Thursday, September 24, 2009

Four warning signs that you need a new PR firm

Since car leases first became the rage in the early 90's, consumers have rushed in to get identical deals to the ones they see on TV commercials. But as personal finance magazines warned, if you did the lease math, you'd find out that generally they were not the best deals you could get.

Many companies' relationships with their PR firms operate very much on the same principal: they settle, they're comfortable, and they think they are getting a fair shake.

They either don't know or have a bar of measurement to assess if they are really getting acceptable work. Sometimes they are too preoccupied with other matters to assess PR. Sometimes they are in flat out denial that they hired a dud, so they just keep writing them checks as an act of charity. Sometimes it's all nice and comfortable, nobody wants to hurt anybody's feelings -- they receive a slap on the butt as a warning sign and then it's back to where it was.

The fact is, many clients have no idea what they may be missing, and they could have it so much better. Like that car lease, how do you know it's time to trade in and get a better PR ROI?

Here are the warning signs that it's time to move into a new vehicle:

LACK OF IDEAS: This could be the number one complaint when I speak with potential clients dissatisfied with their current arrangement. "We have to give them ideas," they often say, "not the other way around." Executives are already busy running their companies and doing their jobs, they should not be doing the PR firm's as well. Which reminds me one of my favorite sayings: "If a client doesn't know what you are doing, they think you're doing nothing."

LACK OF SERVICE: Public relations is a service business. It's not just about producing super placements, but all the little things that go with it. What would Neiman Marcus be if they put your beautiful purchases in plastic bags, didn't handle your alterations expertly or had nice chairs for you to wait in? In public relations, the equivalent means being prepared in advance for media interviews, receiving placements on a timely basis, getting a strategic game plan, discussing and being well informed on the playing field, and the ability to anticipate needs before you have to complain about them.

THEY DON'T "GET IT": There's always an "education period" where the publicist learns first-hand about the intricacies of the client's product and ideally how to use it, what it means, and its messaging. One or two months fly by, there's very little press to show, and it seems that the PR team is spinning its wheels trying to figure out how to do its job. You have some more meetings to explain things that result in a couple of hits, but still, it's nowhere what you'd expect. You demand to speak with the company's president, who goes into emergency salvage mode, and throws different people on the account.

ALL THEY DO IS PUMP OUT PRESS RELEASES: While issuing press releases over paid news services like PRNewswise, BusinessWire and PRWeb has its questionable SEO benefits, most reporters don't even bother reading them unless they're from a public company. Good public relations is about relationships and developing your story, so if you're not speaking with genuine reporters and bloggers, but instead paying newswire bills and being shown hits on irrelevant sites like "earthtimes.org" or "newsblaze.com," something is wrong.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The PR conspiracies of Kanye West and American Idol

Kanye West bursting on stage to scare the living daylights out of teenage good girl Taylor Swift during the MTV Video Music Awards -- this was a surprise?

The collective amnesia of America's consciousness didn't go back just a mere three and a half months ago when comedian Sacha Baron Cohen flopped butt first from the sky in rapper Eminem's face at the MTV Movie Awards. Within 24 hours, the whole episode was unmasked as a ruse by Andy Samberg's writer.

MTV, which features very few music videos or movies, is in precious need of all the buzz it can, so if you're a conspiracy-minded person like me, you've got to be wondering about this latest "outrageous stunt," which generated 300,000 tweets in the hour following the "confrontation."

MTV started the precedent of staging outrageous stunts to get people talking, from the Super Bowl halftime show of "wardrobe malfunction" fame to Madonna's infamous kiss with Britney Spears. America swallowed them all hook, line and sinker.

Hollywood is a big illusion manufacturing machine, so it's not a stretch to imagine them concocting elaborately-staged "incidents" to create buzz around the water cooler the next day. No Zapruder films yet, but that's just a matter of time.

This is PR's version of the Matrix, the staged moon landing and Pearl Harbor being allowed to happen -- what you are seeing may simply not be real but being planned by a cabal of highly-paid publicists and entertainment studios and networks. Robert Langdon should forget about the Illuminati and book the next flight to LAX.

My longest-lasting PR conspiracy theory has been with Fox-TV's American Idol, and I'm not talking about rigging the vote for the contestants. There seemed to be a direct correlation to the show's slowly-decaying ratings and the behind-the-scenes shenanigans. It reminded me of the Department of Defense during the Bush administration -- when nothing was happening, they goosed everybody with an orange alert. Believe me, I'm not the only one who thinks this is true. Eight years of a Bush presidency has conditioned me for conspiracies!

Paula Abdul's departure announcement from the show raised my eyebrows, since virtually every non-named source in the New York Times story about what went on behind the scenes came from Abdul's camp and the Fox/American Idol people fawning over their love for their former resident kook. At one point, it even looked like Abdul was being asked to come back, with Fox setting up focus groups on whether she was wanted by the public or not. Straight up, indeed!

It doesn't stop there. Superbly timed judges' cat fights, air kisses, speculation of other judges leaving the show... there's no down time for the publicists even after the winner is crowned.

So the next time MTV has an awards program, grab your popcorn, your drink of choice, check your mind out at the door and wait... just wait... because you know it's going to come. Out of left field, above the audience, from behind the stage, maybe outside, high above in a B-52 bomber, that "outrageous" stunt is going to bolt from out of the blue like Amy Winehouse showing up at a monastery door. You've been "bitten" once, you didn't get "shy" before, but now you've wizened up and you "won't get fooled again."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Who sends out press releases on Labor Day

Next to New Year's Day and Christmas Eve, Labor Day is about as dead a news day can be. Most people are off swinging in a hammock or firing up the barbecue. But there are some determined souls who believe this is the ideal day to issue a press release.

The odds are already very slim that reporters will pick up a press release shot out over one of the paid syndicates from a non-public company. Couple that with the fact that today is a national holiday, the press is on skeleton staff, newspaper are thinner than usual, and nobody wants to work. So you really have to scratch you head about what the communications strategy is in determining that this was the best day to issue these particular missives.

Here are four favorites, non-public companies who paid money to send out press releases on Labor Day...

  • "ONLINE DATING CREATES PALACES OF HOPE, LABYRINTHS OF SUSPICION": An immediate candidate for the Press Release Headline Hall of Fame, this release functions as a warning to beware "fly by night" dating site operators. In the third paragraph, we finally get around to learning that "complete disclosure earns consumer trust and breeds success as exhibited by a handful of international sites that pride themselves on having nothing to hide. One such portal is Anastasia International, a premiere online dating resource for Western men seeking women from Russia & CIS for friendship and marriage."
  • "MIDLAND, MICHIGAN VOTED AMERICA'S BEST TENNIS TOWN": In the middle of all the exciting US Open matches and upsets, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) wants to remind you that Midland, which is northwest of Saginaw, best exemplifies "the passion, excitement, spirit and impact that tennis brings to the local level."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The most baffling newspaper correction I've ever read

Usually newspaper corrections range from mistakes such as spelling a name wrong to a flat out factual error. However, highlighted in Friday's online edition of the NY Daily News is an epic correction of grand magnitude, confusion and insanity.

In Walter Dawkins' article, Roxanne Shante, who sang one of rap's pioneering 80's songs "Roxanne's Revenge," claims she had a clause in her recording contract that Warner Music "would fund her education for life." Shante "eventually cashed in, earning a Ph.D. in psychology from Cornell to the tune of $217,000 - all covered by the label."

The rapper had to fight Warner Brothers to foot the bill, so she convinced Marymount Manhattan College's dean to let her attend classes for free while battling Warners. Shante said she submitted all her bills to the record company, "who finally agreed to honor the contract when Shante threatened to go public with the story." Shante says she earned her doctorate in 2001.

However, the online version of the article now contains a two-paragraph bizarrely worded correction that is almost comic in its ramifications of questionable journalism and corporate PR bungling. You know when you read this correction below, this has to be the tip of what is probably a whopper of an iceberg. Other than Cornell, almost nobody comes out of this looking good.

Thanks to AllThingsD's Peter Kafka for tweeting a link to this correction.

Correction: It has come to the attention of the Daily News that a number of statements in this article written for the Daily News by a freelance reporter are, or may be, false. Cornell University has told us that Shante did not receive any degree from it under either her birth or stage name. We have confirmed that prior to the article, at least four publications on Cornell's own website reported that Shante had earned a Ph.D. from the university. Those references have now been removed. And in response to an inquiry today, Marymount College stated that Shante attended there for less than one semester.

Numerous e-mail and telephone inquiries by the freelance reporter to Marymount during the preparation of the article to confirm Shante's account were not responded to. Finally, there have been recent media reports that there never was an education clause in Shante's recording contract. When the reporter contacted Warner Brothers Records about the contract before the article, its only response was that it was having difficulty finding someone within the company who could "talk eloquently" about it.