Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I'm sorry

I ran across a couple of stories online this week that got me thinking about apologies. Not the kind of apologies we share with one another every day, for accidentally bumping into someone or forgetting to return a call, but the kind that are called for when we’ve really messed up.

I’ve blogged before about how important it is for people/companies who’ve done wrong to come out right away and admit to their mistakes – and our old friend Tiger has been doing a fair job of driving (har, har!) that lesson home in recent weeks. But to come out and admit you’ve done something wrong isn’t always enough; especially when someone has been hurt by your mistake, you also need to apologize.

Head over to YouTube and you’ll find apologies galore: from R&B stars alleged to have abused their girlfriends, to media outlets caught misleading their audiences, to governments, trying to acknowledge and atone for the sins of their predecessors. And while we’re on the topic of big-ticket apologies (and sins), we have to mention the Catholic Church’s 1992 apology to astronomer Galileo, for having condemned him for his blasphemy that the Earth revolved around the sun; it may have been 359 years too late, but at least it finally came.

Would you hire a PR guy to defend you in court?

In his public apology for his treatment of girlfriend Rihanna, Chris Brown said he had wanted to apologize sooner, but had been advised against it by his lawyer. In the eyes of the law, an apology can been seen as an admission of guilt; and so lawyers, whose job it is to keep us out of jail, will often advise silence in the face of our own wrongdoing.

Sometimes, it's sad to say, that may be the best way to go; unless you’re willing to go to jail for your transgression, you might be better-served by remaining silent, and taking the scorn of the world (or your own audiences, at least) in exchange for your freedom.

But there are times when lawyers’ advice to remain silent can cost their client more than the settlement they’ll eventually be ordered to pay. Think of it this way: if your apology engenders customer goodwill, the business you’ll be able to continue doing after the crisis could be worth far more than a few million paid in damages and settlements. If your refusal to apologize costs you all your customers, you may save a few million in damages, but your business won't last long.

Now, that may sound cold and calculating, but the fact is that companies (especially publicly-traded ones) have to do what's best for their owners' investment. It just so happens that when it comes to apologies, oftentimes what's morally right and what's "right for the business" are one and the same.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail during its listeriosis crisis in 2008, Maple Leaf Foods’ CEO Michael McCain said “Going through the crisis there are two advisors I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants.” McCain, as PR and business opinion leaders have attested ever since, handled his company’s response to the crisis almost flawlessly; the approach was anchored by a timely, public, multi-media apology.

As a result of its quick, sincere and customer-focused response (involving far more than the apology, it must be said), Maple Leaf's customer confidence ratings rebounded quickly – a fact which I'm sure relieved its lawyers and accountants.

People can forgive imperfection. They’re less able to forgive arrogance.

If you have anyone in your life who refuses to apologize, even when they clearly know they’re in the wrong, you know it’s infuriating. And it’s no different in a relationship between a client and a business than between two people. If you do something wrong, you need to acknowledge that it was wrong, and apologize for having hurt whomever you hurt. It might’nt fix the problem, but it can help.

There’s a great example of exactly this on Steve Farnsworth’s Digital Marketing Mercenary blog this week: “ The Anatomy of a Social Media Nightmare Averted – Case Study.” It’s a great read, and shows exactly how an apology can get you back on the road to a healthy relationship.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

They're not going to run out of angles...

I've been good about restraining myself on the whole Tiger Woods debacle; frankly, over the last couple of weeks, you could have been blogging day and night on the PR aspects alone, as new allegation followed new revelation over and over again.

There have been thousands of voices by now, I'm sure, singing the same tune: Tiger Woods should have just admitted to whatever he had to admit to, so there'd be nothing left for the media to discover, and then gone away and hid for a while until some other celebrity did something shocking and/or stupid to distract us.

More angles

But Tiger didn't listen, and two weeks later, we're still hearing about it. Every day or two there has been another addition to what is now a "string" of alleged mistresses; in the absence of Tiger's own statement, those women become a focus for the media, who can't resist the opportunity to keep feeding the public appetite for this scandal.

So, we hear about who's claiming an affair with him and who's not. We hear analysis of the state of the Woods' marriage and children. We hear conjecture about children conceived as a result of Woods' affairs. We hear about who reportedly hired which powerful celebrity attorney. We hear about mistresses' claims of having taken drugs while with him.

As they say, the media abhors a vacuum: if the story has the public's interest and you refuse to talk, they'll fill in the blanks. Not responding doesn't mean there won't be any stories -- it just means there won't be any stories reflecting your position.

And now, a new angle. Oh, Tiger.

I caught the national Headline News version of this story on TV this morning, which is what prompted me to write this post.

We've now moved past the salacious affair details (even if only until the next mistress is revealed), the marriage breakup conjecture (even if only until his wife is spotted meeting with an attorney), and the corporate sponsors' positions (they can say they're sticking with him all they want, but just watch: eventually, money has to talk...), and we've now moved on to:

Tiger Woods' affairs have prevented little children from going to Disney World.

Yes, you read that right.

This story won't be going away any time soon... unless Tiger does something about it. And even then, it's become so huge that it'll take some time.

Here's a good article on what Tiger should consider doing from here, from; thanks to Jarrett Moffatt for pointing it out to me.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Media training? Nah, I'll just wing it."

As most PR people, most broadcast journalists, and all our students in Creative Communications know, it takes hard work to look natural in front of a camera (for most people, at least).

On camera, every little tic appears exaggerated. Every hesitation or stumble seems amplified. A frustrated or embarrassed facial expression can overtake any message you're imparting verbally.

And yet... PR people debate with their clients and executives every day, in offices around the world, about the need to practice before going on camera for a media interview. Executives tend to be confident people; but even the greatest of confidence isn't a substitute for some basic techniques that can help you come across well on camera.

"I'll just go on and be myself."

Here is an example of a fellow who may well have felt he could just go on camera, be himself, and win over FOX News viewers. I'd be willing to bet that Jon Christensen, founder of, uses services like Skype to have videoconference-style conversations online all the time -- and figured that doing an on-camera interview would feel much the same. (His interview begins around the 0:48 mark.)

If that was the case, I'd also be willing to bet he feels differently now.

Practice makes... better

Being on camera can be terrifying the first time. Even if you feel confident, and you know your material like the back of your hand, something can happen when that light goes on that can strike you dumb on the spot.

Professional media training, delivered by a media relations expert, can help. It helps you understand the media's needs so you can better-prepare your messages, making them more likely to be used; it can also help you get more comfortable -- and be more effective -- delivering those messages on camera.

But even if there isn't time to bring in expert training, practice makes better. Have a colleague do mock interviews with you, so you can practice your responses. If you can, use a video camera or even the webcam built into your computer to look at your own body language, so you can identify anything you need to change before you -- and, potentially, millions of others -- see it on the news.

Thanks Dustin for the tip!

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Mainstream media and the blogosphere alike have been ablaze over the American Thanksgiving long weekend about Tiger Woods' early Friday morning car accident -- and Woods' stubborn refusal to talk about what happened.

As the media stories go, Woods crashed his vehicle into a fire hydrant 50 feet from his own driveway around 2:30 Friday morning. Depending on which story you read, either he received facial lacerations in the accident, possibly when his wife used a golf club to smash a window to get him out of the vehicle, or he received facial lacerations in an altercation with his wife, which led to the accident.

Woods reportedly had interviews scheduled with the Florida Highway Patrol on both Saturday and Sunday to explain what had happened, but cancelled both interviews -- the second, by having lawyer Mark NeJame turn officers away at his door as they arrived for the meeting.

In PR, as I've discussed before on this blog, there's a standard three-part approach to dealing with embarrasing news:

1- Tell the truth,
2- Tell it first, and
3- Tell it all.

Time and time again, celebrities, politicians and lesser mortals alike have proven that trying to cover something up invariably leads to worse trouble than the initial embarrassment likely would have (if you doubt that, ask South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford if he might've done a better job of dealing with his extra-marital affair earlier this year).

Dealing with an embarrassing issue quickly and completely is like taking off a bandage: there's a sting when you pull if off quickly, but then it's over. If you drag it out, and leave some parts stuck (and needing to be removed at a later time) you're just asking to prolong the agony.

Now, I don't know if Tiger is even hiding anything -- and if he isn't, the PR response will turn out to have been even worse than if he had been. In the absence of a statement between the accident and Sunday, when he made a brief statement on his own website, the headlines went something like this:

Tiger Woods injured in minor car accident

Was Tiger Woods' car crash related to cheating on his wife?

Questions Swirl Around Tiger Woods's Car Crash

20 questions about Tiger Woods' accident

Tiger Woods' Alleged Mistress Denies Affair

Tiger Woods 911 call released, Woods, refuses to talk to police

For 3rd time, Woods cancels meeting with police

Experts to Tiger Woods: Come Clean

"Come clean" isn't exactly what Woods did in today's website statement:

"As you all know, I had a single-car accident earlier this week, and sustained some injuries. I have some cuts, bruising and right now I'm pretty sore.

This situation is my fault, and it's obviously embarrassing to my family and me. I'm human and I'm not perfect. I will certainly make sure this doesn't happen again.

This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way. Although I understand there is curiosity, the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible.

The only person responsible for the accident is me. My wife, Elin, acted courageously when she saw I was hurt and in trouble. She was the first person to help me. Any other assertion is absolutely false.

This incident has been stressful and very difficult for Elin, our family and me. I appreciate all the concern and well wishes that we have received. But, I would also ask for some understanding that my family and I deserve some privacy no matter how intrusive some people can be."

While I do feel badly for celebrities when they have to deal with difficult personal situations and can't get any peace, the fact is that celebrities knowingly give up some privacy in exchange for the millions they earn from their fans (whether directly through album sales, or indirectly through endorsements). Whether or not we think it's fair, it is what it is. And until Woods comes out with the facts, for the time being, at least, there are many people who'll be delighted to profit by making them up for him.

There's a tough way to handle a situation like this -- which is to get out right away and tell the whole, true story, warts and all, then go away and wait for something else to take over the public's insatiable need for controversy -- and then there's a tougher way.

Tiger's way.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Get tweeting!

PR people should use Twitter.

That's not to say that all PR people should be using Twitter on their clients' behalf: like any other communication tool, it only makes sense to use Twitter for PR purposes if your client's audiences are using Twitter (or are influenced by others who do).

With that said, you have to understand a communication tool to be able to determine whether or how it can help you meet your client's objectives; and with Twitter, like blogging, there's no better way to really understand how it works than to use it.

PR Major Laurie McDougall gets all meta with new media

Twitter is currently estimated to count more than five million users, with a reported 27 million tweets being communicated per day; I'd say the service has achieved significance, at the very least.

Is Twitter a fad?

Maybe. But real public engagement using Web 2.0 tools isn't.

I've heard colleagues in the PR industry say they don't have time for Twitter and Facebook and "all those social networking sites," anticipating that they'll all be yesterday's news in a few years' time.

And for all I know, they may be right. Twitter may be replaced by some newer platform with more functionality to enable efficient online conversations some day; but that's no reason not to take advantage of it until then, or not to understand how online communities work. And it certainly doesn't mean that when Twitter's popularity recedes, we'll all go back to the heavily one-way, mainstream media-driven mass communications model we knew a decade ago. Web 2.0 has fundamentally changed the way we communicate, and Twitter is just one example.

Try it; you (should) like it.

In public relations, we spend a fair amount of time finding ways to get direct feedback and input from our publics (inexpensively, wherever possible).

Twitter gives us direct access to our Twitter-using audiences, allowing us to hear issues, concerns or suggestions straight from them and respond immediately, at minimal incremental cost.

In public relations, we spend a fair amount of time working to persuade mainstream media to relay our messages on our behalf.

Twitter allows us to speak directly to our audiences without any "gatekeeper" filtering what we say.

In public relations, we spend a fair amount of time analyzing our audiences, researching who influences whom, in the hopes of positioning our clients/products/whatever we're selling well in the eyes of those influencers.

Twitter allows our audiences to tell us who influences them.

In public relations, we spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out what's popular, what people are talking about, what people care about, and what people are concerned about.

Twitter gives us insights into all of those things, without costing us a penny in research.

In public relations, like just about everywhere, budgets are shrinking, and professionals are having to find ways to do more with less. Lucky PR departments can afford to send one staff member to one professional development conference per year.

Through re-tweets and links, Twitter gives us quick access to a tremendous amount of free professional development from some of the thought leaders in public relations today.

Now, I am not suggesting that Twitter is public relations cure-all: far from it. Twitter (as it exists today, at least) is far too general, too "high-level" - in fact, too unfiltered to be useful on its own as a valid tool for PR research. It's not perfect, and not all our audiences use it; but it's a start.

Twitter does give us a sense of how the winds of public opinion are blowing (among social media users, at least); it also gives us an opportunity to speak directly to our audiences - at any time of day, any day of the week, and as often as we choose. Just as importantly, it gives us a platform from which to hear about issues our audiences may have with us, and an opportunity to address them.

This technology is all about... people?

When it comes down to it, Twitter is just another way for human beings to communicate with one another, whether from one computer lab here at Red River College to another, or around the world.

It's a tool that facilitates relations between publics.

I think that, regardless of the potential for Twitter to be replaced by something even better at some point down the road, the time for PR professionals who aren't getting familiar with it to do so is now., a leading source of information on all things social media, offers a great Twitter guidebook that can help any beginner get acquainted with the platform.

And if they don't, I have 20 smart PR Majors fixing to graduate this spring who'll be well-equipped to help build communication strategies for a new media world!

If you'd like to follow my tweets on Twitter, you can find them under @Lockstep.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The road to mayhem is paved with good intentions

Message to Scott Niedermayer: it was a valiant attempt at a nice gesture.

He gets full PR points, even if someone had to go home with a black eye.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Say please!

One of the many things I love about PR is the way it can undergo sea-changes on the surface, without ever changing the fundamentals at its heart.

Public relations is about making connections with audiences, and building actual relationships. That doesn't mean finding the best soapbox from which to deliver loud speeches about your own qualities; it's about listening as well as talking, finding out what your audiences need and want, and then tailoring your offerings accordingly.

I tell my students to think of good PR like a marriage; extolling your own virtues will only help you for so long if you refuse to pick up your socks. It's an actual give-and-take, not just the illusion of one.

A decade ago, there was a translator in the middle of most PR "marriages." PR practitioners spent much of their time strategizing how to get through the "gatekeepers;" or, the people who stood between an organization and its audiences (most often, the mainstream media). The "gatekeepers" decided who the people got to listen to, and organizations' (and their PR folks') own abilities to reach their audiences directly were relatively limited, especially when those audiences were geographically diverse.

Today, the web 2.0 world has given PR and its clients the ability to talk to our own audiences. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter. YouTube and blogs, which allow organizations to interact directly with the people who make up their audiences (with and without everyone else listening in), give us unprecedented reach -- and a PR model much more faithful to the fundamentals of relationship-building than what we've been seeing since the rise of mainstream media in the 20th century.

Today's PR: just like Grandma's?

No... but kinda, yes.

While technology makes us more efficient at finding, understanding, and reaching our audiences, and the tools and techniques of our profession are undergoing enormous change, the fundamentals of good PR remain constant.

Be honest.
Be nice.
Be fair.
Be thoughtful.
Anticipate others' needs and try to address them.
Make it easy for people to have a relationship with you.

In a discussion about persuasive brochures in the PR major class this week, Sarah Lund shared the fact that her mother had once completed a 40-minute opinion research survey which she had planned not to complete, once she noticed that the survey brochure said "please" when it asked for her participation.

She wasn't going to, and then she did. Just because the copy said "please."

Now, while Sarah's Mum may not be part of the Twitter generation, I'd bet that her instincts are shared by members of all demographics. While the more selfish among us might not be persuaded by one word to give up a chunk of valuable time, most do respond positively to simple respect and consideration.

Twenty-first century technology gives us powerful tools to help us build relationships with our audiences, but people are still people. The technology and tools have changed; the fundamentals of enduring relationships have not.

With all the potential of 21st century technology at our fingertips, it's worth remembering that manners can be powerful persuaders.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"P" is for Public Relations

In honour of a brilliant television program whose very first episode aired 40 years ago today, here are five things I learned about PR from Sesame Street.

1- Know your audience. Season after season, Sesame Street produces bits that entertain kids AND their parents.

2- It's important to ask the right questions.

3- Cooperating and pooling resources can create wonderful results.

4- There is no such thing as "off the record."

5- For long-term success, be flexible and evolve with the times. (Case in point: the video below, from Sesame Street's first season. Begin at the 1:15 mark and see if you can spot anything that might trouble today's protective parents...)

And while we're at it, a lesson for journalists:

Don't get personally involved in the story.

Thank you, Sesame Street, for 40 years of education and entertainment.

Today's blog post was brought to you by the letter S and the number 40.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Taking the high road vs. giving in

As America gets ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first airing of Sesame Street on Tuesday, a PR "issue" has erupted around a two-year-old episode of the show, a repeat of which was aired two weeks ago.

In the episode, which my three-year-old has given me occasion to enjoy many times, Oscar the Grouch is the anchor of GNN (Grouch News Network), in a parody of CNN. Anderson Cooper guest stars as a reporter for GNN, and does an interview with grouch muppets Dan Rather-Not and Walter Cranky.

Is this a thinly-veiled suggestion that CNN is too negative? Or an attack on the personalities of Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite? I don't think so (and neither, apparently, does Anderson Cooper). Rather (har har), I think they were chosen because their names provided an opportunity for a fun parody, which would entertain children while providing parents with something to keep them from going insane (a characteristic that keeps parents favouring Sesame Street over, say, the Teletubbies).

I put these parodies in the same category with other Sesame Street bits I've enjoyed: "Desperate Houseplants," "Meal or No Meal," "Law & Order: Special Letters Unit."

But one line uttered by a member of GNN's grouchy audience in the repeat episode has apparently gotten some Fox News fans up in arms.

According to an article on, both the Fox News and the PBS websites received emails from viewers who said they had heard the character say she was switching to "Fox News - now there's a trashy news show."

When I first saw the show, I heard "Pox News," and have heard "Pox News" every time since. When contacted by Fox News, according to the story on its website, "Sesame Workshop Vice President of Corporate Communications Ellen Lewis told that the show was merely a parody and would never mention Fox News directly." A script from the show reportedly shows the line to be "Pox News," as does the closed-captioning.

Let's face it: in the 24-hour news business, there aren't that many well-known brands to work with. "CNN" easily becomes "GNN," "Fox" easily becomes "Pox;" but what could you do with "MSNBC" to make it grouchy-sounding?

I think Ms. Lewis' response was reasonable (and I would hope/assume it included an expression of regret that some viewers might have misheard the line and been offended).

The Ombudsman for PBS, however, took a different approach, saying in his statement on the matter that
"I don't know what was in the head of the producers, but my guess is that this was one of those parodies that was too good to resist. But it should have been resisted. Broadcasters can tell parents whatever they think of Fox or any other network, but you shouldn't do it through the kids."
I'm certain that the White House's recent skirmishes with Fox News have something to do with this sensitivity; but this show was produced a year before the current administration was even elected (though Fox News' coverage of the presidential election campaign may well have been a topic of interest at that time). I'm surprised that the PBS Ombudsman would have hung the Sesame Street producers out to dry like that - especially given that Sesame Street has been doing parodies of popular shows and famous people for four decades (remember Monsterpiece Theatre with Alistair Cookie?).

In the opening scene of "Desperate Houseplants" one potted plant mourns "I can't take it anymore! I've lost my bloom!" - and I don't remember any of the Desperate Housewives cast being offended by it.

Parents across the political spectrum seem to agree that Sesame Street provides a great example for our children to see and admire... but for some, that's only true for as long as it parodies everyone except Fox News.

There's taking the high road and apologizing for having offended someone; then, there's giving credibility to irrational claims. An organization should always apologize for having offended - even when the offense wasn't intentional - but I don't think it should give credence to a baseless charge.

While that approach may take care of the complaints in the short term, I'd expect the opposite to be true in the long term. Having essentially agreed that Sesame Street's producers were purposely trying to turn pre-schoolers against Fox News (?!), PBS' Ombudsman should now expect Sesame Street to be watched far more closely for perceived slights against the institutions and voices of the "Right."

Sesame Street opens its 40th season on Tuesday with a guest appearance from... uh oh... Michelle Obama.

Friday, November 6, 2009

MTV's event planners learn why the little details count

Last night in Berlin, U2 performed a 30-minute set at the Brandenburg Gate, to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; the performance was set up by MTV, as part of its MTV European Music Awards broadcast.

A reported 10,000 fans attended the short performance, which took place in a public outdoor space bordered by buildings on three sides, and a "temporary security fence" on the fourth.

A two-metre high, tarp-draped fence which, to fans on the other side, looked like... a wall.

Headlines, please!

Berlin celebrates 20 years since Wall fell by erecting another for U2 (Times Online)

MTV Europe defends U2 Berlin 'wall' (UK Press Association)

Bono sparks row after building own Berlin Wall to block free gig from fans (Scotland's Daily Record)

New Berlin wall built for U2 gig to mark fall of old one (The Guardian)

MTV's response

MTV's statement on the matter refuted the notion that it had built a new Berlin wall, and emphasized the facts that the decision was made collaboratively with local event organizers and that its objective was the safety of all the fans in attendance.

"MTV wanted to ensure that the 10,000 music fans that attended tonight's MTV EMAs present U2 at the Brandenburg Gate enjoyed a safe and happy experience.

The safety and well-being of all attendees at any MTV produced event is of the highest priority. MTV worked closely with our local promoter DEAG, the Borough of Berlin and the Berlin Police department to create a comprehensive security
plan for the event. To that end, MTV placed a temporary security fence around the site perimeter.

Under no circumstances did MTV build a 'wall' of any kind in or around the U2 production site."

Dictionary, please!

My favourite dictionary, the Oxford Canadian Dictionary (Second Edition), defines a wall as "a continuous and usu. vertical structure of little thickness in proportion to its length and height, enclosing, protecting, or dividing a space or supporting a roof."


Sometimes, good intentions aren't enough.

I can completely appreciate the effort to control the crowd in an event like this one. Of the thousands of details planners of an event of this scale would have had to consider, this would be a significant one: no-one wants their event to become the site of a serious injury (or worse).

With that said, this particular crowd-control measure seems a bit tone-deaf. Given that everyone is there to celebrate the destruction of a wall, the erection of a new one (no matter how well-intentioned) would seem a natural target for ridicule.

The objective of staging a huge event like this one is to generate positive publicity for a brand. Unfortunately for MTV, a miscalculation in the optics of one detail among thousands coordinated by the event planners took the event coverage off course, and reduced the event's benefit to MTV's reputation.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Axe hoax: a strike against mainstream media, a PR victory for Unilever

Earlier this week, reports were circulating about an Indian man who was suing Unilever, the maker of Axe body spray (reportedly sold under the name "Lynx" in some markets), because despite his faithful use of the product over seven years, he hadn't been able to secure a date.

In an article in Scotland's Daily Record, the complainant, Vaibhav Bedi, was reported to have based his case on the fact that "The company cheated me because in its advertisements, it says women will be attracted to you if you use Axe. I used it for seven years but no girl came to me."

The story goes on to say that Unilever had refused to comment on the case.

As it turns out, the lawsuit story is a hoax. Reported to have been initiated by the Faking News website, the story spread across the Internet and, somewhere along the way, began to be reported as true. I heard it reported on Winnipeg radio Monday morning as a true story, and was ready to write a blog post about how being the target of a lawsuit can actually be good PR -- but when I began to research it, quickly found it to be false.


There's some work to be done on the fact-checking at some "news" outlets in the wake of this story.

In the meantime, Unilever and its Axe/Lynx brand is the big PR winner; I'd love to see the numbers on unpaid media and blog mentions over the life of this story.

And on a different note...

Another little gem I found while checking into this story was the YouTube video below, outing Unilever's arguably hypocritical position on the objectification of the female body in advertising. I hadn't realized that Unilever was behind both Axe, whose ads are rife with images of scantily-clad women throwing themselves at men, and Dove, which has run a very successful (both from the marketing and PR perspectives) campaign, called the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, encouraging women's self-esteem. The video replaces the original media-images-which-cause-low-self-esteem-in-women-and-girls from the Dove campaign with images from Unilever's own Axe commercials.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Hasbro shows us how it's done

In PR, we use creative thinking to get people talking about our clients and their products. We employ a wide range of strategies, tools and tactics to try to make this happen – but we understand that nothing is more effective in getting people's attention than offering something of value to them. It's called the "identification principle" of persuasion, and it has helped to sell everything from political leaders to dog food.

Hasbro campaign delivers a diversion, a source of pride, and a good laugh

Hasbro has been a leader in the board game market for as long as I can remember – and Trivial Pursuit (and all its subsequent editions tailored to players with interests in particular subject matter, eras, etc.) has been a mainstay of every home’s board game closet. So when the company went to launch its new Trivial Pursuit Team edition, it was challenged to find a “hook” that could create some new interest in an older product.

The “Trivial Pursuit Experiment” Hasbro launched last week, a global, online battle of the sexes based on the new Trivial Pursuit Team edition, does the trick. The integrated marketing campaign (click here to read the news release), using the tagline “Who’s smarter than who?” invites people the world over to go to and defend their gender’s honour in a battle of the sexes.

Girls are smarter!

I entered my birth date, my name, and my gender, and got to choose from a number of trivia categories. Having answered my question correctly, I was treated to a YouTube video of a man unsuccessfully attempting a vault in a gym. I then “threw” one to see what would happen, and got a way more hilarious video of a woman accidentally dropping the live lobsters she was supposed to dump into a pot, and then freaking out as she tries to corral them.

It’s fun, it feeds that competitive nature we all have, and it’s entertaining. There's loads of "what's in it for me" in this campaign, making it an "identification principle" hall-of-famer.

When I published this post, the young site was showing more than 700,000 correct answers between the two teams; clearly, people are responding. It’s also gotten both mainstream media and bloggers talking (I heard about it on the Ace Burpee Show as I drove to work this morning). And it’s gotten people like me playing Trivial Pursuit again, 20 years later.

For other great examples of Hasbro’s news-making, just check out the news releases on its website. I'm thinking this is a fun place to work.

On a side note...

When I wrote this post, the women’s team was ahead by well over 30,000 correct answers. I’m just saying…

Friday, October 23, 2009

Those pesky ethics keep holding me back.

Flying under the radar (har har) of the balloon boy hoax of last week was a media hoax of a far different kind: the Yes Men's successful effort to dupe major U.S. media into relaying their messages on climate change.

The Yes Men are activists whose business, according to their website, is "Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."

On Monday, their target was the United States Chamber of Commerce. As the National Post reported earlier this week, the Yes Men booked the National Press Club in Washington late last week for a news conference, under the name "U.S. Council on Climate, which has the same acronym as the Chamber. On Monday morning, they called and changed the contact information for the event, and set up their press conference with U.S. Chamber of Commerce logos."

Staff at the National Press Club realized something was up, and alerted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the fraudulent news conference was about to take place. The video below shows what happened when a legitimate representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce arrived on the scene.

While the news conference was only a few minutes old when it got broken up, a number of media outlets had already reported on the announcement. According to the National Post,
"Reuters had already filed a story based on a fake press release. The news appeared on several websites and was announced on live television; an anchor for the Fox Business Network retracted the news within seconds of reporting it. Reuters quickly issued a correction."
The situation was an embarrassment for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Press Club, as well as the media who reported the story before realizing it was a hoax. But the Yes Men certainly got what they wanted: national headlines and coverage of their messages on climate change.

Some may see publicity stunts like this one as victimless crimes; and in some cases, they might be (other than the damage done to the credibility of the PR and media industries). But in others, there can be real victims: as the National Post story recounted, in 1994 the same front man for the Yes Men
"tricked the BBC into thinking he worked for Dow Chemical. In an interview with the broadcaster, he said Dow would pay US$12-million to the victims of India's Bhopal gas disaster. By the time that stunt was exposed a few hours later, the company's stock had plunged by US$2-billion."

This story has highlighted the fundamental problem of a "tweet-first-ask-questions-later" approach to journalism today, driven by the need to stay ahead of social media in breaking news. Whereas reporters used to have time to do background research before filing stories, today they are pressured to get the news out, at least in some preliminary form, as soon as they receive it. As the media landscape evolves, journalists will need to find a way to ensure the accuracy of what they're reporting, if they want to remain a credible source for their audiences.

In first-year PR classes at Red River College this year, we have discussed professional codes of ethics, and why professional associations like the Canadian Public Relations Society and the International Association of Business Communicators would need to have them; this story provides us with a perfect illustration of why such ethics codes are needed.

The Yes Men's stunt may have earned headlines, but it did nothing to build relationships. Ethical public relations does not employ dishonesty, arguing that the means justifies the ends; rather, ethical public relations involves open, honest communications between a client and its audiences, in the interests of fostering better understanding and, hopefully, earning trust and support.

It's important for ethical public relations practitioners to denounce actions like those of the Yes Men, because in some circles, their tactics are understood, incorrectly, to be the tactics of PR.

They aren't.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A head-scratcher

I followed a Twitter link this evening to the Ragan Communications website, where I found what Ragan billed as "The Worst Example of Media Relations EVER."

While I don't know that to be true, the report, which the Ragan site says was filed in 2002 by reporter Elliot Davis for KTVI television in St. Louis, Missouri, certainly raises a few questions.

1) Could a "County Executive" really think this tactic would produce a positive story?

2) Could a reporter really get an interview like this one and then play it straight? Neither the reporter nor his colleague in the studio makes any comment on the... let's say... unusual nature of the County Executive's response.

3) Does this interview remind anyone other than me of Stephen Colbert's "Better Know a District" bits (except this time, it's the interviewer getting punked)?

I've never had reason to doubt anything I've seen or read on a Ragan site before. But this? I just can't imagine it's real. Let me know what you think!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Imperial Tobacco’s smokescreen

A Canadian Medical Association Journal article published yesterday by Dr. David Hammond and a team of researchers at The University of Waterloo has unleashed a bad PR story that’s been decades in the making: Imperial Tobacco Canada’s alleged destruction of millions of pages of scientific studies, conducted between 1967 and 1984, which concluded that smoking is detrimental to our health.

According to the Globe and Mail,
"The tobacco industry did not make the findings public, instead denying for decades the effects of smoking. As the review notes, Jean-Louis Mercier, the chairman of Imperial Tobacco Canada, testified at a House of Commons legislative committee in 1987: "It is not the position of the industry that tobacco causes any disease. ... The role, if any, that tobacco or smoking plays in the initiation and the development of these diseases is still very uncertain.""

The Canadian Press reports that the files on the 60 studies were destroyed in Canada in 1992, on the direction of Imperial Tobacco’s head office in the U.K. – but that the information remained on file in the corporate headquarters. The CP also points out that the internal code-name for the buried research projects was “Janus” – a reference to the two-faced god of Roman mythology.

The tobacco industry has long had a tough row to hoe, PR-wise. While its product is legal, it’s known to be dangerous to tobacco customers – and to those who share the air they breathe (not to mention everyone else who pays for and relies on an overtaxed medical system). Collectively, the industry spends billions on lobbyists who work to keep government regulation as friendly to their business as possible (as do many other industries), and on initiatives that position the tobacco companies as good corporate citizens.

I attended a presentation on stakeholder engagement by John Clayton, Vice-President of Corporate Affairs at Imperial Tobacco Canada, at the CPRS National Conference in Halifax last year. Clayton spoke earnestly about the challenges of communicating on behalf of a tobacco company, and deftly managed emotional opposition from some members of the conference crowd – leaving his audience with the overall impression that, while Imperial acknowledges that there are health risks associated with smoking, the company is committed to helping minimize those risks, while continuing to provide its customers with the legal product they want.

As much as I hated to admit it, the argument was reasonable; as long as the government allows the sale of a product, why shouldn’t someone sell it?

Now, however, Imperial may be running out of arguments. We can't hold a company accountable for decisions it makes (and products it sells) in good faith. But if this week’s reports are true, this is a textbook example of bad faith: the company not only sells a dangerous product, but it knowingly hid evidence that proved it and willingly misled its publics for decades, putting profit before people's lives.

If any of Imperial's goodwill relied on its ability to convince its publics that it’s open about the health effects of smoking and committed to looking out for its customers’ interests, it may now be heading back to the drawing board. The Globe and Mail story indicated that an Imperial spokesperson didn't return calls for the story; I'll be interested to see how the company positions itself.

Regardless, though, Imperial and its peers are lucky that their product has its own built-in relationship-builder – more effective than any stakeholder engagement strategy – that will keep customers coming back, and pressuring their governments to keep it legal. Nicotine.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Wendy's founder Dave Thomas
(photo: Wendy's International)

Earlier this week, Wendy’s International and its PR firm, Ketchum Inc., reportedly gave The Wall Street Journal (“WSJ”) “the exclusive” on the fast-food chain’s new marketing campaign.

The WSJ’s story with all the details appeared on Thursday, a day ahead of Wendy’s official campaign launch on Friday; as PR Daily pointed out, however, The New York Times (“NYT”) was on to the story on Wednesday, but was unable to get Wendy’s to comment. In its “Media Decoder” blog Wednesday evening, the NYT outed the campaign and the PR launch strategy:

"Wendy’s declined to discuss the campaign because executives at the company and at the Ketchum unit of the Omnicom Group, the outside public relations agency for Wendy’s, arranged to give the story exclusively in advance to The Wall Street Journal."
There are many reasons for which an organization might choose to give one particular media outlet an “exclusive” on a story.

Granting an exclusive can be a way of attempting to ensure either a minimum amount of coverage, or early coverage from a certain perspective: for example, you might choose to give a particular story to a certain reporter or media outlet ahead of all others, because you anticipate the resulting coverage could reflect well on your organization, and you want coverage that follows it to reflect the same positive image. Or, you might give a reporter an exclusive story as a relationship builder. Other times, it might be because the journalist or outlet was on to the story anyway, and agreed to hold off on reporting it until the organization was ready, in exchange for the assurance they could break the story.

Granting exclusives can have a number of advantages for the PR pro – but it has to be done carefully. While the media outlet receiving the exclusive will likely view the transaction positively, not everyone else will; so the PR pro must weigh the short-term value of giving the story to one media outlet against the potential for burned bridges or soured relationships with others.

If you Google “Wendy’s real campaign,” you’ll find the WSJ story, the NYT’s Media Decoder blog entry, and a number of stories in smaller market publications – the story never appears to have made it into any of the other top US newspapers post-announcement.

Did Wendy’s burn its chances of coverage in USA Today, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and others by giving the exclusive to the WSJ? It’s possible, given that one of the NYT’s reporters must have been interested enough to call Wendy’s on Wednesday, looking for the story.

Or maybe, on the other hand, Wendy’s and Ketchum correctly predicted the story wouldn’t attract much ink at the level of the major papers, so threw in the appeal of an exclusive to get the WSJ to bite. It’s tough to say.

Related notes:

If you’re interested in seeing Wendy’s new commercials, you can see one here, on the company’s website. And for an interesting look behind-the-scenes at a major company’s branding and marketing strategy, check out Brandweek’s “Why ‘Freshness’ is Wendy’s New Marketing Ingredient.”

Friday, October 2, 2009

Damage Control 101 - with your instructor, David Letterman

David Letterman “gets it”.

On his show last night, David Letterman admitted to having been unfaithful to his spouse with a woman who had worked for him.

Newsworthy? Likely for some. But the way he handled it turned the story on its head – and proved why it’s good PR to get out in front of a negative story.

As Letterman alleges in the video below, he was being blackmailed by someone who demanded $2 million in exchange for not going public with the proof of Letterman’s affairs. Letterman had two choices:

1) Pay the money in the hopes of keeping the embarrassing news quiet – though there’s no guarantee the blackmailer wouldn’t come forward anyway.

2) Turn the tables on the blackmailer, and out the story himself.

He chose the second option, involving legal authorities to set up a sting and get the guy arrested in the process. [Note: unfortunately, the videos I had found on YouTube showing the full segment have been taken down. Will get a new one up as soon as I can find one.]

Is this embarrassing information? Yes. Does it make me think he’s a great guy? No. But he really did have sex with staffers – so he brought this on himself.

What he did with the issue from there, though, was textbook PR: he was the first to get the information out, and that gave him some control of the story. As a result, instead of all this morning's headlines reading “Staffer reveals Letterman cheats on wife,” or “Letterman has sex with employees,” headlines include:

"Letterman Reveals Extortion Attempt"

“Letterman says he was victim of extortion attempt”

“Letterman reveals affairs, $2 million extortion plot"

"David Letterman: Affairs led to extortion plot"

"David Letterman Reveals Extortion Plot and Confesses to Sex With Staffers"

Good PR doesn’t try to convince you that a bad thing is actually good – but, as Letterman showed us last night, it does help to mitigate the damage.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

PR battle in Greenwich Village

There's a great story on the The New York Times' City Room blog today about a PR battle being waged between The Jane Hotel, on Greenwich Village's Jane Street, and its residential neighbours.

Residents of the street are irritated by the loud music and the rowdy behaviour of the hotel's night club patrons well into the night, and they're using PR to instigate change. According to the Times story, their coalition, "Jane Street Neighbours United", has established a blog called "Nightmare on Jane Street," has aTwitter feed documenting the troubles, and has hired veteran PR consultant Ken Frydman of Source Communications to develop a media strategy to help them. According to the Times blog:

"Mr. Frydman has looked after big, blue-chip clients like Pfizer and BMW, worked for The Daily News and served as Rudy Giuliani’s press secretary during his 1993 mayoral campaign, according to his profile on the Source Communications Web site.

He was retained a month ago and thinks a good media campaign is essential for opposing a bar. It attracts the attention of the local community board and government,” Mr. Frydman said by phone.

While he refused to discuss strategy in the coming weeks, he did say he “had a hand” in some of the negative coverage of the Jane in recent days.

“It seems to me that the neighbors know what they are doing and I could take some pointers from them,” Marilyn Dorato, director of the Greenwich Village Block Associations, wrote in an e-mail message.

Mrs. Dorato advised residents who succeeded in getting another nearby hot spot, the Beatrice Inn, closed down this year and lobbied against the Waverly Inn until her neighbor, the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, bought it and quieted it down. She said she is not directly involved in the battle but is following events on Jane Street with interest. When asked whether it made sense to hire a P.R. company, she responded: “Why do you ask that question? Is there a down side to hiring P.R.?”"


We'll be talking about the influence of PR on public opinion -- and the influence of public opinion on government and business -- later this semester in my first-year PR classes. This will make a great real-time case study.

Monday, September 28, 2009

On recovery, rehabilitation and redemption

My last post on public image rehabilitation following moral lapses has had me thinking about Michael Richards’ quest to restore his name after a racist outburst at a comedy club in 2006.

Michael Richards played Kramer on Seinfeld for its entire run from 1990 to 1998, and was a key element of the ensemble show’s enormous appeal. The show, which its producers and stars insisted was “about nothing,” was nevertheless able to ridicule appalling social realities ranging from racism to homophobia, using a light but intelligent, comfortable, comedic environment.

That enlightened wit is part of what set Seinfeld apart from its peers, and what made Michael Richards’ racist tirade against a couple of comedy club hecklers particularly upsetting to some of his fans.

The cellphone video of Richards’ outburst was played ad nauseam in the days and weeks after it happened. I’m not posting it here; you can find it on YouTube if you’d like. What interests me from a PR perspective, though, is whether Richards has, in the three years since the incident, been able to live it down. Will his fans put it behind them when he joins the cast of Seinfeld for a reunion on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm this season?

Richards would appear to have done all the right things:

1) He quickly and (apparently, anyway) sincerely apologized for the outburst.

2) He did a number of appearances and interviews related to opening a dialogue about racism, notably Jesse Jackson’s syndicated radio program, Keep Hope Alive.

3) He disappeared for a while, presumably in the hopes of giving American audiences a chance to remember his decade of brilliant work more prominently than one evening’s outburst. (He may have had some help with this one – I’m not sure the offers continued to pour in in the immediate aftermath.)

But will it be enough?

When politicians are able to come back from sex scandals, I think it’s because their audiences accept their apologies, and consciously decide to accept that their politicians are capable of poor personal judgment. I think they also consciously decide that poor personal judgment has a limited impact on professional decisions – or, “he/she’s not perfect, but I can accept these flaws because they’re not related to what I need him/her to do for me.”

When celebrities spew hate speech, it can be more difficult to separate the personal behaviour from the job they do; their job is to entertain us, and it can be harder to be entertained by someone you think is a jerk.

With the Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm this season, it'll be interesting to see whether audiences are able to get past Michael Richards' one terrible night – or at least, believe that’s all it was. As Extra reported, Larry David, creator of both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, indicated that even three years later, Richards wanted to address the issue on the show:

"He wanted to," David explained when asked if Richards felt comfortable addressing the drama onscreen. "He made a terrible mistake." David added that Richards deserves a second chance after being shunned in Tinseltown the past three years."

Is racism a tarnish that can be polished away over time? We'll see.

Friday, September 25, 2009

John Edwards: the redemption clock may have to be re-set... again

Politico has an interesting story today about politicians’ return to public life following scandals. The article reiterates conventional wisdom about the best way to communicate a politician's bad behaviour: get the story out – all of it – honestly and quickly; and then have them disappear for a while. It's an approach that relies both on Americans' willingness to forgive, and on their confidence that the wrongdoer has come clean, having recognized his/her actions were wrong. As Politico points out, it’s a strategy employed by politicians of all stripes:

"On Tuesday, former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned less than three years ago following a scandal involving a congressional page, debuted as a radio talk show host on Florida’s WSVU-AM. Congressional Quarterly reported: “Mark Foley Leaves Door Open for a Run.”

Former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) — just a few weeks out of jail after serving seven years in federal prison for racketeering, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion — told Fox News host Greta Van Susteren that there’s a “50-50 chance” that he may run again for Congress.

Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who still faces federal corruption charges despite his pleas of innocence, told The New Yorker that he’s “not ruling myself out or writing myself off as getting back in the business of serving the public.”

All of which comes in the wake of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s return to the public eye. Spitzer, who stepped down in March 2008 following a sex scandal, is a regular commentator on MSNBC and writes for Slate. In political circles, hardly a day goes by without someone pondering Spitzer’s aspirations."

Edwards’ refusal to admit to the allegations against him drew out the negative media coverage and public attention to his failings (see my earlier blog on that topic here). And to dredge it all up yet again, as The New York Times pointed out earlier this week, a grand jury investigation is currently underway (with a decision expected relatively shortly) as to whether there was any criminal wrongdoing in Edwards’ efforts to cover up the affair.

So while these other fellows may be able to begin planning to their respective returns to public life, Edwards has a ways to go.

You can't put it behind you until it's actually over.

One of the key requirements for moving on after a scandal is that the scandal has to be over. PR professionals advise their clients to get all the embarrassing details out right away, in part, because doing so ultimately deprives the media of fresh “news” on the topic. A lack of new angles can shorten the “legs” (or ongoing newsworthiness) of a story.

Edwards made his ultimate downfall far messier than it had to be, by lying to the media and allegedly spending a great deal of time, energy and money covering up his affair. The story dragged on and on as the media dogged him and his lover, documenting mounting evidence that his denials were false. Only when he finally came out and admitted to the affair did Edwards put an end to most of the speculation – and the daily media coverage.

You might think that having admitted to the mess didn’t help Edwards' PR much – but at least we stopped talking about it for a while.

And even then...

The grand jury investigation is news, so we likely would have been talking about the story again about now, anyway. However, if the Times’ report that Edwards may publicly acknowledge that he fathered his lover’s baby is true – constituting a full reversal of all his previous statements on the matter – he’ll be back at square one in the court of public opinion.

If that's the case, he'll have to re-set the clock on redemption yet again – and you have to wonder whether he'll ever be able to salvage his credibility. Yes, he may get whatever bad news remains out with the inevitable grand jury coverage, but his publics will nevertheless be faced with the reality of yet another lie.

How many times can you go back to the American people asking forgiveness for dishonesty, and still be believed? Edwards may be just the man to find out.

Friday, September 18, 2009

VisitDenmark: when your ads cause bad PR

Advertising folks have it tough, having, as they often do, to find the line between "edgy and new" and "offensive." This is especially true when their clients' audiences are wide-ranging, and collectively have a broad definition of what's acceptable.

I can remember many a time in my corporate career when I engaged in spirited debate with my ad department colleagues over proposed campaigns I knew were going to offend people in our target markets. They usually fell into the "humour" category; that is, they would have been very funny to some people in our market, and offensive to others. The fact that more people would likely be entertained than offended by them was irrelevant, from a PR perspective: the proposed ads were disrespectful of certain groups, so I knew the inevitable complaints would have news value.

In Denmark last week, the national tourism authority got a little taste of what happens when "edgy" ads cause bad PR.

The Danish tourism department, VisitDenmark, had to pull a video it had posted to YouTube less than a week earlier, following outrage among Danish citizens about the image of Denmark the video portrayed. In the video, an attractive young woman speaks to an anonymous man with whom she had a fling a year and a half ago, remembering fondly the Danish attractions they enjoyed, and letting him know their evening together had produced a beautiful son.

The video became a quick sensation on YouTube, reportedly attracting 800,000 hits in the few days it was posted (likely because it wasn't clear the whole thing was staged). Once it became known that VisitDenmark was behind the video, however, the news quickly turned to Danes' insulted reaction.

As The Huffington Post reports, VisitDenmark manager Dorte Kiilerich explained the ad was meant to tell "a nice and sweet story about a grown-up woman who lives in a free society and accepts the consequences of her actions." A sociologist quoted in the same article had a different take on it, echoing the perception that embarrassed and outraged some Danes: "you can lure fast, blonde Danish women home without a condom."

VisitDenmark is affiliated with the Danish government; and in this case, it appears its communicators forgot about one of their client's key audiences: the Danish people. This is a key issue that presents a struggle for many organizations: reconciling the needs, tastes and expectations of different audiences. The ad team may have been focusing on the target audience for the spot -- that is, non-Danes with the potential to travel there -- and forgotten its client's most important audience (the taxpayers of Denmark).

While Denmark is known to be a liberal country, it appears the ad team misjudged the public's tolerance level for casual sex; accepting a certain behaviour in your society is one thing, and being characterized and identified by that behaviour is quite another. It might even be true that opposition to the campaign came from a relatively small segment of the population -- but it doesn't matter, because the news value of a government-supported international message suggesting Danes are promiscuous is clear.

In advertising and PR alike, it's important to really know your audiences. The better you're able to predict their reactions to issues and situations, the more likely you'll be to create messages they find compelling -- and to avoid ticking them off.

It's Follow Friday!

Get Twitter Buttons

There's a tradition in the Twitter community (doesn't it sound odd to say "tradition" about something so relatively young?) in which, every Friday, users share their recommendations for interesting people/organizations to "follow;" it's called "Follow Friday". I've found some great resources through Follow Friday recommendations, so thought I'd provide my PR-related recommendations here, in case you aren't using Twitter but might if you could see its potential first-hand.

So... here's my PR-specific top five Follow Friday list (in alphabetical order):

@ereleases - Twitter feed from Mickey Kennedy, Baltimore-based writer of the PR Fuel blog; he provides great links to PR-related stories and resources as well as original articles of interest.

@KarenRussell - Karen Russell is a PR professor at the University of Georgia, and Editor of Journal of Public Relations Research. She regularly provides links to items of interest in both mainstream and social media; on her blog, she provides a weekly list of the most interesting PR-related items she's seen on the Web.

@mashable - Mashable is often cited as a leading authority on all things "social media;" the site's Twitter profile is managed by its CEO, Pete Cashmore. It provides timely updates on social media issues and news.

@PRSarahEvans - Sarah Evans is a Chicago-based PR consultant; she provides great PR-related links and generates excellent discussion between PR-types and journalist-types through Twitter.

@publicityguru - written by Bill Stoller, PR veteran and editor/founder of the "Free Publicity Newsletter." He provides interesting links to PR (often, publicity) in the news.

And then, of course, there's always me.

See you in the Twitterverse!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

There is no such thing as “off the record”

President Obama has provided us with another “teachable moment.”

Just before an interview with CNBC yesterday, the President was chatting informally with the various broadcasters, technicians, PR people and other assorted handlers on set, and was asked his thoughts on Kanye West’s stunt during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards.

Said the President, “I thought that was really inappropriate… The young lady seems like a perfectly nice person, she’s getting her award… what’s HE doing up there? He’s a jackass.”

Immediately following the jackass comment, Obama jokes “where’s the pool?” referring to the pool microphones (assumedly the very microphones which recorded the clip now playing on TMZ), and then asks the assembled group to “cut the President some slack” – in other words, “this is off the record, don’t share it.”

The whole exchange is very casual, and while I'm sure he'd have preferred the recording not get out, I highly doubt the President will suffer much PR damage as a result of its release. (Frankly, I suspect a large majority of American voters agrees with him.) While not all that "presidential" sounding, the statement didn't betray any national secrets.

Some seasoned PR people have relationships developed with certain journalists over time, which give them the confidence they can provide information off-the-record and have it kept that way; they have to accept, though, that they are taking a risk every time they do it. While this example involves an off-hand remark as opposed to strategically leaked information, the lesson is the same: the only way you can guarantee you won’t be quoted saying something is not to say it.

Sometimes, though, PR professionals feel their clients would be well-served if certain information was made public, even though it might not be politically or otherwise expedient for them to release it under their own (or their client's) name. In those cases, and if they feel they have a strong enough relationship with a journalist that they can be fairly certain their anonymity will be protected, they'll elect to provide information off-the-record.

Off-the-record agreements, when they must happen, should be negotiated in advance; the PR professional should ask for the journalist’s assurance of confidentiality before providing the sensitive information. It isn’t fair to a journalist to provide tantalizing information without their having agreed to keep it anonymous, and then expect them to do so. Their job is to report on what they find; you can't give them something and then half take it back. (Also, in that case, they have no obligation whatsoever to keep it confidential; so if you want to risk going off-the-record, make sure to get the journalist's agreement first.)

Obama's comment wasn't included in the CNBC interview, but it was published on Twitter by ABC’s Terry Moran, according to a story on last night. While Moran’s tweet was taken down soon after having been posted, the fact that Moran has more than a million followers on Twitter allowed it to reach many eyes before it was taken down.

POLITICO’s story provides an explanation and apology from ABC as follows:

In the process of reporting on remarks by President Obama that were made during a CNBC interview, ABC News employees prematurely tweeted a portion of those remarks that turned out to be from an off-the-record portion of the interview. This was done before our editorial process had been completed. That was wrong. We apologize to the White House and CNBC and are taking steps to ensure that it will not happen again.

So. If you don’t want to be quoted saying something, don’t say it.

On the topic of good PR, toward the end of the recording you can hear someone in the background joking about having a fly queued up for release at a certain point in the interview (a reference to an earlier unscripted Obama moment that earned lots of mostly positive attention, which I blogged about here) – and asking whether he has his chopsticks ready.

Wax on, wax off.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Johnny Mac school of image rehabilitation?

We talked in class this morning about disgraced NFL star Michael Vick’s speaking engagement at a Philadelphia high school, at which he warned students against falling victim to peer pressure. When you’ve been jailed for illegal dogfighting, the path to redemption is uphill – but it has to begin somewhere, and it would appear that Vick is working on it.

As Vick’s imprisonment illustrates, pro athletes don’t necessarily get free passes for bad behaviour. They have to pay the legal price, and they have to do penance with their fans, too. The length of the penance depends on the sport’s audience and the athlete’s reputation before the incident; a “bad boy” playing in a rough sport like football might get more slack than, say, a top performer in the gentlemanly sport of tennis.

A tale of two Johnnies

Tennis’ best-known “bad boy,” John McEnroe, knows what it’s like to be vilified and admired at the same time. A fixture of the pro tennis circuit of the 1970s and 1980s, McEnroe thrilled fans with his brilliant play and his unpredictable antics, and embarrassed line judges, chair umpires, and tournament directors along the way. He served as a polarizing figure in tennis – and whether fans found his tirades entertaining or shameful, he generated a lot of interest in what had previously been considered a rather staid sport.

There are many McEnroe tantrum videos available on YouTube; I’m posting this one for old times’ sake, because it contains that iconic line which, incidentally, he used as the title of his 2002 autobiography.

Over the years, McEnroe says, parenthood has mellowed him; and he has re-habilitated his image to a great degree. He has been actively involved with charity work for a number of organizations, and – perhaps most importantly from a public perception point of view – he has made it clear that he recognizes his on-court tirades were inappropriate. He has made ads (like the one below), endorsements (for example, the "Visine Mac Cam" which was used at pro tournaments to second-guess line calls), and at least one feature film appearance (in Adam Sandler's Mr. Deeds) playing on his “bad boy” behaviour, all of which serve to gently ridicule it. The resulting perception: John McEnroe can laugh at himself; he must be a good guy.

Yesterday’s villain, today’s hero?

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, the fourth-highest ranked tennis player in the world today, is known for his uncanny imitations of his fellow pro tour players. The players have been polite about Djokovic’s imitations, which delight audiences – it's all in good fun, right? But when Djokovic had some trouble taking some ribbing from Andy Roddick about his multiple calls for trainers during last year’s U.S. Open in New York, his “fun guy” image took a bit of a beating.

Djokovic became the guy who can dish it out but can't take it, and has worn the mantle of “bad sport” ever since.

Fast forward to this week, and the early rounds of the 2009 U.S. Open. During his on-court interview after a win, Djokovic kissed up to the crowd, and then challenged John McEnroe, now a well-respected commentator for ESPN, to come down to Centre Court and hit with him. The crowd went wild, and as McEnroe made his way down from the broadcast booth, interviewer Darren Cahill asked Djokovic to do his best McEnroe imitation – which he did, to the crowd’s delight.

Earlier in the evening, the announcers had discussed the need for Djokovic to shake off that "poor sport" rap. Given that chatter, the unusual length of the post-match on-court interview, the ready involvement of McEnroe (who has a special empathy for young guys whose mouths get them in trouble), and the unexpected opportunity for the crowd to see Djokovic laugh at McEnroe’s imitation of him, I had to wonder whether the whole thing had been set up in advance... and whether McEnroe was behind it.

If not, that was some truly great unplanned PR.