Voting for Eye Contact

I am, like many others in this country, extremely popular during election season.  Just this morning, two people running for office next Tuesday were thrilled to meet me, were interested in how I was feeling, how things were going, and hoping I’d join them on election day to vote for, um, them.  Every one of them communicated with me without making eye contact and quickly moving on to the next person, without waiting for my answer (such as, I’m not fine actually. I have a headache and my coffee machine broke this morning. Thanks for asking.) These campaigners might be genuine people and possibly great representatives of my town, but they are committing a communications faux pas every time they ask dismissive questions.  Are you doing the same thing? When you ask people how they’re feeling — do you listen to their response? When you ask your boss or your client or your colleague how you can help them — do you really mean it?  When someone asks how you’re doing, do you dare to tell them the truth?  Now more than ever, we need to listen (to our customers, our employees, our friends) and engage in honest two-way communications. And don’t forget to make eye contact.

- Diane Schwartz

Talk Like You’re in a Fishbowl

There are at least four reasons most of us are not celebrities or famous athletes: talent, luck, timing and the fishbowl.  I will focus on the fishbowl for this post, because by pure force of timing I was reading the sports section of the NY Daily News on the subway (I usually don’t get to these pages but the train was delayed) and came across the story of the day re NY Jets QB Brett Favre dishing to the ex-Lions GM Matt Millen about his former team and Lions rival the Green Bay Packers.  Millen was hoping his friend Favre would share some of his 16 years of experience with the Packers to help Millen’s team (the Detroit Lions at the time) defeat the Packers.  You’re thinking, most likely: So What? We do this all the time, don’t we? If a friend or colleague needs information on a person or company for which you worked, will you share some insight? If your agency is about to compete against another agency for a big account, would you call your friend Joe who used to work at the agency holding the account for a little insight? Would  Joe share just a little something, all within the bounds of ethics and free speech? He probably would — but Joe is not a celebrity or an athlete and neither are you (presumably), so the encounter is unlikely to see the light of day.  Some of the players on the Packers are calling their former QB a traitor. Favre contends he didn’t dish any secrets, didn’t hand over the playbook. And perhaps he didn’t. His biggest mistake was not admitting at the very start that he spoke to since-fired Lions GM Millen back in September.  Perception is reality and the reality is that Favre does appear suspect (at least during this 24-hour news cycle) because he denied a conversation took place — at first. Time went by, the media rushed him, and he admitted a conversation took place.  The timing of his admittance was key to this story making headlines, but with any luck another sports scandal will break and “Lion Gate” will be yesterday’s news.  Though most of us don’t live in a fishbowl, Lion Gate is a reminder that it’s always prudent to watch what you say, who you say it to and who might be watching. That’s the “talent” part of being a savvy communicator and PR counselor.

- Diane Schwartz

Flack, Flak — Which Do You Prefer?

It’s time for another sad story. At first blush, you might think I’m talking about AIG, because it is irresistible to report that after getting egg-faced over the $400kexecutive retreat in the midst of being handed a $122.5 billion government lifeline, four executives from the insurance giant went on an $87,000 partridge hunt last week. You are probably not surprised — I was not either (though shooting down partridges is not my style). What caught my eye — and what’s in it for YOU the PR person — is the way The NY Post reported on this story.

The reporter Kate Sheehy asked for comment from AIG, and here’s what she reported: “An AIG flak defended the trip, saying it was previously planned.” There are three things wrong with that sentence — that the trip was defensible; that Sheehy referred to the PR person as a “flak” and that Kate apparently missed Spelling class, when what really meant to type was “flack.”  Oddly, the word flak could work well with this story too, but I won’t digress.

Technically, most dictionaries will refer to flack as a press agent/spokesperson. But we all know it’s not the preferred name for a spokesperson, for a communicator, for a PR executive.  Yet it’s used all the time.  Whether behind your back or to your face.  It’s used informally and often without malice. It’s akin to journalists being called hacks, which technically, is not incorrect for many writers who “work for hire.”

The term, as used in the NY Post story, connotes a certain condescension for the PR trade. Perhaps if the unnamed spokesperson had given a better response to the reporter’s question, the story would have referred to the flack as a spokesperson or by their formal PR title. But the response to the media was lame.

So I end where I began — it’s a sad story — or a sad state of affairs — any time bona fide PR professionals (and I am assuming the PR dept at AIG is legit) are referred to as “flacks.”  The industry should not have to take such flak.

What do you think? Are you OK with this nickname?

– Diane Schwartz

Inside the Google Campus

Earlier this week, Magazine Publishers of America held their annual American Magazine Conference in San Francisco, and attendees were treated to a tour of the Google campus. Amy Novak, editor of PR News’ sister pub, offers the following glimpse inside one of the world’s most curious, creative companies that takes the concept of corporate culture to the next level.

The good folks at the MPA didn’t stop with organizing a killer AMC in San Francisco this year. After the conference wrapped, they shuttled us out to Mountain View (about an hour from S.F.) to the Google campus where we enjoyed a college cafeteria-style lunch in one of their gourmet dining halls followed by an afternoon of presentations from YouTube, Twitter and RockYou! Of course there were many questions for the CEO of the past decade’s most innovative company and Eric Schmidt offered his answers: “I feel that print magazines will never go away, but the revenues will be made digitally or in some other way. The print will only exist for those few (Schmidt is one of them) who will still be reading print and for branding purposes only.” Schmidt further explained that since Google does not provide any content, his relationship with magazines is sacred. “Without you, there’d be no Google.”

It’s refreshing to hear a CEO talk about his companies’ failures (Froogle, Lively, etc.) as much as his successes. And getting a glimpse into the mind of a genius, or 8,000 geniuses (the employee population at the Mountain View campus) was certainly inspiring. Yet in all its upbeat, primary-colored, jean-wearing, tanned, bike-riding, fresh vegetable garden-growing, lap pool-swimming, free laundry-servicing glory, there is a slight breeze of creepiness blowing through the trees on the Google campus. It’s mesmerizing. I was completely wrapped up in something that I couldn’t wrap my mind around and couldn’t help but compare the campus to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Everything is so colorful and fun and youthful, I kept thinking about Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (who all employees just refer to as “Larry” and “Sergey”) and that while they are young, they aren’t THAT young. But everyone else is. Even though Google just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, the age of the average employee is still under 30.

But still, there’s something odd about a couple of 24 year-olds playing frisbee on the lawn of a company that’s relatively close to conquering the free world. And Google is basically divided up between sales and engineering, two extremely stressful fields. You’d think somewhere down the line some youngster would analyze one too many codes and the bright red lunch tray or upbeat tunes being blasted on the lawn by one of the Google house DJs would have him showering the fitness center with bullets. And maybe this had happened. I’m sure lots of fat kids had been sucked up the pipe in Wonka’s chocolate river before Augustus Gloop…

Then again, I’m not exactly an optimist. In fact, I’m leery of anything that seems too good to be true. Like the Santa at the mall who REALLY loves his job – there’s almost always a catch.

So during our personalized Google tour (groups of two or three), I shot some probing questions at our eager beaver guide about the lifestyle of the employees: do they live in the same neighborhoods around the campus or even the same buildings? Are they recruited from the same classes out of the same colleges? How many hours a day do they actually work together? It fascinates me that these people work, eat, exercise, socialize, volunteer and even live with each other. Seems to me the sense of individuality would get lost somewhere in the mix. But our guide was ready for my questions, pouncing on them with the agility and reflexes of a cougar, often using “we” when referring to Google and taking each question as a chance to segue into one of the many volunteer programs he’s involved in on campus, such as a Google author speaking series. “One day a week I even get to scoop ice cream for everyone in the dining hall!” That comment made me want to push him into one of the many fresh water ponds just to see if a chip in his brain would short out or something.

No doubt the mystery surrounding Google is fascinating and unlike any company structure I’ve ever seen. Flat company organization (little hierarchy), anti-suit policy (”you don’t have to wear a suit to be smart”), which would only fly in Cali, and the shared belief by all that Google is a public service company that’s doing the world good by providing access to information. Of course, they are definitely keeping some information to themselves

By Amy Novak

PR News’ Digital Summit Makes Debut

Outside Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, the air buzzed with talk about the previous night’s Vice Presidential Debate and the then-still-unapproved federal bailout bill (a situation that subsequently changed), but inside the halls of Ballroom D the focus was on one topic only: digital PR. The subject matter and its manifold uses set the stage for PR News’ inaugural Digital PR summit, which was held October 3, 2008.
Attracting more than 250 senior-level PR practitioners, the confab was jam-packed with informative dialogue and top-of-the line speakers. One highlight was the “Closing the Gap with the C-Suite” session, whose panel was comprised of Steve Cody (Managing Partner, Peppercom), Paul Philp, (dna13), Dale Durrett (Eastern Region Sales Manager, LinkedIn) and Jennifer Martin (Director of PR, CNN). Cody kicked off the first session of the day with a statistic that framed the corporate mindset surrounding digital: “More than 50% of PR professionals feel that digital leadership from the C-suite is either non-existent or skeptical and slow to respond.”
Another session was “Building Community & Reputation Online with Social Media Tools.” The speakers, who included Sue Bohle, president of The Bohle Company, Tyler Pennock, director of interactive media, healthcare for Weber Shandwick and George Wright, marketing director for Blendtec, discussed everything from widgets to viral/word-of-mouth strategies. “You don’t have to have a huge budget to make a huge impact on social media,” said Wright. “If you create content that’s awesome, people will watch it.”
Wright, whose company became a YouTube sensation thanks to its clever (and frugal) video series–Will It Blend?–showing the ability of its product to blend anything from an IPod to soldier dolls, hosted his own “Will It Blend” demonstration by shredding a garden rake for the audience.
For more coverage of the day’s sessions, see the upcoming issue of PR News, as well as additional items that will appear on

By Iris Dorbian

Anti-Social Media

Do people really like being social? At Rosh Hashana services yesterday, the rabbi asked everyone in the congregation to take a few minutes to introduce themselves to the people in front of them, behind them, next to them, etc.  This, was a way of getting people to open up, break the ice. It was a good exercise for me, personally, as I don’t get much of a chance to make small talk with my husband. That said, it was quite amazing how many people did not heed his call. Staring at their watches until the 2 minutes passed or hunkering down with their prayer books, half of the congregants were cringing at the idea of this “forced socializing.”

The 2 minutes did not come soon enough for these folks. Of course, there were others who wouldn’t stop talking even after 120 seconds passed.  Makes me wonder: are the loquacious/seemingly extroverted folks the same ones who are engaging in social media online? Or is it the quiet/seemingly anti-social folks who are the ones more comfortable online chatting with strangers and espousing their views?

Have social media sites made people less friendly in person and more friendly online? To me, the scene was representative of the new Web 2.0: most people come to social media sites and soak in the information before them but don’t participate. And there’s the vocal minority who keep the conversation flowing and want to be heard. The more things change, the more they stay the same, when it comes to human nature.

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