The Online Hard Sell vs. the Human Touch

I’m not the world’s best consumer. Let me put that another way—I am the world’s best consumer. I rarely look at price tags. I buy clothes and shoes in the wrong size and throw away the receipts so I can’t return them. I’ve got a landline and DSL service from one telecom provider and TV service from a cable company. To paraphrase Alfred E. Neuman: What—me bundle?

If there were more people like me—bad shoppers who are fairly responsible about paying bills—consumer demand would be exceedingly strong and this economy would be roaring full blast. Now it’s looking like there will be one less person like me. I’ve decided to stop paying twice for products I rarely, or infrequently, use.

First step: Whittle down my crazy cable bill to next to nothing, and investigate Netflix’s options.

I visited my local Time Warner Cable Web site and found that plan and payment options were nearly impossible to find. The company had one plan it was trying to sell you, and that particular offering buried nearly everything else. Same thing at the Neflix site.

I called both companies, and in both cases I was quickly connected—on a weekend, no less—to friendly, well-informed customer service representatives who explained all the options and did not try to upsell me. My bitterness over the tightly focused, hard-sell of the companies’ Web sites was erased by the easy, human interaction over the phone. Forget the headlines of recent weeks—Netflix was OK by me. They’ve got good people over there. My feelings about Time Warner Cable were similarly positive.

You hear the same cliche over and over again from top execs: “It’s the people who make our company.” What you don’t see often is that belief put into practice. If Netflix topper Reed Hastings really wants to improve his company’s image, he needs to look no further than his own employees.

—Steve Goldstein


Gibbs, Clooney, Obama + Packaging the Goods

To be a fly-on-the-wall at a meeting with the U.S. president, his cabinet and press secretary would be quite insightful, don’t you think?  Robert Gibbs, former press secretary under Obama, shared a few good stories during his keynote at the Oct 27 Council of PR Firms “Critical Issues Forum” in New York.  He recalled many meetings where his colleagues blamed the public’s disappointment in the President, a policy or recent government action on lack of communication -  as in, “if we just communicated this better, the public would like us and support/ratings would rise”.  Gibbs lamented the refrain that not enough or not the right communication/messaging was to blame. As a communicator, you might relate to this scenario. Gibbs insinuated that sometimes – just sometimes – the new legislation or action wasn’t good – and no matter how much spin you put on it, the public (including the press) wouldn’t like it. Sometimes the product you promote or the company you represent is faulty or at fault. But you still have a job to do.

It is beholden on the press secretary or the PR counsel to find the right words and positioning that most favors their agenda.  George Clooney, in his “Ten Questions” interview this month with Time, went a step further on this theme. An Obama supporter, Clooney nevertheless noted that the President is under-appreciated and under-recognized for his many accomplishments and that his circle of people are not packaging the news in their favor. Clooney noted about Obama:  “When his back’s against the wall, he’s always terrific. He should sometimes bone up on some of the day-to-day skills of communication.”

Easy for Clooney to say and harder for someone in Gibbs’ position to help execute.  Which is why being a fly on the wall is a nice place to be sometimes (until you get swatted).

- Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz

Raising the PR Bar

Most every day we read about some PR effort to squelch a big-brand crisis; or communications work on Capitol Hill to get a bill passed; or a cause campaign among the public to help save some endangered species. All noble PR efforts in their own ways, for sure. But I may have found a campaign that takes that nobility a step further, at least. It’s GLOBALHealthPR and Spectrum‘s “Find the other 150″ campaign, executed pro bono on behalf of the Progeria Research Foundation (PRF). Progeria is the rare, devastating disease that causes children to age prematurely and experience deadly heart disease. In 2009, it was known to affect 54 children in 30 different countries, while an estimated 140 children were yet to be identified and diagnosed.

“Find the other 150″ is a culmination of work that Spectrum, which specializes in health care communications, has done with PRF for some 10 years, all of it gratis. The goal for this effort was to find as many undiagnosed kids with Progeria as possible. You can read about the details in the upcoming PR News case study in the 11/7/2011 issue. The short story is this: Since the digital and media relations campaign was launched in Oct. 2009, 24 more kids have been identified with Progeria. That might seem like an insignificant number to some. But to the kids and their families, 24 more meant it was possible to conduct clinical trials of a drug that might stem the tide of the disease. Those results, says Audrey Gordon, president and co-founder of PRF, will be revealed soon. To Gordon, Spectrum and its GLOBAlHealthPR partners are top-notch, and “treat us like an A-list client.” Stories like this make me feel good about PR.

–Scott Van Camp

Perusing Gossip Sites for the Greater Good

Okay, I admit it: I’m a junkie for entertainment gossip sites—particularly (I appreciate the snarky humor) and TMZ (it’s like gossip central). But it’s not the posts that usually catch my eye (except for any George Clooney girlfriend pics)—it’s the comments below the post. People never cease to amaze me when it comes to their passion for entertainment and gossip. And now that I’ve heard about the Futures of Entertainment conference coming up at MIT in Cambridge, Mass Nov. 11-12, I don’t feel so bad about taking a quick peak at these sites during work hours.

The premise behind the conference, now in it’s fifth year and spearheaded in part by Peppercom’s Sam Ford, is that is the ways in which people engage with entertainment properties are more active, more passionate and more advanced than what we see anywhere else. “For communicators and marketers, then, understanding the patterns of how people interact with television shows, films, and other entertainment media might help inspire new ways to help companies connect with their customers,” says Ford. “And seeing the challenges, questions, ethical issues and points of tension that arise between media companies and fans can often help companies be better prepared to think about how they manage relationships with their customers and other audiences.”

Panelists will include experts from the U.S., Brazil, India, The Netherlands, Finland, Chile, Mexico and the United Kingdom. The conference will also feature representatives from a range of media companies and publications, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The San Jose Mercury-News, Fast Company and Worship Leader Media to Gowalla, Loku, Sesame Workshop and The Leaky Cauldron.

It all sounds very educational—it is at MIT—and entertaining, I’m sure. And now I feel much better about being a fan of gossip sites: it’s all for the greater good of communications and PR News.

–Scott Van Camp

Should You Hire that Guy Who Pissed on the Neighbor’s Lawn Last Night? Heck Yes!

Quick question for anyone who makes hiring decisions:  Would you hire a job candidate whose tweets, Facebook postings and other social media scribbling point to someone who likes to get wasted, comes to work with a hangover and sleeps around? All things considered, between this randy candidate and a seemingly straight candidate with similar credentials, who would you choose?

If only it were that simple.  Add to the question that the first candidate has a few more critical skills and upon further research knows a thing or two about Web design and programming that could really help you move the needle. And despite his predeliction for alcoholic beverages on weekends and lack of bladder control,  he volunteers and gives back to the community – details you might not find on his LinkedIn or Facebook page. Oh, and he probably doesn’t get drunk at work.

Social media is a great hiring tool, isn’t it? You can’t see into a candidate’s future, but you can surely see into their past, often as recent as the night before.  At the PRSA annual conference in Orlando this week, one “older” attendee tweeted sarcastically to the many young PR students and recent grads in attendance to keep acting foolish and immature to ensure they don’t get hired.  These attendees, often part of the student section of PRSA, are PR’s future, so it stands to reason that they should show some decorum while at a professional event. And 99% of them probably do.

As for background checks on social media and a quick Google search of job candidates, it’s not a bad idea provided it’s tempered with reason and a big fat dose of reality. Think about it – if you were looking for a job 15 or 20 years ago and there was a such thing as Twitter or Foursquare, would there be posts from you that might catch a hiring manager off-guard? Probably is my guess – but maybe it’s just my past!

Social media discovery about a job candidate – short of that person having a criminal background – should be filed into the “good to know” category.  You shouldn’t ignore it, but you shouldn’t hold it against the candidate either. And once you do hire that person for the job, don’t friend him on Facebook. A friend of mine – an executive at a healthcare company – confessed to me that for about a month he was living vicariously through one employee who was posting very interesting updates on Facebook.  One morning as they were both grabbing some coffee, he asked her about the party the night before and whether she finally got a ride a home.  Her face screamed “Creepy!” and her fingers did the talking by immediately unfriending her boss. They are off to one good start!

– Diane Schwartz



Is Tim Tebow Football’s A-Rod?

The Denver Broncos have a bye this Sunday, so for one more week the nation can ponder quarterback Tim Tebow’s ascension to the team’s starting QB spot. By ponder, I mean either celebrate his promotion or rip the heck out of the guy. Curiously, with Tebow there is no in between. When the Broncos announced that Tebow would be replacing the ineffective incumbent Kyle Orton for their next game, there was a frenzy of opinion from both the public in chat rooms, and the media—particularly ESPN pundits. “Tebow’s spent his time on the bench—he deserves to be on the field” said a few. “Tebow will fail miserably, and the Broncos will regret ever drafting the clown,” said even more.

I’m puzzled over why Tebow is so polarizing: sure, he wore his religion on his sleeve (actually on those litte pads under his eyes—John 3:11) while setting records at Florida; he is uncomfortable with NFL-style offenses (but can’t he learn them?); and being the Jockey underwear spokesperson may rub people the wrong way. But he’s never been caught for dog fighting, either. I asked Mike Paul of MGP & Associates (and who has represented athletes) why people get so riled up about Tebow. “Tebow being named QB and a leader on the Broncos is like the NBA’s Michael Jordan when he was in Chicago and Kobe now in L.A.” says Paul. “You take a chance to build a winning team around him and have faith in him, ironically the same way Tebow has faith in God.” It’s the God thing that just might annoy people. but it goes both ways, says Paul. “Ironically, Tebow’s strong Christian faith is a lightning rod for some and a breath of fresh air for others.  Remember, America has many evangelical Christians and that base is powerful,” he says.

Whatever the reasons, like Jordan and Kobe, Tebow is one of the most talked about athletes on the planet—but with zero pro championships under his belt. I, for one, will be rooting for the guy to win one of those soon.

—Scott Van Camp

A New World of Phone Etiquette

When, exactly, did we stop knowing how to use the telephone in the workplace?

I find myself freezing when I feel the need to call someone. I ask myself, “Should I just call this person out of the blue? Wouldn’t that be rude?”

Keep in mind I ask myself these questions even when it’s someone with whom I have been corresponding by e-mail. I just get this sense that the person on the other end of the line won’t appreciate a phone call without fair warning.

And so I e-mail the person first and ask when it might be a good time to speak by phone. It’s no surprise that people always appreciate this courtesy. Which is really, really strange. It wasn’t so long ago—or was it?—that we picked up the phone when it rang and called people when we damn well pleased. We don’t have phone conversations anymore—we have one-on-one, scheduled phone meetings.

The reality is so much more information gets exchanged in a phone conversation and, not incidentally, emotional nuances are more easily comprehended. If we must schedule our phone conversations now, so be it. But professional communicators are missing out on a powerful medium if they restrict themselves to the tapping of keyboards and mobile devices. Just remember to e-mail that blogger, journalist or client before placing your call.

—Steve Goldstein



Netflix: Can We Just Fast-Forward to Tomorrow, Without Comment?

What’s interesting about Netflix‘s announcement this week that it has killed the Qwikster brand before even launching it is the fact that the Netflix product is flawed.  I am not sure who is drinking the Netflix Kool-Aid, but most people I talk to who have jumped on the Netflix subscription bandwagon confess that their local library has a better selection of movies than Netflix.  I struggle (using that term lightly as there are indeed more important pursuits) to find a movie I want to watch through Netflix.  When I ask my husband rhetorically why we are subscribing, he and I both concede that it’s a small price to pay — and maybe Netflix will get better.  That it will start to strike better distribution deals or come up with original programming – the latter is coming sometime in late 2012 (that’s right, later next year). The fitful public might not be patient enough to wait it out as Amazon, Redbox and others gain market share. Netflix has already reportedly lost $2 billion in market capitalization after it raised its pricing and changed its service structure.

So we divert attention from the quality of this once promising service as we engage in some Schadenfreude, with CEO Reed Hastings admitting that Qwikster was a bad decision.  He backtracked, for sure, but at least he did it quickly (qwiksterly?). It took Coca-Cola a lot longer to spill New Coke down the drain. I applaud Hastings for admitting defeat and trying to win back the public including some angry shareholders and couch potatoes.

He sort of spoke to the press yesterday when he formally announced:
“There is a difference between moving quickly, which Netflix has done very well for years, and moving too fast, which is what we did in this case.”

In the same corporate announcement, a Netflix spokesperson added: “We underestimated the appeal of the single web site and a single service. We greatly underestimated it.”

So there you have it. A once super-strong brand loses its mojo at the same time it increases prices and confuses the public by creating a separate but similar brand as if Netflix the brand wasn’t strong enough for the shrinking population of DVD renters who might relate more to Qwikster.

As for the public apology and mea culpa, Hastings should have spoken to the press yesterday. The corporate line was “he was not available for interviews.”  In PR, we know what this line means.  Of course he was available (what else should he be doing than dealing with this crisis and tamping down further media speculation?). The public likes a good apology and a humble CEO.  So why not take some interviews, Hastings? To quote from a movie that is available on Netflix and whose title might best reflect Netflix’s future, “tomorrow is another day.”

Diane Schwartz


Were Steve Jobs’ PR Skills a Mixed Bag?

Since Steve Jobs’ passing on October 5, much has been written about his influence. The public outpouring of grief and admiration after Jobs’ death was announced was huge, to say the least. But what of Jobs’ relationship with public relations? He’s been called one of the marketing greats—for his ability to know what consumers want before they knew what they wanted. As for PR, there are a number of stories that appeared last week and into this week that give a glimpse of his considerable media and customer relations skills—and foibles. The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg wrote a great article on his late-night phone calls with Jobs—calls that Mossberg’s wife came to hate. Bloomberg Businessweek’s special issue on Jobs doesn’t mince words when it comes to Jobs’ mean streak with the media, and sometimes customers who he’d engage with via e-mail. It seems that when it came to connecting with the “outside world,”  Jobs did pretty much what he wanted, when he wanted.

Brian Regan, senior VP at Access Communications, sums up Jobs and public relations this way: “PR and media people marveled and envied Jobs’ raw brilliance, but unless you were inside the company pulling the strings, you gnashed your teeth at the marketing hubris—why didn’t we think of that?—and black ops approach to PR—how can he get away with that?” says Regan. “Regardless, he will rightfully be seen as a modern Da Vinci whose influence will grow and outlast all others of his generation.”

—Scott Van Camp

For Media Relations, a Twitter Handle Doesn’t Cut It

I’ve had reason to reach out to all kinds of companies for business-to-business media outlets: cable operators and programmers, small and large high tech companies, advertising agencies, magazine media companies, video postproduction boutiques, automakers. The list goes on. The first step is always the same—find the name and contact information of a particular company’s public relations staffer.

And it’s a name, email address and phone number of an actual person that I seek. Not or a Twitter handle. I’m constantly surprised that in an era of “listening” and two-way conversations and transparency that so many companies and nonprofit organizations choose not to reveal the names and direct contact information of their media relations person or team. Or, if they do reveal a name or names, it is buried deep within a Web site.

This is so common that I have to believe it’s not a mere oversight—it must be part of an overall strategy. For all the talk about letting the customers or audience be a part of a brand’s story, it appears that the need to control the story is just as strong as ever. The message to the media can be read as: Don’t call us, we’ll call you when we have something to announce.

Time is tight for all of us, and when media professionals can’t easily find a human to contact, they’ll move on to another company, which will ultimately get the coverage and attention everyone seeks.

So get your real name out there. There are people who want to talk to you.

—Steve Goldstein



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