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
In abruptly firing Men’s Wearhouse founder and executive chairman George Zimmer, the men’s clothing company has sent a few messages to the marketplace, none of which are likely to help the brand’s reputation or its PR efforts.
Men’s Wearhouse gave no explanation for firing Zimmer, who built the company from one small Texas store to “one of North America’s largest specialty men’s clothiers with 1,143 locations,” according to The Huffington Post, adding that the company generated revenue of $2.48 billion in its latest fiscal year ended Feb. 2.
To add insult to injury, the firing came on the heels of the company’s announcement last week that profits were up 23%.
Perhaps Zimmer—the face of the brand who assures consumers in television commercials that “You’re going to like the way you look”—is being punished for helping to generate solid numbers for the brand. That’s puzzling enough. Yet it wouldn’t be the first time that a company’s founder was ousted by the board of directors, the late Steve Jobs being the most prominent example.
What’s even more bewildering is the Zimmer handed over the CEO reins to his successor, Douglas Ewart, in 2011.
Zimmer, for one, has not been shy about airing his grievances. “Over the past several months I have expressed my concerns to the board about the direction the company is currently heading,” Zimmer told CNBC. “Instead of fostering the kind of dialogue in the boardroom that has in part contributed to our success, the Board has inappropriately chosen to silence my concerns through termination as an executive officer.”
Men’s Wearhouse has responded to Zimmer’s comments with radio silence. That’s the company’s prerogative, of course, never mind that it betrays an incredibly dim view of public relations.
“The move goes against everything you learned about corporate communications,” said David Johnson, CEO of PR agency Strategic Vision LLC. The decision “creates uncertainty among existing customers about where the brand is going.”
Some reports pegged the move to Men’s Wearhouse wanting to re-tailor the brand for the millennials (people born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s).
If so, Men’s Wearhouse has a peculiar way of communicating to millennials, who seem to value transparency, openness and dialogue—everything Men’s Wearhouse avoided when it decided to dump Zimmer.
Indeed, they don’t call it “social media” for nothing. Other reports suggested that Zimmer’s support for legalizing marijuana may have gotten him in trouble.
Whatever the case, Men’s Wearhouse comes off as a company that’s stuck in time.
If the company had serious differences with Zimmer it should have had the gumption to tell consumers via its social channels why the man synonymous with the brand was being summarily let go and where the company goes from here.
Initial returns on Men’s Wearhouse secrecy strategy are less than encouraging. Hundreds of Men’s Wearhouse shoppers took to its Facebook page to express their outrage over the firing of Zimmer, per CNNMoney.com. Said one customer: “Oust George and lose my business. I guarantee it.”
Maybe the suits at Men’s Wearhouse need to reconsider their decision to get rid of Zimmer and get more schooling in PR in the process.
(Earlier today, Men’s Wearhouse Board of Directors released a statement explaining why the company fired Zimmer.)
Follow Matthew Schwartz:@mpsjourno1
My son Max tells very long stories that veer in curious directions. By the time he’s nearing the point, he forgets the ending. It’s rather cute and endearing – he is, after all, only 12 years old. He will sometimes exclaim frustratingly: “I forgot what I was going to say!” Can we admit that often it’s as if a 12-year-old is telling a story about his brand? And we aren’t as forgiving, are we?
Storytelling in PR comes in many forms: press releases, emails, memos, phone calls, meetings, press conferences, interviews. Our stakeholders have short attention spans and are less charitable about seeing through the foggy messages. They are not our parents, who will listen to our stories and love us even more for the muddled storytelling. No, stakeholders will send you on your merry way, and latch on to a better story.
Like you and me, our audiences like a story that has heart, that makes us think and moves us in some way. A few days ago, I heard about Pedigree’s partnership with “Annie” on Broadway and the search for a shelter dog to play Sandy. The story is heart-warming and memorable, and makes me want to buy Pedigree dog food and see Annie for the umpteenth time. The story had emotion.
It’s the communicator’s role to find the compelling story in the message and then make it stick. At PR News’ Content Marketing Boot Camp on Tuesday, one speaker noted that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” That’s a catchy reminder, but even in the age of social media and attention deficits, your story must be authentic, true to your brand’s story line and characters.
The best stories spread, then stick and, most importantly, result in a positive action or reaction. In other words, sticky can sometimes be stinky. Which leads me to my last point: know what to leave out of a story. Every brand and company is filled with stories. Not all of those stories should be told. Curate your stories, identify the narrative and figure out what’s better left unsaid. Not every story is worth repeating. Unless it’s about your kids.
- Diane Schwartz
By now you’ve heard the news that Adam Levine hates his country. No, he loves his country. Wait a minute: what does he really feel and why do we care? If “The Voice” coach and Maroon Five singer truly hated America, the worst that could happen is he gets kicked off “The Voice” and his band suffers in the Apple store.
For communications professionals, Adam Levine’s gut response, “I hate this country” made after two of his singers got voted off “The Voice” on Tuesday night, is an example of public figures saying something stupid for a split second. That’s all it takes, a split second, for a quote to go viral and escalate to a top story. The public and media know a great sound bite when they hear it, especially surprising when it comes out of the mouths of generally well-liked, behaving celebrities.
What PR advice would you give Adam? Here are some steps Adam has already taken and that he might want to consider over the next 48 hours:
Respond via social media. On his Twitter handle, he tweeted definitions of “humorless,” “joke,” “misunderstand” and “lighthearted.” His fans are on Twitter, so responding to them in a less conspicuous manner was the right move.
Issue a statement. That he did:
“I obviously love my country very much and my comments last night were made purely out of frustration. Being a part of The Voice, I am passionately invested in my team and want to see my artists succeed. Last night’s elimination of Judith and Sarah was confusing and downright emotional for me and my comments were made based on my personal dissatisfaction with the results. I am very connected to my artists and know they have long careers ahead, regardless of their outcome on the show.”
Ride it out. This too shall be passed over by other non-important news. Justin Bieber continues to behave badly, Arrested Development is back and Beyonce might be having another baby.
Be more careful. That microphone works, Adam. Think before you speak into it.
Here are things Adam shouldn’t do in the next 48 hours:
> Wear red, white and blue.
> Get a tattoo of the U.S. flag on his wrist (wait at least a year).
> Write a song about patriotism.
> Become the spokesperson for the Armed Forces.
> Step down from “The Voice.”
And, for the producers of “The Voice,” enjoy the boost in ratings.
- Diane Schwartz
We’ve been doing a lot of writing in PR News lately on great PR writing and as I was reflecting on this very intricate craft—a form of writing that requires immense skill—I thought it might be useful to reflect on what a journalist looks for in PR writing—not just press releases, but also corporate letters, comments from executives, and more. So here goes, more or less in the order of importance:
• First and foremost, tell a story, but remember your story is not automatically interesting to the media and stakeholders. You have to anticipate what your external constituents will view as significant from their perspective. But let’s get back to the concept of story-telling. If there’s a narrative—if there’s a sense of progress, or change, or surprise, or accomplishment, that’s what will get the attention of a reporter. Especially if the story is unexpected, or counter-intuitive, or it defies the conventional wisdom. That’s what reporters look for, because those are the things they want to offer to their readers.
• Don’t force big news out of small news. I got a press release just last week from a media company CEO, who assured me this was “big, big news.” Well, it wasn’t. Loss of credibility because of a breathless effort to turn non news into big news is hard to repair.
• Don’t lead with the “what,” lead with the “why.” It’s harder for a reporter to care that your CEO just gave a speech at the TED Conference, or that your company just won a major industry award, or even that you exceeded earnings expectations for the quarter by 4 percent. It’s much easier to care that the CEO’s presentation was really important because it generated news, or caused a stir, or that your earning would have missed except for some specific act. You get the idea.
• When using quotes, avoid “happy talk.” I’ve read 10,000 quotes that proclaim a CEO is “delighted to have Bob join the team…” Perhaps you thought we were expecting to hear that you’re “kind of bummed out that Bob is joining the team, because we really wanted Jane.” It’s better to simply lay out what Bob or Jane is expected to do, and why the hire matters.
• Avoid hackneyed and hyperbolic words. Nothing makes journalists’ eyes glaze over faster than you touting your ”solutions,” your “global” reach and your “industry-leading” position.
• Don’t bury the lead. Usually, you can tell the gist of your story in half the number of words you used. This mainly comes down to disciplined self editing, but you also have to keep in mind the fact that early drafts of writing almost always take their time getting to the point and usually back into the point.
• Don’t use exclamation points. Don’t use bold-faced words. Don’t use all-caps. You’d be amazed at how well-crafted sentences and solid choice of words actually speak for themselves, without any need to call attention to them.
- Tony Silber
On Twitter: @tonysilber