Monday, January 31, 2011

Super Bowl + French Impressionism = publicity

If you're looking to earn publicity, always be on the alert for ways to tie your client to a topic in the news.

That doesn't mean you have to watch for stories that are closely related to your client's business. In fact, the less obvious the tie to your client's usual image, the stronger your story idea may be: if you can provide an unexpected twist on a story everyone's talking about anyway, you're gold.

No sports story is bigger than the Super Bowl

In the U.S. and Canada, the Super Bowl is a ratings bonanza and an advertiser's dream: even people who aren't that big into football pay attention to it (even if just for the nachos and beer). And because the Super Bowl is such a big story, the mainstream media welcome different angles from which to cover it. 

Publicity 101: provide an unexpected angle on a major story

Is it possible to use the Super Bowl to boost attention to and attendance at art museums? You bet.

The directors of the Milwaukee Art Museum (Green Bay doesn't have its own) and Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art have reportedly made a friendly wager on the outcome of next weekend's Super Bowl game, which will feature their respective "home" teams. The temporary loan of multi-million dollar French Impressionist paintings (one Renoir, one Caillebotte) is on the line. 

The directors even threw in some good-natured trash talk, to give the story a little more meat:
"Milwaukee Museum of Art director Daniel Keegan said in a statement to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he is already preparing a space for the Renoir.
“I'm confident we will be enjoying the Renoir from the Carnegie Museum of Art very soon,” the Green Bay native told the paper. “I look forward to displaying it where the public can enjoy it and be reminded of the superiority of the Green Bay Packers.”
Lynn Zelevansky, the director at Carnegie, had a retort for her Cheesehead counterpart.
“In Pittsburgh, we believe trash talk is bad form,” Zelevansky said in a statement. “We let the excellence of our football team, and our collection, speak for itself. It will be my great pleasure to see the Caillebotte from the Milwaukee Museum of Art hang in our galleries.” (Source: CNN "This Just In" blog)
When it comes to publicity, quick thinking can trump deep pockets
I heard about this story on CNN's morning news broadcast late last week; if you search Google News, you'll find the story covered by a variety of mainstream media, as well as betting sites, sports sites, art sites, and a range of blogs (including, now, this one!).
While this isn't a completely original idea (a similar wager was reportedly made over last year's Super Bowl game, instigated by an art critic), it still does the trick. Because it's a novel twist on a big story, the media (and their audiences) love it.  
It won't be novel forever, mind you... the more often it's done, the less attention it will naturally get. But for this year, it's bringing great mainstream attention to both art museums -- and, their directors hope, will bring visitors to see the spoils of the victorious team's win in the local art museum.
For we students of PR, this is a great example of how finding ways to connect our stories with current topics in the public eye can lead to great coverage, with very little investment.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Having the right Board members can help with your PR

This week, Karen Press and I launched a new course in the Red River College Creative Communications program on communications for non-profits. One of our topics for our introductory class was the role -- and the strategic composition -- of a non-profit Board of Directors.

Non-profit Boards come in as many styles and sizes as the organizations themselves. Depending on the mandate (and work) of the non-profit, a Board can be focused on governance, or on management, or on operations -- or on a combination of all three, to varying degrees.

Picking the right people
Smart non-profits invite diverse people who bring a range of useful talents and skills to the Board: for instance, an accountant, a lawyer, an HR expert, a PR person, as well as expertise and experience in the subject areas in which the non-profit operates. For example, a non-profit that helps the homeless would be smart to have people on its Board who have worked with homelessness and homeless people in varying capacities.

Similarly, a non-profit catering to the needs of a particular cultural group would be well-served by having that group represented on its Board. You want to make sure there are voices around the boardroom table that reflect the perspectives of your key audiences and inform the Board's decisions. This isn't just good PR: it's good management.

An excellent Board candidate will also have personal or professional connections that will help the non-profit meet its objectives, either because they are philanthropically inclined, or because they have access to resources or other people who can help, or because they have an influential voice in the mainstream.

Or maybe, if the non-profit is lucky, all of the above!

Enter Jon Stewart

Screen shot of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
The Washington Post reported today that The Daily Show's Jon Stewart is joining the Board of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (whose Chairman is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg).

Stewart was an outspoken advocate for the recent passage of the 9/11 First Responders' Bill, which provides health care and compensation for first responders who became ill due to the toxins they inhaled at Ground Zero. His Comedy Central show served as his platform to raise public pressure on the government.

Stewart is a great choice to join this Board for many reasons. Among them: 
  • He is passionate about New York City.
  • He has a strong sense of what's right, and articulates it persuasively.
  • His insight and pragmatism have earned him significant respect, at least among the left and in centrist circles.
  • Through his show, his voice has an influential role in American political discourse.
On top of all that, there's another fringe benefit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in having Stewart on its Board: both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (of which he is the Executive Producer) will be far less likely to mock anything it does... and may be more apt to mock its detractors.

Smart PR.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sarah Palin's words hurt her again

One of last week's biggest political pile-ons was the controversy over Sarah Palin's use of the term "blood libel" in defending herself against accusations that her inflammatory political rhetoric (and gun-sight imagery) had contributed to the shootings in Tucson.

Here's the statement she posted online, linked to her Facebook page (the controversial language in question comes at around the 3:26 mark).

Sarah Palin: "America's Enduring Strength" from Sarah Palin on Vimeo.

My first reaction to this story was to be surprised that we're still surprised by anything Sarah Palin says -- or any word or expression she uses or misuses.

But an opportunity to attack a political opponent is an opportunity to attack a political opponent, so the game was on in the media.

Did she mean to be inflammatory?

Personally, I doubt it. My bet is that she was aware of the expression, but wasn't aware of its origin.

Had she known, Palin (or, at least, her advisors) would have to recognize that using such inflammatory language would do nothing to help endear her to the segment of the American public not already on her side.

In politics, as in public opinion, it's important to keep your eye on the "undecideds" -- that's where you should be spending most of your effort. Your supporters already support you, and people who've decided against you take a lot more persuading to bring on-side; so your most efficient use of resources is to focus on the undecideds.

To knowingly use divisive and hate-fuelled language at a time of crisis does not reflect positive leadership qualities; people who may be shopping for a new leader don't tend to like that. To do so could cost you at the voting booth.

What should she have said once the criticism erupted?

Once the statement was made and the expression on the record, Palin had a difficult choice to make.

Admitting she didn't understand the historical significance of the expression could make her look ignorant (not ideal, for a would-be leader of the free world).

Standing by her statement could give her opponents more material to use against her.

Palin's choice, until this evening, has been option number three: return to silence... which leaves the rest of the world to debate whether she's ignorant, or insensitive, or intentionally divisive.

Tonight, ABC News is reporting, Palin will make her first media appearance since her controversial Facebook statement, on Fox News' Hannity. I'll be interested to see what route she takes; while I think addressing it is the right move, I think she may be a bit late.

If you don't speak, the media will fill in the blanks for you.

If you search Google News for "Sarah Palin blood libel" you'll get thousands of articles.

Thousands, over the space of a week.

While the vast majority of the coverage I've seen on this topic has been critical of Palin's choice of words (even from conservative commenters like former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer), articles like the one by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in The Wall Street Journal last week came to her defence, arguing her use of the expression is appropriate.

But whether or not the usage is appropriate, a good understanding of the public's sensitivities (and even the mainstream media's prejudices, for that matter) would have told a good PR advisor that using an expression like "blood libel" would hurt her more than it would help.

The ABC News-Washington Post poll results released today, suggesting that 70% of Americans disapproved of Palin's response to the Tucson shootings, seem to bear that out.

UPDATE Monday night

Here's audio of Palin on Hannity tonight. The segment on the "blood libel" issue begins around the 15:55 mark.

To my ears, this isn't a statement aimed at the undecideds.

When it comes to public relations, it doesn't matter whether you meant to offend anyone. If people were offended by something you said, you want to take a hard look at your language, and see how you might avoid doing that next time.

It doesn't really matter how many others may have used similar language before you; this is between you (or your organization) and your audiences.

Think about how this works in our personal lives: if someone says something that offends you, how much does it matter whether they meant to offend? Maybe a bit, but not much. If you're going to feel better about your relationship with that person, you probably want your perspective acknowledged, and the person to regret having offended you. What likely won't help is if you're told you are unreasonable to have been offended.

Sarah Palin is so certain that the "lame-stream media" is out to get her that she's betting few people were actually offended by her language. That's a bet I wouldn't be willing to take.

The time to respond to a gaffe is immediately, and the way to respond to a gaffe is with an apology.

If you don't think you have anything to apologize for, you shouldn't do so insincerely; but if that's the case, and you're concerned about public opinion at all, don't re-raise the issue after the initial controversy has passed.

Doing so may just as likely offend -- and alienate -- even more people.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Canada Post and CUPW: when internal communications go external

photo from
A story in today's Winnipeg Free Press about how "[t]housands of Christmas packages sat undelivered in the former downtown post office as late as New Year's Eve," according to a union official (were all or most of those packages mailed before the Christmas delivery deadline? We don't know...), appears to be the latest shot in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers' (CUPW) campaign to embarrass Canada Post into backtracking on a new initiative to have postal carriers carry more mail on their routes.

Unsurprisingly, some letter carriers don't like the initiative, which requires them to carry a heavier load -- and which, according to the head of Winnipeg's CUPW local Bob Tyre in an interview with the National Post, "obscures the feet from view, causing falls and injuries, and results in back and neck pain."

The Art of War

I have no connection to Canada Post or CUPW, but here are some things I think we can assume the union knows and is willing to use to its advantage:
  • its employer's business has dropped since the rise of electronic communication;
  • holiday gift packages and greeting cards represent two of the remaining personal communications many Canadians tend to rely on the postal service to deliver;
  • the on-time delivery of those parcels and envelopes is a high-stakes matter to Canada Post's consumer clients;
  • Canada Post's business clients are fighting huge message overload as they vie for their customers' attention during the holidays -- so the flyers and direct mail they pay Canada Post to deliver on their behalf is crucial (to them), too.
In the National Post story, Canada Post spokesman Jon Hamilton suggests the union didn't attempt to raise its concerns privately before going public: "There are other avenues where the union could address their concerns, make their views known without hurting or impacting service to Canadians and the businesses that depend on us.”

Dysfunctional relationships over the holidays aren't just at family dinner tables

From the outside, we can't know how this all went down - but we can reflect on the effectiveness of open, two-way dialogue between employers and unions.

An unfortunate fact is that sometimes, companies have to make changes that employees don't like.

And in my experience, management doesn't like to have to make those decisions either. I've worked on a number of communication strategies for layoffs and office closures in my time, and have never once seen an executive happy (or even neutral) about having to do it. They hate it.

The significant human empathy part of it aside, management also knows that happy employees are productive employees. Even if you believe management only cares about the bottom line, you have to recognize that executives are well aware that in the long run, the bottom line benefits from happy employees (and is hurt by unhappy ones).

But if the company's management has analyzed the situation and the unpopular change is the only way it can see achieving long-term success -- which, as Hamilton points out in the National Post, means continued jobs for employees in the first place -- then it's what the company has to do.

One thing we do know: having the spokesperson for the employees' union tell the public through the media that the corporation "doesn't care if they don't cover all their routes anymore," as CUPW's Bob Tyer is quoted as having said in the Winnipeg Free Press, doesn't help build customer confidence. Canada Post's customers have alternatives; I'm sure Mr. Tyer's members hope his words don't send those customers to the competition, reducing demand for their services (and, therefore, their jobs).

It takes two

If a company has a healthy, productive, two-way relationship with its union, it's in a far better place to begin communicating a change employees won't like, because employees aren't immediately on the defensive, thinking "management only cares about making money and doesn't care about us." When corporate communications are open and effective in helping unions and employees see the rationale behind corporate decisions and their long-term benefit, there's a far greater likelihood of acceptance and cooperation (even if the news hurts).

One way a company can help build that kind of cooperative sentiment is to involve employees in the decision-making process; there are always options, and involving employees and/or the union in determining how to implement a change can help build relationships and buy-in.

But that doesn't mean it's all up to the company to make two-way dialogue happen: it really does take two. When a union deals openly and in good faith with the employer, the employer can be more confident in communicating openly and cooperatively with it. When it doesn't, it's tough for the employer to take the leap.

If you don't have both sides working toward productive two-way communication, you get the kind of headlines we've been seeing about Canada Post.