write about?

I personally know what Peter is talking about. I've had my share of spam because of this blog, although probably nowhere near his quantity. My reply when I get an e-mail like that is: "Why are you sending this to me?" I've heard everything from "You're on the media audit list of someone who has been covering the Madoff story" (huh?) to "You are listed as a PR industry writer who has a blog" (sent by one of the Florida visitors and convention bureaus!).

If you go to the Vocus web site, they promote their service as one that "engages": Vocus' PRWeb, the original online news service, enables you to effectively engage with social media outlets by distributing your news through the broadest online distribution network and automatically post your news directly on sites like Twitter.

Let me save you a lot of money and aggrevation: if you want to "engage," first get an RSS reader like FeedDemon and actually read the journalists and bloggers you are contemplating. Go into Google News, type their names in and read their work. Don't rely solely on some stupid list that Vocus or Cision has given you.

If these people are actually writing about things that are relevant to you, your CEO and/or your client -- not a stretch, but truly right on the nose relevant -- then drop them a note. Post a comment. Get to know these people before you bat them over the head with something out of left field. You know the drill.

It's public relations, not public bombardment.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

How to be a PR troublemaker for fun and profit

It would almost seem like a given that when it comes to pounding their public relations drumbeats, corporate entities want to keep their noses clean, appear politically correct, and sometimes be succinct and terse, while other times be cute and friendly.

That's completely legitimate because for many companies, sainthood is how they want to be viewed in the eyes of the public. They would like nothing more than to be thrust upon a pedestal, beautiful pieces written about them with no more than a whiff of negativity and doubt.

For 95% of PR outreach, this is the norm.

However, there is no law that says you have to swim with the rest of the school. Sometimes it is a perfectly sound PR tactic to stir the waters on purpose for driving a press campaign, as long as it does not involve lying.

I liken it to the long-in-the-tooth media habit of tallying up "best" lists. "Best of" lists are a dime a dozen and often have the "so what?" factor built right into them. You already know the best family vacation resorts or shows on TV or places to live -- there isn't that much change in these lists from year to year. The only news would be if they actually fell off the list.

However, you can swing over to the "dark side," devise "worst" lists and the buzz becomes that much more heightened and interesting. When music magazine Blender ranks its best songs of the year, it's a lot of the same records we see on everybody else's list. Press-wise, it's a non-starter.

But when they rank their worst songs of the last 30 years, radio DJ's are arguing, blog posts become flame wars, and it ends up running on the the wire services and USA Today's "Lifeline." (FYI -- #1 was Jefferson Starship's "We Built This City.")

Why do you think the late Mr. Blackwell became a cultural icon by annually releasing his clever "Worst Dressed List?"

Sometimes you have to embrace your inner troublemaker as your PR engine and get over the notion that Luke Skywalker is the hero to emulate, when Darth Vader can be a hell of a lot more fun and get far more press coverage.

In my book, there are two kinds of bad press coverage: 1) you've committed legitimate crimes, acted like a jerk and caused harm, so the press hangs you out to dry... and then there's there's the kind which requires a little more steady nerves but can have a big pay-off, 2) people passionately debate over the pro's and con's of what you're doing, causing an uproar... and a huge influx of attention, curiosity and ideally, revenue. To me, #2 is better categorized as "good bad press."

As you can tell, this is not a tactic for the meek. Utilizing controversy as a PR motif is based on the concept of creating a lot of conversation and curiosity about you. "Talk about me all you want, good or bad, just spell my name right and check out my product or visit my web site."

The poster child for this technique is GoDaddy.com, which when you come right down to it, isjust your basic Internet domain registrar. However, they decided that other than cheap prices, they were going to add some Maxim to their DNA and fill all their marketing, advertising and PR with gorgeous women, sometimes not fully dressed either. They signed up NASCAR driver Danica Patrick as a spokesperson, and not only can you see her on GoDaddy's home page, but you can watch her enter a shower semi-naked in a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl.

Needless to say, every time GoDaddy plays "the babe card," ad critics blast them as sexist, they are appalled, they get all kinds of "outrage" press. When the network broadcasting the Super Bowl turns down their ads as too racy, does GoDaddy hide in shame? Heck no, they leak it to everybody that the ad is so hot it didn't pass the censors! The buzz builds and builds until not only is awareness for GoDaddy completely heightened, they are taking the controversy right to the bank.

GoDaddy is a perfect case of a company that inherently has nothing controversial about their business, but uses self-created controversy as the center of their marketing and PR. But what about a company whose very nature invites debate?

As long as there is no harm or foul, embrace your inner troublemaker. Encourage bloggers and the media to argue about who you are, what you do, and if they like or don't like the way that you are doing it. You are who you are. If somebody says you're a cheater, then use that as an opportunity to write an op-ed about why you are not a cheater and keep the debate going.

Depending on the circumstances, I've straightforwardly pitched reporters that a client is controversial and I'll send them links to both sides of the argument. Getting in the middle of a genuine heated fight can be irresistible to the press as long as it doesn't turn into an inferno. The key is knowing how much to feed it and sensing when it may go overboard and out of control. Ideally, you light things up in peaks and valleys so the press doesn't overdose or the public burns out and moves on.

You want to be the catalyst for arguments and letting it go viral. You don't want to personally get in the middle of a pissing match either by yelling and screaming -- let others do the debating for you.

Can playing the controversy card help business? For one of my clients, we went that route for one story recently and they doubled their paid subscriptions and traffic from a year ago.

If you orchestrate your strategy right, and know when to crescendo and then subside, how far to go and when to stop, this can be a very productive out-of-the-box approach. Just remember that there is a fine line between rocking the boat and making it tip over.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Jim Cramer set to appear on "The Daily Show" Thursday night

Somebody at CNBC finally woke up and smelled the coffee.

Or perhaps Jim Cramer realized he had to fight this battle alone.

According to the LA Times web site, Cramer is set to appear on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" on Thursday night to discuss (defend?) the talk show host's ongoing and unnecessarily provoked take down of the network since Rick Santelli backed out of appearing on the show.

From a purely public relations point, this should have been done by Santelli in the first place.

I have a theory: CNBC didn't trust Santelli and everybody knows Cramer can think on his feet faster than most TV news personalities.

It's now Cramer's job to lift CNBC's respect back up in the eyes of the public. Whatever you think about him, you've got to admire Cramer for sucking it up and DH'ing for Santelli.

Social media press releases vs. real news

The battle between paid wire services about who can out "social media" the other guy has escalated to the point where PR Newswire boasted last September that its clients had more pickup than its competitors.

There's no question, paid wire services have become very web-savvy vehicles. (Full disclosure: Business Wire was a client of mine for six months in 2008.)

However, to me, shooting out distinctly labeled press releases on irrelevant sites like earthtimes.org and remodeling.net is like splattering spaghetti blindly across a wall and calling it art (my apologies to Jackson Pollack).

I believe that companies and PR firms send out far too many and rely too much on press releases, while categorizing them somehow as "news." Press releases are not a substitute for actually grooming relationships with the press, developing a strategy, and producing an honest-to-God credible campaign of real stories written by actual media.

However, not everybody agrees with me. There are some places who place a lot of faith in the power of social media-engineered press releases as a tool to drive traffic, not necessarily sincerity. Silicon Valley tech PR firms, who never met a client they could not stop sending a press release for on a weekly basis, clearly have some method to their madness to justify this strategy.

So I had to see how the other half lives by contacting Todd O'Donald, founder of green lifestyle web site ecomii, who regularly cranks out paid press releases over Business Wire. If you look ecomii up on Google, you'll find there are more press releases on the first few search pages than actual stories written about ecomii. As far as I can see, this has been their primary public relations effort for at least the past six months.

"From our perspective, press releases help with SEO (provide a base of inbound links on third party sites) and provide some credibility to company claims/milestones, etc for the trade," he wrote. "I don't think they have much if any real 'media value.' With an all you can eat press release contracts, they provide decent value."

But Todd, is there any correlation between traffic being driven by SEO/inbound links and ad sales/new business? Is there an actual ROI that you have seen other than higher Google rankings? Or is the actual ROI when people type in "ecomii" in Google, they get a whole lot of press releases?

"There is a high correlation between seo/inbound links and increased traffic and our traffic success has a high correlation with ad sales/new business," he replied. "In terms of credibility and 'trades,' I was referring to potential advertisers and investors. Having press releases show up when people type in ecomii is not of much value to us. I still believe there is a lot of value in 'real media' but 'press releases' can still have tactical value."

Is it better to just hire an SEO consultant than a PR firm which will perform a few of those basic functions if that's all you want is traffic, not credibility?

Conveniently, fellow PR pro Peter Himler drew my attention today to a post written by leadership and marketing guru Seth Godin called "The difference between PR and publicity." He couldn't have explained it better why there's something fundamentally unsound about a campaign based on spewing out press releases instead of actually practicing real public relations. It's short and sweet, so I'm going to let Godin tell it in his own words in this excerpt:

Most PR firms do publicity, not PR.

Publicity is the act of getting ink. Publicity is getting unpaid media to pay attention, write you up, point to you, run a picture, make a commotion. Sometimes publicity is helpful, and good publicity is always good for your ego.

But it's not PR.

PR is the strategic crafting of your story. It's the focused examination of your interactions and tactics and products and pricing that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you...

If you send out a boring press release, your publicity effort will probably fail, but your PR already has.

A publicity firm will tell you stories of how they got a client ink. A PR firm will talk about storytelling and being remarkable and spreading the word. They might even suggest you don't bother getting ink or issuing press releases.

In my experience, a few people have a publicity problem, but almost everyone has a PR problem. You need to solve that one first....

Friday, March 6, 2009

CNN's PR strategy of fostering the growth of family time

It is heartwarming and touching to see CNN coddle their talent into spending more time at home with the kids rather than actually do their jobs. Let's just call it CNN Family Week.

Let's start with a thanks to PRNewser's Jason Chupick for the call-out today about my "Eight Most Overused Phrases in Public Relations."

He referred to the classic stand-by "He/she is leaving to spend more time with their family" because that was CNN medical coorespondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta's alibi not to pursue the Surgeon General position.

By a funny coincidence, comedian D.L. Hughley also got the family bug and quit his CNN show for that exact same reason just a few days ago.

It's worth noting that by inputting "spend more time with his family" in Google News today, there are 611 results while only 46 results for "spend more time with her family."

On a final note, this magical phrase has even evolved into a journalistic insult.

The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen recently suggested that Sen. Roland Burris, Rod Blagojevich's choice for senator to replace Barack Obama, should "think about spending more time with his family" because of Burris' latest questionable campaign fund confessions. So vicious!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rick Santelli and CNBC commit classic PR faux pas

Last night, Rick Santelli and CNBC learned the hard way why not responding to the press, taking the equivalent of the "no comment" route, can backfire in the most obvious situations.

On February 19th, the CNBC reporter went on a rant from the Chicago Board of Trade floor, protesting that President Obama's bailing out of people whose homes were going to be foreclosed was "promoting bad behavior."

No matter where you stand politically, it was not TV journalism's finest few minutes, as a reporter's personal bias and opinions have no place in a forum like that. Either it should be labeled as a commentary or moved to an opinion segment on the network.

The flare-up was the buzz of the social media world, his segment on CNBC's web site attracted enough traffic to fill the borough of Manhattan, and it prompted an invitation from Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" to come on and talk about this spontaneous outburst.

At first, Santelli was booked for the show last night, but on Friday, he backed out. CNBC spokesperson Brian Steel said "we all made a decision that it was just time to move on to the next story."

Santelli and CNBC broke one of Michael Sitrick's cardinal rules of Spin: Always respond -- and respond fully -- to a press inquiry, no matter how off-base.

When you turn down an invitation from a high-profile satirist like Jon Stewart, you know you are going to take your lumps really badly, far worse than anything he could possibly say to you in person.

And boy, did Jon Stewart go to town. Not only on Santelli, but the entire CNBC network, mocking them for butt-kissing CEO's saying one thing while their companies were in very serious trouble. Stewart made CNBC look like the national platform for liars and buffoons. It was very funny, incredibly nasty and it hit home hard.

The right PR move for CNBC was to media train Santelli and go on the show with a ripe sense of humor about the whole thing, make some self-deprecating jokes, and take the air out of the whole balloon. Stewart joshes you about it? You laugh, take it like a pro, and make your own joke. Show the public that you can roll with it and you're not treating the rant with dead-on seriousness.

And what immortal words did CNBC's spokesperson Steel say to the Associated Press today, with the network's tail squarely between their legs when asked about Stewart shredding them down?

"Neither the network's executives nor Santelli would comment on Stewart's broadcast."

Maybe it's time for somebody to send Steel a copy of Sitrick's book.