PR execs are not supposed to parrot the boss. At least on paper.
Despite the tremendous changes throughout the PR field, one thing remains a constant: The ability of PR managers to take an alternative (if not contrarian) view of the party line and say to the top brass, “That may not be the best idea.”
For C-level execs who understand the role of PR, getting a difference of opinion from PR reps about, say, a potential marketing strategy or crisis management plan can’t be underestimated. It prevents execs from operating in a parallel universe in which everything those execs say or do is considered gold, and the rest of his or her staff nod in agreement. Too many top executives live in splendid intellectual isolation.
The best types of comments posted on companies’ websites, social channels and other media vehicles are those that take the brand to task and offer legitimate criticism.
That’s why Google’s recently announced move to change how YouTube uploaders manage comments on their videos may not do PR pros any favors.
The new system, which last week began rolling out to a limited number of uploaders, “favors relevancy over recency and introduces enhanced moderation tools,” according to Cnet.
The moderation tools for uploaders and channel owners include the ability to review comments before they’re posted, blacklisting certain words and whitelisting specific commenters so their posts will always be approved, Cnet said.
For brands looking for some unvarnished truths about their products and services the new moderation tools could be akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Doesn’t social media foster enough conformity? Do we really need to inspire more? When I was in college a journalism professor told me that compliments are like kryptonite; they make you weak and prevent you from improving your writing or interviewing skills.
Same deal for PR folks. To get a better a sense of whether their campaigns (or YouTube videos) are resonating with the target audience they need to embrace all opinions, not least any vituperative comments that at the same time make valid points.
The vote here is to check out Google’s new moderation tools regarding YouTube, but be selective with them lest you end up whitewashing every last comment.
Sure, some comments posted online have all the charm of a dock strike. Sometimes I feel like taking a shower after reading the nastiest of them.
But cutting off communication, however unsettling, won’t do any good. It’ll just get you comments saying how wonderful your brand is. And how boring is that?
PR people are in the business of embracing communication, no matter how crude, not shutting it out.
Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
What is it about CEOs? How can so many of them be so smart and so accomplished, and yet still say so many bad or dumb things?
It’s enough to keep a communications team up at night—and if they get to sleep, they have anxiety-driven nightmares.
Just this week, Guido Barilla, the CEO of one of the leading pasta makers in the world, brought a boycott down on his company for remarks that were viewed as homophobic. Within a few hours of the news, according to the guardian.com, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter.
“For us, the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company,” Barilla said in a radio interview when asked whether he’d use gay people in advertising. “I would not do it, but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others. I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”
This all comes just months after Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy renewed an old controversy he created in 2012 by tweeting his dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.
Also this year, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries brought negative attention on himself and his company when older comments surfaced where he said he only wants good looking people to buy his clothes.
And American Apparel CEO Dov Charney seems to be just minutes away at any given time from another lawsuit.
I think CEOs are smart, for sure—but they’re also human. And once people get to the top of their profession, they’re a) accustomed to thinking they’re always right, and b) used to subordinates telling them they’re always right. That leads very quickly to hubris and arrogance for most people, excepting only those who are really disciplined and have a very solid sense of self.
What’s a communicator to do? Here are a few options:
• Engage the executives in your company in media training. Not in sporadic episodes, but sustained programs. Don’t do it yourself. Bring in experts.
• Challenge the boss. Oftentimes, you’ll be putting your job at risk, but heck, it can’t be good for you or your company if you merely go along and get along.
• Know your executives. Know what their personal perspectives are. Respect those views, but help them understand that those views and the company’s marketing messaging are two different things.
• Offer yourself as a sounding board to flippant top executives—have them bounce their public statements off you first. And if they reject that idea, then it might be time to think about your own reputation and find an environment that is more receptive to good PR counsel.
When I started out in journalism—in daily newspapers—every so often you’d have a colleague opt out of the reporter’s life and move into PR instead. It always seemed like a loss, because some of those colleagues were the most capable among us.
But journalism’s loss was PR’s gain. Today, in 2013, that’s perhaps more true than ever, because of the disruption of the traditional media world. Let’s be honest with what’s happening: The newspaper industry—the industry dedicated to putting news on a paper product, which is printed and distributed every morning—is dying. Print newspapers probably will be gone in a generation or less. The print-magazine industry is less challenged than newspapers, but the trend is clear. Think about what’s happened.
• It’s not just that new technologies have massively changed media-consumption patterns and expectations.
• It’s not just that the Internet has destroyed many forms of revenue-producing classified advertising, which once was a staple of newspaper businesses.
• It’s not just that it’s become an extraordinary challenge to invest resources in highly qualified journalists to produce news, when that news is then redistributed online for free within minutes. How do you make money in that environment?
• It’s not just that newspapers have become an inefficient and outdated vehicle for local advertising. Local ad revenue is soaring, but it’s online, and going to contextual and ROI-oriented technology companies like Facebook and Google.
• And it’s not just that paid reader circulation—an essential part of the revenue model for newspapers and magazines—is unpredictable, at best, online.
It’s all those things, combined. And the pace of change is accelerating. One outcome has been a wave of downsizings in the newspaper and magazine worlds, with more journalists moving into PR. And ironically, what many of them are doing now is—wait for it—creating journalism! They’re just doing it for all different kinds of brands, not just media brands. They’re serving brand communities, not geographic or industry-specific communities.
As media has changed, so has marketing and communications. The most significant change currently in brand communications is content marketing, where brands engage audiences through traditional journalism techniques—they tell interesting and relevant stories that readers like. This storytelling doesn’t work if it’s product pitching in disguise. It’s more sophisticated than that. And usually, it’s the PR staff that handles content marketing.
Is content marketing a threat to journalism? No. No more so than the bottom-feeder media companies that for 100 years neglected journalism and viewed content as “the space between the ads.”
What is happening is this: As marketers increasingly engage in content marketing—online, on social media, in video—they make PR stronger. They become a new source of competition for traditional media companies. And they also provide a new source of employment for those professional journalists who’ve found that career opportunities, good incomes and professional growth are no longer as plentiful in traditional media.
Maybe those folks who went into PR when I was starting out were just a bit ahead of the trend line.
When UPS wanted to make the public aware of its sustainability and energy-saving practices, the PR team knew it needed to tell an interesting story to showcase its efforts. It has always stuck with me that UPS drivers don’t make left turns (or at least, 95% of the time, they don’t turn left). By turning right and not idling, UPS has been able to cut CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons and has saved 10 million gallons of fuel since 2004. The media loves stories like these, and I bet every company has a story to tell that’s illustrative and memorable. The hard part, it turns out, is not in identifying your story but in telling it smartly to the media. There are so many things that can go wrong on the road to positive coverage.
Jerry Doyle of CommCore Consulting Group spends most of his days training C-suite execs and PR pros on how to talk to the media, how to tell a story that resonates and how to stay on message. At a PR News Media Training Workshop in NY on Sept 10, he reiterated the importance of sticking to your message while respecting the reporter’s time and intelligence. He asked the workshop attendees: “What do you do when a reporter asks you a question?” So many times, the interviewee changes the topic, or veers in another direction instead of actually answering the question. When you don’t answer the question, says Doyle, “it’s a tell” – in other words, skeptical journalists get more skeptical and the questions harden.
In preparing for your next media interview, keep these tips in mind:
- Always be tuned into WIIFM: “what’s in it for me” (the reporter and his/her audience): make your comments relevant to the interview and compelling to the audience.
- Pick a message/point and state it 3 times during the interview: any less or any more than that and your message will get lost.
- Research the reporter before the interview: who is she, what does she cover, what were her last 3 stories?
- Google yourself and your company: that’s what the reporter is doing before the interview, so don’t be caught off-guard by recent coverage of your company (or you).
- Assume you’ll be asked difficult questions: be prepared to answer them.
- Tell a story or provide an analogy: nothing’s better than a short, interesting story to illustrate your point, and for complicated issues a simple analogy is much appreciated by the reporter.
- Always answer the question: Better to say “I will look into that” than “no comment”.
- Have a bridging strategy: at times, you’ll need to bridge the conversation to get to your point. Practice bridging.
- Make sure your last words are good ones: often the last question is the reporter’s lead, the sound bite on TV or the most memorable answer, so make sure you end the interview on your high note.
A reporter is usually not trying to stump you, but no reporter worth his salt is going to throw softballs throughout the interview. If you can master the 9 tips above, you and your brand won’t suffer a black eye.
- Diane Schwartz, @dianeschwartz
In the tech world, one of the iconic moments of the 1990s was when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. He went to Macworld and gave one of his best speeches, during which he announced a partnership with Microsoft. Bill Gates made an appearance during that speech, projected on a giant screen behind Jobs.
Jobs was said to have always been uncomfortable with the visuals of that moment, where Gates was the giant presence, overwhelming the tiny Jobs, and symbolically, Apple itself.
Never mind that that actually was true in 1997. It got me thinking about how important the visuals are in public relations and overall communications, planned or spontaneous. It applies in every human endeavor, not just tech and not just business. Think politics. Michael Dukakis’ campaign was derailed in 1988 by that photo of him in a tank. He didn’t look presidential, to put it mildly. Or think about an iconic sports image, the 1968 Olympics medal ceremony where two American track athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raised their fists in the black power salute. The third medal winner, Australian Peter Norman, appeared to be ignoring the other two, but he was involved and supportive in advance and actually wore a badge to show solidarity.
Great imagery that underscores a message—whether for a brand or politician or athlete—doesn’t just happen. It requires thinking and planning and in the case of public relations, collaboration. Back in the 1980s, Michael Deaver was a master image creator for Ronald Reagan, notably, with his speech at Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France, at the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe.
More recently, the MTV Video Music Awards created a stir that continues even now, as the one-time tween star of Disney’s “Hannah Montana” performed a song at the event that made the term “twerking” a household word and left a big slice of the country revolted. But I suspect that somewhere, some publicity team is saying, “mission accomplished.” In that case, I suspect, the image (an adult, racy Cyrus—not Hannah Montana) is exactly what Cyrus wanted.
So it was dissonant last week when Vogue Magazine published a rare in-depth article on Marissa Mayer. The Yahoo CEO opened up for really the first time in her headline-generating 13-month tenure in a long and essentially positive article. But accompanying the article was a weird photo of Mayer lying on a couch/lounge type of furniture, upside down, in a blue dress.
And what struck me most was why a Stanford-educated technology-company CEO would allow her image to be undermined in a way that no male CEO would ever do and frankly, in a way that no male CEO would ever be asked to do. Would Tim Cook be asked to pose in that manner? Would he do it? How about Warren Buffett?
So in the end, an epic fail for Mayer, and in a way, worse for her personal brand than spending $30 million on some teenager’s app.
Late last week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s foundation, LeanIn.org, got some negative media coverage. An editor from the organization posted a call on her Facebook page for unpaid interns.
The criticism was immediate and furious. How could a non-profit dedicated to empowering women, and fighting the glass ceiling, engage in what many people say are exploitative personnel practices? How could an organization headed by one of the most famous woman executives in the country—a woman who is extraordinarily wealthy and wrote a bestseller on why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled—expect the most junior and vulnerable people on her team to work for free?
The response was swift as well. Here’s a shortened version of what LeanIn.org president Rachel Thomas wrote on Friday:
“Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. These volunteers helped support our message and community, and gained valuable experience doing so. They did not displace or delay the hiring of paid employees. As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid. We support equality – and that includes fair pay – and we’ll continue to push for change in our own organization and our broader community.”
From my perspective, the statement is too defensive, and it mostly doesn’t address the central issue.
It seems to be saying, “Hey, people are coming to us asking to volunteer. Why should we have turned them away?” It seems to be saying, “Even those who work for us for free still get value, so it’s kind of okay.”
Those things might be true, but they’re also, frankly, not productive. That’s especially so for an organization dedicated to principles that are fundamentally at odds with those practices.
From a communications perspective, the defensiveness left a lingering feeling that LeanIn.org still doesn’t quite get it, even through they’re changing their practices.
But the good news, and LeanIn’s real promise, is in Thomas’ last couple of sentences, indicating a change in policy that will require paid internships.
So having perhaps learned a lesson, an organization dedicated to empowering women can now start a much more widespread conversation about changing something that’s much more pervasive than it used to be: Unpaid internships, and paid internships with no benefits replacing what used to be entry-level jobs.
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
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
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
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