Sunday, November 29, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiger Woods injured in minor car accident

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

Questions Swirl Around Tiger Woods's Car Crash

20 questions about Tiger Woods' accident

Tiger Woods' Alleged Mistress Denies Affair

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

For 3rd time, Woods cancels meeting with police

Experts to Tiger Woods: Come Clean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiger's way.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Get tweeting!

PR people should use Twitter.

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

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

PR Major Laurie McDougall gets all meta with new media

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

Is Twitter a fad?

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

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

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

Try it; you (should) like it.

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter allows our audiences to tell us who influences them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This technology is all about... people?

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

It's a tool that facilitates relations between publics.

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

The road to mayhem is paved with good intentions

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Say please!

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

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

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

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

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

Today's PR: just like Grandma's?

No... but kinda, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"P" is for Public Relations

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

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

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

3- Cooperating and pooling resources can create wonderful results.

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

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

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

Don't get personally involved in the story.

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Taking the high road vs. giving in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 6, 2009

MTV's event planners learn why the little details count

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

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

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

Headlines, please!

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

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

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

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

MTV's response

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

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

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

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

Dictionary, please!

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


Sometimes, good intentions aren't enough.

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And on a different note...

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