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 www.trivialpursuitexperiment.com 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.