Chuck E. Cheese Needs to Take Fisticuffs Off The Menu

A 20-person brawl at a Chuck E. Cheese outlet in Wisconsin is just the latest episode of violence at the fast-food chain that caters to kids.

Earlier this week a dad and his young son both had to be treated for injuries after an attempted robbery outside of a Chuck E. Cheese outlet in New Hampshire, Manchester police said, per CBS Boston.

And earlier this month, a patron of a Long Island, New York Chuck E. Cheese was caught on camera taking a swing at another customer (while clutching a baby in her arms).

You know your brand is in trouble when all of the information associated with it starts to resemble a criminal court docket.

The restaurant chain has responded to myriad incidents with the following statement (abridged).

Despite our corporate and in-store staffs’ efforts to facilitate a friendly atmosphere, unfortunately an occasional altercation occurs with a very small percentage of those who visit our restaurants. And like kids’ soccer and baseball games across our country, typically the incidents are not with the kids—but regrettably the parents. For us, even one altercation is too many. In light of this, we will continue to test and evaluate additional measures for the benefit of our guests—such as increased security camera presence and awareness, re-examining our facility seating arrangements and our party parameters as well as working closely with local authorities—with the goal of deterring future incidences. Maintaining a wholesome, safe, family experience that sets a standard across our more than 560 locations is of utmost importance to Chuck E. Cheese’s.

To Chuck E. Cheese’s credit, the statement takes pains to tackle some of the problems plaguing the restaurant chain.

But when your brand becomes synonymous with bad behavior—particularly when there are children involved—it’s time to take a much more proactive approach to cauterizing the wounds and protecting the integrity of your company.

Chuck E. Cheese needs to communicate what the company is doing to prevent any fisticuffs  (or worse) from taking place at its outlets. How, exactly, is the company working with local authorities to stem the fighting? And is the company working with academics  and/or psychologists to find ways to nip any fighting in the bud and change the store environment?

The fast-food chain also may need to reevaluate its prize-exchange programs. (The incident in Wisconsin reportedly started after a child was taking too long to exchange his tickets for prizes.)

Putting out a press statement in response to such incidents also leaves the company’s C-level executives off the hook.

Even if we weren’t in the throes of a social media age, wouldn’t it behoove Chuck E. Cheese CEO Michael H Magusiak to communicate to the public in no uncertain terms that fighting at his restaurants is totally unacceptable behavior? PR 101: Never let a crisis go to waste.

Perhaps the company is betting that these incidents will soon be forgotten. The country’s short attention span has always played into companies taking the path of least resistance in response to negative publicity.

Still, we are fast entering an era in which companies need to “own” their mistakes or bear the consequences (read: fewer and fewer customers and even fewer prospects).

Chuck E. Cheese, which dates back to 1977, is likely to weather the latest PR storm. But what happens if another brawl breaks out at one of its outlets and a customer is seriously hurt? Will the restaurant company continue to shift the blame to unruly customers or take more responsibility for why these ugly incidents continue to happen on its premises?

At that point, consumers may not be ready to forgive and forget like they usually do.

Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1

 

 

Anthony Weiner Doesn’t Have a PR Problem

New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, also known as Carlos Danger in the sexting world, issued an apology this week after more salacious text messages surfaced between him and a twenty-something Indiana woman. The messages were exchanged after he resigned from Congress in 2011 amid a sexting scandal, promising to rehabilitate. At his press conference this week, he and his wife Huma Abedin sought forgiveness and understanding.  Meanwhile, the Web site on which the latest texts were revealed, TheDirty.com, is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame and women’s groups are at odds over whether his wife should stand by her man, or at least encourage him to drop out of the mayoral race.

Many have noted that Weiner has a “PR problem.” Surely, a crisis such as this requires a public relations strategy. And we know that Weiner’s camp is pretty good at PR, considering he rose from the ashes of the original sexting scandal two years ago to run for mayor of New York – and the polls had him to neck and neck with his competitors just a few days ago.

Tuesday’s press conference, however creepy it might have seemed to some, was a smart step forward for someone who refuses to quit the race. (I emphasize: it was a good media relations play for someone who’s still in the race.) His demeanor during the press conference was on the mark, as he was deferential to his wife, contrite and even-keeled. And the public is extremely forgiving, so Weiner has that going for him. Plus, as most media trainers would advise, he stayed on (his) message, noting: “This is not about me, this is about the fact that the middle class has people struggling to make it in this city.”

A good PR counselor would work hard to get the public to see him in a new light – that of a loyal but flawed husband, a doting father and a hard-working civil servant who will fight for New Yorkers.

But wouldn’t it be interesting if a PR counselor could advise someone like Weiner to do what’s right for the person (and arguably for the city of New York) and take the public relations strategy of no relations with the public? My advice to Weiner is to:

> Get help for his behavior — not for the after-effects

> Step away from the podium– forget about being mayor for now

> Become self-aware and learn to shun the spotlight

Lastly – putting it all in perspective, Weiner is not a criminal. He is a man with questionable character and integrity. He doesn’t have a PR problem. He has a personal issue that shouldn’t be the public’s problem.

– Diane Schwartz

@dianeschwartz

Native Advertising: Sticky or Icky?

The second story on BuzzFeed’s website this morning was…wait for it…“12 Comebacks We Can All Agree With.”

(I say ‘wait for it’ because anyone who knows BuzzFeed’s editorial approach knows its love for lists.)

It was a sponsored story—paid advertising—posted on behalf of Hostess, whose Twinkies and other brands are back after the production ceased and the company downsized nearly out of existence last year.

But the comebacks listed in the BuzzFeed story never once mentioned Hostess. It was all about other stuff.

It was actually a pretty good list, and pretty funny, too, despite small errors and its ‘intern-pulled-the-factoids-off-Wikipedia’ feel. So were the comments, not all of which were complimentary. “Uh, Arrested Development was canceled in Feb 2006, and the new season, specifically for Netflix, had 15 episodes. It really isn’t hard to check up on simple facts before submitting an ‘article,’” went one.

At the Folio: and Min MediaMashup event in April, one of the speakers was asked to define native advertising. “Advertising that doesn’t suck,” he said.

That’s an awesome description, for native or traditional forms. But with native, there are new ways to create superior value for an advertiser (and reader/user) and also new ways to mess things up.

Check out QZ.com for a clean, elegant way to do in-stream native advertising. Consider that the advertising is in the form of storytelling. Not a marketing pitch. Think too about the value provided to an advertiser to be fully integrated into a site’s content stream—where you see the ad as you scroll, and the ad’s content comes up in a search. That’s incredible advertising value.

But then there’s the flip side: Done poorly, native advertising in a content stream can seem spammy. It can disrupt the flow of content, not enhance it. It can make your page look like a dissonant cacophony, and put your credibility at risk when people open a page and see yellow-tinted ads where you think they shouldn’t be.

It’s a double-edged sword, and I admit that I’m not sure I like everything BuzzFeed is doing. That might be, though, that their formulaic approach kind of gets old quick. The fun of media consumption, and of PR, is in being surprised, and even delighted, in unexpected ways.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

J.K. Rowling: Publicity Wizard or Mere Muggle?

Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan or not, you know who J.K. Rowling is. I bet you never heard of Robert Galbraith or “The Cuckoo’s Calling” until it was revealed on Monday that Robert is Rowling and that “Cuckoo” is about….

Forget what the book is about – the news here is that Rowling penned the book under a male pseudonym and a reporter for the London Sunday Times revealed this past week that she was the author. The second of Rowling’s adult novels, this one was well received by critics but sold only 1,500 copies since its April release. That is about 450 million less copies than her Harry Potter books. Unsurprisingly, since the big reveal, sales of “Cuckoo’s Calling” have increased 500% and it’s near the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.

Rowling told The Times of London that the experience was worthwhile: “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

The skeptic in me (and it’s a big part of me) says this was magnificently orchestrated by Rowling and her publisher.  After basking in the glow of every single Harry Potter book, then writing adult fiction (“The Casual Vacancy” that can best be described as “meh”) what’s a famous author to do other than test a new genre and gauge public reaction without exposing her true identity? She knew that a good number of Muggles would gravitate to a crime mystery “Cuckoo’s Calling” written by a certain J.K. Rowling.

These shenanigans got me thinking about whether I would go incognito to test a wild idea, start down a new career path or pen a ground-breaking manifesto. Let’s assume I’m a well-known person with a tremendous following (neither is true).  And I am sick and tired of the “hype” and “expectation.” Would I have the courage of my conviction and let the chips fall where they may? Or would I come up with a new pen name (just as Rowling, and Stephen King, Anne Rice and others before them) and time the unmasking and glorious hype just so?

I’d like to think I’d use my real identity. But it’s hard to imagine the kind of success that allows the freedom to choose and the preordained acceptance of that choice.

What would you do?

- Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz

Fixing the Major Image Problems of Big-Time Sports

The ugly story of Aaron Hernandez raises again the issue of perception challenges in big-time sports, both on the professional and collegiate levels, and it’s worth some time thinking about how we got here.

We’re a sports-obsessed culture. Always have been. It goes way back in the country’s psyche. I recently read a book called “Crazy ‘08: How a Cast of Boneheads, Rogues and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History.”

You might think it was about 2008, and Alex Rodriguez, Brian Wilson (the San Francisco Giants closer with the long dyed-black beard), and George Steinbrenner.

But it was really about the 1908 season, when America was equally baseball crazy.

Then there’s the long history of idolizing college football players like Red Grange, George Gipp (Ronald Reagan made Knute Rockne’s phrase “Win one for the Gipper” famous) and Notre Dame’s 1924 “Four Horsemen.”

Going back even further than that, baseball became a national sport during the Civil War, when soldiers from all over the country were introduced to it and in the years after the war spread it to the four corners of the nation.

This explains why we revere sports institutions and athletes. But we give them a pass way too often. We create a hothouse environment where a sense of entitlement reigns, where cheaters are celebrated, where criminals are excused, where the money is huge, and where institutions like the Penn State football program end up driving university policy, not the other way around.

In what other context would someone like Ray Lewis, recently retired from the Baltimore Ravens, be considered the face of a business?

Big-time sports are popular, but also tarnished. And they have the power, when they run amok, to tarnish other brands, like the universities that lend their names to sports programs. After Hernandez’s arrest last month for murder, new light was cast on his time at the University of Florida, when 25 players were arrested a total of 31 times during the tenure of coach Urban Meyer, a period when the team won two national championships.

Are championships worth more than character and reputation? It appears so, and while Hernandez and others must face the consequences for their alleged actions, the system collectively really is to blame. Here are some suggestions on how to fix things.

1. Make use of performance-enhancing drugs a career ender. Baseball, especially, has a huge problem, mostly because it turned a two-decade-long blind eye on the problem while gladly raking in the revenue generated during the steroid era.
2. Pay college athletes. This will go a long way toward eliminating the mostly false notion of the “student athlete.” If the athlete is selected based on raw economics, overlooking character will be less likely.
3. Do a much better job to acknowledge and explain the role athletics plays in college finances. This will mitigate the excessive influence that boosters play, and also help schools from a public relations standpoint. Incredibly, in 40 of the 50 states, the highest paid state employee is either the football or basketball coach. That made major headlines a few months ago. The reaction was largely indignation. Put aside questions about terribly misplaced priorities, however, and you really can justify those salaries based on the economics—who brings more revenue to a school (and thus helps fund important academic initiatives) than the coach of a successful sports program?
4. Don’t play the victim, as Bob Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots, did when he recently said that the team was “duped,” by Aaron Hernandez. Own the mistake. And communicate to the public how you’re going to do everything possible to avoid the same mistake in the future.

Tony Silber: @tonysilber

Playin’ in the Sand: PR Beach Reading

As any PR pro can tell you, it’s all in the timing.

Whether it’s when you reach a reporter just as he’s in the thick of a story for which your brand can provide some much-needed insight or launch a PR campaign that attaches itself to the zeitgeist, timing is everything.

This applies to both business and life, for better or for worse. My timing to spend a few days on the beach last week, for example, didn’t work out too well. A valiant effort to simply embed myself in the sand and watch the sky roll by was thwarted by swirling gray clouds and a constant threat of showers.

What are you going to do?

Fortunately, there’s still a good chunk of summer left to get in some quality beach time and hit the waves (I’m an avid swimmer). But even if the weather doesn’t cooperate it doesn’t hurt to crack open a cold drink and settle down with a good beach read.

Indeed, with communicators more pressed for time than ever, we recommend several beach books that can help inform you about the ever-morphing world of media, marketing and communications, but also entertain and enlighten.

> Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is about Help Not Hype, by Jay Baer

Baer, who has worked with top brands ranging from Nike to Walmart, explores how an age-old expression—Can I help you?—has taken on new meaning in a social marketing age.

> Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations, by Franz Wisner

This e-book offers a comprehensive history of the first family of public relations and the accompanying rise of the PR field. In 1952 Dan Edelman, who died in January, founded what is now the largest independent PR agency in the world, with 67 offices and more than 4,800 employees.

> Rethinking Reputation: How PR Trumps Marketing and Advertising in the New Media World, by Fraser P. Seitel and John Doorley

PR expert Fraser Seitel and John Doorley, founder of the Academy for Communication Excellence and Leadership at Johnson & Johnson, provide some crucial guidelines on how PR pros can navigate their brands through the new (and tricky) media landscape.

> The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha

We’re all start-up companies now. Even if you work in an office ladled with the traditional accoutrements of corporate America, getting ahead in today’s world requires individuals to invest in themselves and their skill sets.

> Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences, by Philip Napoli

Ever get the feeling that we’re just a few codes away from transcending the space-time continuum? This book takes a look at the tremendous influence modern technology has on the media and the radical changes in how people consume media.

> The Fall of Advertising and The Rise of PR, by Al Ries, Laura Ries.

Advertising used to be the lord of the manor but in the new media world PR has become king of the castle. The Ries’ make convincing argument that in order to boost their credibility with consumers, companies need to drive the overall message with PR and have advertising, er, paid media, play a subordinate role.

Any titles you think we should add to the list?

Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1

 

 

Click on This Headline

OK, I stole the idea for this headline from Abbie Hoffman, author of “Steal This Book.” But let’s call it an homage instead of outright theft.

My headline was inspired by WFMU radio host Tom Scharpling, who was, in his show last night, making fun of headlines that are naked ploys to get you to click on them, such as “Why I Hate the San Antonio Spurs” or “Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Call Your Doctor Right Now.” Scharpling also admitted to using the same tactics for his own online pieces.

The fact is, if you are a professional communicator, headlines are everything. Until the time comes when text finally fades away and we transmit ideas solely with still and video images, you’ll need to study the past masters at the New York Post and the current masters at BuzzFeed and learn the craft of writing clickable headlines. Your job as a headline writer is to bypass cognitive thought and create an instant cause and effect between the reader’s eyes and clicking finger.

Think beyond the literal headlines on press releases and blog posts. A tweet is a headline; so is a Facebook post. A subject line in an email is a headline. A meta description for a Web page that shows up in Google searches is a headline. A text message is most definitely a headline. And each of these headlines is battling millions upon millions of other headlines to win the almighty clicks.

The headline is the gateway to all digital communications, and if you can’t write headlines that force people to click—almost against their will—then you’re not really communicating.

- Steve Goldstein

@SGoldsteinAI 

Paula Deen, J.Lo, Next Crisis: What is PR’s Role in a Hot Mess?

There are countless communications takeaways from the recent celebrity gaffes. Whether it’s Paula Deen dealing with allegations of being a racist and then dropped like a buttered sweet potato by every brand partner, or Jennifer Lopez singing “Happy Birthday” to Turkmenistan’s authoritarian ruler for his 56th birthday last Saturday night, one thing is for sure: another day, another blunder by a celebrity or public figure.

Is the PR team to blame for either of these crises — or is it to be sympathized with? After all, wrangling bosses with high stature and over-sized egos to do and say what you advise is not kid’s play. You win some, you lose some. In the Paula Deen and J.Lo cases, I take the side that PR could have done a better job of doing their job.  Public Relations is not just about pitching stories to the media (which is what most of the public thinks) – it’s about improving or maintaining reputations, shaping messages, avoiding crises, moving a brand forward, managing expectations, and so much more.

PR could have shined in both these crises – resulting in another needed feather in the PR cap. (Notably, there are hundreds of crises every day that never see the light of media because PR is in fact doing its job.)

Because too much has already been written and said about Paula Deen, I will keep this one simple:  PR counselors can’t make their clients less racist, but a strategic and strong PR counsel can guide their client to take the right steps to mitigate crisis, to apologize, to articulate how he or she will make amends. Instead, we hear Deen utter: “I is what I is” and we hear her challenging people to throw stones at her head if they weren’t guilty as well of saying mean things. Even before getting into crisis management mode, shouldn’t Deen’s PR team have seen this coming? Did they have a seat at any of Deen’s many tables, guiding her on public perception, listening to what her employees were saying and feeling? It was a public secret that Deen used the “N-word” often.

From Savannah to the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan we have another situation that will predictably be less of a long-term problem for the celebrity. J.Lo was the guest of a China National Petroleum Corp. event in Turkmenistan when she was asked to sing “Happy Birthday” to that country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.  J.Lo’s spokesman, Mark Young, told the New York Post: “Had there been knowledge of human-rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended” the birthday party.  Um, Google or Bing “Turkmenistan” and you’ll find that Human Rights Watch lists it “among the most repressive” countries in the world.  As my PR News colleague Lucia Davis writes on prnewsonline, this crisis, too, could have been avoided.

The whole situation was made worse by J.Lo’s team members’ enthusiasm for being at this event, with her choreographer cluelessly tweeting: “The Turkmenistan breeze feels amazing at night, kidz! I wonder where all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up!”  Perhaps the people of this land can’t follow him on Tweeter because, according to Human Rights Watch, “The Turkmen government exercises total control of public life.”

In my 18 years in the PR space, one of the most basic pieces of advice volleyed between media and PR people has been to “do your homework.” PR people shouldn’t pitch stories to reporters without knowing what and whom they cover. And reporters should respect PR’s role in the ecosystem, whether it’s a political, entertainment, business or nonprofit story, and should come into the interview knowing a thing or two about their subject. Had J.Lo’s team done its homework, it would have easily discovered that even showing up for an event honoring a repressive world leader is ill-advised. Singing “Happy Birthday” was just icing on the stinking cake. Had Paula Deen’s PR team done a listening tour of the people closest to her empire – such as her employees – they could have put measures in place to avoid the downward spiral.

Summer’s here, school is out, but we will always have our homework to do.

- Diane Schwartz

@dianeschwartz

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