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


Firing of Zimmer Doesn’t Exactly Suit a Social Media Age

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 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

How to Avoid the Stink in Your Storytelling

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


Are You a PR Pro From Krypton?

If you’re an immigrant from Krypton living in the U.S.—or in any spot on Earth—then flying without the benefit of a wingspan or jet propulsion and hearing the flutter of a butterfly in Ensenada while you’re leaping over the Empire State Building in a single bound is old hat. Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel, the new Superman reboot, is no cause for celebration for you either—it’ll just flush out the anti-immigrant wingnuts who’ll once again terrorize you and your relatives with Kryptonite hockey pucks.

You didn’t ask for superpowers—you just needed to find a more hospitable planet. Your superpowers make you feel like a freak and, if you work in PR, cause no end of frustration. Using your superpowers for your own professional ends feels too much like cheating—your old-school Kryptonian parents certainly wouldn’t approve—and so you toil away like just another Clark Kent.

I’m telling you now to embrace your true, Kryptonian self—own your inner Superman or Superwoman, put your powers to use as a PR pro. Let’s face it—part of the reason you deny your superpowers is you’re afraid that they might not be so super after all. And that’s just not logical.

Here are just three suggestions to get you started:

  1. If your brand is in crisis because of, say, an oil spill or because of a cruise ship that’s run aground, fly around the Earth really fast to reverse its rotation around the axis. This will take you back in time so you can prevent the oil rig from exploding or the cruise ship captain from carousing.
  2. Make your brand a CSR leader by using your super breath power to re-freeze the melting polar ice cap.
  3. Use your blinding speed to respond to every tweet that mentions your brand’s name—in real time! And, as a bonus, using this speed you’ll finally be able to clear out all those unopened emails.


What Should Adam Levine Do? The Voice of Reason…

Adam Levine

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







Tips From a Reporter on Great PR Writing

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

Media Inquiries Into PR Departments Should Not Be an Exercise in Frustration

You’re a busy journalist. You’re on deadline. You’re trying to round up sources and interviews for a story you need to crank out today. One of your most promising sources is not responding, gone off the grid. But you’re still hopeful, especially because she and her company have PR representation.

So you go to the PR agency’s website, looking to email or call someone from the agency and either enlist their help or leverage the connection into a direct call with the source.

But wait: You get to the “Contact Us” page, and you hit a wall. What? Instead of a helpful list of members of the team, with their areas of specialty, their email addresses and their phone numbers, not to mention their Twitter addresses, you hit a cinderblock. You get one of those “Fill-Out-This-Irritating-Web-Form-And-Send-An-Email-To-Some-Anonymous-Address” pages.

You get one of those contact pages on websites that force users to send their media inquiries via email to a faceless, nameless depository and hope that they get a response in a timely manner.

Guess what that journalist is going to do? Correct.

Which leads me to ask: Why do PR firms—communications agencies, after all—use those depersonalizing forms? I know a lot of companies do it, and maybe there’s a good reason, but I say not in PR.

In PR, the whole point is to connect with stakeholders—especially the media—in as expeditious a manner as possible. In PR, with a few exceptions, the chance to tell your story is something to be embraced. So why make it hard? It makes no sense. You’re not doing yourself, or your clients, any favors that’s for sure.

For that matter too, the strategy is debatable even for companies that don’t often get a lot of media inquiries. That’s because, due to the rise of “content marketing,” every company is now a quasi-media company and needs to be able to respond to inquiries—from either media reps or customers—with more speed and more substance.

For PR agencies, the whole objective is to humanize—you. Your firm. Your clients. By having a faceless Contacts page you’re ultimately robbing yourself of the opportunity to get your messages out and cultivate relationships.

Social media is rewriting the rules for PR and dramatically changing how PR reps communicate with the media. Fair enough. But PR departments and agencies that insist on using a faceless, “Media Inquiries” page on their websites, are, when you come to think about it, being downright anti-“social.”

Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1



To Write Well is to Advance in Your Career: 7 Tips for Aspiring Writers

Has writing become a lost art, a nice-to-have skill but not a necessary one? I sure hope not. For those of us who cherish the written word and are prone to find typos on cereal boxes or wine bottles, we appreciate a well-constructed sentence that concisely conveys a point. Smart communicators know that good writing is essential, not optional.

PR News hosted a Writing Boot Camp at the National Press Club on May 14, and I was pleased to see hundreds of PR professionals of all levels taking time to hone a skill that can be a game-changer for their career. That is, if you’re a terrible writer, how far can you really go at your company? If you can’t consistently communicate a message creatively and succinctly, how likely is it that your stakeholders will look down on your brand and possibly move on?

If you recognize you have writing deficiencies, do something about it now. Don’t wait. It’s all well and fine to be a social media expert or a great account manager. But sooner or later, you will be found out:

“She’s great with the clients in person, but have you seen her emails? They make no sense.”

“We can’t give him that report to write, because we’ll be up all night rewriting it.”

“Did she miss the punctuation class in grade school?”

To avoid such maligning, I’ve compiled seven tips to help you become a better writer:

Read at least 3 articles a day: Whether online or in print, read about current events and take note of how the writer is articulating a point, how quotes are being used, how the article begins and ends.

Resist the urge to abbreviate: In a short-messaging world, we think what works in a text or tweet is OK in an email, a memo or a press release. It’s not. Spell out words. Make your sixth grade English teacher proud.

Say it out loud: after you’ve written a business piece, read it out loud. Does it make sense? Can it be improved? Is it so long that you tire of hearing your own voice?

Avoid jargon: At the Writing Boot Camp, trainers implored the audience to avoid hyperbole and be real about how “innovative” your company is or whether “best” and “great” are really the right words to make your stakeholders believe in your product. For more tips on avoiding jargon, check out my Boot Camp coverage.

Know your channel: It’s been said that Twitter is the office and Facebook is the dinner table: your messages should reflect the channel you’re writing for. Where it gets sticky is with email communication.  Know these things about email: your email can be forwarded, especially if it’s irresistibly incomprehensible; don’t use emoticons in emails to people you’re not close with, and (drumroll…) you can use spell check with your emails.

Break the right rules: let’s face it, the AP Stylebook is a guide not a rule. You can break rules in writing in the interest of creativity and keeping people awake. Every now and then start a sentence with the word “And” or remove a verb from the sentence, for effect.

Think in headlines: As you begin to write a piece, ask yourself what the headline would be. Likely you’ll change that headline several times. If you can’t come up with a headline, then you are unclear about the message you’re conveying.  Every story has a headline.

Any other tips you’d like to add? If so, please chime in. And don’t abbreviate.

- Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz


Measurement is Sexy. Really.

There you are, reporting to your CEO on the outcome of a recent PR campaign you spearheaded. Your excitement is contagious as the CEO wants to know more about the positive tone, product awareness and visual dimensions, more about your company’s share of voice and the way you were able to tie sales to the efforts. He asks you what the ad equivalency would be for this PR campaign and you explain, patiently, that AVEs are not how we measure anymore; that’s for amateurs. You refer a few times to the Barcelona Principles, but you had him at “awareness.”

Measurement is the new black. Those who measure their PR understand the profound impact the activity can have on a company’s brand and bottom line. Measurement experts go far in their career because they have gained a keener understanding of their activities by tracking what’s important and by dispensing of activities that bear either no fruit or rotten fruit. One of the best indicators of an organization’s support of the PR department is its investment in measurement and its willingness to listen to the results (however tough they may be) and heed PR’s counsel.

What used to be cordoned off as the geeky discipline within PR, measurement and research is now integrated into everything communicators do. Or it should be. Whether it’s measuring the impact of a tweet or analyzing the performance of a year-long community relations effort, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

In a recent PR News/CARMA survey, roughly 10 percent of respondents admitted they don’t typically set objectives for some campaigns and don’t measure social media, and nearly 64% still use clip counts more than other metrics. And surprisingly, 32% said the primary reason they measure is because their boss or senior management requires it. Until we get the 32% of PR pros to measure because they want to be better at PR and until we get 100% of communicators setting real objectives, then we are not done with evangelizing the power of measurement.

- Diane Schwartz


PS: At PR News, we are bringing hundreds of communicators to the National Press Club on May 15 for our annual PR Measurement Conference. We’ll share measurement tips, tactics, war stories and advice. Hope you can join us for this “sexy” event.  I hope you’ll join us. Email me your hot-button measurement questions to pose to the speakers at




How to Take Public Relations a Notch or Two ‘Furthur’

The Grateful Dead, the Grandaddy of jam-band music, called it quits in 1995 soon after the death of lead guitarist (and first among equals) Jerry Garcia. The Dead’s 30-year run, which included nearly 2,300 concerts and a unique musical styling best described as “electric Dixieland,” is safely ensconced in the annals of Rock and roll history.


But the Dead’s legacy carries on through Furthur, which was founded in 2009 by Dead frontmen Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Similar to the Dead—a pioneer in “social marketing”  before the term existed—Furthur offers PR and marketing execs a string of lessons on how to sustain your audience and grow your brand.

As I traveled up and down the Northeast corridor in the last two weeks to catch a couple of Furthur shows during its spring tour, I thought about what communicators could learn from the band:

> Respect your audience: Furthur communicates strictly through its music. Aside from Weir or Lesh saying, “We’re going to take a short break,” at the end of the first set or “Good night,” after the encore, the band doesn’t kibitz with the audience but provides them with three-plus hour of music, which is what people actually paid for. Regardless of your market, don’t distract your audience with peripheral and/or disposable information, but the content that means the most to people.

> Don’t repeat the same content over and over: While most musical artists have a cookie-cutter approach to their concerts (same set lists, same notes and even the same guitar solos in the same slot), Furthur never performs the same show twice. The band is constantly adding (and subtracting) to its song repertoire and developing new musical arrangements, which keep fans guessing. Indeed, to keep your fans engaged don’t rely on the same material but find new PR vehicles to keep your overall message fresh (without having to reinvent the wheel).

> Use your company’s operation as a vehicle for charitable efforts:  At every show and just before the encore Phil Lesh makes an impassioned plea for people to become organ donors; in 1998 Lesh underwent a liver transplant as a result of chronic hepatitis C infection. Lesh’s donor crusade is a reminder for brands that, in order for their charitable effort to truly resonate with audiences, the effort has to hit close to home and provide a personal connection to the chairman, CEO or company founder, for example. This way, the effort comes off as the real deal and not something the company is doing just for the sake of doing so.

> Nurture the newbies:  Along with Lesh and Weir, Furthur includes drummer Joe Russo and lead guitarist John Kadlecik, who are considerably younger than Lesh and Weir. While Lesh and Weir ultimately call the shots onstage, Russo and Kadlecik are given a wide berth for musical improvisation and exploration. That’s something that should hardly be lost on grizzled PR veterans: Hire younger people who love your brand and are comfortable with your corporate culture, but not so comfortable that they fail to bring new ideas to the table and alternative ways of cultivating your audience, er, fans.

What do you think your favorite band can teach us about PR?

Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1

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