Thursday, August 27, 2009

Gene Simmons' uncharacteristic bungle

KISS legend Gene Simmons is – and has for decades been – a master of publicity. If you haven’t seen evidence of it yet, just watch a single episode of his A&E series, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, and you will.

Which is why today’s Canadian Press story, “Kiss frontman Gene Simmons blaming media for spoiling Oshawa surprise,” surprised me.

As the CP story reports, KISS invited fans earlier this year to go to its website and vote for their hometown to be included on the band’s upcoming “fan-routed” tour. Oshawa, Ontario beat out all other “hometowns” large and small, and came in at #1 on the list.

But when KISS published its tour schedule earlier this week, Oshawa wasn’t included – with no explanation as to why – and its devoted KISS fans and politicians were outraged.

The Sun Media story reporting Oshawa’s absence from the tour schedule provided KISS’s official response on the matter:

While the makeup wearing performer could not be reached for comment, a band spokesman said "a few situations" required locating shows in neighbouring market concert venues.

"This was necessary to make sure that all regional fans get a chance to see KISS with the band’s full stage production," said spokesman Erik Stein.

The band is however, planning "something special" for the city of Oshawa itself, although Stein wouldn't provide more details.

Fans and politicians in Oshawa were outraged that they were skipped over, and the backlash eventually forced the band to announce it would play a show in the city after all on Oct. 7.

Simmons was reportedly “pissed off at the media for creating this nonsense,” annoyed that coverage of the snub had fanned the flames of fan discontent. From his perspective, according to the CP story, fans “should have trusted the band wouldn't let them down.”

"Respectfully, the fans aren't qualified to understand how things are done ... (they) don't know how things work," he said. [A side note: when you hear "respectfully" or "with all due respect," get ready to be disrespected!] If the issue was who was right, and who knows best, Simmons might have the basis for a debate.

But the issue here is making customers happy. How did Simmons do on that front?

Now, spend any time following Gene Simmons and you’ll soon notice that he is incredibly confident. After decades of thrilling KISS fans with music, shows, and merchandise, he knows that he has a cult-like following.

But I think the problem he’s (maybe, maybe not) discovered here is that while his fans may adore him, people are unable to simply “trust” that a mega-star will “do the right thing” without some indication that he will. The hints the band gave when pressed about Oshawa were far too vague – they sounded less like “just hold on, wink wink, there’s something very special in the works for you” and more like “we’ll figure something out once we’ve got our real priorities dealt with.”

Simmons now says KISS had planned all along to have a show in Oshawa, where the band would launch its new album. If that was the case, all KISS had to do was include in the schedule announcement that Oshawa, the contest winner, was going to be the centre of something big, which would be announced in the coming weeks. Oshawa fans would've known they hadn't been forgotten or ignored, and the excitement and anticipation would likely have continued to build.

As for blaming “the media” for the debacle, Simmons is wrong (and uncharacteristically out of touch). First, Simmons ignores the impact of social media like Facebook, Twitter and blogs, which alone could have sustained the fan protest. Secondly, the media's job is to report on things that matter to their audiences; here, their audiences were insulted (and, some felt, cheated) by a rock legend.

That’s news, no matter how you slice it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When employees work against you

The president of the Winnipeg firefighters’ union, Alex Forrest, has a big job. He’s the guy tasked with speaking on behalf of the city’s firefighters, working both with and against City management to protect what his members feel are their rights, and to fight for the tools they feel they need to do their job well.

To be effective in that role, Forrest has to be credible with the public at large; without that credibility, his union would have a steeper hill to climb come negotiation time. Especially since 9/11, firefighters are generally seen as heroes, as selfless saviours who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. An image like that makes it tougher for any city to turn down requests for funding without public backlash; it's worth protecting.

But what if the image of the local firefighter was to become that of an adolescent lout, spending his on-the-clock time flirting and making out with a woman in a shed behind the firehouse?

It sure wouldn't make Forrest’s job any easier.

While firefighters do indeed put themselves in harm’s way to save people’s lives, pets and homes, they also spend quite a bit of time hanging out in the fire hall waiting for an emergency. Now, it’s not in the union’s best interests to talk about that side of it, but Forrest's members get to spend quite a bit of their time at work doing things like playing cards, sleeping, making dinners, playing music, etc. – things most people could never get away with doing at work. But it’s reasonable. We pay them to be there and at the ready in case of emergencies.

With that said, playing cards and making chili are not the same as making out in the shed.

This morning’s Winnipeg Free Press contains a story by Gabrielle Giroday called “Firefighter sorry for shed tryst,” with the sub-head “’Horrible indiscretion’ no danger to public, union boss says,” which outlines an incident that took place at the end of July. It recounts how a local firefighter met a woman near Station No. 4 on Osborne Street, “showed her a nearby shed,” and then “the two began kissing until an alarm came in” a few minutes later.

Must’ve been some shed.

The fact is, every organization has employees who are, let’s say, less than professional. Or even, short on personal integrity and judgment. But when your organization’s “brand” is anchored by notions of heroism, these employees are particularly problematic for your communicators (would this have been a media story had the employee caught kissing in the shed been sneaking out on his bartending job? Likely not.)

In talking to the media about this case, Alex Forrest had a number of audiences, and a communication objective for each.

1. Citizens of Winnipeg (and specifically those served by Station No.4): reassure them that public safety wasn't affected; that it was an isolated incident, which is not supported by the union or its members; and that the union is reasonable, and willing to accept punishment for a member if it’s warranted (this helps with future negotiations, when taxpayers remember the union’s reasonableness).

2. Union members: show on the one hand that the union will stand by them if they mess up, while simultaneously working to prevent them from having to “wear” a colleague’s indiscretion.

3. City management: show that the union is reasonable in its positions, and won’t stand in the way of appropriate handling of a personnel issue (again, this can serve as “currency” in future negotiations).

The reader comments at the bottom of the Free Press’ story online suggest that not everyone is buying Forrest’s (and the firefighter’s) position. But from my reading of the story, Forrest has done about as good a job of each of those objectives as he can, at least publicly.

The firefighter did what he did, and there's no excuse for it; so the best thing to do is to admit it, denounce the action, reassure the public the incident didn't interfere with public safety, and accept the punishment.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Making news: Archie comics

When you hear about comic books these days, the discussion is usually about plotlines darker and characters more complex than you find in Archie comics.

Archie Andrews and his buddies have been dealing with the same rivalries and petty jealousies for 67 years or so – and while the props in the stories have been updated over time (e.g., they now have cell phones and the Internet, not to mention their own Twitter profile and blogs), the main characters have remained relatively consistent. Archie loves Veronica, Archie loves Betty, Betty and Veronica both love Archie, and Reggie loves all the ladies (almost as much as he loves Reggie); assorted other characters associated with the high school and the Chocklit Shoppe have defined roles to play too.

To some Archie readers, I think this predictability is part of the appeal: I know at least one corporate executive who reads Archies at night, to turn off the brain with the reading equivalent of warm milk before sleep. But if you’re the people behind Archie Comics, how do you drum up interest in an aging brand?

Make news.

2 weeks and counting... on Twitpic

Earlier this summer, Archie Comics made an announcement: after 67 years of trying to decide between Betty and Veronica, Archie was going to propose to snooty rich girl Veronica, in an issue to hit newsstands next week.

From a publicity perspective, it was brilliant. Suddenly, people were talking (see the 250+ comments posted to the announcement alone) – and the reactions were, in many cases, emotional. How could Archie forsake Betty after all her years of loyalty? Was Archie just a gold digger? Hadn’t Archie ever noticed that Betty and Veronica looked identical, other than the colour of their hair? People who’d read Archie comics decades ago were weighing in, and getting involved in a conversation about a brand they’d long forgotten they cared about.

Coverage of the development in mainstream media and in the blogosphere was significant – even Macleans got in on the action. The story got an unexpected additional boost when an irate comic book collector (and seller) sold his first-edition Archie comic for almost $40,000 in “protest” of Archie’s decision to propose to Veronica – though he admitted, when asked, that the economic downturn had played a role in his decision to sell.

National Public Radio (NPR) asked syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson, in her “Ask Amy” column, to advise Betty on what to do now (see Betty’s letter to “Ask Amy” and Ms. Dickinson’s advice here). And as the days tick down to The Proposal’s “on the stands” date of September 1st, I’m sure we’ll hear more. As the Republic of Comics blog puts it, “…whatever people say about Archie and his girls, there’s no doubt that the proposal sparked newfound interest in the aging Archie comics series, which was losing its fan base to more sophisticated video games and darker comic books.”

A tip of my hat to Archie Comics for earning media coverage the old-fashioned way: by making news.

Click here for a preview (i.e. the first 5 pages) of the issue.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Behave online, redux

Today I saw a news release from CareerBuilder, a human resources company, providing research that supports what I've said in a number of blog posts and Tweets about how important it is to maintain a professional brand online. Click here for the full release and survey methodology -- but here are some key findings of their survey of 2600 hiring managers, conducted this June:

- 45% of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates (up from 22% last year); a further 11% have plans to begin using social networking sites to screen future employees.

- the most popular online research tool identified by hiring managers was Facebook (29%), followed by LinkedIn (26%), MySpace (21%); managers also search blogs (11%) and Twitter (7%).

From the release:

Why Employers Disregarded Candidates After Screening Online

Job seekers are cautioned to be mindful of the information they post online and how they communicate directly with employers. Thirty-five percent of employers reported they have found content on social networking sites that caused them not to hire the candidate. The top examples cited include:

Candidate posted provocative or inappropriate photographs or information - 53 percent

Candidate posted content about them drinking or using drugs - 44 percent

Candidate bad-mouthed their previous employer, co-workers or clients - 35 percent

Candidate showed poor communication skills - 29 percent

Candidate made discriminatory comments - 26 percent

Candidate lied about qualifications - 24 percent

Candidate shared confidential information from previous employer - 20 percent

Fourteen percent of employers have disregarded a candidate because the candidate sent a message using an emoticon such as a smiley face while 16 percent dismissed a candidate for using text language such as GR8 (great) in an e-mail or job application.

Why Employers Hired Candidates After Screening Online

Job seekers are also encouraged to leverage social media whenadvertising their skills and experience.Eighteen percent of employers reported they have found content on social networking sites that caused them to hire the candidate. The top examples include:

Profile provided a good feel for the candidate’s personality and fit - 50 percent

Profile supported candidate’s professional qualifications - 39 percent

Candidate was creative - 38 percent

Candidate showed solid communication skills - 35 percent

Candidate was well-rounded - 33 percent

Other people posted good references about the candidate - 19 percent

Candidate received awards and accolades - 15 percent

"Social networking is a great way to make connections with potential job opportunities and promote your personal brand across the Internet," said Rosemary Haefner, Vice President of Human Resources at CareerBuilder. "Make sure you are using this resource to your advantage by conveying a professional image and underscoring your qualifications."

Haefner recommends the following DOs and DON’Ts to keep a positive image online:

1)DO clean up digital dirt BEFORE you begin your job search. Remove any photos, content and links that can work against you in an employer’s eyes.

2)DO consider creating your own professional group on sites like Facebook or to establish relationships with thought leaders, recruiters and potential referrals.

3)DO keep gripes offline. Keep the content focused on the positive, whether that relates to professional or personal information. Makes sure to highlight specific accomplishments inside and outside of work.

4)DON’T forget others can see your friends, so be selective about who you accept as friends. Monitor comments made by others. Consider using the "block comments" feature or setting your profile to "private" so only designated friends can view it.

5)DON’T mention your job search if you’re still employed.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Would you buy these shorts?

I spent the last couple of weeks on vacation, culminating in a great 3-day weekend with my sister at the Rogers Cup Masters tennis tournament in Montreal. The tennis was excellent, the weather cooperated, and the tournament organizers did an outstanding job. Had it not been for this pair of shorts, my blog post about the tournament would’ve been about how the organizers should give master-classes in running a smooth – and fun – event.

But I couldn’t ignore these shorts.

These are Nike shorts, worn by one of the top 10 men’s tennis players in the world. We noted that at least one other player wore the same shorts – in black – but because of their dark colour, they didn’t create the same “issue”.

It was very hot in Montreal last week, and this is a high-performance athlete. But while everyone expects a professional athlete to sweat, no-one wants to wear shorts that show sweat like this.

Sports apparel companies like Nike spend millions sponsoring and outfitting professional athletes across the sporting world, in the hopes that seeing their clothes and equipment on those athletes will build brand loyalty among their legions of fans. It’s a smart strategy, and has delivered customers for decades.
But as this pair of shorts shows, a sponsor company shouldn’t just send off the wardrobe, pay the sponsorship fees and leave it at that. It should watch to ensure the clothing is doing its job for both the athlete and the company: that is, making them both look good.

I have questions about the product itself – shouldn’t athletic clothing be designed to avoid this? Even if these were “extraordinary” circumstances, though, a Nike rep should have seen that these shorts weren’t right for the conditions the first time the player wore them, and hustled up new (dark coloured) pairs before the next match. If worst came to worst, there was a pro shop on the grounds of the tournament – someone could have gone over there with a credit card and bought some new shorts for the player if that’s what it had to come to. But there’s no way this poor guy should have been out there, day after day, in the blazing sun with shorts that looked like this.

It must have been embarrassing for the player; but for my money, Nike’s the one that came out looking bad. It’s an enormous global brand – but after this tournament, I’m sure many of us who attended the Rogers Cup (and who watched it on ESPN, TSN, RDS and other channels that may have been covering the event) have doubts about how they test their fabrics… and may be a little hesitant to pick up the next pair of coloured Nike shorts that catches our eye.

Execution is great – but follow-through is just as important. When managing any kind of event or sponsorship that goes beyond single-hit exposure, it’s just as important to watch and manage the third, or seventh, or hundredth exposure as it is the first.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

What not to tweet

I am a Twitter evangelist. I love the social networking site for many reasons: its forced message efficiency (140 characters and you’re done); the way it gives you the opportunity to connect with people from all over the globe, whether you’ve ever met them or not; the way it fosters the development of communities of interest; and, most importantly, the way it has widened my horizons on all things PR.

I’m not talking about just the impact of Twitter and all social media (a favourite topic on Twitter, at least among the people I follow) on PR; I’m also talking about the vast resources brought to my attention by the PR people I follow. I firmly believe that, through the connections I’ve made on the site, Twitter has made me a more effective PR counselor and teacher.

PR people should use Twitter – but use it wisely

While my use of Twitter has mostly been to share PR-related links and resources with colleagues, students and others interested in the field, Twitter also provides an outstanding platform for publicity and relationship-building between organizations and the people they serve. For a great (free) primer on Twitter, check out's The Twitter Guide Book.

Whether you think of it that way or not, Twitter also helps its users build a public online presence and “persona.”

One of the fundamental differences between Twitter and Facebook is that, unless you proactively "lock" or restrict access to your messages, everything you post on Twitter (i.e., everything you “tweet”) is public. And because your (unlocked) Twitter profile can be accessed publicly by anyone using the pattern, your tweets are available for anyone (not just your friends, but also your boss, parents, prospective employers) to read – and are easy to find if you use your name as your user id (e.g.

What you tweet doesn't only communicate what interests you – but also how you see the world, your work ethic, your discretion, and your professionalism. So before you tweet, think: “would this tweet reflect well on me if my boss, or a future employer, were to read it?”

I've read tweets from aspiring communicators that wouldn't. So I offer for your consideration:

Tweet no-nos

- anything offensive or discriminatory
- your drunken escapades/how late you stayed out last night (especially if you are working today)
- how you’d rather be partying than working
- how you’re less than committed to your work (either on the job or in school)
- your boss’ or colleagues' personal or professional deficiencies
- negative comments about your employer's product or service or operations
- how your employer’s customers are idiots
- inside jokes, more than occasionally – if you’re tweeting publicly, you’re saying “I’m sending this because I think you’d enjoy reading it.” If you widely distribute messages intended for narrow audiences on a regular basis, you’re saying “I'm happy to waste your time; look how witty I think I am; and by the way, you’re an outsider.”

You may have your friends in mind when you write your tweets – just remember that anyone can read them. What sounds hilarious to you in the bar on Friday night may not come off as brilliantly in the office on Monday morning.

If you wouldn't want to see it attributed to you on the front page of the local paper, don't tweet it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Check everything.

An a/v sub-contractor once told me I’m a fusser. I’m pretty sure that was a compliment, because he was a fusser too – and that’s why he was a regular part of my event team.

A fusser is the kind of person who exhibits symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (“OCD”) on the job, checking and re-checking all the minute details of a document or an event plan for errors before having to reluctantly give it up to the ages. You know the office fusser by the line of people at the door asking for a "quick read" of their documents, and the bottle of antacid in the top desk drawer.

Two things I firmly believe:

1) Every PR department needs a fusser.

2) Every PR professional needs to find – and embrace – their inner fusser.

The PR pro is paid for wise strategic counsel, for being able to connect with people, for creative ideas, for writing that speaks to people, for the ability to put together and execute positive, memorable special events, and myriad other skills. But despite the heady and exciting nature of some of our work, one of the fundamental (and yes, boring and tedious) skills we need is the ability to proofread.

It seems like a little thing to some, but bad proofreading can turn a solid organization into a laughingstock in the blink of an eye. In my days as a hiring manager, I used proofreading as one of my first "tests" of a prospective candidate: if the application package had a single typo, it went straight into the "no" pile. Your education and experience are great, but if you can't spell or ensure accuracy, I'll find someone else who can.

Minnesota Democrats learn the hard way

Last Thursday, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (or "DFL," the Minnesota branch of the Democratic Party) issued a news release attacking a speech Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty had given to the Republican National Committee.

Unfortunately, in the version initially sent to media, a link in the release that was supposed to click through to a state economic report actually linked to a YouTube video featuring an asian "Grandma" who unwittingly repeats foul words for 4 minutes (if you want to see the video, you can Google it – I’m not linking to it here because I think it’s mean).

The DFL issued a retraction minutes later, providing a corrected version of the release. As you can imagine, the retraction prompted many media to go through the original release to find the error – and find it, they did. Great fun was had at the DFL’s expense, and I daresay its message about Governor Pawlenty’s speech was lost in the festivities.

When you proofread, proofread everything.

- First, read the text for grammatical and spelling errors: some people find that reading a text backward can help spot things you miss when reading forward.

- Numbers: make sure every digit, comma, and decimal is correct - also ensure you are quoting the right currency, if writing about money.

- Dates: check day of the week against date, month and year; check accuracy of all dates. If you doubt this can be a big deal, read this New York Post story about a typo that could cost $100 million.

- URLs: actually type them into a browser as written, and make sure they link to the right page.

- Phone numbers: don’t just compare to the original text – call them and make sure the right party answers at the other end.

- Addresses: call the person or organization whose address is being printed, and/or cross-check against phone directories or service websites like Canada Post’s “Find a Postal Code” and Canada 411 online.

- Degrees and designations: Check both that they are being attributed properly, and that you are punctuating them properly. I’ve worked with Chartered Accountants who insist their designation is C.A., and I’ve worked with Chartered Accountants who insist their designation is CA. Go to the source.

- Cutlines on photos: make sure the people and places shown have been identified accurately.

- Maps: ensure not only that the place names are spelled accurately, but also that the places are indeed where your map shows them. I came very close once to printing an annual report with a major city incorrectly placed on a map; the map had been checked by at least a dozen people, and I only noticed it at the very last minute.

In proofreading, take nothing for granted. You could assume everything is correct, but then, when we assume…

Don’t assume. Check. Because anytime after you’ve hit “send” is too late.