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.