Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why don’t PR people always answer questions immediately?

A reporter friend once told me this joke:

Q: How many PR people does it take to change a light bulb?

A: I don’t have all the facts at the moment; let me check into it and get back to you.

Yeah, it’s funny, because it’s true. But not for the reasons journalists sometimes think.

I once interviewed a newspaper reporter who wanted a PR job I had advertised. During the interview, he said something like: “And don’t worry, I know how it works. When a reporter calls, you put the message to the side and work on everything else first.”

His purpose in saying this was to reassure me that he wouldn’t put the media first just because that’s where he’d come from. But instead, it served to underline how little he knew about what goes into responding to a media call.

When a reporter asks a question, (s)he knows where (s)he is coming from, knows the basis for the question, and has a certain amount of background information on which (s)he has based the question. It’s entirely possible the reporter has spoken with others on the story, and has been given a number of different perspectives on the question, each of which comes informed by a bias of some kind.

But when the reporter’s question comes to the PR professional (especially when it isn’t expected), the PR professional doesn’t necessarily have the benefit of all that information. So (s)he has two choices: answer the question based on what (s)he may know on the spot, or take some time (taking the reporter’s deadline into account) to gather some information and ensure his/her answer is based on the most up-to-date facts. Yes, that takes time – sometimes only a matter of minutes – but it’s time well spent, and most reporters understand it’s a worthwhile investment in an accurate story.

Case in point: President Obama vs. Cambridge police

This evening, President Obama will reportedly share a beer and (hopefully) a laugh with Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the White House, in an effort to clear the air after Obama’s “unfortunate” comments about Gates’ arrest in his own home in Cambridge last week. (I put “unfortunate” in quotation marks, because that’s the word Obama used to characterize his own comments; I might have chosen “ill-informed” or “poorly-considered,” but that’s another blog post.)

Don’t get me wrong – I think very highly of President Obama as a communicator. But he's not immune to making mistakes, which he did by answering a question about something he didn’t know enough about, and using inflammatory language that made the issue worse.

Here is the initial out-of the-blue question, and Obama’s answer, on Gates’ arrest.

Obama knew of the incident and obviously felt that prefacing his comments with “I don’t know all the facts” would cover him in case he had any of the details wrong; but as the ensuing fallout demonstrated, it didn’t. It would seem that Obama was confusing two different charges: breaking and entering (the suspicion of which prompted the 911 call in the first place, but with which Prof. Gates was never charged) and disorderly conduct (for which charges were reportedly laid and later dropped).

The issue of whether Gates was indeed the homeowner was irrelevant to the charge of disorderly conduct – to be able to judge whether that charge had been warranted, you’d have had to have known what happened between Prof. Gates and the police officers at his home. published the (alleged) Cambridge police reports of the incident here.

Obama’s statement that “I think it’s fair to say… the Cambridge police acted stupidly” ratcheted up the media heat on the issue, so much so that the President had to clarify his intended message, sort of.

(I say “sort of,” because to me, at least, the message behind “I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently” isn’t quite right. Saying “it’s clear” that someone “acted stupidly” is more than giving an impression.)

At any rate, this was a “teachable moment.” Obama recognized his “choice of words didn’t illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy.” Had he had all the facts, he very likely would have chosen words other than “stupid” – and he may have “calibrated” his message to sound more like it did in the second clip, after he’d been fully informed of what had happened.

We’ve all misunderstood a situation on first hearing, only to see it differently once we’ve had a chance to get better informed; unfortunately, Obama created further problems by answering before getting better informed.

So, what should he have done when asked the initial question?

I don’t have all the facts at the moment; let me check into it and get back to you.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Need some publicity stunt inspiration?

Today I caught Trendhunter’s "Top 10 publicity stunts" thanks to a link on Twitter:

While there are some great ones there, I immediately thought of others that might be worthy of the list. So I did a quick Google search to find out how many other publicity stunt ranking lists might be out there – and found there’s one for just about every industry.

So if you’re needing some inspiration – or some cautionary tales! – check these out.


"Top 10 Successful Marketing Stunts"

Celebrities and Entertainment:

"The 10 most shameless celebrity publicity stunts"

"The 10 greatest pop music publicity stunts"

"Blood, elephants and naked cyclists: 10 Cannes movie publicity stunts"

"Weirdest movie publicity stunts"

"Worst gaming publicity stunts ever"


"Baseball’s Top-10 Minor League Publicity Stunts"

And, as we discussed in PR class at Red River College this past year, you can’t have a conversation about publicity stunts without People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Say what you will about their tactics – they do get people talking.

"PETA’s ten worst – actually, make that the best – publicity stunts"

Remember a stunt you think should be in the top 10? Put it in the comments, below!

Update (5 August): here's one more, from Yahoo! Finance: "10 Promotional Stunts That Horribly Backfired"

Monday, July 27, 2009

Another PR lesson from Nike: don’t put yourself in the penalty box

Last week, we thought the story about the dunk heard (but not immediately seen) ‘round the world was finally over.

But it wasn’t – because one of the parties most (presumably) embarrassed by it, sportswear and equipment giant Nike, decided to volunteer for one more media lashing.

Some quick background: on July 6th, Xavier University sophomore Jordan Crawford “dunked on” NBA MVP LeBron James at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, Nike officials confiscated video footage (both James and the Skills Academy are sponsored by Nike) from two witnesses who were videotaping the pick-up game. There are conflicting reports as to what prompted that:

- some reports (including this one from ESPN) suggest that James instructed Nike officials to seize the tapes;
- others repeat Nike’s statement that it took the videos because they contravened its media policy.

Either way, it wasn’t Nike's greatest PR move. It made James look petty and vain, and made Nike’s PR machine look a little tone-deaf, if not behind-the-times: in this age of automatic uploads to YouTube, did Nike really think there wasn't at least one more video in the crowd? I'm frankly amazed we haven't seen video of the Nike officials taking the tapes.

Whereas the dunk provided a great opportunity polish James’ reputation as a sportsman, had he chosen to congratulate the student player on a nice dunk, the appearance of trying to sweep it under the rug created a PR problem that had mainstream media and bloggers alike gossiping about it for days.

Then, on July 22nd, the inevitable happened, and two more (unauthorized and, we have to assume, unknown to James and Nike) videos of the dunk came to light. Along with the highly-anticipated videos came a new round of mainstream media and web coverage, as everyone checked out the dunk and waded in as to its relative quality… as well as how badly the whole affair had reflected on LeBron James and Nike.

So… phew. It was finally over, and both LeBron and Nike could go back to what they do best, leaving this embarrassing little incident behind them.

But not quite.

This past Friday, Nike announced it was going to return the confiscated videos of the dunk to their owners.

A former boss of mine used to warn us against “putting ourselves in the penalty box” – that is, proactively doing things that would bring us bad PR. If you’re dealing with an issue that isn’t reflecting well on your organization, get rid of it – all of it – as quickly as you can, and move on. It’s not that different from the rules for getting out bad news, as I discussed in an earlier post about John Edwards’s extra-marital affair: tell the truth, tell it first, and tell it all. That approach will feed far fewer media stories than a drip, drip, drip approach, in which new details spawn new rounds of media coverage, speculation, and general discussion of how you’ve messed up over and over again.

Of course, I don’t know the background on Nike’s decision here – maybe I’m missing something. But surely if they planned to give the tapes back, or if there was even any latitude for them to give the tapes back, they could have done it two days earlier, when the other two unauthorized videos came out. That would have made the return of the videos a footnote in all the excitement about the dunk footage – as opposed to the catalyst for another round of media coverage of this less-than-shining moment in Nike's expensive sponsorship of LeBron James.

For the sake of posterity, here’s the dunk (from, not the Nike-confiscated video, which I haven’t yet found on YouTube). It comes about 35 seconds in, and is repeated in slow-mo around the 1:00 mark.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nursing moms vs. Facebook

Starting August 1st, the “Mother’s International Lactation Campaign” (MILC) is having a virtual “nurse-in” to protest Facebook’s removal of certain users’ breastfeeding photos from its site. The week-long “nurse-in” will run until August 7th, in conjunction with World Breastfeeding Week.

This won’t be the first time online “lactivists” use Facebook’s social media platform to protest the site’s own Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

In response to growing anger over Facebook’s selective deletion of breastfeeding photos due to “nudity,” MILC organized the first Facebook “nurse-in” in late December 2008. It was easy to participate: all participants had to do was change their Facebook profile picture to one of a baby or an animal being breast-fed, and change their status update to “Hey Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!” for one day (December 27, 2008).

The campaign got people talking. According to MILC’s Facebook page, more than 11,500 people participated, and the event drew media attention from outlets ranging from Time to CNN.

Since then, membership in the “Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!” group has grown to nearly a quarter of a million members.

For next week’s “nurse-in,” supporters are again being asked to change their profile pictures and status updates, to send a collective message to Facebook management that breastfeeding pictures should not be considered obscene – and should all be allowed to be posted on Facebook.

For Facebook, a complicated issue

As this story has gained momentum, Facebook has remained consistent in its position: the company publicly endorses breastfeeding, and allows thousands of breastfeeding photos which conform to its rules for photography (specifically, photos showing women’s breasts on the site cannot show the nipple or areola, according to MSNBC). But it reserves the right to remove photos which don’t follow its terms, in the interests of keeping the site a “safe, secure and trusted environment for all users, including the many children (over the age of 13) who use the site,” according to Facebook spokesman Simon Axten in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

Frankly, Facebook is in a tough spot here. If Facebook’s position is that full breast shots are inappropriate for teenagers who are allowed to use the site, the context of the shot is arguably irrelevant. Nursing Moms aren't Facebook's only stakeholder audience, and the company has to balance competing interests as best it can.

There’s a valid case to be made about the difference between a pornographic image and a picture of a baby whose head doesn’t completely cover his mother’s nipple – but I can also see why Facebook might be wary of allowing interpretation of its rules. In addition to undermining its position on what constitutes "nudity," opening the door on something like this can open other cans of worms; it's much easier to identify "nipple" than it is to identify "pornography." If you ban the first, you automatically catch the second (in breast shots, at least). If you don't, there are lots of people out there who'll be ready to argue "pornography" vs. "art" – a debate I'm sure Facebook would rather avoid.

Given the power of the Facebook platform to bring thousands of people together and mobilize them to act, there would seem to be a good fit for working together toward a larger objective, rather than arguing over something as relatively small as a handful of deleted pictures. In the PR game, we strive for two-way symmetrical communication – when two sides listen to each other, and make decisions that will be mutually beneficial. But while two-way symmetrical communication is the ideal, it’s not always easy to achieve: both sides have to be willing to compromise, and make concessions for the greater good.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out next week.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

“Twitter and Facebook are both fads”

Social media: the next Rubik's Cube?

Martin Cash has a story in this morning’s Winnipeg Free Press about how businesses like Inn at the Forks are using social media (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) to market their products online. In the article, “Social networking = successful marketing,” Cash also quotes Kyle Romaniuk, Creative Director and Principal at Winnipeg’s Cocoon Branding and Neil Patel from Webidiotz, a Winnipeg web design and marketing firm, on the value – and necessity – of a social media component in any marketing campaign today.

I thought Cash did a great job of explaining the phenomenon for small business owners who still might not see social media's potential to help connect sellers with buyers. What I found just as interesting, though, was a comment a reader had posted at the bottom of the article on the Free Press website:

Twitter and Facebook are both fads and by the time businesses get on board there will be replacements. Ask anyone how their MySpace advertising is going. MySpace started in Aug 03, became the most popular social networking website in 06, in 08 Facebook became the most popular (and MySpace had to lay off 30% of their workforce).

This commenter echoes opinions I’ve often heard from people who don’t use social media sites. While I suspect this opinion comes from not understanding how these technologies work, it continues to surprise me – and more so as these tools become ubiquitous.

Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook (and yes, MySpace) allow organizations to connect with people “out there” who share interests. Their value for marketers is that they can identify potential customers or supporters in the noisy marketplace based on what they say and do online, and target messages containing information likely to be of interest to those potential "leads".

As we discussed in first-year PR this past year, if you wanted to market a new brand of knitting needles before social media, you pitched your story to “hobby” media, and there were relatively few options for targeted advertising. I mean, you could buy an ad in a knitting magazine – but what percentage of knitters buys knitting magazines? And of those who do, how many buy every issue, and are likely to see the ad you paid good money for?

Of course, there were other things you could do to market your new knitting needles, from running contests for knitters to sponsoring knitting events to putting up posters in community centres where knitting clubs meet. But these were all relatively time-intensive, expensive endeavours, especially if your tarket market was geographically dispersed.

Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter allow you to find your target markets where they like to hang out online, and just as importantly from a marketing perspective, where they like to share information with each other – for example, in Facebook groups and using Twitter hashtags (e.g. #knitting). As Cash’s article points out, it’s a relatively inexpensive endeavour, it doesn’t necessarily require a major time investment – and it delivers audiences who might never have heard your messages otherwise. Getting “on board” takes very little time or investment; all it requires is an Internet connection (or even proximity to a library offering public Internet access!) and some strategic thought.

Are Twitter and Facebook likely to be replaced by some shiny new thing down the line? Of course. Some might argue that the same thing has already happened to a degree to radio and many print newspapers. But as long as they have audiences, they continue to play a valuable role in marketing initiatives.

Marketing is about showing real, live people how your product will help them live better lives, in one way or another; social media give us the ability to zero in on the right people with the right messages.

While the platform may change as technology improves, the fundamental shift toward increasingly personalized marketing is no fad. Smart businesses will get on board before their competitors have made Facebook “friends” or Twitter “followers” of all their customers, leaving them wondering where everyone went.

Friday, July 17, 2009

In business, the CEO is Dad (or Mom)

Last week, ran a story called How Do You Control CEO Rage?, looking at the effects of a hot temper on a CEO’s ability to lead a company.

Certainly, many CEOs have a lot to deal with: it’s a job with “stress” written right into the job description. CEOs play the simultaneous roles of environmental forecaster, compliance officer, relationship builder, organizer, protector, mediator, negotiator, money manager, strategist, and – most stressful of all – chief decision-maker. It’s often a 24/7 gig; the opportunities and issues never sleep.

Sound a bit like parenthood?

In many ways, it is like parenthood. The CEO is the “Dad”* of a company – he wears the compliments and the complaints. In a traditional nuclear family, at least, he has a co-executive (Mom), employees (kids), and stakeholders (grandparents), all of whom have opinions on how things should be run. The buck stops with him, and everyone’s success rides on his shoulders. And if he can’t control his temper, it can be a problem: everyone in the family becomes nervous and has to spend time and energy worrying about when and where that temper will strike next.

Like kids who need Dad to keep it “together”, employees in an organization need to feel the CEO has things under control. That’s not to say he should misrepresent the truth if the organization is threatened in some way – in fact, just the opposite. Employees want to know what’s going on so they can feel engaged, and can see how, by doing their jobs, they are contributing to the company’s effort to address the threat. But just as importantly, employees need to know their leader is focused on getting them through the challenge – and is disciplined enough to do it.

When employees see or read in the media about their CEO losing his composure, it has a detrimental impact on organizational effectiveness. They begin to doubt the company’s direction, and have concerns about whether the CEO can really lead them to success. This leads to increased water-cooler and smoking-area chatter (and lost productivity), conjecture, rumours – and paranoia.

I worked for 10 years in the PR department of a telecom company that underwent more change during that time than it had in its previous 80+ year history. It was a decade of significant upheaval – and change, as we know, is another irritant to employee comfort and confidence. From having worked directly with him, I know this CEO dealt with very stressful issues and decisions over that period – but he never let the stress translate into an outburst of temper (or, at least, one that anyone saw!). He remained a steady, calming influence, and spoke clearly and candidly with employees about the challenges the company faced. As a result, they felt confident in his leadership, and productivity increased despite the challenging times.

In corporate leadership, like in parenthood, it’s important to keep temper under control. Sure, an outburst might motivate short-term performance, but in the long term, fear and nervousness don’t lead to high-performance employees – or kids.

* As a “Mom”, I hereby forgive myself for using “Dad” throughout this post to mean either parent – I choose “Dad” only because there are generally more male CEOs today than female.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Have you heard about the Nissan cube?

I hadn’t – that is, until a student sent me a link to a site maligning the campaign Nissan used to launch it in Canada (thanks Adam!). My first thought was "all I know about this car is that someone doesn’t like the way it was launched; I’ll bet that’s not what Nissan was going for."

So I Googled it – and was impressed. (I just hope Nissan read the market correctly, and that now’s the right time to target a car launch to a niche audience.)

As Nick Krewen tells it in an interesting article in Monday’s, Nissan launched the car in Canada in mid-March using an all-social media campaign: no television, radio, print, or outdoor advertising. The campaign was a contest aimed at younger, "creative" Canadians, to create an online submission about the new car and promote it using social media; the prize: one of 50 cubes to be given away. (It rings notes reminiscent of Tourism Queensland’s celebrated “Best Job in the World” campaign, which I blogged about last month.) The eventual 50 cube winners, announced a couple of weeks ago, were chosen from among 500 contest finalists. Here’s one of them:

While I’m lukewarm on using only social media for any mass-market consumer launch, this one appears to be the start of a larger integrated campaign. Nissan's "hypercube" website media page provides a lot of detail about the campaign, including the post-contest continuation of the campaign through winners' blogs, the impact of its community-building focus, and some measurement of campaign awareness.

In the States, the post-launch marketing campaign Nissan has been running combines new with traditional media, and it appears Nissan has taken a user-generated content approach to that, too. The company reportedly engaged communication students at 10 U.S. universities to conceive and run cube ad campaigns on their own campuses, competing for the chance to pitch their campaigns to Nissan executives. [Note to Nissan: if you're considering the same approach in Canada, start here! We have an excellent advertising and PR program at Red River College.] Nissan’s agency has integrated Web 2.0 elements into its traditional advertising, including a call-to-action to SMS Nissan for access to exclusive content including music, ringtones and video. The U.S. campaign reportedly also involves product placements ranging from a cube “cameo” on an episode of NBC’s Heroes to a role in a graphic novel on the NBC website devoted to the show, as well as a free iPhone game called “cube Party Roundup.”

There is almost always crossover between the U.S. and Canadian markets, and I would imagine the Canadian marketing strategy will take a similar combined new/traditional media approach. Either way, I’ll be interested to see how it translates into vehicle sales (the true test of the campaign's effectiveness, as long as the cube lives up to its billing and actually meets a market demand).

And what of the complaint site that initially brought this campaign to my attention? I don’t know whether there’s any merit to its claims, but it does illustrate a risk of any campaign these days: there’s always the possibility that someone complaining about your product will reach your potential customers before your own messaging does.

You make that risk even greater if you limit your own messaging to a niche audience – and yet further, if you go out of your way to engage the “creative” class, as Nissan openly discusses having done. Participants among the “creative” class are certainly likely to get attention for your product among their peers – but they’re also well-positioned to get attention for complaints about your organization.

I'll bet that, from Nissan’s perspective, the risk was worth it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Is bad PR the new advertising?

Advertising Age reported last week on the latest Burger King ad “gaffe” to get attention around the world: a print ad running in Spain which shows the Hindu goddess Lakshmi sitting astride a ham sandwich, with a caption saying “a snack that is sacred.” As writers Ken Wheaton and Emily Bryson York so aptly put it,

"You know, because nothing says "We respect your faith" like portraying a sacred figure of a mostly vegetarian religion sitting on top a quarter pound of charred flesh."

Followers of Burger King, of advertising, and of PR will likely remember other similar “oopsies” from Burger King in the relatively recent past. In April, the chain ran ads in Europe for a new “Texican” burger which featured a character wearing a Mexican flag as a cape (a serious no-no in Mexican culture).

And then there’s the “BK Seven Incher” print ad that suggested fellatio… and, as you might expect, got people talking (if you want to see it, Google it – my Dad reads this blog!).

The chain’s response to the ads that offended Hindus and Mexicans was to apologize, to say that no offense was intended, and to quickly pull the ads – which most would agree is the right thing to do, after your company has done the wrong thing to do.

But with a pattern of offend/apologize/get-lots-of-coverage emerging, industry observers are starting to call foul, suggesting Burger King is purposely running offensive ads for the benefit of the media coverage.

On his “Beyond Madison Avenue” blog, Dan Davis points out that

“Burger King reported a 1.6% increase in sales in May. So, despite the outlandish, offensive nature of the ad/apology campaign BK has run the past few months, its numbers are increasing. An established product, BK isn’t likely to attract copious amounts of new customers through trendiness. It can, however, absorb the consciousness of the consumer base and attract from there.”

So… is this really bad PR for Burger King? Or, by offending minority groups in the locations where it runs the objectionable ads, is the chain betting the majority will still act on a purchase impulse it hopes will come along with the free coverage?

We had a related debate in first-year PR last semester, around Billy Bob Thornton’s spoiled-brat performance on the CBC’s Q Show after host Jian Ghomeshi had the gall to mention that Thornton was a celebrated actor. (I haven’t seen any coverage impolite enough to suggest that had this band not included a movie star, it likely wouldn’t have gotten as much attention in the first place, but it certainly crossed my mind.)

For the first five minutes of the interview, Thornton pretended not to understand any of Ghomeshi’s questions (à la Joaquin Phoenix, who had recently earned headlines with a spaced-out interview on Letterman), and the next five, bickered with the host. The grand finale to this performance was to insult the Canadian audiences he was supposedly in the country to play for, complaining that we’re boring.

Thornton’s stunt outraged Canadian audiences. He and his band, The Boxmasters, were booed at their Massey Hall show in Toronto the following night – and the night after that, they cancelled the balance of their Canadian tour, citing illness in the band.

So… bad PR for Billy Bob Thornton and The Boxmasters? Only if you think the prize Thornton was eyeing was London, Ontario. The incident got wide coverage in the American media on outlets including CNN and Rolling Stone, likely leading many Americans to say “Hey, did you know Billy Bob Thornton has a band?” Thornton’s market is in the U.S., not here; acting out here offered a limited risk with the potential to deliver far greater audiences in the lucrative U.S. market.

So my question is: are Burger King and Billy Bob Thornton both exhibiting a new advertising strategy centered around carefully-calculated bad PR?

Here’s the CBC interview, just so you can take your hat off to Jian Ghomeshi, whose professionalism somehow allowed him to resist telling Billy Bob Thornton in person what the rest of us were yelling at the screen.

Thanks PD for the heads-up!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Reading What Happened

I picked up What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, by Scott McClellan (George W. Bush’s Press Secretary from 2003-2006), curiosity piqued by his widely-reported criticism of the Bush White House. To be honest, it sounded like good blood-sport with some potential for professional development built in: a PR geek’s summer reading dream!

In it, McClellan gives an interesting insider’s perspective on the events that marked his tenure in the White House press office. He is clear in his denial of having knowingly misled the American people about the Valerie Plame affair; he also discusses at length the “permanent campaign” culture in Washington, in which positions and decisions on both sides of the aisle are predicated on political strategy rather than what’s really right for the country.

McClellan acknowledges that the effects of the “permanent campaign” mentality have broken public confidence in government, and makes an impassioned case for government to work more openly and transparently if that is ever to be repaired. And he’s right.

I did find, though, that McClellan’s attempts to position himself as the honest guy calling for change seemed a bit disingenuous. His own hands aren’t entirely clean; and while his motivations may not be directly tied to the “permanent campaign,” to me at least, the end result (i.e. damaged credibility) is the same.

Early on, he recounts hearing Bush say he “honestly” couldn’t remember whether he had used cocaine during the party days of his youth.

“I know Bush, and I know he genuinely believes what he says. He isn’t the kind of person to flat-out lie, particularly when speaking in private to a supporter or friend. So I think he meant what he said in that conversation about cocaine. It’s the first time when I felt I was witnessing Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true and that, deep down, he knew was not true. And his reason for doing so is fairly obvious: political convenience. ”

McClellan compares Bush’s selective memory to that of a courtroom witness who claims not to remember things to avoid implicating himself, and seems to accept it because he doesn’t think the issue (i.e. possibly having tried cocaine in his youth) is germane to Bush’s ability to govern in the present. While that may be valid, the problem for me is less the possibility of having tried cocaine once in his youth than the readiness to be dishonest about it now. As the logic goes, if you’re willing to be dishonest about issues that don’t matter, why should we think you’ll be honest about issues that do?

For me, McClellan shows the same willingness to be selective that he criticizes in Bush. McClellan suggests Bush doesn’t want to admit he took cocaine – I suspect McClellan doesn’t want to admit he chose to speak for someone he knew to be dishonest.

In PR, our reputations are our stock-in-trade; if people don’t think they can trust us, we’re no good to our clients. If you decide you can represent a client who isn’t going to be honest with you (and therefore, your audiences), you have to accept that your credibility may pay the price. And I don’t think you can consider yourself a victim of their dishonesty when it does, as McClellan seems to.

For me, the most valuable section of What Happened was the chapter on the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. McClellan openly admits the government’s mishandling of the disaster – and the chapter gives an interesting insider’s account that shows how quickly public goodwill can be lost in a crisis. I felt for him as I read this chapter, as I always do for communicators dealing with really tough issues. We’ll be discussing that chapter in class this fall.

While I don’t think it achieved what McClellan was going for, What Happened was worth the read. If you’re looking for a behind-the-headlines perspective on some interesting PR case studies, you might want to check it out.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

United Breaks Guitars

Halifax musician Dave Carroll's band Sons of Maxwell posted this video to YouTube two days go. So far, it's gotten more than 218,000 views there...

... and mainstream media coverage including Wolf Blitzer's CNN Situation Room tonight.

In the Creative Communications program at Red River College, we examine corporate mission statements and employee communications -- and our students learn how a customer's brand experience starts with his/her interactions with a company's employees. Brochures and websites and advertising and publicity activities are great, but if customers don't like the service they get from company employees -- especially in the YouTube era -- none of it will matter.

United's website provides a pleasant and customer-focused sounding "Customer Commitment" statement; United might take this opportunity to review that commitment with its employees all the way up the chain.

Thanks, Chris, for the heads-up!

“Wafergate”; or, The Importance of Briefing Executives on Religious Protocol

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has gotten himself into a bit of trouble with some Catholics this week, following his acceptance of a communion wafer at the funeral of former Governor General Roméo Leblanc in New Brunswick last Friday. Video of the funeral shows the Prime Minister taking the wafer in his hand, but doesn’t show him consuming it (though nor do I see Mr. Harper pocketing the host in this YouTube video, despite its poster’s claim).

Mr. Harper is not Catholic, but an article on the CBC website today describes him as a “devout Protestant.” Media coverage of this story provides opinions from Catholic priests on both sides of the debate as to whether a Protestant should be receiving communion in a Catholic church at all – but since there appears to be disagreement even among priests, I think Mr. Harper’s in the clear on that one.

On the issue of what he did with the wafer after receiving it, though, not so much. One of the things that differentiates Catholics from other Christians is their belief in the transubstantiation – that is, that the bread and wine used in the celebration of communion actually become the body and blood of Christ. Accordingly, Catholics treat the communion wafer reverently. They practice how best to receive it (to avoid dropping it) when preparing for their First Communion, and consume it immediately upon receiving it from their priest.

So when Mr. Harper was shown receiving the communion wafer and not consuming it, people (including, according to, Monsignor Brian Henneberry, Vicar General and Chancellor in the Diocese of Saint John) were upset. Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, today called some critics’ charges that Harper had pocketed the wafer “absurd”, telling CanWest "The priest offered the host to the prime minister, the prime minister accepted the host and he consumed it." Noel Kinsella, Speaker of the Senate, reportedly confirms that account, saying he was seated close by and saw the Prime Minister consume the wafer. Unfortunately for Mr. Harper, he didn’t do it immediately – which would have been in line with Catholic custom, and would have been caught on camera, to boot.

I’m certain Mr. Harper meant no harm or insult or disrespect in all this – he likely just didn’t realize the implications of waiting momentarily before consuming the host. But as the outrage and media coverage show us time and time again, that doesn’t always matter in the court of public opinion.

Before attending a state funeral in a church of an unfamiliar faith, Mr. Harper should have had a full briefing as to expected protocol. He then would have known how he should receive the wafer – and that he should consume it immediately.

Also, if the PMO was asking my PR advice (which it hasn't!), I would recommend against addressing an inadvertent insult (i.e. the wafer issue) with an intentional one (i.e. 'your impression/recollection is "absurd"'). I'm just saying.

On a related note, Mr. Harper is now in Italy, and has an audience with the Pope scheduled for later this week.

Cheers to the event planner

Today’s Michael Jackson memorial extravaganza at the Staples Center in Los Angeles was watched by millions around the globe, effectively taking over television and the Internet. Interest in the event was so high and so pervasive that The Wall Street Journal was liveblogging the livebloggers covering it.

In the PR major at Red River College we do a unit on special event planning, one of the many skills of the PR pro. As any event planner knows, the key to a successful event (after a solid concept and event strategy) is a detailed critical path, which sets out every little detail that needs to be handled – plus who will handle it, and when. The event planner is the quarterback, and calls the plays based on that critical path: every detail needs to be considered, documented, and handled, on time and on budget.

Michael Jackson’s memorial was produced by Ken Ehrlich, the event planner behind the Grammys. Just imagine the details he and his team would have had to anticipate and handle within a very short period of time to put on today’s global spectacle.

First, of course, they would have needed to brainstorm the concept, the elements that would comprise the stage “show” (likely in consultation with a mourning Jackson family and potentially others close to them), and then create a full event plan. The critical path flowing out of that event plan would have had to include, among many, many other things:

- Media relations (publicity for the event + encouraging Angelenos without tickets to stay home, in an attempt to reduce gridlock in downtown LA)
- Ticket production, lottery & distribution
- Dealing with Staples Center to secure use, arrange setup & logistics
- Dealing with the Ringling Bros. circus, who have shows in the Staples Center tomorrow
- Dealing with the city government – extra police, blocking off streets, motorcade routes, parking, paramedics, not to mention budget…
- Event security staff, usher briefings
- Motorcade vehicles & staff
- Staging: all equipment, lighting, sound, giant screens (need to accommodate different musical acts), draping
- Screen show (titles, photos, accompanying music), coordination with pastor
- Flowers
- Memorial programme – content, writing, design, production, distribution
- Transportation for casket, family, special guests, celebrities
- Coordinating with celebrities & their handlers
- Coordinating special messages to be read from celebrities who can’t attend
- Signage, posters
- Rehearsals

This show, put together in a matter of days, had to give the world an outlet for its grief over the loss of Michael Jackson, while celebrating his life and achievements – and somehow avoiding the sticky topics that garnered the majority of the media interest in his later years.

Juggling all of those details, the planning team would have to have been careful not to let the event appear:
- Too over the top
- Too commercial
- Too opportunistic

But would have had to ensure it was appropriately:
- Admiring
- Respectful
- Mournful
- Celebratory

… and ensure that in the end, the service addressed all the major facets of Jackson’s contribution to his generation. Not easy things to do, much less simultaneously. All in all, this event was a tall order – and from the commentary I saw, it seems to have mostly hit the right notes for Jackson’s mourners around the world.

I’m sure Ehrlich and his team haven’t had much rest in the last week – I hope they put their feet up tonight.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Social media can help build businesses – and pro athletes’ fan bases

Yesterday’s men’s Wimbledon final was a great, emotional, frustrating, roller-coaster of a match to watch. After five grueling sets, Roger Federer won his record-breaking 15th Grand Slam tournament, having beaten Andy Roddick in the longest final in Wimbledon history.

But this blog isn’t about tennis, it’s about PR.

I’ve been a fan of both Federer and Roddick for years now, so have always had an emotional investment in seeing them win. While they are both brilliant tennis players, I like them for completely different (and contradictory) reasons: Federer for his on-court class and grace, and Roddick for his brash, no-holds-barred approach to… well… everything. But more on that later.

Professional athletes’ personalities are part of what makes us want to root for them and follow their careers (and, in so doing, to be exposed to their sponsors’ logos). And while mainstream media coverage of sports has traditionally given us brief glimpses into athletes’ lives and personalities (allowing us to build the affinities that make us attractive to sports advertisers), many pro athletes are now using Web 2.0 tools to share more of their thoughts and lives with fans – building stronger personal bonds that lead to heightened “brand” loyalty.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer has a website with more than 250,000 registered users, and Facebook fan page that currently has more than two-and-a-quarter million fans.

The website offers everything you’d expect, from media releases and a tour schedule to information about his charitable foundation and, of course, an online store. But it also builds community with his fans through user-generated content (UGC) features including a “Fan Zone” with a fan-submitted photo gallery, discussion forums, and an “Ask Roger” feature that invites questions from ordinary people without ESPN press passes – and provides (some) answers. (A read-through of the posted questions reminds us why we also want to hear interviews conducted by journalists with ESPN press passes: for example, “Do you like tennis, or do you love tennis?” Ugh.) The UGC features appear to be popular with Federer’s fans; his stock rises a bit with each time a member of his fan base participates in the online conversation.

Federer also makes good use of his Facebook fan page. Whereas some celebrities use their pages simply to “have a presence” on the site, he posts short videos in which he speaks directly into the camera about what he’s up to, how he’s feeling about the tournament he’s playing, etc. Each time, the video is posted to his millions of Facebook fans’ walls – a proactive message from Roger Federer, making each of them feel (just a little) like they’re behind the scenes with him. Just before Wimbledon started, he sent his fans a picture of himself on Centre Court under the new roof – something tennis fans everywhere would be interested in – and a sneak preview of his much-discussed Wimbledon court attire. Just as he does on his website, Federer takes fan questions on his Facebook page. Oh, and he shares his newest commercials for a fleet of advertisers...

As a whole, Federer’s Web 2.0 presence is well in line with his overall brand: he appears classy, friendly, and accessible despite being, many feel, the greatest tennis player of all time. Whereas most fans could only know greats like Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe to the extent they received coverage in the mainstream media, Federer’s fans feel like they really know him, and like he takes the time to engage them. As a result, I’d wager their emotional buy-in is that much greater every time he steps on court.

Andy Roddick

Andy Roddick is the kind of guy you feel you know a bit just from listening to his post-match news conferences.

While most players on the pro tennis tour come into news conference after news conference with the same platitudes about sportsmanship and compliments for their opponents, Andy Roddick has always, refreshingly, called it like he saw it. (I can’t imagine Roger Federer responding to how a loss felt with “it sucked” – but I appreciate Andy Roddick for saying it.)

But Roddick is making great use of the web to make stronger connections with his fans, too. His website isn’t as slick as Federer’s (it isn’t updated as frequently, for one thing), but it does allow fans to feel more like “insiders” by providing information about his activities and news. It also has its own UGC features that allow fans to interact with Roddick and each other – for example, an “I Was There” section in which fans tell their stories (and share their photos) of having met Roddick in places across the globe, as well as fan contests and a “Fan of the Month” profile (though there isn’t one listed every month).

Roddick also has a Facebook profile, but it seems his Web 2.0 tool of choice is Twitter (username @andyroddick). With more than 68,000 followers, Roddick updates his Twitter profile regularly (during tournaments, often multiple times a day), with tweets that tell us a little more about how he sees his own game, his opponents, and the tennis world in general… as well as tidbits about his taste in pop culture and other assorted details of his life. Like Federer, Roddick’s online personality is consistent with what we know of him from mainstream media: he is funny, and unafraid to say what’s on his mind. He also sends messages of support to his friends on the tour, and comments on how pro tennis works behind the scenes… again, letting his fans in on the conversation and making them feel like insiders in his world.

Does it matter?

I think so. Using social media tools to give their fans better access and the ability to interact with them, both players are letting tennis fans get to know them better. While it may not be a genuine “relationship,” the fan certainly feels like the icon on the court is more a human being than a two-dimensional character – and is far more likely to “buy in”.

As a longtime devotee of both pro tennis and PR – and a relatively more recent fan of Federer, Roddick, Facebook and Twitter – I like it.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Timing is everything

So I unplug for a sunny long weekend with my family and come back to learn that... Sarah Palin has resigned as Governor of Alaska?

Interesting, in many, many ways. In case you missed it, here is her rather lengthy and rambling speech.

There’s lots to be said about Palin’s approach and messaging in this speech, and about her overarching political strategy in general – but I’ll leave that to the pundits. What interests me here is her timing.

Governor Palin made this announcement in a “hastily-called news conference on Friday” according to a Canadian Press story outlining some of the speculation around the reasons for her resignation: is she just tired of being a media scapegoat? Is there some further ethics scandal about to break? Is she gearing up for a run for President in 2012?

Or, as she puts it, is she just planning to do more for Alaska from outside government – whatever that means?

In PR, if you want your announcement to be seen by the largest possible percentage of your audience, and if you have any control over the timing, you choose your announcement time based on:

1) When the most media are likely to be able to cover it (i.e. not really early in the morning, or too late in the day, or on holidays or weekends, when newsrooms are on skeleton staff)

2) When your audience is most likely to be watching/reading the news (i.e. weekdays more than weekends... and not on holiday long weekends)

You’ll notice that not a whole lot of substantive announcements come out the week of Christmas – people are spending time with their families, and are far less likely to be reading the paper or watching the news than they would be on, say, a Wednesday in mid-January.

So why did Sarah Palin choose to “hastily” call a news conference on the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend to make her big announcement? Some possibilities:

• She was expecting a lot of conjecture about potential new ethics investigations and unflattering reviews of her track record in Alaska, particularly in the time since her brief run for the Vice-Presidency in 2008 – and wanted all that chatter to happen when most Americans were outside in the sunshine, eating potato salad and enjoying fireworks with their families; or

• There really is something coming down the pike (and I’m not necessarily suggesting wrongdoing – it could be something personal, or family-related, or health-related) which she’d rather not deal with as Governor; or

• She didn’t give the timing any thought; or

• Some other rationale that she and her advisors (and maybe observers more sophisticated than I) understand.

From where I stand, this looks like an announcement intended to be made when as few Americans as possible would be listening – and, I have to add, that might indeed have been the smartest PR strategy. But then again, if there’s anyone on the U.S. national stage whose PR decisions have consistently surprised me, it’s been Sarah Palin.

I’ll be interested to keep watching, despite myself.

On a related note, my advice to Letterman for tomorrow night’s show: just say “Sarah Palin” and wait for your audience to roar.

UPDATE - Monday, July 6:

On Anderson Cooper 360 tonight, I heard a Palin supporter explain that she'd made her announcement on the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend as her way to "declare her independence from politics as usual." Amazingly, I don't think he was kidding.