PR and Happy Meals

Last weekend we took a family roadtrip to Philly to attend a relative’s 90th birthday party (the guy bowls every week, and I’m not talking Wii). After walking around the waterfront Saturday afternoon, in 102-degree heat, we were anxious to get back to our air-conditioned hotel room. But we had to stop somewhere for dinner. Selfish me, I was looking forward to sampling some local cuisine. But with kids ages 9 and 6 in tow, naturally we chose the easiest (and unhealthiest) way to go: the McDonald’s directly across from the hotel. OK, so here’s the PR part: McDonald’s is touting Happy Meals as a healthy food choice for kids. And cereal makers have designated sugar-packed products like Lucky Charms, Froot Loops and Cocoa Pebbles as healthy choices. Last week’s NY Times article tells how they’re able to do this. The PR machines of McDonald’s, Kelloggs and others are saying—with straight faces—that fat- and sugar-laden products really are healthy choices. I believe this does nothing to enhance PR’s reputation. What do you think?

That said, the Dollar Menu is a godsend.

–Scott Van Camp

Edited Video Leads to Firestorm + Reminder to Do Our Homework, Check it Twice

By now  you’ve heard the unfortunate story of how a right-wing blogger cherry-picked portions of a speech from Agriculture Dept worker Shirley Sherrod during an NAACP event back in March.  Sherrod’s remarks were neither racist nor inflammatory, but a decision by one blogger, Andrew Breitbart, to post an edited portion of the NAACP video led to quick assumptions from other media (ie Fox News) and a knee-jerk reaction from the White House to support her dismissal, not to mention humiliate her.

It is very easy to take words and sentiment out of context. This has been going on since time immemorial.  From movie reviews (“great movie” — when in fact the critic said “this is not a great movie”) to emails being misinterpreted to soundbites that make someone sound smart or stupid depending on the media outlet’s goals, there will always be cases of people’s words being taken out of context. What is disturbing is how quickly this recent event spiraled out of control.  Neither Barack Obama nor Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack viewed the whole Sherrod speech or read the entire transcript — yet because of the media storm coming from the right, they supported Sherrod’s dismissal.

As we post videos on YouTube, Powerpoints on Slideshare, photos on Flickr, 140 characters on Twitter, emoticons in emails — we need to be careful to monitor the coverage of our content and be prepared to respond to out-of-context reporting.  Also, we need to do our homework. This phrase, “do your homework,” has been lambasted at nearly every conference in which a journalist or PR exec implores the audience to “do your homework” before embarking on a campaign or making an important phone call.  Cue to eyes rolling.  It is just so obvious. But, had the media and White House done their homework — and listened to the entire Sherrod speech while also having some healthy skepticism of the source of the blog post — then this whole firestorm would not have occurred.

Homework is a drag — just ask your child or recall your own school/college days.  But it makes us smarter and more responsible.  In the School of Reputation Management, homework is under-rated but indispensible.

Diane Schwartz

How Did Steve Do?

That was some interesting press conference Friday by Steve Jobs and the crew at Apple. Having been thrown for a loop by Consumer Reports a few days earlier for Antenna-gate, all eyes were on Cupertino for an apology from Apple—or as close to an apology as Jobs could get. And that’s exactly what the conference turned out to be: a mixture of “we all make mistakes” and “you people in the media have blown this way out of proportion.” In the last several months, I’ve talked to perhaps a dozen crisis experts about the responses of BP, Johnson & Johnson and other companies in a PR bind, and the BIG APOLOGY is always high on the crisis to-do list. Clearly Apple had to do something for customers after Consumer Reports couldn’t recommend the iPhone 4 because of the antenna problem (see David Carr’s New York Times column on why Consumer Reports “got Apple to blink”). But the fact that Apple presented examples of other manufacturers’ phones that have had similar problems meant that the BIG APOLOGY wouldn’t be coming. I’d be interested to know how you think Job’s rather combative stance on Friday will play with consumers.

–Scott Van Camp

Who’s Scaring Off Customers with Bear in the Woods Stories?

I just got back from a fantastic vacation to Vail, Colorado. This post will not be about all the “naturific” activities my family and I enjoyed (though, consider a trip to Vail in the summer!).  I must note that to be surrounded by the Rockies for a week certainly settles one’s mind, especially a NY State of Mind.  I would have written this blog post last week after my second encounter with the same customer service rep at the Vail Information Center but I made a promise to a certain 14-year- old and 9-year-old that I would not work during vacation.  So back at the urban ranch and a week later, I still had this urge to write it down: why would a friendly town like Vail put a persnickety, rude and unhappy customer service behind the counter of the Vail Information Center?

Here we were, a happy family just inquiring about a few activities in the Vail area and this Customer Service Rep pointed us to the phone near his desk where we can make the calls ourselves to find out more information, and treated us like we were intruding on his property.  I won’t name names, but this particular man also proceeded to scare my kids by showing them a photo from his iphone of the bear he encountered on the hiking trail we were about to take. “Do not run away from the bear,” he told my 9-year-old son, who backed away from Mr. Customer Service and refused to go on the hike (that day).  At first we chalked it up to a bad day – because we all have bad days, right? But on Day 2, when we returned Mr Customer Service was true to his being with a cold air of nonchalance and annoyance surrounding him.

We returned to the Information Center one more time, and there was a pleasant young woman who assisted us with a quick question. My 14-year-old daughter noted, upon leaving, “I’m so glad she helped us and not that mean guy.”  Customer Service (and its sister Public Relations) affects all ages and groups,  even teenagers.  While I am a big fan of Vail and did not let Mr. Customer Service derail our fun, it is baffling why he would be employed to be a “face” of Vail.  He’s probably thinking the same thing. Take a look around you – are your customer-facing employees telling scary bear stories?

- Diane Schwartz

Tell Us a Story, Lebron!

Show of hands: How many of you will be watching “The Lebron James Hour” on ESPN tonight? I have mixed emotions about this telecast, in which James will reveal the team he has chosen to play for—for a zillion dollars a year. There’s an excellent column by Sports Illustrated basketball writer Jack McCallum that puts this “spectacle” in perspective. Though I admit to following James (my six-year-old wears a Lebron headband), I wonder what this show will be like. James is expected to make the announcement in the first 15 minutes. What will he do for the next 30? Rumor has it that he’ll answer pe0ple’s questions via social media (James set up a Twitter account on Tuesday, and now has nearly 300,000 followers!), or maybe he’ll just tell us a bedtime story. Whatever he does, I tip my hat to ESPN for pre-empting the World Lumberjack Championships for Lebron. It’s a definite coup for them, and for the Boys and Girls Club, to which the proceeds from the show will go.

–Scott Van Camp

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