Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Press release run amok!

How can you make a simple business transaction into a press release novella?

Leave it to executives and publicists to find a way.

The long-running business TV program "Nightly Business Report" was sold to new institutional investor owners.

The resulting release contains FOUR quotes, including one opening monster-long 162-word ego stroke by the outgoing owner, and a two-paragraph job by the show's managing editor.

Three "I am excited's" and two "I am looking forward's."

Lord knows how many drafts this release went through to pack all of that in, but didn't anybody along the line stop and say to themselves:

"Is anybody going to really read this thing?"

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mashable's Todd Wasserman wants to kill the word "excited" in press releases.

If executive quotes are the black hole of press releases, then their repetitive choice of words is the big cosmic shovel that digs them down there.

Mashable's business and marketing editor Todd Wasserman decided the world needs to be rid of unimaginative quotes in press releases. After being on the receiving end of probably thousands of these numbing missives, Wasserman decided to launch a Tumblr blog called Everyone's Excited In Press Releases as sort of a tribute and warning. He posts actual quotes from current press releases, linking back to their original location.

Let's face it -- if you weren't "excited" about the new partnership, acquisition or new hire you are announcing, would you be issuing a press release in the first place? In my opinion, and what seems to be the overriding view of many journalists, nobody cares if you're excited, happy, doing cartwheels, or breaking into song. The news is the thing.

In January, 2009, I wrote on this blog about the words "excited," "thrilled" and "honored": "It is the duty of every public relations professional who is called upon to conjure quotes for executives to remove these three words from their vocabulary immediately.

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

What I love and depresses me at the same time about Todd's new Tumblr blog is that it takes a veteran journalist to mock the non-stop follies of one annoying, lazy inanity that many publicists and executives can't seem to shake out of their systems.

I interviewed Todd about his new side project:

Q: What gave you the idea to turn this into a Tumblr? Was there a breaking point?

Todd: Yes. Netflix's Sept. 5 press release about moving to Latin America included CEO Reed Hastings' quote: "We are excited to be bringing Netflix to Latin America and the Caribbean." I thought "That's it. I can't let this go on anymore."

Q: Why do you think quotes in press releases are so lame?

Todd: Because they have to be approved by 19 different people. The best quotes are off the cuff and when people aren't 100% aware of what they're saying, sort of like the subconscious mind speaking. A quote that's been worked over by everyone in the legal department is the opposite of that.

Q: What can be done to prevent lame quotes in press releases?

Todd: Either don't put one in, which is fine, or only put one in when the quote is actually funny or adds something to the announcement.

Q: Will you encompass other bogus quote words such as "honored" and "thrilled," or will those be other Tumblr blogs?

Todd: Actually, someone pointed out to me that the word "leading" is used much more than "excited," but excited seems to be especially funny to me because adding the quote "I'm so excited" actually seems to drain the announcement of any excitement at all. So no, though I am interested in starting a "taglines in quotes" blog that will feature stuff like "Suffolk County's leader in HVAC since 1988."

Q: How will you know if your Tumblr blog is effective?

The day I can search PR Newswire and Business Wire and not see a quote about being excited, I'll know it's done it's job.

Q: Have you heard from any of the people who wrote those press release you posted? If so, what did they say?

I heard from one woman who said "Guilty as charged," meaning she'd used that quote in the past. I'd like to hear from others. It's no different than if I used a cliche in a story and someone pointed it out. It's constructive criticism.

Q: Vote for lamest quote in a press release?

If we're dealing with "excited" quotes, I think it gets lamer if you add qualifiers like "extremely" and such. Otherwise, really bad puns would probably make the cut, like if someone got a job at Chevy and said they really hoped to "rev sales" or something along those lines.

Q: If a publicist is forced by gunpoint to write a quote for an executive, or if an executive insists they give a quote in a release, what would be your advice to prevent them from sounding like a cliche?

Todd: I'd ask them how they would explain what happened to their wife or friend outside the business. Then I'd find a new job where they don't use guns at work.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Martha Stewart, public relations failure

Martha Stewart may have been a genius in marketing herself to millions of women, but her public relations acumen is in the stone age.

I'm sure it all started like this: you are Martha Stewart, a highly-visible but somewhat past your peak doyenne of home arts, and your publicly traded company is having a number of issues. People are defecting, the board is complaining, and you've even announced Blackrock is looking for "strategic partnerships." Not everybody is a fan of you and people are wondering if you're putting yourself on the block now.

Into the picture comes a New York magazine writer who clearly is sniffing around for a story about what went wrong with your company after you were released from jail. His initial queries are probably quite general, but you get a sense that all is not happy in Pleasantville.

You have a decision to make -- do you co-operate or not, and how do you steer this article to make it as favorable as possible because you sense there could be trouble. Michael Sitrick, author of my favorite PR book Spin!, probably would have recommended getting a positive article out there before the New York one, potentially muting the impact or maybe even delaying its appearance.

Your strategy is to opt for a complete utter across-the-board shutdown.

Fast forward: the article appears and it's a real shredder -- you come across as a micro-managing witch who won't listen to anybody and spends enough money on throwaway items to feed a third world country in year.

Read this article very carefully, if you have any interest in public relations crisis management or strategy. Once you get over the many "ouch!" parts, think about this:

Not one person in this article defended Martha Stewart. Not one.

Nobody in her company, MSLO, rose to the occasion to tell the reporter, "You're wrong. This is how we work" or "this is how we turn a profit" or "this is our strategy and here's why it's sound."

No friend or associate came forth, on the record or not for attribution, to say a nice thing about Martha and why she was a great person, or even a nice person, or even a generous person, or that she even helped little old ladies cross the street.

The Martha Stewart strategy was, I imagine, "they're not going to say anything good about us, so shy should we say anything?"

Ah, the classic blunder of waving the white flag, getting your butt deep in the foxhole, and hoping no bullets graze you when the smoke clears.

Could you imagine Casey Anthony's attorney informing the judge at her trial, "Look, those prosecutors are going to say lots of mean things about us, so why should we even show up? We'll wait until they say everything and show all their evidence, and we'll cross our fingers for good luck when the jury comes back."

New York magazine basically had a free pass to tear Martha Stewart to shreds, with nobody to set the record straight or persuade the journalist otherwise.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has millions of shareholders who are definitely reading this bombshell and may decide she's not worth investing in. Retailers and potential licensors may think twice about shaking hands on a deal with her. Her brand, to use the cliche phrase, has been damaged.

Now why would Martha Stewart leave herself hung out to dry, defenseless, willing to take as many bullets as New York magazine could shoot?

It's possible that after enduring jail time, she feels she can survive just about anything and rise above it. She clearly has a well-flexed ego. Perhaps she does not believe the pen is mightier than the sword or she's resolved that people will forget about this story as they putter off to the late August retreats.

Time will tell if Martha's unwavering belief in being "Teflon" will work.

But I don't think anybody is going to forget this article, as it will remain intact on the Internet for a long time to come, for anybody Googling her press coverage. If she's selling, the price they're giving may not be what she expected.

There are hardly any reasons for silence to be a sound public relations strategy.

But not when you are setting yourself up as a sitting duck.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What cheating politicians can learn from Osama bin Laden

While social media has helped elect candidates, it has been their undoing as well. New York Rep. Anthony Weiner wasn't the first politician to send shirtless photos of himself to women -- Rep. Chris Lee (R - N.Y.) resigned in February for pulling the same stunt.

It's about time somebody gave politicians with itchy pants a lesson in the do's and dont's of social media. Oh sure, they can hire all the "social media gurus" they want -- you can't go into a pizza joint these days without bumping into at least a few these experts, glued to their smart phones, reading their Twitter feeds and making notes on some arcane study they just read that will change their clients' fortunes around on Facebook.

But if there was one guy who really knew what he was doing in social media was Osama bin Laden. He was on the run and hiding for nearly 10 years, got away with multiple wives (forget about the periodic Las Vegas blackjack dealer), and nobody sold his texts to Radar Online.

Although he is no longer with us, bin Laden had a social media policy that clearly could not be beat when it came to escaping detection. It was pretty simple too.

1) He had no telephone.

2) His computer was not hooked up to the Internet.

3) He put his e-mails on a portable flash drive and his associate sent them from a distant Internet cafe.

That's a social media policy that won't get you in trouble. At least for 10 years. Of course, if you arranged to have your mistresses and girlfriends actually living with you, it would be hard for a tabloid to dangle a pot of money to fork over those hot and heavy texts and e-mails.

I am sure there are plenty of shrinks who will look at guys like Weiner and Lee and say: "They were sloppy because underneath it all, they wanted to get caught." Maybe so. Or maybe the Beltway and local politics is full of those abhorred "social media gurus" on contract who clearly were more worried about making their videos viral than doling out intelligent safety tips to their bosses.

Somebody has got to give movers and shakers better lessons on covering up their web tracks, and choosing their girlfriends better. A big red flag should go up especially when dealing with porn stars, because they are unquestionably the most untrustworthy mistresses to keep -- this is just common sense public relations advice that you could have gotten reading any story about Charlie Sheen earlier this year.

Clearly bin Laden had viewed enough conspiracy thrillers in his compound's home theater to know that there's no privacy these days. He must have seen "Eagle Eye" -- Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan chased all over town by an out of control military computer which even manipulated the traffic lights and made personal cell phone calls to them. Even bin Laden knew that Twitter was a public platform and stayed away.

My advice to those in office who feel the urge to befriend cute college students across the country is: move to a cave, burn your cell phone, desktop and tablet, and let your assistants dispatch your messages, so you won't be prone to writing something stupid that you wouldn't want them to see. And keep your damn shirt on.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Gas to the fire: how not to respond to angry customers

Sometimes companies gamble on a product or idea, whether they aware of it or not, and the results can possibly backfire. At those times, you have to suck it up and admit you may have been wrong, and here's how you will fix it for the immediate future. It's crisis communications 101.

Here is a story of a publisher who rolled the dice on a very sensitive topic, felt the backlash, but bungled the response.

Westchester magazine, a beautiful, slick suburban publication which I regularly read, did the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of an angry bull last month: it published a cover story on the "21 Best Looking Residents."

Before I even cracked the first page, I thought to myself, "Uh oh."

My gut reaction was: we have enough shallowness in our towns, much less the world... do we really need this when adults and children are battered with self-image issues from the media and peers... middle school kids go through the anxiety ringer with cliques and cyberbullying -- is this something they should see... how the heck can you pick 21 people out of a county of 955,000 and say they are the "best looking?

According to the article, here's how they picked those 21 best-looking people: "We asked dozens of beauty pros, put out a call for nominations, queried our neighbors, friends and family to come up with this bevy of beauties of all ages, from all walks of life. Yes, we know that true beauty comes from within, yada, yada, yada -- but sometimes you just have to take these things at face value. Enjoy the scenery."

Who are these beauty pros, how many nominations were sent in, were they of themselves, who are the friends and family -- nobody knows. Thankfully, the youngest person profiled was 25 and not in school. While I'm not expecting Pulitzer-nominated investigative stories in my county magazine, you could see from 100 miles away that this was not going to go down well.

The next month's letters section of Westchester magazine bore that out. Here are excerpts:

  • My jaw dropped when I saw your May cover. Are these 21 people really worthy of being singled out from the nearly one million Westchester residents, or is this simply an exercise in flattering a few connected individuals? Have we in Westchester become so shallow that we are actually interested in who your editorial staff deems to be beautiful? I’ve thrown the issue in the trash so that my children don’t get the wrong impression that who is or who isn’t “beautiful” is worthy of this sort of attention!
  • Given Westchester’s great diversity (one of our most valued strengths), I was eager to see how your team would celebrate this great attribute. Now, I am stunned, having just thumbed through the feature’s 16 pages and seen not a single African American woman! Not one! Depending on your source, African Americans represent between 13.3 percent and 14.4 percent of the county’s population... I have a 14-year-old daughter who is beautiful by any standard. Unfortunately, I cannot let her see this issue because, by the standards of the editors of Westchester Magazine, which comes into our home each month, she isn’t beautiful at all. Or at least no one who looks like her is beautiful enough to be so recognized. And that’s a shame.
  • Your May issue is why the suburbs are considered soulless, vapid, and uninspiring. Westchester County is rich in history and natural beauty, although anyone who reads your magazine would be hard pressed to find little more than articles dedicated to shopping and advertisements for cosmetic surgery. I’m canceling my subscription.
  • Your magazine has reached an all-time low. What’s with your feature story about “21 Best Looking Residents?” Who cares?!!!

There was not one letter published in favor of the cover story.

Here is your classic scenario of a company gambling on something a bit edgy with distinct possible pitfalls, and getting whipped by some of its customers for it.

What would you expect as a response from the editor? An apology of some sort, right? We all make mistakes, and even if you didn't think this was one, you want to make some kind of amends with the offended customers. A little humbleness, perhaps?

But this was not the road taken in the editor's response (which I have to reproduce entirely here because of its breathtaking scope):

To think we were worried about engaged readership…Okay, you got us, Westchester: we’re suckers for a symmetrical face and expressive eyes.

We feel good admitting that, though, because we know we’re in good company. After all, the nominations for the article came from you and local experts in the beauty biz. That’s right. We may not be able to promise that these 21 lovely people are the absolute best-looking Westchester residents, but you certainly seemed to think so.

Frankly, we would have gone crazy if we’d had to make the list ourselves. We think you’re all so darn hot and wouldn’t imply for a second that anyone who wasn’t chosen is anything less.
Of course, beauty isn’t everything. So, like a lot of the beautiful residents profiled in our pages, we urge you to “look under the surface,” i.e., our Table of Contents. In just the last two months, you’d find stories on the history of Westchester’s bridges, profiles of barrier-breakers like Dr. Yvonne Thornton (the first African American woman to be board certified in maternal-fetal medicine), a feature package on our LGBT community, not to mention a nod toward the natural beauty of our county’s common fish. You’ll see references to Malcolm X, Stravinsky, Yves Tanguy, Nabokov, and Shakespeare, who certainly never turned up his Elizabethan nose at “beauty too rich for use.”

Yes, Westchester is rich in history and natural beauty. It’s also rich in creative designers, restaurants on the cusp of environmental movements, and, yes, a gaggle of people fairer than a summer’s day. We love it all; we want to celebrate it all! And that brings us to diversity.

Our 21 beautiful residents (who run the gamut, Leo, of five different decades in age) and included one Puerto Rican, one Pakistani, one Irishman, one Siberian, one Chinese-Jamaican, one Dominican, one Indian, one African American man, and, yes, and one African American/West Indian woman. In striving for broad diversity without adhering to strict quotas (which don’t always capture the realities of our increasingly mixed heritage), we do hope that—unlike so much contemporary media—we communicated our firm belief that beauty flourishes in each of our communities.

So take a look at yourself in the mirror, Westchester: you’re lookin’ good.

I don't know how this editor's response is going over with the readers, but to me, this is what's known as a textbook excuse, not an apology. In the editor's mind, this seems to resolve the controversy, but perhaps in the minds of the readers, I'm not sure it did, and it could have possible made it worse.

There is no resolution, no "peace pipe," and no humbling.

I sent an e-mail to Westchester magazine Esther Davidowitz, asking her why there was no apology in her response, how many nominations were received as part of the voting process, who were the local beauty experts who voted, what kind of feedback did she expect from the story, and would she do the story differently the next time around? She did not reply.

Companies face irate customers all the time, sometimes more than others. Take a good look at that editor's reply because this is exactly what not to do.

1) PUTTING THE BLAME ON THE CUSTOMERS: Let me get this straight -- you're blaming us, the readers, for voting these 21 people in? Again, who did the voting? Who are the beauty experts? How many votes did you get out of the 955,000 residents of Westchester County? How many times did your friends and neighbors vote?

2) DIVERSION FROM THE CORE ISSUE: We admire you published articles about many different ethnicities and gender preferences in the past. You name dropped Shakespeare, Malcolm X and Stravinsky. OK, so you went to college and can refer to those people in the magazine. But what does that have to do with a dubious vote for the 21 best-looking people in the county? Those people and your other articles have nothing to do with this article.

3) TREATING THE TOPIC TOO LIGHTLY: "Take a look in the mirror, Westchester, you're lookin' good?" Put the pom-poms away. I don't know if anybody is laughing. If we're all "lookin' good," why are you singling out 21 of us? This kind of cheerleader talk is as plastic as the notion that there are 21 people who look better than the other 955,000 in Westchester. Good way to add fuel to the fire.

4) NO APOLOGY: Customers are ticked. There are some unhappy people and they've written in to tell you how they feel. As a matter of fact, there is not one positive letter published. Even if you think you are right, you owe an apology to those angry readers. You don't have to make a big deal about it. At least say "if you felt our story offended you, we are sorry. It was not our intention." You save face, you don't seem above it all, and perhaps you don't lose customers.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hacks vs. Flacks: when the pot calls the kettle black

Publicists have their flacks. Journalists have their hacks. Yet neither profession seems to smell their own stink.

What public relation giant Burson-Marsteller did for Facebook, trying to plant negative stories on Google's stand on privacy, was really business as usual in some corners of the profession. Facebook could have taken out an advertisement pointing out Google's flaws, but score one for public relations, in winning over advertising yet again with its credibility factor. That these two BM publicists found journalists who were not only not buying the Google ploy but willing to spill the beans publicly, well, that's the risk you take.

In every profession, not just public relations, competitive moves -- even ones that may be called "underhanded" -- are done every day. These guys had the bad luck to get caught.

In an un-bylined article this week, The Economist decided to drag down the whole public relations profession, based on this Facebook/Google incident by citing research from Jamil Jonna of the University of Oregon with this juicy nugget: "for each American journalist there are now, on average, six flacks hassling him to run crummy stories."

To which I respond: For every athlete, politician & celebrity (real or not), there are six reporters & TV crew hassling them for crummy stories.

The New York Times detailed the insane stalking done by web sites and magazines.

Entertainment Tonight boasted 77 staffers covering the Royal Wedding. There are countless people who stalk the Yankees' A-Rod every day. How many reporters are tracking every move of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York City, yet all that's happened to him is an accusation?

Bad judgment and inept practitioners exist in every profession, and one is no better than the other. I can tell you stories of journalists who asked me to hold a story for them and then conveniently disappeared when it was time to do it. Yet, I also get spammed by people in my own profession, sending me irrelevant press releases, clearly who have not read my blog nor my warning in Cision's databases.

Should a publicist give up his client, as the Burson-Marsteller people were asked to do when their Google pitch seemed fishy, as much as a journalist should give up their source when they call and tell you they heard a rumor about your client?

I've had to deal with a couple of questionable reporters in my career who called me with rumors of discord and declining sales of my clients, but won't give up who said them, even if they were terminated employees? Then when we refute them point by point, they still print the story and put the rumor right in the headline with a question mark, as if that little punctuation trick will get them off the hook in case the truth doesn't pan out.

Yes, it all works both ways, including the dirty tricks.

As Wired's Sam Gustin pointed out to me over the weekend: "When PR takes a hit, the industry as a whole takes a hit. Reporters take a hit, the industry as a whole takes a hit. Neither good."

Instead of bashing the "hacks" and "flacks," it would be a more productive use of everybody's time to uphold standards, keep true to their word and understand what the other guy wants.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Saying "no" won't make them put down their pens

There is no law saying that just because you don't want somebody to write about you, they won't.

Celebrities and rock stars encounter this every day. Many top business people are speculated upon every day in magazines, newspapers and blogs about what their next move is going to be, surmising what they may be working on or what that lunch they had will lead to.

As a matter of fact, the more elusive you are as a mover and shaker, the bigger the target on your back becomes for the press to dig up whatever they can on you. Children like what they can't have, and it's no different when they grow up. Just think of the countless stories about Steve Jobs where he's not interviewed and often quoted second-hand.

Today brings the case of venture capitalist Fred Wilson, head of New York City-based Union Square Ventures, who is a rabid blogger and Twitterer, and shows up at a handful of prestigious tech conferences. Adweek, in trying to make a name for itself as it relaunches under journalistic troublemaker Michael Wolff, assigned reporter Dylan Byers to write a profile of Wilson.

Byers says right up front in his piece that Wilson "did not want to be interviewed or otherwise cooperate" for the article:

"I don’t want to do a profile," he told me by email. "It’s not my thing." When he found out I was contacting his partners, he seemed livid: "i would like to reiterate that i don’t want any profiles of me. i am not newsworthy. the companies we invest in are. i will not cooperate with this profile and i’ve asked my partners not to cooperate and if you reach out to others and they mention this to me i will ask them not to cooperate either.

"i have nothing to hide," he went on. "i am open and transparent. people know me from my blog, my talks, my activities, and my work. but i do not want to be the subject of a profile. this is not about adweek. i tell the same thing to everyone who asks me to do a profile and most respect my wishes."

Many high-profile people feel the same way as Fred Wilson and also ask their associates to not cooperate with the reporter. The result piece is a mixture of cut and paste from previous interviews, a couple of fresh quotes from present investments Kika and Hashable who must have not received the Wilson warning memo, and some spanking from Byers himself, for not doing enough to promote New York City's tech causes (how's this for a kiss-off: "Getting there may require a leader who is willing to acknowledge his role—to be more huckster than Hamlet.").

While the Adweek piece seems gratuitously nasty following Wilson's desire to stay out of the spotlight, ignoring a reporter while telling your friends not to speak to them is a pretty dreadful strategy with a long history of roadkill. After all, there are countless unauthorized biographies where reporters found willing moving lips and took that information to the bank.

If you're a public figure, it does not matter if you think you are not deserving of a profile. What matters is you've got somebody who is resolute that you are and giving you every chance to be part of it.

If this scenario comes true, you probably have more to lose by saying nothing. You may incur the animosity of the reporter and editor (which was definitely the case here) and they'll go ahead and write their story anyway. And you may not like the things people say about you. Odds are the story will go "off message" and you'll be even angrier because you've given up the one essential ingredient of public relations: control.

If you are determined to be silent, then at least make sure you cooperate with the fact checking -- as a matter of fact, I wouldn't wait for them to call you -- I'd tell them that you insist that all facts regarding you be checked. At least they won't screw up what you know to be true and you can set the record somewhat straight without having a conversation. You'll also get a taste for the story that is about to hit.

The advantages of co-operation? You can establish a friendly relationship with the reporter which may actually engage him as opposed to doing their work with a chip on their shoulder. Do your homework on the reporter -- is this the person you want writing about you or is there somebody else who is more to your liking? If they are excited about the possibility of an interview, they may accommodate your writer request. Take advantage of the fact you are giving them a rare opportunity and exercise some control to sway the odds in your favor.

There is a reason they say keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

A third option: do an e-mail interview. If they want you so badly, perhaps they'll agree to give you a set of questions and you can send back your reply. This gives you the advantage of putting some thought into your replies and not being quoted out of context. You don't even have to answer all the questions, but the ones you feel are worthy.

Of course, there is a fourth viable option. You can move quickly and get friendly parties to write a favorable profile of you before the other one appears. The old cut-em-off-at-the-pass strategy can definitely throw a monkey wrench into the awful story which lurks around the corners.

In the end, there is more to lose by ducking down and hoping nothing bad happens because usually just the opposite takes place. It would be nice to wave a magic wand and make everybody go away. But there's no point in getting one either if you don't know how to use it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How Not To Look For A PR Firm #2: My nephew, the publicist

Years ago, my firm was basically the finalist to win a new media account. We aced the interviews, and had what we thought was a great meeting with the division's chief executive, really almost to receive a blessing of everybody else's decision.

But as they say, it ain't a done deal until they sign on the dotted line. I received a phone call from the client's editorial director who basically said, I don't know how to tell you this, but the chief executive has decided to give the work to his wife's cousin. And she's never handled anything like us before.

She added the kicker: they're a nice person and all, but they don't seem to know much about what we do.

One miserable year later for them, with virtually nothing to show for hiring the chief executive's wife's cousin, they came back aboard for what turned out to be a long term client.

Now, I've given a couple of nieces and a nephew summer internships in the past. All three were interested in public relations, so unless they were wanted criminals or couldn't act civilized, having them come aboard in that role made sense. I even had them meet my staff before making the official offers. Thankfully, my extended family is still talking to me.

However, just because a member of your family is in public relations means they are the right person for the project. You don't send an electrician to do a plumber's job. Would you have an eye doctor perform open heart surgery on you?

Yes, we all want to give Uncle Joe a break and your heart is in the right place. However, it's hard enough to run a business with family members, and now you're going to hire them just because they are in public relations too?

Hiring a public relations firm means keeping in mind a few criteria: expertise, strategic thinking, creativity, and impressive accomplishments in your field. Can your cousin Pee Wee honestly provide all of those things without incurring the wrath of your colleagues and peers?

One of my other favorite family incidents is when a client's COO and I were discussing whether the company's president should be positioned as an "expert" or "an icon" (don't ask!). Shortly into the conversation, he said (and I paraphrase): "I just spoke to my cousin Mandy who is in public relations, and she wants to know why we haven't done this or that, have you reached out to this person, and she thinks our guy should be an 'expert' in everything with youth culture."

Whoa! Hard to argue with that! Not the time to argue about who cousin Mandy was and what she did, but I certainly was thinking, "heck, let Mandy run the PR then!"

The punchline came less than two years after we parted ways with that client. We were interviewing candidates for a manager's position and one woman told me early on in our meeting "I think you know my cousin."

Who's that?

You guessed it -- that former client's COO. Here before me was "Cousin Mandy."

I wouldn't exactly call that family reference a ringing endorsement.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Barnes & Noble twists the English language for the NY Times

Sometimes you have to wonder if public relations spokespeople have taken a step back and gone over what they are telling newspapers.

Case in point: today, Barnes & Noble laid off several top executives. When the New York Times called for a comment, here's what their spokeswoman said (pay attention to the mixed messages here):

"We made a small number of organizational changes here this week that are designed to better align our resources with our businesses. Barnes & Noble is a growing company with both our revenues and our new hires growing faster than they have in years."

Now I know David Copperfield is a master of misdirection, but these two sentences are pretty masterful at the craft.

Let's take a step back and dissect this...

If they laid off several people to "better align our resources with our business," yet in the very next breath they are "a growing company with... new hires growing faster than they have in years," well, holy smokes, make up your minds!

Are you hiring or firing?

If several executives were laid off, well, how are you growing faster than you have in years? Seems like opposite concepts to me.

If the business is growing, then shouldn't your resources be growing too if they are "aligned?"

I'm sure they spent a lot of time on this response, but, I have to say, for Barnes & Noble, this is truly not great literature. File this in the"Games & Puzzles" section.

How Not To Look For A PR Firm #1: The Executive Assistant

"My name is _________ and I am the Executive Assistant to the COO for _________. We are interested in your PR services, including but not limited to, preparation/distribution of information to news media and industry analysts, innovative and strategic communications counsel, and a myriad of external publicity activities."

This is the kind of e-mail invitation any public relations consultant would love. I was certainly going to follow-up. I set up my appointment and went in to meet with what I assumed was going to be the COO.

The executive assistant who sent me the e-mail greeted me and took me to a different floor. We sat in a room, and began chatting. It only took a couple of minutes to realize the COO had left his executive assistant in charge of the first round of PR interviews. Maybe the whole process!

With no other choice, I proceeded to ask her a number of questions about the company, their needs, who does what, obstacles, what they were not getting from their present PR firm. While some questions were answered fairly quickly, others she didn't sound too sure and a handful, she didn't seem to know the answers at all.

When I returned to my office, I pretty much wrote them off and was really kicking myself for being blindsided like this. While I've been contacted by numerous assistants in the past who found me through articles, recommendations and LinkedIn, they are often the appointment makers and gatekeepers for the executives in charge, the decision makers.

If these guys were leaving the weeding out to their rather unprepared executive assistant, what was life going to be like if they came on as clients? Who would be my liaison and pipeline of information, my partner in this engagement? What message did that give me about what they thought of the importance of public relations?

Public relations has to be a commitment from the top suite. Any interviews with potential communications partners requires not just their attendance, but an investment in providing information and asking smart questions to make the selection process a constructive and worthwhile endeavor.

Would you ask your school-age kid sister to interview potential marriage suitors for you but you never meet them?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Year's resolution #2: staying out of the prediction game

Here are the only two safe predictions I will make for 2011: I will get out of bed (eventually). And I will inevitably eat some food.

That's as far as I go.

One thing I learned a long time ago is to stay out of the public prediction business. But that hasn't stopped everybody and their dog from posting and tweeting every crazy thing that they think is going to happen the following year.

The prediction business is a dangerous place to be.

The world ganged up on Arianna Huffington when she launched her HuffingtonPost blog in May 2005 and guess who had the last laugh? $60 million a year in revenue and still going.

Nine years ago, Chicago Sun-Times Carpenters-loving advertising columnist Lewis Lazare told me Blender magazine wouldn't last six months. I made a bet with him: if the magazine folded in less than six months, he could bury us in his column. But if it didn't, he had to write that company chairman Felix Dennis was a genius. Blender went on to win all kinds of awards and ran successfully until it folded in March 2009. Don't think we didn't call him out on it constantly.

It's a basic lesson learned back in Little League, when the snotty kid on the rival playoff team would tell you how his team was going to "slaughter you" and "beat you up," only to end up dropping an easy fly during the game and getting whipped in the process.

You've really got to be super thick-skinned to predict whether something will succeed or fail, yet there was no shortage of vocal bettors when The Daily Beast and Newsweek announced their merger several weeks ago. Nobody seems to be afraid to get egg on their faces.

I'm sure the predictions gimmick may scratch out some web traffic traction in late December, but probably not as much as the ever-perennial slide shows and rankings. But when every person with a heartbeat is posting predictions, not only is it one big blur, but every one of those people is sticking their neck out on the line. They want to look like... grrr, quick shoot the word before it gets out... a guru!

Of course, many predictions are about as startling as what a boardwalk fortune teller will reveal to you. Here are a few actual ones posted on the web from last year...

  • "A new player will emerge to challenge Facebook supremacy."
  • "Public relations professionals will have a larger role in social media!"
  • "Creativity will count."
Of course, nobody ever goes back and checks on the results of all these predictions. At least in the stock market, it's easy to track whether you've gone up or down, but how do you measure on whether "creativity counted" in 2010? Do you even want to try?

Fortunately, for those keeping score, you can check back on all the 2011 prognosticators on this handy Wikispaces compilation of predictions with their links, courtesy of Peter Himler.

Instead of joining the crowd mentality in spitballing the future, public relations and communications pros would better serve everybody if they provided practical advice based on their own experiences in dealing with the media, social media developments and obstacles, and educating our colleagues on being better at what they do.

Anybody can make a prediction. Very, very few people can get it right.

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year's resolution #1: no more "social media gurus"

What the communications world needs less of in 2011 are social media gurus.

The fact that people who are not spiritual teachers are calling themselves "gurus" makes me cringe.

"Ask them if they need a social media guru," somebody wrote to me last year when they heard I had begun a new consulting gig. Frankly, I would be embarrassed to even use that phrase in soliciting my patrons.

A guru is a guy with long flowing robes who sits on top of a mountain, and periodically somebody climbs that summit to ask them some deep question and ideally they'll receive an answer which will be startling and eye-opening, a step to true "self-actualization."

Why scale the Andes to get answers when in this day and age, you should have a pretty good idea of the answers yourself.

Titles in the business world were getting out of hand already for years -- employees fighting for "associate," "assistant," "senior," "manager," "VP," "director" or "EVP" and any combination of those terms.

The only reason we now have "social media gurus" in the corporate lexicon is because nobody has spent the time truly learning what they are supposed to know, so in come the so-called "gurus" to make up for those shortfalls.

Weren't the gurus the first guys who went running for cover when the world was coming to an end in the film "2012?" Wasn't that Mike Myers' last starring movie role where he wasn't doing a cartoon voice... and see where it got him? Anybody even remember that film?

"Guru" is just another silly title that is being bandied about in far too serious a manner. What's alarming is that there are surprisingly still so many PR firms and corporations which are behind the curve in social media knowledge, that getting one person to parachute in to solve all their online reputation, Twitter and Facebook problems is ludicrous.

"Let's just put this guru in front of our client and they'll know we are right in the social media game."

Why should the burden be on one person? The fact is -- no "one" person should be a guru. There's too much buck passing to the "guru" and not enough self-motivation to learn the craft on its own.

As always, the lack of direction starts at the top.

If supervisors continue to look the other way while their publicists blast e-mails, write sleep-inducing press releases and unnecessarily annoy journalists, who is going to teach them basic search engine optimization skills, how to use strategically monitor Twitter hashtags or create a unified group blog?

Having a Facebook profile does not mean you have social media chops. Just because you check in on Foursquare doesn't mean you know how to create an online branding program.

Hey, let the "guru" handle it!

You have to be the guru. The whole company should be the gurus. Don't even say the word "guru."

Let your skills and savvy speak volumes instead of relying on newfangled titles that are apt to raise eyebrows and frankly, are too dependent on one so-called "expert."

UPDATE: Mike Trainor at S&A Cherokee in Raleigh-Durham, NC suggests the following titles also added to the scrap heap: "rock star," "evangelist" and "maven." Couldn't agree more. Thanks, Mike.