Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hilton Worldwide and the lesson of bad appearances

Take a good look at this man.

This is 86-year-old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He's not the type to go on business travel by himself, so he took a group of Saudi princes and officials to New York City for his surgical visit on November 24th.

The Waldorf-Astoria bumped a number of would-be guests so the King could take up an extended number of suites there. The problem, according to front page of the New York Times, is that at least one set of guests weren't even told by the Waldorf-Astoria they were getting the boot and happened to find out by sheer accident beforehand.

The Waldorf moved that set of guests to a free stay at the Hilton Hotel on Sixth Avenue since Hilton Worldwide is the parent company of the Waldorf as well. But as one of those guests told the paper, "They assured us the Hilton was just as nice, but come on, there were people in the elevators at the Hilton carrying pizza boxes.”

Those same guests even posted a nasty review on TripAdvisor.

It looks pretty bad, right? Seems like 100 guests got booted to another hotel because the King brought a much bigger party than anybody expected for his surgery. We don't begrudge the King -- that's how things are in Saudi Arabia, even for a toothache.

But what I don't understand is the duck under the radar response of Hilton Worldwide to the New York Times: they "won’t confirm or deny the arrival of a large number of Saudi guests."

Hilton Worldwide refused to answer any of the reporter's questions, and instead issued a statement: "'On those occasions when a guest relocation occurs, it is always our intention and goal to ensure that the affected individual is totally satisfied'" and offered "'comparable accommodations' at another hotel."

When companies are painted into a corner or believe that whatever they say to a reporter will not bail them out of a jam, concocting a statement is a valid tactic. You don't have to face the heat, but you hope and pray that your words will somehow mitigate the damage.

While Hilton Worldwide may have its policies when guests are bumped, the bottom line is: it looks bad.

They were caught between a rock and a hard place -- if they admit, yes we screwed up by letting the King take up a boatload more rooms and hauling our beloved regular guests over to another place, it's doubtful they'd be seeing more guests from the Middle East in the near future.

What's worse is that they had the misfortune of not having this embarrassing episode swept under the Tripadvisor rug but plastered on the front page of a national widely-read newspaper.

Was that perfunctory policy-reciting statement going to be the shield against Krytonite? I don't think so because even if that is their policy, most of us out-of-towners who are not royalty may reconsider booking at the Waldorf-Astoria in the future, lest we find out too late that we have been transferred to a lesser venue.

What was the correct tact?

Clearly, somebody dropped the ball not calling the guests in advance. That's pure fear at work and fear will sabotage you at every opportunity.

Not apologizing to their bumped guests in their statement to the paper was unconscionable. People need to hear an apology for mistakes.

If Hilton Worldwide had to choose the king's entourage over their previous bookings, I think they should have offered some options to these guests who were bumped: arranging other dates at the Waldorf at half price, staying at the Hilton, or even locating them at a hotel that really was comparable to the Waldorf, even it was not part of the Hilton family.

This would have most likely defused much of the anger because it would have shown genuine goodwill on the same level as staying at the Waldorf. If you give people great options and they understand your dilemma, then they know you are really doing the right thing in the throes of an emergency.

If Hilton took that route, then it gave them a better reason to get on the phone with the New York Times reporter and say, "We were in a real bind. We love our guests and customers, and hate to disappoint them. We bent over backwards to give them a choice of comparable accommodations for their stay, even at venues that did not belong to us."

That's going the extra mile. It's hard to argue with that message and offer to guests.

The big lessons here:

1) If you hide behind obtuse corporate policies and make it look like a convenient "Get Out of Jail Free Card," it's going to backfire. You can go around policies and make exceptions if you really care about your customers.

2) Always be upfront with the aggrieved party. Do everything beyond the norm to make them happy so they will continue to be your customers. Even when the US Airways plane landed in the Hudson River in January 2009, and passengers had every right to be angry and upset, the airline's handling of the situation erased most misgivings. You can be a hero in most situations.

3) Always apologize.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Anybody can send out a press release

When a company posts their press releases on their web site's "In The News" section, they are, in essence, only talking in a vacuum to themselves. There has been nothing accomplished except to pat themselves on the back for issuing a release.

This is symptomatic of an unfortunately common scenario: a company holds auditions for a new public relations firm, finally picks one and it's time to see what fresh approach they bring to the table.

The firm springs into action with its first strategic move: it issues a press release on Business Wire.

If this was the advertising world, pundits, reporters and agency rivals would be scrutinizing the tagline of the new campaign, its visuals, whether the message came through loud and clear, the positioning, and where the spots appeared.

Which brings me to the lesson that many companies need to learn when they are selecting a public relations firm: anybody can send out a press release. Anybody.

My son could do it from his high school. The guy who sells coffee to commuters at Grand Central Station. The woman who ripped your ticket in two before you went to see a movie this weekend. The person sitting next to you on the bus. Heck, even the bus driver could do it.

The release may not be well-written or it could be Hemingway, but frankly, as long as you've got $1,500 to spare and an Internet account, shooting a press release out into the ether can be accomplished by anybody.

If this scenario is a given, why are companies paying thousands of dollars to public relations firms to do the same thing? No pitching. No strategy. No results, except the pleasure of seeing the release reprinted verbatim with the Business Wire, PR Newswire or PRWeb dateline on such sites as earthtimes.org or newsblaze.com.

Do you know anybody who cites earthtimes.org as an influential news source? Any journalists you know retweet the Newsblaze feed on Twitter?

Yet, there are still many companies who have genuinely important announcements, ones that are critical to their expansion, perception and influence, who put all their eggs in the paid wire service basket because their public relations advisers told them so.

You might as well have given a few hundred bucks to the Starbucks barista down the block to do the same thing, and donate all that money you normally pay your PR firm to a worthwhile charity who can really use the help.

If publicity campaigns were dissected by the press the same way that advertising ones were, these syndicated press release-powered operations would be off-the-radar bottom feeders. There would be nothing to cover or admire.

Press releases are nice tools of the trade. And that's what they are -- mere tools. They are not substitutes for relationships with the press, strategy or results in any kind of status report.

When you see your story written by a genuine reporter or blogger in a venue that your colleagues and intended targets actually read, then you have an inkling your PR firm is doing something more than just cranking out press releases and hoping something will stick.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Interpreter needed for Google PR rep's replies to NY Times columnist

Here's a corporate PR response that would make double talk master Professor Irwin Corey proud, courtesy of Google.

On its site, Google announced it was shutting down 800-GOOG-411, its free phone voice-activated directory service, on November 12.

New York Times consumer tech columnist David Pogue mourned its demise and contacted Google for a reason why the service was being turned off.

Here is the very rigid response from Google's public relations department that practically sounds automated itself:

“Our focus is to provide the most value that we can for our users. In this context, we see the combination of speech technologies with the increasing growth of smartphones as a better opportunity to provide more value for users, so that is where we’ve chosen to focus our efforts.”

Not satisfied with that response, Pogue wrote back to them: “Thanks for the information. But if Google’s focus is to provide ‘the most value,’ then certainly a service that works on 100% of phones provides more value than one that works only only 5% of phones [i.e. Android-powered]. Is there a more plausible reason?”

Google PR's reply: “GOOG-411 showed that a fully-automated service could connect callers and businesses all over the country. We will continue to invest in voice recognition technology.”

Well, I know where that investment is going. It's probably being diverted to a new Google product where they power all public relations departments' incoming telephone lines, with stiff lawyer-written replies to journalists' voice-activated questions.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Facebook's crafty PR handling of "The Social Network"

David Fincher's "The Social Network" film came riding into release with a ton of buzz on its tail. While the raves were nearly unanimous, it dissected the character of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook -- did he rip off his friends' ideas to create the company that would make him the youngest billionaire in the world?

Nearly every character in "The Social Network" is greedy, slimy, devious and plainly naive. Although there is much debate as to the validity of the story itself, Facebook was heading into what looked like a major take-down of its founder and whether the concept was even legitimately his own.

Forget about the debate about "The Social Network's" fiction quotient. Let's examine what I think has been a mostly successful public relations campaign to defuse the controversy.

As a puppy owner, we are taught in obedience training class about positive reinforcement -- redirecting the dog from chewing objects and jumping on people to more productive activities. Now that a few weeks have passed since Facebook went public with its strategy, it's been very much like that dog training philosophy: a colossal redirecting of both the press' and consumers' attention from the film's core assertions.

Playing offense, Facebook made the first move 10 days before the film opened by sending Zuckerberg onto Oprah Winfrey's TV show to announce a $100 million donation to the Newark, NJ public school system. His well-written statement on air: “What I have to do is find good people who are going to be really good leaders and invest in them."

Thinly veiled ploy? Sure. Did it make headlines everywhere? You bet. Headline writers couldn't concoct slight variations of "Zuckerberg Likes Newark Schools" fast enough.

Suddenly, following in the footsteps of Bill and Melinda Gates and other education benefactors makes the golden halo. Zuckerberg looks like a decent, extremely generous human being and you can't even imagine the same person would be the one portrayed in that movie everybody is talking about.

Leading up the film's October 1st debut, there was a frenzy of interviews with the stars, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher. Word of mouth was building that Zuckerberg's portrayal was brutal and only slightly human and regretful. Sorkin calls him a "tragic hero."

Facebook fights back by letting David Fitzpatrick, the author of the Zuckerberg-authorized "The Facebook Effect," write a powerful Washington Post op-ed called "Five Myths About Facebook" and converse with every "Social Network" obsessed reporter that wants an "expert" quote.

On the film's opening day, that's when the most ingenious part of the PR strategy hit: take the whole staff out to see the movie. Why hide when you can just laugh it off and take the whole gang down to the Mountain View multiplex? Facebook even issued a statement about it: "To celebrate a period of intense activity at Facebook, we decided to go to the movies. We thought this particular movie might be amusing."

The next day, Facebook public relations executive Brandee Barker even posted a two-part review: "My review of THE movie: entertaining Hollywood drama, great soundtrack, witty dialogue, LOTS of inaccuracies and/or distortions of truth... and then "...compelling performances, but not the REAL Mark, Dustin, Chris or Sean that I know. And completely degrading to women."

Not enough companies are smart enough to take this tact when something negative is coming their way: face it head on and, as the British like to say, take the piss out of it.

Just a mere few days later, another diversion: an animated version of Zuckerberg appeared on the widely-popular cartoon TV series "The Simpsons." The pixelated founder explains Lisa Simpson and her buddy Nelson that many successful people didn't finish college to pursue their dreams, such as Bill Gates and himself. Although I'm not quite sure how this message meshes with his $100 million education donation, at least he wasn't the squinty-eyed weasel from the movie.

The final well-planned shoe dropping was the announcement of three new consumer-driven products, nearly one week after the film's opening. By unveiling Facebook Groups, the ability to download your profile and take it with you, and monitor app usage as the master of ceremonies, everything was tied up in one nice bow -- it does not matter about the movie... what matters is Facebook the product and the services it provides for you, the consumer.

And if that wasn't subtle enough, consider this comment Zuckerberg gave to Mashable's Ben Parr a day or two after that press conference, which really puts the whole public relations strategy in perspective: “We build products that 500 million people see… If five million people see a movie, it doesn’t really matter that much.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ad Age's premature proclamation of the press release's death

When Wired magazine made the bold cover statement that "The Web Is Dead: Long Live The Internet!" a couple of weeks ago, it was a shameless silly stunt that had many people scratching their heads as opposed to raising a pint. The fact that the story was co-written by notorious self-admitted "non reporter" Michael Wolff didn't help in the credibility department either.

When you make big statements like that, it's a huge throw of the dice: you run the risk of provocative discussion where the truth dawns upon the listeners, or you become a total laughingstock.

Today, Advertising Age's Simon Dumenco took this same gamble by proclaiming: "RIP, the Press Release (1906 - 2010) and Long Live The Tweet." His argument is the press release died when BP kept issuing press releases on its cleanup efforts instead of taking to social media and JetBlue barely responded at all to flight attendant Steven Slater's well-publicized leap down the emergency chute.

Yet, it's Lindsay Lohan and Kanye West, he says, who can command attention through their tweets instead of planting celebrity items with "Liz Smith" (whose last column in the NY Post ran in February 2009, ahem).

The fact is press releases have not died, and are not going away anytime soon. Not that they are the greatest thing since Swiss cheese, and I'm not a big fan of them, but the fact is: whether it's a press release, a tweet or a dissertation on Facebook, it's the communication skills and honesty of the writer that matters most, not the vehicle.

Arguing over whether the tweet has replaced the press release is a non-starter because blather, musings and nonsense can be distributed on just about every way possible, online and off.

Ironically, it's services like Twitter and Facebook that are circumventing journalists and bloggers altogether, and shuttling messages directly to their targeted audiences. That can make a pretty convincing case that journalism is dead (!!) in the age of social media, but that's not true either.

If Kanye West wants to go unfiltered about his feelings to make up to Taylor Swift what he did to her last year at the VMA's, then he can go right ahead. If you find news value in that, that's your decision to believe it and if you're a journalist, write about it. I don't have to subscribe to anybody's Twitter feed and I don't have to read gossip columnists. And if I did, I can choose what I want to believe or what is pegging the BS meter.

If a company wants to issue a press release about a some award they won that nobody knows about or anything else vacuous, they are entitled to issue it, and everybody -- including journalists -- is entitled to read or ignore it.

Dumenco is right on the money when he says, "press releases will probably continue to stumble along, zombie-like, for years to come because too many PR firms are still heavily invested in grinding them out."

Ironically, it is journalists who are also keeping the press release alive and well. Public companies give their financial disclosure over Business Wire, PR Newswire and other syndicators and on the receiving end writing up those statements, SEC filings and quarterly numbers? Reporters.

Journalists still ask publicists, "Do you have a press release you can send me?"

The fact is -- publicists shouldn't be relying on press releases anyway... or Twitter or Facebook. They are nice tools that can become unreliable crutches. They should be relying on their good press relationships that they can pick up the phone and call the right reporter. Or e-mail them with a to-the-point relevant pitch that engages in dialogue.

Frankly, I'd love to see bad press releases die, but like "Resident Evil" movies, they are always going to be around. You believe what you want to believe. Just consider the source.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

THE BIG QUESTION: If your pitch is rejected, can you bring it to another reporter in the same section?

"If you can't move a mountain, go around it."
-- old Drew Kerr saying

When a newspaper reporter turns down your pitch, does that mean you are prohibited from going elsewhere in the paper?

Of course not. However, is the same section of the paper off limits too?

I didn't think so and this theory was put to the test not long ago. Turns out that it's a touchy maneuver.

I had a very good story on my hands, so I pitched the lead industry reporter of a large newspaper. He replied that he didn't think his editors would go for the story, so he passed.

In baseball, when a batter swings halfway around, the catcher will ask the first or third base umpire for a call, hoping it's a strike. When a doctor gives you a prognosis for surgery, there's a good chance you'll go for a second opinion.

Therefore, my feeling was: if the reporter wouldn't even run it by their editor, how do I really know if that's the last word? I needed an editor's viewpoint. Besides, wouldn't it be fair game to go to another column in the same business section of the paper?

That's what I did, except I contacted a freelancer who contributes frequently to the column. They ran it up the flagpole, and after a few questions checked out, received the green light from their editor. We set up the interviews and one week later, the article ran in the column.

Which my client loved, but didn't make the original reporter too happy. He dropped me a note saying that if he turns an idea down, "it's not a fit for the paper." I called him up to apologize that he felt this way, that I did provide the courtesy of giving him the idea first, but could he clarify the way he preferred to work since I had not seen this as a crime? He seemed particularly sore that I went to a freelancer as opposed to a staff writer. The message was clear: if I reject it, you can't go anywhere else in the paper.

One industry colleague said the reporter had a lot of hubris gatekeeping what goes in and out of the entire newspaper.

For the long run, there was one further question which hung there: was my going to another reporter a universal faux pas or a case of reporter upset at rejecting a story the editors did in fact like?

For in-house guidance, I went to a longtime editor friend at the paper and he said that the mistake was the original reporter's surprise. Next time, he advised, ask the writer if it's okay to take the idea elsewhere.

What do you think?

A reporter should understand that you are doing your job.

The reporter gets the right of first refusal, so if they pass, can you go elsewhere?

Should you tell the reporter what you are doing?

Can that "elsewhere" be in the same section or a freelancer?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why do some publicists lie?

According to Michael Sitrick's public relations book, one of the cardinal rules of spin is "Credibility is the spin doctor's ultimate resource." He adds: "No matter what, don't lie -- lying is the one sing the media will neither tolerate nor forgive."

Yet, there are a handful of publicists who go on the record and lie.

When they lie, not only do they add to whatever distrust people have of this profession but they dig themselves into a hole.

For example, today it was announced that the department store chain Century 21 would replace Barnes & Noble at its Lincoln Center space sometime in 2011. When the New York Observer inquired yesterday, "a representative for Century 21 denied that the company was opening a store in that location." However, real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield issued the press release 24 hours later saying that in face, the chain was moving in. The Observer, strangely enough, let the Century 21 rep off the hook by saying "That denial is now turning out to be incorrect."

I wouldn't have let them off the hook if I was a journalist. When the client says no such thing is happening and the broker confirms the opposite the next day, that's a tale of two companies operating on different wavelengths and that can't happen.

Frankly, why would the Century 21 rep deny what was only going to be announced in 24 hours? Didn't they realize how incompetent it was going to make them look in a short amount of time?

The fact is: like this Century 21 gaffe, there is no reason to lie to a querying reporter.

Publicists often have all kinds of artillery that goes back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, by-the-numbers yawn-inducing responses such as "We don't comment on rumors and speculation" and the amusingly semi-fictional "We have a policy that we do not discuss any deals we may or may not be involved with." Hey, I'd like to see where that policy is written down!

My theory about lying publicists is that they have a trigger defensive reaction to anything that rocks the boat, sounds like an accusation, or comes close to hitting the truth. Instead of giving one of those aforementioned stock-in-trade phrases which takes any kind of fibbing out of the equation (except maybe that mystical "policy"), it's just easier to say no.

Publicists need to be less defensive and think about what the consequences of their actions are before they do them. Nobody is holding a gun to your head. You're not a contestant on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" and the clock is ticking down. You're allowed to think. You're allowed to call a reporter back. Why not take a few minutes before calling them and mull over your reply. You never want anything you say to a reporter to backfire on you because you'll never be trusted again, and most likely, they will hang you out to dry on the record.

And I ain't lying.

Friday, August 27, 2010


We are inaugurating our new series, which we hope will be weekly, looking at the most ludicrous and off-the-wall responses to the press from spokespeople and publicists from that week.

Seven tech giants and the three largest office supply companies were sued today by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Interval Licensing, alleging they infringed search related patents his company holds.

The press release was issued in the mid-morning on the west coast. By the late afternoon, two of the defendants issued statements to the press, Facebook and Google. Their responses could not have been more different.

For groundbreaking social network Facebook, they sprung into action with this very original response:

"We believe this suit is completely without merit and we will fight it vigorously."

Sometimes these suits are "frivolous," but Facebook went the "without merit" way.

Google, on the other hand, put some perspective on the situation:

"This lawsuit against some of America's most innovative companies reflects an unfortunate trend of people trying to compete in the courtroom instead of the marketplace."

FACEBOOK = Big snore.

Also today, media blog FishbowlNY's sources told them that renowned magazine editor Tina Brown was willing to abandon her top post at her news site The Daily Beast to take over the editorship of newly-bought Newsweek magazine.

The Daily Beast spokesperson gave what is surely one of the most bizarre replies anybody could have ever expected:

"Tina is enrolling her daughter at Harvard University this weekend and is unavailable for comment."

Whoa! Too much information there! Usually, it's the old warhorse "they're traveling and they are unavailable for comment," but that was not good enough. The Daily Beast took this opportunity to let you, the interested consumer, know that Brown's daughter was going to Harvard and so there!

THE DAILY BEAST = Condescending.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

First requirement to fool the media world: one sexy woman

Yesterday, a web site catering to guys called TheChive.com tricked some of the most respected news organizations by posting a photo montage of an attractive woman named Jenny holding up white boards quitting her job without another one and sticking it to her boss Spencer.

It was innocently entitled: "girl quits job on dry erase board, emails entire office."

While on the face of it, the 33 photos were an amusing waste of 30 seconds to view, some news groups were taking it quite seriously.

I first saw it on NY Times' blogger Nick Bilton's Twitter feed: "Quitting your job & calling your boss a jerk via dry erase board, then e-mailing the company = awesome! http://j.mp/9mbyHm"

Also taking it quite seriously were New York magazine's Daily Intel, Mashable, The Atlantic, The NY Post, TechCrunch, and Jezebel ("Woman Quits Her Job, Becomes a Hero").

Except Jenny looked like a fake. The whole thing looked like a fake. And not subtly either.

Jenny holds up each white board with a pose right out of acting school. When she says her boss Spencer gave her "all the codes" to his computer accounts so she could see how he spent time, the alarm got a little louder. She broke down his time into trading stocks, reading TechCrunch and "drumroll please," I was waiting for her to hold up a card with the name of some kinky porn sites. No, it was boring old Farmville.

Then Jenny removed her glasses and let down her hair in the last three photos -- a classic scenario out of every 1960's businessman's secretary fantasy. Even Thomas Dolby had a scene like that in his "She Blinded Me With Science" video ("
Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto! You're beautiful!").

That was the big red flag waving for me -- there was no way this was real! Seemed very obvious to me. Too neat, too staged.

And perhaps it was the post that same day of animated woman's buttocks that should have been a major clue?

Or the fact that TheChive.com unasahamedly calls itself "Probably The Best Site In The World?"

Only AllThingsD's Peter Kafka contacted TheChive.com's owners and promptly got evasive answers, which smelled even more suspicious (One owner: "This one is to be determined. People are kind of making up their own stories").

Of course, predictably, Jenny magically reappeared this morning to announce the whole thing was a hoax. A pretty thin and palpable one too.

The only site that updated their story that this prank was The Atlantic. No updates or corrections from anybody else, or admissions of guilt so far.

Is all it takes to fool the media world and get lots of press coverage one sexy woman?

If "Jenny" were "Jim" -- a guy quitting his job, holding up white boards about how low office morale is, that his female boss was spending loads of time trading stocks and shopping for clothes and shoes, would this have received the same amount of attention? If "Jim" removed his shirt in the last few photos, would that photo montage been convincing enough to warrant massive news coverage, proclaiming them a working class hero?

Bravo to TheChive.com to luck out and become infamous for a day for a plain-as-day stunt. I admire the nice touch of "Spencer" reading TechCrunch 5.3 hours a week, guaranteed to get the highly trafficked news site to write about you ("It's Official: The Best Bosses Read TechCrunch!").

As a public relations professional, this stunt has inspired me to change my approach to the media from now on. I am cutting out photos from the latest issue of Maxim and pasting them on top of all my press releases from now on.

In the meanwhile, let Bob Dylan show you how white boards should really be used...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Keith Olbermann is not the master of his own domain

If you don't own own the domain of your own name, your kids' names, your spouse's name, well, drop what you are doing and register right now.

I registered my kids' names as AOL e-mail addresses years ago as soon as they were born and soon after bought their namesake domains. That's a father thinking ahead of time about ownership in cyberspace.

I know you've heard the "you are your own brand" talk many times. It's right out of the Fast Company magazine playbook from the late 90s. You never want somebody to hijack your name on the web. That's why there are cybersquatting laws for corporations and trademarks.

Yet, somebody does own the RudyGiuliani.com domain that has nothing to do with the former Mayor of NY. When Giuliani was contemplating a presidential run a few years ago, he couldn't get that domain back, so he went with VoteForRudy.com or something like that.

The latest unlucky victim of not owning their name domain is the lightning rod liberal MSNBC host of "Countdown," Keith Olbermann. According to Mediaite, conservative Tucker Carlson's blog The Daily Caller announced that they have taken ownership of KeithOlbermann.com. Anybody who types that domain into their browser is redirected to the Daily Caller.

Foolishly, Olbermann has lost his online ID to not only an outsider, but somebody who is ideologically opposed to him and will dog him about it mercilessly (they're already crowing "We Own You!" on their home page). And there is nothing Olbermann can say or do that will ever get it back.

People pay thousands and thousands of dollars for directly typed in domain names -- just read David Kesmodel's The Domain Game about the explosive market of lucky entrepreneurs who got rich buying up those domains.

It's hard to believe that nobody in Olbermann's camp, or even at MSNBC management, covered their bases buying up the host's domain name. Mediaite indicates that the domain was owned privately for several years and apparently sold just a few days ago to The Daily Caller.

Every TV anchor and host is going to double check whether they own their own domain after Daily Caller publisher and CEO Neil Patel announced: "This is part of our long-term growth strategy. Our future acquisition targets include several other annoying cable news commentators."

You and I may not host a national television show, but as small businesses, companies and individuals, in the end, all we have our our names and reputations. Public relations is all about control. If we can't control our own names and reputations online, besides our clients and employers, we are not practicing what we preach.

The KeithOlbermann.com lesson is two-fold:

The obvious -- make absolutely sure to register the domain of your name, your family, your company, and every conceivable variation and way in for as many years as you can afford. It is all about control. Do it on GoDaddy.com -- they have the best deals by far and there are promotional codes all over the web to make it even cheaper. If your kid grows up to be a rock star, talk show host or even Joe Blow ad salesperson, they'll thank you for thinking ahead for them.

And second -- don't take anything for granted, no matter how much you trust and love the people around you. Little things do matter.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why one editor thinks most press releases are garbage

Brandweek editor Todd Wasserman has come right out and said what I've been saying for the longest time: most press releases are ridiculous.

"...in Press Release Land, people converse like the narrators of Eisenhower-era educational films. Of course, strip away that Conehead syntax and you realize that these automatons aren’t saying much anyway."

Wasserman dissects an AT&T press release for not only corporate double-talk, but running around the news they really want to say.

He also tackles one of my favorite subjects, my #1 New Years Resolution: banning corporate quotes in press releases.

"The quotes in them are so bizarrely written that they bring a false note to any story. Yet, if the quote was in plain English, reporters might be more apt to cite it."

This is definitely the PR wake up call post of the week and a must read... right here.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

AT&T pays steep price for data breach silent treatment

The unraveling of AT&T's fortress of silence since Gawker revealed a monumental security break of 114,000 high level iPad owner e-mail addresses is instructional on many levels.

Hackers exploited a security hole on AT&T's web site, informed the telecommunications giant about the problem, and the hole was closed. After being ignored by much of the mainstream media about this discovery, the hackers tipped off Gawker who went live with the story.

Apple didn't respond to any press queries, instead punting to their partners at AT&T, who gave a rather self-incriminating and not particularly convincing statement. It seems a "business customer" contacted them on Monday about his iPad ID being exposed, the issue was "escalated" to "its highest levels" and corrected by Tuesday.

Except today is Wednesday.

In other words, AT&T seems to have gambled that no word of this breach was going to reach the press. A risk they have clearly lost. An inadvisable risk because once they decided to give the silent treatment, there was a good chance they'd lose control of their own story.

Did they think the hackers were not going to tout their accomplishment to the press? According to Forbes, the group immediately contacted Reuters, NewsCorp. The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle. When none of them bit, they shrewdly went to Gawker. That only took, oh, a couple of days max.

Now AT&T has to back paddle, using one of corporate America's favorite PR phrases when they've screwed up: "We take customer privacy very seriously and while we have fixed this problem, we apologize to our customers who were impacted."

Perhaps it would have been smarter for AT&T to have cut the hackers off at the pass and come out publicly on Monday or Tuesday explaining the incident, how it was handled swiftly, and that there was no fallout. The opportunity was there to take control of the story before somebody else ran with it skewed to their own taste.

Instead, AT&T is chasing a train that left the station without them and issuing statements to anybody who will listen.

Friday, May 28, 2010

PR explanation of the year: how to cover up garbage through social media

You can't make this stuff up, folks.

The state of romantic comedy films has been in the toilet for a long time. And if you've seen the trailer for the forthcoming "Killers" with Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher, you know there's no improvement on the horizon.

The film's distributor Lionsgate has decided not to show the film in advance to critics. Their explanation to the Associated Press is a masterpiece of redirected gobbledygook that will be hard to top for a long time to come:

"We want to capitalize on the revolution in social media by letting audiences and critics define this film concurrently. In today's socially connected marketplace, we all have the ability to share feedback instantly around the world. In keeping with this spirit, Lionsgate and the filmmakers want to give the opportunity to moviegoing audiences and critics alike to see `Killers' simultaneously, and share their thoughts in the medium of their choosing. We felt that this sense of immediacy could be a real asset in the marketing of `Killers.'"

I'm just going to let that statement sit there to marinate, so you can appreciate the ingeniousness... the brilliant evasion... the beauty of punting to "the social media revolution."

Then I will let you appreciate this even further by sending you to David Poland's Hot Spot blog, where he's just posted a hilarious poll soliciting reader reaction to Liongate's statement. He calls it "Killer Crickets Blackout: Genius or Idiocy?"

For creativity in public relations, Lionsgate gets an A+. Lord knows if it will save this film.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How not to lose control of your own words

When I was a college undergraduate, I was constantly surprised by one of my professors who made a habit of dissecting everything I handed in. No matter how rigorously I worked on improving my writing, the documents were returned with editing corrections, with seemingly no end in sight.

It got to the point where I thought this guy was just going overboard nitpicking, and frustrated in my progress, I met with him after class.

He explained to me that words were like "little knives" that "could cut, like surgery." Every one had a specific definition and purpose, and I had to think in those terms when choosing my words.

Here I am, many years later, where words are the currency of my profession and it's hard not for me to feel like that professor. As a matter of fact, the proliferation of online blogging and news reading has made word choice almost a blood sport. Not just for me, but clearly for others as well.

It's not difficult to understand why -- the words we say and write, the ones we use to respond to everything from simple questions to accusations, are magnified and there forever online. Tabloids sensationalize the most innocuous comment that the best choice of words may be to utter none of them.

Very often, our words can bury ourselves because we did not choose correctly or another set of eyes and ears did not evaluate them. Sometimes we can not even be the gatekeepers of our own words.

Take, for example, IGN president Roy Bahat's recent company memo that leaked across the Internet.

In one sentence he says "We've had to reduce the size of our organization and are eliminating roles today in every part of the company." Then in another sentence, he states that the company has grown "40% over last year in the total size of our audience."

The cherry on the cake comes at the end: "It probably goes without saying, but please keep this absolutely confidential to IGN."

I find it hard to believe that every CEO doesn't assume that any company memo will appear on the Internet. If you're going to commit to those words, you may as well make sure that every one makes sense and when you string them together, a reader won't scratch their head in puzzlement or roll over with laughter. Words can come back and slap you every time.

When it comes right down to it, we have to be more vigilant about our words when we're under a social media microscope, and any e-mail we send may be just a forward button away to somebody's blog.

It's time to do a little self-examination and staff discussion about when we finish our first drafts (and yes, there should be first drafts), we should ask ourselves, "Is this what you really want to say? There's no way to misinterpret this, right?"

Take a deep breath, close your computer, walk outside, buy your lunch, stop by the local bookstore or magazine stand, observe what's going on around you, and then go back to your desk.

Look again at what you just wrote. Make believe a total stranger was about to post it the web -- would you change your mind now?

Monday, March 22, 2010

The PR Store has gone out of business

Driving up Route 111 in Smithtown, NY the other
day, I saw this storefront in a strip mall and had to pull over and snap a photo.

Did people pull up in their car and order a Coke, fries and a press release?

Friday, February 26, 2010

How to speed up press release approvals

Sometimes it's better not to write a press release at all, just to avoid the horrid approval process. You had might as well just pick up the phone and call each journalist individually with your news.

Once any legal department gets involved, you may was well go on vacation and be well rested just in time for the document's sign off.

Last year, I was working on a project when a press release draft about the results of a joint venture was sent my way that needed to be updated. Apparently, it was originally written three months earlier, and for one reason or another, fell into suspended animation, only to be revived.

Over a period of seven days, I edited and rewrote the release a few more times to bring it up to date with current data and results, carefully positioning it with my client and their partner so that we hit on all the right points. My client said, and I do recall this because I have the e-mail: "We should send this out next Thursday."

That "next Thursday" never arrived. You see, the partner cited examples from third party companies in the release, and they needed their sign-offs on their mere mentions. Suddenly, progress on the release went dead silent.

Like crop circles and Stonehenge, we may never know the results of this joint venture.

As much as I disdain press release reliance, I have discovered over the years that there are ways to avoid the dreaded approval delays:

* Don't write a press release. If it looks like the approval process is going to be a marathon, why bother cranking out another masterpiece? Get agreement from all parties that the process may hinder the news, start picking up the phone and call the right reporters who would be interested in this news. Accompany that with personally-written e-mails explaining what's going on.

You'll find that there are some companies who are allergic to press releases. They break out in hives and get cold feet when something is committed in an official form on paper. But somehow, spreading the news by more "casual" means is acceptable -- telephone or casual e-mail.

* Avoid third party quotes. This is especially true if your announcement involves multiple parties. What you do for one, you must do for all. The only quote should come from your client or employer, and leave it at that. Once you start soliciting all the outside parties for official quotes, you are not only setting yourself up for an unreadable bloated release, but you might as well get on the local DMV line because that will probably move much faster by comparison.

* Give them deadlines. Admittedly, this is a touchy approach, but I've seen it work, depending on the tone and and wording. You want sign off on a timely basis? Inform them of your deadline -- all comments and corrections must be back by this date. You want to get a little harsher? Add that if you don't hear from them by that date, you'll assume everything in the release is satisfactory. Let them know a specific date that the release is "absolutely" going out. You have to be a good judge of who you're dealing with when imposing deadlines. Usually a friendly, firm stating of the due date is all you need.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Who owns your public relations ideas?

If ideas are the premiere currency of public relations, then who owns them when you're either pitching a new client or you've contributed them to a current one?

Creativity is desired at such a premium, that I would offer a special bi-annual monetary bonus to employees who could devise unsolicited PR ideas which our clients could embrace and execute. I was looking for what I dubbed "in the shower ideas," the kind that would suddenly come to you while you were under the spray.

In my long experience, really good PR ideas are tough to come by, whether they are solicited by a client or not. Not everybody has the same ability to imagine, free associate and be so plugged, so when the lightening bolt hits, you can't present it to the client fast enough.

Ownership of ideas created for a potential client presentation is becoming a hot potato issue in the advertising world, as agencies are fighting for their intellectual property rights. In a recent Advertising Age article, "the 4A's has seen a spike in recent months in agencies complaining about clients' desire to own ideas and work shown during the new-business process."

A 4A's EVP explains: "The nature of the complaints is that [requests for proposals] will come out, and, buried in the 14th paragraph of a [non-disclosure agreement], is a paragraph or sentence that says, 'Oh by the way, and in addition to protecting the confidentiality of our agreement, we the client want to own all ideas and work product that comes out of the review process.'"

For public relations professionals wooing potential clients, this is a tricky situation because not only do you want them to like you but you want them to love your ideas and believe me, it's your ideas that separate you from the pack.

Yet, what is going to prevent them from hiring another firm and telling them to execute your ideas, masqueraded as their own? It's enough to drive a conspiracy-minded person mad!

PRNewser just polled their readers about the topic: "Only 30% of respondents said they would decline to participate in a pitch if they were asked to do 'custom work' for said pitch. Another 55% said they would work up a plan, but keep it 'somewhat generic' to mitigate any potential risk."

I'd like to know how the readers would feel if they were paid to do the custom work. The economy has tilted the tables and has some PR firms bending over backwards to generate revenue, even at the cost of drawing up a detailed plan, and even if they are not qualified to do the work.

Safeguarding the results of your hard-earned brainstorm means enlisting the insight of your friendly and knowledgeable digital lawyer.

"Ideas are not protected by Copyright; however, there are practices that may be undertaken to protect ideas, as well as some legal theories by which ideas may be protected, provided the Copyright Act does not serve to preempt such protection," says Robert deBrauwere, Partner, Digital Media Practice Group, at Pryor Cashman LLP. "The most practical means to protect an idea is via contract in the form of a non-disclosure and confidentiality agreement, which should be executed by the party to whom the idea will disclosed in advance of any disclosure."

His suggestion is an interesting conceit, but I'm not quite sure a potential client would be receptive to signing that kind of release ahead of time, especially if none of the other contenders are doing the same. It may also send a subtle signal of distrust. Larger companies may be able to get away with it, but smaller firms may need to take a wilier route.

deBrauwere does suggest "you should always affix a copyright notice to any work of authorship. It will likely serve to dissuade people from copying and it will also serve as notice of a claim of ownership, to the extent that any copyrightable expression may be taken from such work (as opposed to mere ideas)."

What about writing a disclaimer along the lines of "This information is being provided solely for the purposes of this project proposal and may not be used for other purposes without the author's permission?"

This tact may be "helpful because it can create a contractual obligation, either a formal contract or an implied-in-fact contract," says deBrauwere.

Another way to protect yourself is to follow what the COO of the career-counseling network Five O'Clock Club suggested in a November 2006 Wall Street Journal article: "Exclude necessary details that would then make [a proposal] impossible to implement."

There's no reason to issue the "War and Peace" of PR plans for any RFP or presentation, because you are just giving away far too much and practically asking for it to be filched.

You were invited to the table in the first place because your guns should be loaded -- your reputation and track record in the potential client's field, credentials, the support of current and former clients and ideally journalists as well.

Any potential client should be able to detect in a live conversation that you know what you are talking about and how you can handle their engagement. Either your personalities are going to jive or they won't. Your attitude and enthusiasm will go a long way.

And "you've got to show some leg," as New York Times media columnist David Carr likes to say.

There's nothing wrong with unveiling a general game plan and providing a few practical details. You've got some killer creative ideas? Just share one or two and explain them on the surface -- how they'll work and what the results could be.

In his excellent book, How To Acquire Clients, Alan Weiss advises to provide some small free value early on: The best way to sell your ability to help is, well, to help! The philosophy you create is, "If I'm getting this much help from this person, how much better off would I be if I actually hired him?" You obviously can't provide in-depth solutions or recommendations... but you can provide observations, experiences from elsewhere (which is why, supposedly, you're there to begin with), questions and ideas, which gives the prospect two impressions: 1) There are some alternatives available that perhaps his or her own organization (or other consultants) haven't considered and 2) You are one smart person."

Granted, you are walking on a fine line to both thrive in our profession and stand out as individuals among the competition.

If your ideas are hot, you'll see the "click" in their heads because as I said earlier, great ideas are worth a million bucks, and you'll sense their excitement. One of the most common reasons clients ditch their PR firms is finding they have no ideas or ran out of them, so you know how much they'll be valued up front.

However, once I'm on board with a client, the line is crossed and my ideas are freely theirs. If some lightening bolt hits me about an ingenious press event while standing in a crowded subway car, I can't tell my client fast enough. And if they love it and all the pieces make sense, I don't even think twice about donating that baby.

I've given up some pretty amazing concepts over the years to clients, and a few are still being done today, long after we've parted ways. I created "The Good Housekeeping Good Buy Awards" almost a dozen years ago to help put that magazine's famous Institute on the press map every holiday shopping season. Those awards are still being held today. Way back when, I pushed long and hard to get SmartMoney magazine staff writer Jean Chatzky on the Today show to do personal finance segments, and now she's a brand name who has written a bunch of books, speaks around the country and still an NBC-TV star.

But just like anything else in public relations, you can't run out of ideas. I have to keep coming up with them, giving away my babies for the good of the clients. If your clients succeed, you succeed.

Ideas are the most valuable currency of public relations. Be selective and protective with what ideas you unveil when presenting to a possible client, but you must turn into a philanthropist giving them away generously and happily once they've signed on the dotted line.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How to play "PR Ping Pong"

Everybody's doing a brand new dance, now.

It's called "PR Ping Pong."

Here's how you play: a reporter calls you up and you decline to comment. They then call up the other party in the story, and they refer the reporter to their spokesperson, and they decline to comment too.

And around and around it goes.

Today, lucky Los Angeles Times reporter Ben Fritz got his chance to play PR Ping Pong. Investigating Viacom's SEC filing to get a "substantial portion" of the $150 million payout it gave Harmonix, the makers of the Rock Band video game, his first natural stop was calling Viacom.

"A spokesman for Viacom declined to elaborate. Harmonix Chief Executive Alex Rigopulos referred questions to a spokesman, who also declined to comment."

I fear both Viacom and Harmomix put reporter Ben Fritz into some kind of journalism infinite loop matrix where he may never hear a comment again and is fated to spend the rest of his days bouncing back and forth between silent spokespeople.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The annual Super Bowl ritual of Go Daddy's rejected ad

As sure as the sun rises, the milk is delivered and bad romantic comedies are dumped into theaters around Valentine's Day, Go Daddy had one of its forthcoming Super Bowl ads rejected by the TV network broadcasting the game (in this case, CBS).

This year's ad altered the playbook somewhat with a tinge of homophobia, featuring an "effeminate former football player who designs lingerie for women."

Winner of the best acting award for a company CEO, Bob Parsons, has his mock shock lines down perfectly: “It’s the first time for me I’ve been baffled. Usually we may get an ad rejected and we’ll understand. We may not agree, but we understand.”

It was a great trick the first couple of times, employing the often powerful "reverse psychology" ploy of purposefully calling attention to being turned down to drum up curiosity. Go Daddy milked it by showboating that the censored ad could be viewed on their web site, driving a ton of buzz and traffic there.

You would think guys didn't see enough scantily-dressed women just walking by any newsstand. But why deny the opportunity to see race car driver Danica Patrick slip out of a shower wearing nothing but a bathrobe and a smile?

There's no doubt that like clockwork, Go Daddy shoots one ad a little more risque than the others, submits it to the network, probably knowing fully well that it's going to get turned down... and it does... and then out go the press releases and claims of prudishness and unfairness.

The gimmick works great in a two-fold way: 1) it saves Go Daddy the exorbitant millions they'd have to foot for another Super Bowl spot by drumming up "scripted controversy" then screening on their web site and 2) it raises awareness that the Go Daddy ad that will air will probably be edgy and sexy too.

The press and the public have been to this well once too often, yet they can't stay away from a good "corporate guy unfairly beats down the little guy" scenario, even if it's clearly manufactured.

Not content to let Go Daddy hog the "controversial rejection" spotlight this year, Toronto-based gay dating site ManCrunch.com is getting into the act, reaping loads of press by loudly announcing CBS' rejection of their ad, playing the old "discrimination card." As Ad Age's Brian Steinberg said in his Twitter feed: "The furor over CBS/Mancrunch is sound and fury signifying nothing. These publicity stunts happen ever year and press falls for em every yr."

CBS said they turned down the ad partly because of financial reasons. Heck, I'm getting a bunch of my buddies together to chip in $10 each to shoot a cheapo Super Bowl ad for next year, touting our new "straight white people from Queens" dating service 718date.com just to submit it, get turned away and alert the media immediately for our 15 minutes of fame.

I don't see why other marketers can't adopt this network rejection strategy for their own publicity buzz purposes. For example...

* Federal Express packages delivered by Maxim models. REJECTED!

* The Budweiser Clydesdales chasing lustily after a younger female filly. REJECTED!

* Female job candidates posting their photos and measurements in a CareerBuilder.com ad. REJECTED!

* The E-Trade baby finally does a number one on camera. REJECTED!

* Dr. Pepper lets spokesman Gene Simmons really show what that famous long tongue is for. REJECTED!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Is SEO the name of an accounting firm? Q&A with search consultant Dan Rosenbaum

For all the hype around Twittering and Facebooking and blogging, I'm still convinced at least half the amount of public relations professionals know very little about social media.

Social media webinars are packing them in in 2010. It's the same group of 10 people teaching PRSA social media seminars every year.

So many publicists, so little time.

As a public service, I bring to you independent search consultant Dan Rosenbaum, who has been busy speaking to many large public corporations and was kind enough to answer some questions to help all of you learn more about hitting the top of the charts (Google, not Billboard, that is). Dan sings opera, so you know when he speaks, he projects.

There are still a large number of publicists who think SEO is an accounting firm name. Why do you think that is so?

This is a hard one to answer. I think it's a matter of short-term thinking versus long-term thinking. Some of it, I think, is because publicists are at heart a pretty conservative bunch. I see a lot of PR efforts handled as discrete events, rather than true long-term campaigns. Press releases are crafted, negotiated, and dropped -- like anvils. If they hit something on the way down -- a reporter calls, a crowd assembles -- the release is a success and tomorrow is another day. But SEO doesn't reward that. SEO, because it's based on reinforcing the popularity and authority of web pages, is part of a long term strategy that's too frequently absent from traditional PR.

How can publicists increase the search visibility of their press releases?

With Google and Bing's increased attention to real-time search, there's more opportunity than ever to get a press release into the main search index. Here are some tips.

a) The odds are vastly increased by using language that their audience uses. Let's say you're promoting a product that your company calls "The XD-5402 Jam Whacker, Left-handed," but which the market popularly calls "The Magic Whackinator." Don't be stuck up about it: prominently use the phrase "Magic Whackinator" high in your release. The most important thing you can do to optimize a press release is to use outward-facing language -- the language your target market speaks when it talks about your product and category -- rather than insider-oriented language. One real-world example is for a pharmaceutical company with a pain-relief product. They didn't know whether to use the medical term "neuralgia" or the more common-place word "pain." The wound up with two web sites: one oriented to doctors, the other to the public. The public-facing one used the word "pain" prominently; the industry-facing one used "neuralgia." Different audiences, different vocabularies.

b) Make sure your web site does all the right things technically: that Title tags are in place, that navigation isn't hidden in Javascript, that the right text is used inside headline tags. If you don't understand this paragraph, hire someone who does and let him or her tell you what to do. Then buy a book and learn HTML. It's easy, and should take less than an evening to get the basics.

What SEO recommendations would you make for a corporate web site?

Corporate web sites can be powerful tools to get a company's message out. One of the standard SEO tactics for big sites is to link aggressively among its own pages; pages with lots on incoming links generally rank better than pages with fewer. But be careful to follow the standard rules of the road. I had one client that centralized links to all its press releases across all its businesses on one page (which was good), but generated the list of links in Javascript, which search engines can't follow, so the releases all looked like there were no links to them at all, and therefore never showed up in search engine results.

Corporate sites should avoid falling into the trap of using content management systems that produce obscure URLs like www.corpsite.com/database?q=495082&tor40593-2?a=40395. Search engines have a hard time with query-driven URLs like that. Better are easily navigable URL structures like www.corpsite.com/releases/grocery/slam-bang-cereal-new-box-size.

How can PR people incorporate SEO into things other than press releases?

Any publicist worth a dime has a list of key contacts and second-tier contacts for each of his or her clients. The point of SEO isn't reaching those contacts. SEO is to reach the new class of influencers: people tweeting or posting about your clients or their products, people involved in the Great Electronic Conversation. Odds are, publicists don't know who they are -- and, to be frank, they may not be worth targeting individually. But collectively, SEO is a great way to find them, because it helps them find you. By optimizing press releases and client sites, you're increasing the odds that influencers and casual browsers will get your side of the story.

But again: you have to use their language. One client's product was named in a high-profile investigative article, which linked the product to deaths among its users. The company responded on its blog, but didn't actually use the product's name in its response, opting to refer to the general class of product. The result: anyone who searches for the product's name will find the accusation but not the otherwise effective response. Anyone who searches for the specific inward-facing product class will find the response but not the initial story. As PR professionaly, which would you rather have?

Once someone does find you through your SEO efforts and contacts you, have something more to offer than the press release. A briefing paper, a video, photos or diagrams. The press release becomes less of an anvil and more a wedge. Rather than hitting whatever happens to be under the anvilprint, use the press release as the starting point for a conversation, and hit it again and again.

SEO won't help you very much when it comes to reaching your core contacts. But it's vital in helping you reach influencers you don't know about -- and in reaching people who have a new need to know about your client and its products. It's a tool for expanding your PR footprint.

What kinds of questions should publicists ask their clients about their SEO efforts?

Ask, first of all, if they're doing anything at all. Some clients may be doing paid search (CPC, in particular) to drive traffic. CPC can be very effective -- particularly for crisis communications -- but it can get very expensive very quickly. Ask if they're tying their optimization efforts to any performance metrics: pageviews, additional clicks, name collection, any calls to subsequent action. Ask if they're tracking traffic, and what percentage of their traffic comes from organic search, paid search, direct traffic, and so on. Ask if they know who's linking back to them.

Ask, too, what technical resources are under their clients' control when it comes to the Web site. All too often, clients have outsourced Web development to shops that can (or will) only make changes for big bucks. If the developers have engineered an SEO-hostile site and won't fix it without undergoing a big and expensive project, you've got a problem -- and ought to be looking for a new and more cooperative Web shop. In many cases, the technical changes to optimize a site are not difficult. If your site is heavily dependent on Javascript and Flash, though, you're going to have an expensive problem.

What are three basic SEO tenets that every publicist should know?

1) Use customer facing language.

2) Don't expect quick results. SEO is a long-term game, and quick fixes will backfire.

3) Set key performance goals and track results. Are you looking for traffic to a given page or overall traffic to the site? Conversions? (And how do you define a "conversion"?) Do you want to build a backlink profile? Decide before you start why you're bothering with SEO, and build systems to track how you're doing.

When you speak about SEO in front of corporate PR departments, what are the most frequently asked questions/topics?

I usually get a lot of questions about the advisability of using Javascript and Flash, and how to optimize video for search. In some cases, that means that audiences are missing the point. In others, I get the distinct impression that they already understand the importance of messaging and language, but are having trouble building consensus around it in their own organizations; it's the technology that they're at sea about.

I get questions about how to get people to link back to corporate sites. And there are always questions about paid search and buying links.

Dan Rosenbaum can be reached at dan@panix.com.

Friday, January 8, 2010

NBC learns the tough lessons of overhype

Talk about your awkward timing.

As hundreds of TV critics descend upon Pasadena, CA for the annual Television Critics Association press tour, and the rest of the media journalism hordes are planted at Las Vegas' Consumer Electronics Show, word leaks out that NBC-TV is bowing to affiliate pressure and restoring Jay Leno to his old 11:35 pm time slot and bumping Conan O'Brien to midnight.

The NBC PR department is working overtime issuing flowery statements pleasing both hosts, which are all basically holding patterns:

"Jay Leno is one of the most compelling entertainers in the world today. As we have said all along, Jay's show has performed exactly as we anticipated on the network."

"We have the best comedy team in the business. We remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC. He is a valued part of our late-night lineup, as he has been for more than 16 years, and is one of the most respected entertainers on television."

Consider the dilemma, NBC's PR department is really doing the best they can until somebody makes an official statement, tail between their legs. What could the PR department say except nice things soothing Leno and O'Brien until something is hammered out? As long as they don't lie, they're pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Is this a PR disaster, as somebody e-mailed me yesterday? I think it's an unfortunate result of the compulsion to overhype anything new without any regard giving it a chance to breathe and find its feet.

The road to Leno's new 10 pm show which premiered in September was paved by tie-in's with other NBC shows, tons of interviews, press conferences, and stunts. It actually got the point where Leno himself was mocking all the monstrous hype: according to an MSNBC article from last September, when Leno was asked at an NBC-hosted critics party if was nervous about having to save the network, he shot back: "The network is on its own. Screw them."

I know the basic DNA of executives and public relations professionals is to get as much press for anything as possible -- shoot for the moon. Man all decks, get the cover stories. In many cases, that's good to be ambitious.

However, the more you blow your own horn, the bigger the target that will be painted on your back. When it comes to something experimental in nature, such as Leno's move to 10 pm, it was probably better to take a more low key approach to curb expectations.

Hasn't anybody ever heard of the saying "You've got to walk before you run?"

Sometimes the best route is to let the press and audience discover things for themselves and keep the press on a low simmer. In that way, the kinks can be worked out over time and if the product works, it's a genuine success. If it fails, it doesn't look like a major calamity where you have to put out a million fires at once, the ones that were originally lit from all that over the top hype.

At least when Fox knew that there was a tidal wave of interest coming to its big winter movie, James Cameron's Avatar, it got fans and bloggers invested first. They were invited to 20-minute sneak previews last spring so they would be wowed on their own by the real thing, and let that carry the buzz all the way to December.

NBC took a multi-million gamble and now it looks like they lost with lousy ratings, no positive support from the critics and affiliate backlash. Well, things like this happen to large corporations all the time. They apologize, put on a calm face, find ways to correct the mistakes or rid themselves of a bad fit by selling or closing it, and then they move on.

The sting hurts and eventually it goes away.

However, the lesson of overhype does not.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Who fell asleep in H&M's PR department?

Was it weird coincidence that on the elevator to visiting my doctor this morning, the doors opened and it turned out H&M's US office were located there? Nobody was in the waiting room but perhaps everybody was in a meeting discussing an embarrassing article in the New York Times today.

According to Jim Dwyer's piece, a woman named Cynthia Magnus discovered that two Herald Square stores -- Wal-Mart and H&M -- were routinely cutting up unsold clothes and throwing them out in the evening for trash pickup.

"It is winter. A third of the city is poor. And unworn clothing is being destroyed nightly," Dwyer writes. He notes that right around the corner is a big collection point for New York Cares.

Wal-Mart's spokesperson Melissa Hill responded swiftly to reporter queries: the company normally donates all its unworn goods to charities, she says to Dwyer, and would have to investigate why the items found on 35th Street were discarded.

And H&M? Hello, H&M?

"This week, a manager in the H & M store on 34th Street said inquiries about its disposal practices had to be made to its United States headquarters. However, various officials did not respond to 10 inquiries made Tuesday by phone and e-mail."


"H & M, which is based in Sweden, has an executive in charge of corporate responsibility who leads the company’s sustainability efforts. On its Web site, H&M reports that to save paper, it has shrunk its shipping labels."

Double ouch!

I went to the H&M web site -- they certainly make their contact information very clear on the press section of the web site. It's hard to believe that not one executive or press rep returned Dwyer's queries.

It's press relations 101 that silence equals guilt.

Whether corporate headquarters knew about this or not, it is critical to respond immediately to the press, even if you say you'll investigate the matter, exactly what Wal-Mart did. To not respond at all is a complete corporate and public relations failure.

Whatever you may think of Wal-Mart, they took the high road of PR and took some air out of a growing menace.

With enough people linking to the New York Times story, Twittering and posting about this mess, a massive H&M backlash is right around the corner. Originally, I saw the story linked on Tameka Kee's Twitter feed. New York magazine already posted a pretty damning story on its "The Cut" fashion blog, and it's on Huffington Post too.

It is now Wednesday afternoon. Nobody at H&M has sprung into action to respond to the article, as far as I can see monitoring Google News. No sponsored links on Google. No statements to the press.

If H&M is concerned about seven consecutive monthly sales declines, as was just reported, wait until this black eye starts spreading across the face.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The one press release that should be eliminated in 2010

For 2010, in keeping with my "green" crusade to rid the world of public relations waste, I have declared that all press releases for almost all awards must be eliminated.

Other than global honors which have been around for decades and actually have meaning and impact such the Academy Awards, Grammys, Emmys, the Nobel Peace Prize and perhaps the Webbys, there is hardly an award out there that merits a press release.

My call to duty is based on one simple theory: if the award is important enough, the people who should know about it will.

For example, if you're a magazine that made Adweek's annual Hot List, then it will be in all the copies of Adweek, Mediaweek and Brandweek, and their respective web sites, attracting the industry trade publicity it merits. There is no need to waste time issuing a press release trumpeting landing on the list, stuffing it with all the usual "we are thrilled"nonsense and sending it out over the wires or to anybody else for that matter. Everybody who needs to know you won knows already. Who are you going to issue your release to -- Adweek's competitors? Take your award, hang it on your wall, insert an ad in the NY Times if you really feel rich, let your marketing department stamp it on everything, and your sales force has some new ammunition.

I know this is correcting years of publicity Pavlovian response to any award given out, but really -- nobody is going to read or care about your award press release.

Don't believe me? Read these explanations straight from the media's mouth...

"Not sure that I've ever written about any company winning any award for anything," says Peter Kafka, author of AllThingsD's Media Memo, part of The Wall Street Journal.

When asked if a company wins an award makes a difference to them, an industry reporter at a large newspaper replied: "Not really, unless it's a JD Power award of some sort." Would you ever write about a company winning an award: "Don't think I ever have or ever will." Which awards would you consider meaningful or meaningless? "Excluding Oscars, Pulitzers and Grammys, most are meaningless from a coverage point of view."

From a trade publication reporter: "Few awards are worth covering as news. Usually the top annual prizes in a given industry, and possibly some quirky other handout that people might find funny or interesting, generate enough reader interest that they're worth covering. But even the top annual prizes have very modest impact on the winners and losers after awards night is over. They possibly provide a little job security for whoever's most responsible for the win, and a win for a small contender over big favorites can help with visibility, but it's hard to see effects beyond that. Awards are also by their nature as publicized as possible as they happen, so structurally it's hard for them to offer reporters a chance to tell their audience something everyone else isn't already telling them."

Awards are about as common as TMZ stopping celebrities in front of Hollywood grocery stores. Trade organizations and publications give them out like candy every year. They're very nice, mazel tov, we're glad you took home the prize. They're like opinions -- everybody's got one.

I've had clients who have won awards for things they have either not applied for or didn't even know the award existed! My big red flag for dubious awards is when they distribute pre-written press releases to the winners, packaged with quotes and descriptions, knowing that winner's knee jerk reaction will be to issue it over a paid wire service, thereby improving the award's search engine visibility.

If only one publication reports an industry's awards, that's as far as it should get and that's all who really cares.

Water seeks its own weight, and it's no different with press releases.

VC's and advertisers are wise to awards that matter. They know which ones have real meaning and which are marketing ploys. Getting overzealous about second and third rate honors can only backfire and show you're playing in the sandbox while the big boys aim higher.

You want to do your part in keeping a green planet this year? If you're a publicist, marketing executive or CEO, before you're ready to pollute the in-boxes of countless journalists and pay good money to appear on press release storage sites like earthtimes.org and newsblaze.com through paid wires, think to yourselves: Doesn't everybody who matters know this already?

If you can go a whole year without issuing a press release about an award, you actually deserve an award. Just please don't issue a press release about it if I give it to you.