Monday, December 30, 2013

How Not to do PR

The news release found at should give chills to anyone who purports to write for a living.

It's poorly written ("online pharmacies on the internet" -- where else would an online pharmacy be found?). Verbs and nouns don't agree. Its dateline sounds like an apartment complex address, rather than a city. And when the release diverts from talking about drug safety of sorts to the commissions available for resellers, it just becomes an utter mess.

Who's at fault? The author of the release is an easy target. But should shoulder much of the blame. They promise to get your news release to thousands of editors -- most of whom will laugh at the poor writing. should provide some editorial counsel. Writing an effective news release takes skill, and's writer clearly needs help.  

English can be tricky. That's why hiring a skilled PR writer is essential.  

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Plenty of tin ears all around

It would be too easy to judge Justine Sacco's Dec. 20 hara-kiri on Twitter. It would also be premature, because as of this writing, she's still an employee of IAC and its boss, Barry Diller.

Memo to Justine: ask friends to round up empty copier paper boxes for when you're back in the office.You'll need 'em.

Justine Sacco, via NY Daily News
Details on Justine Sacco's self-inflicted PR disaster are here, along with the preposterous Gogo tie-in. Calling this the internet equivalent of drunk dialing is an understatement.

There's plenty of stupid to go around:

  • For a PR person, Sacco's now-deleted Twitter account contained a wealth of borderline coarse comments that were stunning in their stupidity. Teachable moment: just because you have only 400 followers on Twitter doesn't mean the whole world can't see you be stupid.
  • Diller has owned and sold more media properties than almost everyone, including Rupert Murdoch. He's not a shy person, and I'm convinced IAC's rapid exorcism of Sacco's name and PR contact information from its website stem from a Diller edict. The real question: why was she in this job for so long, given her incredible tin ear and inability to self-edit?
  • Gogo, the in-flight internet service provider hoping to get a positive halo effect from Sacco's "hope I don't get AIDS" flub, moronically links its brand with what's become an international online fiasco.
Whether Sacco has any afterlife in public relations remains to be seen. The real lesson: if you work in PR, you must always assume the mike -- or Twitter -- is live, and thousands are watching you and your brand. Even when you're at 30,000 feet, en route to Africa. And you, as the PR person, never ever ever ever want to become the story.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What were they thinking: Dec. 3, 2013

This afternoon, Rochester's police chief shuttered a downtown nightclub called Plush. The club -- scene of a recent shooting -- had taken its battle to stay open to the people via social media. And lost.

The last time I saw a nightclub win a battle with city hall was .... well, never.

I'm no nightclub expert, but I can rattle off names of saloons gone by that enjoyed their 15 minutes of media fame. Studio 54 in New York City. Bachelors III, a Queens, NY establishment best remembered for one of its high-profile co-owners, Jets quarterback Joe Namath. They're all long gone.

No nightclub wins a battle waged in the news media. And that adage now extends to social media. The "public service announcement" on Plush Lounge & Night Club's Facebook page berates the media for negative coverage of the recent shootings at the night spot. Could these events have taken place at Target or Toys R Us, as the writer suggests?

Sure, if Target or TRU served alcohol and had inadequate safeguards in place. The one thing Plush has in common with Toys R Us (besides bad spelling): TRU sells plush toys. That's it.

It's a rule: news people cover shootings. And there's no shortage of them, especially at nightclubs. Recent nightclub shootings took place in Kalamazoo, Cleveland, Columbus, and plenty of other towns.

Is there a PR upside for Plush? For starters, they need someone who can write. Who takes a message seriously when it reads, in part: WE GON PARTY WE GON DRINK WE GON HAVE A DAMN GOOD TIME ON THE SAGITTARIUS SIDE OF THANGS.

My PR advice? Get Plush off the front page as fast as possible. Don't compare your saloon with mass market retail merchants. Hire more security, and adopt a no-exceptions policy on misbehaving patrons. This is your best chance at convincing city officials that your business isn't a threat to the neighborhood.

Then, find some who can write, and ask them to help show journalists how you've cleaned up your mess.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

PR in Your iPad

This year, I've collaborated with a colleague on a public relations guide that we've intended from day one to be an e-book. Turns out, it's harder to get an agent to bite on an e-book than a real book.

I've read and used my share of textbooks about PR. The one that works best for me is Fraser Seitel's The Practice of Public Relations, now in its 12th edition. I've used it when teaching college PR classes. It's readable, full of short case studies and executive interviews, comprehensive and doesn't go out-of-date too quickly.

But if you're in crash-course mode, Seitel's book and other texts are a bit heavy. If your boss told you yesterday that, in addition to your other duties, you had to write news releases and promote the business through social media, our little e-book would be easier to use. And it would leave less of a dent on your debit card than Seitel's $143 textbook.
E.B. White

My co-author and I believe there's a place for a smart little e-book -- about the size and heft of E.B. White's The Elements of Style -- that PR newbies could download and digest, and go about incorporating our ideas into their PR projects.

The agent, however, said our e-book wasn't hefty enough. She wanted twice as much content, and told us to charge twice as much.

Truth is: to fully cover all the content in Seitel's book would take two semesters. It's more than all but the most PR-obsessed need to read. As in most cases, "TLDR" means Too Long, Didn't Read. And we didn't want our e-book to be TLDR.

So, instead of adding 100 percent more stuff to the book, we subtracted 100 percent of the agent. And we'll look for another one. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Diversity, One Beer at a Time

Aside from the minor tedious nature of a 6-plus minute slide show, there's plenty to like about MillerCoors posting scenes from its 2011 diversity summit on YouTube.

I like linking diversity to the fundamental goals of the business: "Diversity Sells Beer." Or a clear focus on "regular employees" from different backgrounds, not executives in $1000 suits. (Although diversity initiatives really catch fire only when senior leaders actively champion such change.) Capturing key points on whiteboards, and chronicling them in stills (and video) isn't a bad way to keep these learnings close at hand.

It's not a Joe Sedelmeier film, but it works.

The disappointment, however: MillerCoors' video has had a stunning 116 views as of this blog post. MillerCoors' parent, SABMiller.plc, has 70,000 employees worldwide. If only 10 percent are MillerCoors employees, that still leaves a stunning gap between the number of views and MillerCoors' workforce. And it says they aren't leveraging this video in recruitment of new candidates, either.

Where's the disconnect? MillerCoors is a company that's committed to diversity and inclusion -- but not telling people about that commitment. Either on its own website or via social media.

Rule No. One of PR: do the right thing and get credit for it.

Friday, November 8, 2013

What Were They Thinking: Nov. 8, 2013

Home Depot, like many large companies, outsourced the running of its Twitter feed to a nameless marketing "agency." When the agency posted a racially offensive tweet, HD acted swiftly to sever its relationship with the agency. Read about it here:

Brad Shaw of Home Depot, via Ad Age
Maybe the practice of entrusting your brand presence to an outside contractor isn't as disastrous as it sounds. But someone, somewhere needs to have a broader perspective. With Twitter's huge IPO taking place this week, all eyes were focused on the micro-blogging site. Brands can live or die on Twitter.

The irony: two years ago, Ad Age lauded Home Depot for its internal team's social media acumen.Why did this strategy go off the rails?

So cheers to Home Depot for cutting its ties with an insensitive agency. But who the heck thought placing HD's online brand in the hands of a non-employee was a good idea to begin with?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Driven to Distraction

Which Rochester ad agency didn't get the message about distracted driving?

The Rochester Advertising Council's 2013 campaign "Yeah, You're that Distracting" has helped make motorists aware that texting while driving can have fatal results. It convinced me that multitasking behind the wheel was a great way to wreck a car, and likely injure someone.

But their great campaign doesn't stop outdoor advertising initiatives like this one:

The photo isn't mine. Someone -- perhaps a local TV journalist -- grabbed this image with a smartphone and posted it to a social media feed.

I'm betting many other motorists did the same thing, and maybe even added a snarky comment.

Free publicity? Sure. And Twitter users' tendency to repost and add their own comments are likely to give the athletic club's modest two-billboard campaign a broader reach than they'd have earned if they'd purchased 10 normal billboards.

However: campaigns like this PROMOTE distracted driving. When I first saw the billboard above a local highway, I slowed down to decode what it said, neglecting other cars that might have followed me. I didn't grab my smartphone, but I'm sure other drivers will.

Side point: upside-down billboards are a tired advertising strategy, akin to writing "L@@K" atop a classified ad. Creatively speaking, the agency behind this effort needs an internal creative audit.

But the lesson here is: the Rochester Ad Council's campaign should include outreach to every local ad agency, asking them to eschew outdoor campaigns that promote distracted driving behaviors. The athletic club may have a great value proposition, but neither the club nor its agency partners should engage in a campaign that tempts drivers to play with their smartphones at 60 MPH.

Monday, September 30, 2013

We're Number 68!

Is it worth shouting about an award if you aren't among the Top Ten winners?

Today, Apple is the world's No. 1 Brand, according to Interbrand, a brand consulting agency (surprise!) that annually assigns an economic value to the best-known global brands. This year, Apple bounced long-time top dog Coca-Cola off the Global Brands summit, landing it just below Google at No. 2. (Read the whole list here.)

Business awards are our industry's cottage industry. A publication or organization looking to gain credibility creates some form of award competition, invites nominees, recognizes the winning companies at a banquet or news conference -- and then tries to leverage the relationship into an exchange of cash. Buying an ad or a membership. Licensing the award logo for use on packaging or in ads. And so on.

Everyone likes recognition. Even if it's not cheap. Once J.D. Power recognizes your company as tops in customer satisfaction, you need to pay a minimum five-figure sum to use their black-and-gold award in any of your promotional materials.

But, if you earn recognition and want to crow about it, make sure your organization is one of the top three honorees. Or five. Or ten. At some point, there's less lustre of success if you're buried somewhere down a list of winners.

For example, DiversityInc. runs an annual Top 50 Companies for Diversity. More than 300 companies submit entry documents. If you're one of the ten best, that deserves a news release. If you're among the top 25, it deserves a brief mention internally and perhaps externally. If you're No. 50, however, the recognition may not be seen as the crowning achievement you'd like it to be.

And Panasonic, the global electronics manufacturer? They steamed onto Interbrand's Global Brands list at No. 68. That's not a misprint. No. 68.

What's more, Panasonic issued a news release highlighting its stellar feat. Sixty-eighth, out of 100. More baffling: they took the opportunity to mention they'd dropped three spots from the 2012 list, and talk about a new executive, a turnaround plan, and a slogan. All in one stew of a release. 

How does that change your perception of Panasonic?

Semi-full disclosure: I love and use Panasonic's Lumix digital cameras. I own several, and maybe you do, too. Panasonic builds compact digital cameras for several of the leading camera brands in the world. 

I once worked with a marketing VP who's now doing similar work for Panasonic. But I hope my VP pal wasn't calling the plays when Panasonic issued its "We're No. 68" news release. That's big leap from rival Samsung's No. 8 showing on  Interbrand's list. Or Hewlett Packard at No. 15. Or Canon at No. 35. 

Highlighting your No. 68 ranking tells audiences that you have a long way to go. No one's going to order up a crate of T-shirts saying "No. 68 and Proud" for employees to wear. 

And, it's not a winning PR tactic to build awareness for a company that's been eclipsed by Samsung and more agile electronics companies.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Follow-up: it's a family business

My recent post on NASCAR's credibility problems got an answer. Sort of.

The AP published a profile on Brian France: 

Do you think it's enough for NASCAR to police itself from the top down, or get some external advice from experts who pretty-date Brian France's leadership?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Restoring credibility in turn four

Last week, NASCAR gave itself a black eye. Several, actually.

This week, NAPA Auto Parts smacked the team responsible for NASCAR's PR week from hell.

Without digging into details that only a motorhead could fathom, it boils down to this: driver Clint Bowyer deliberately spun out in the Richmond, VA. race, shuffling the race's finishing order so a teammate could make NASCAR's big playoffs, the Chase for the Cup. You can read the convoluted details here.

NASCAR, the sanctioning organization, has very deep pockets -- thanks to lucrative TV contracts and corporate sponsorships of teams and drivers. NASCAR came down hard on Bowyer's team, Michael Waltrip Racing, suspending team members, imposing a $300,000 fine, and bumping Bowyer's teammate, Martin Truex Jr., from the Chase playoff season. Truth is, there's been trickery in motor racing for years. MWR just got caught doing it, thanks to their over-the-air coded radio messages between the team and Bowyer.

Then NAPA -- a team sponsor that's backed Waltrip for a dozen years -- pulled the plug on the multi-million-dollar relationship. Leaving Truex, a true innocent bystander to the team's mischief, without a lead sponsor in 2014.

NASCAR jumbled the finalists for the Chase; Bowyer's in, Truex is out in more ways than one. But they incurred the wrath of hundreds of vocal online fans. And tried to placate their anger with -- surprise -- a leaden, policy-filled news release.

As governing body for a sport built on running moonshine, bumping fenders and cutting off fellow drivers, NASCAR has wavered between strict enforcement of sportsmanship rules and allowing a free-for-all, "have at it" atmosphere. They talk about their terrific, huge fan base -- but leave it to the sponsors and drivers to engage with the teams. That usually translates to autographs and T-shirts.

NASCAR needs a PR overhaul:

  • Fans are disenchanted. The "Chase for the Cup" locks out all but the top 12 drivers from winning a championship. 
  • Its "Drive for Diversity" program (in which I was involved for a time) has yet to produce a top-tier Sprint Cup driver. Its one minority driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, didn't win many races and fled to Indy cars. 
  • Danica Patrick drew plenty of headlines when she became the sole woman competing in Sprint Cup, but she hasn't really been competitive in her two years at the wheel. 
  • And the Waltrip-Bowyer dust-up hasn't helped.

My prescription: like most established sports, NASCAR has a cadre of legendary retired drivers: Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Buddy Baker, Fred Lorenzen, and others. They are by no means saints, but they can form the core of an advisory committee that can sift what's working in NASCAR and what isn't.

And if NASCAR's smart, it will act on at least some of their recommendations to help restore its credibility.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Listening between the lines

You're on Twitter. And your clients ought to be on Twitter. Or should they?

Not without an escort. That would be you, the PR professional.

You need to guide clients' use of Twitter. It's a stream-of-consciousness (or semi-consciousness) tool that without strategy and discipline can damage a clent's brand more than enhance it. Applebee's PR ordeal over the employee who posted a guest's receipt in response to a modest gratuity blew up, in part, because of its exposure on Twitter. (It didn't help that an inexperienced Twitter manager at Applebee's extended the exposure of the unhappy event.)

AT&T Twitter ad, 9-11-2013
Today's @ATT ad, using symbols of the Sept. 11 tragedy on 9/11 to promote its wireless products, demonstrates social media tone-deafness at its worst. The backlash was swift, loud and punishing. AT&T took down this image (at right) within minutes after the backlash.

But what about your use of Twitter? Are you posting more than listening? 

The one value often overlooked by PR practitioners and marketers in building a social media presence is the opportunity to listen to customers. On Twitter, users of your client’s products—and competitors’ products—often share their likes and dislikes. This feedback generally doesn’t damage a brand by itself, but how you use these comments is critical.

If all you do is “monitor” a conversation, you’re not using the information to its greatest potential. If you listen—and share your discoveries with the marketing decision-makers on your client team—it can help your organization respond to consumers’ concerns about its products and services.

Fact: Every Facebook user and Twitter follower is now a potential editor/gatekeeper. They find fragments of news, opinion, and gossip, and replay it—often with their own spin—on their favorite social media website. They regard this as “repurposing content,” but it may work to enhance the poster’s brand, rather than the source of the original news item.

Examples include news reporters based in one city who re-tweet news stories from nearby cities. They often view this as “content sharing,” but because they aren’t actually covering the story as the original news source did, they’re relying on a third party to help extend their credibility.

One benefit of reporters’ and editors’ addiction to Twitter is that they often tell you what they’re working on, and where they are. As a PR pro, if you have a story that can tie into the day's breaking news, following these journalists can help you identify those who may have time and interest in the story you need to share.

Understanding how to read, interpret, and effectively craft messages on these social media sites takes time. There’s a simple vocabulary to learn, but once you master these details, it’s your tool to use wisely. 

But, learn first. Spend time observing how other businesses on Twitter handle tweeted criticisms and compliments. Use what you learn to develop your Twitter strategy for clients. Some organizations ask their social media team to function as listeners, but few businesses can afford having a “chief listening officer”—so it’s up to you, as the PR manager, to regularly check on how your client's brand is portrayed in social media.

And listening between the lines usually leads to a wiser PR strategy.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

There are no PR genies

There are no magic lanterns. No PR genies. No write-it-for-you software or apps. Nothing is going to create a readable news release or public relations pitch for you -- except someone whose skill set includes newswriting, storytelling, editing, and interviewing.

I often teach university-level public relations courses. And, when I'm looking for examples of unedited, clumsily crafted news releases published online, my first stop, inevitably, is 

Smokey the Genie (right) with Bugs Bunny
MyPRGenie bills itself as a one-stop resource for PR support, including blogs, search engine optimization, and hosting online newsrooms. All are useful in today's PR universe. They may be better at some services than others.

But I tremble whenever I find news releases -- often written by someone with, ah, less-developed writing skills -- that find their way online with virtually no editing or attention to what an editor will read. One recent verbatim example:

"Seriously, if you are interested in visiting Japan and wish to make sure that your trip is all fun and that you get to interact with the local people of Japan without any hurdles, then it is highly recommended for you to learn to speak Japanese. The best means for you to do so is to take on Japanese classes Tokyo. This way, you would be able to learn Japanese from experts who are native Japanese and hold the qualifications required to be able to teach others."

What's this message promoting? Travel? Learning a new language? The inability to use articles and nouns? It's doing a terrifyingly poor job at all three.

What would it take for MyPRGenie to provide a copy editor to fix this editorial train wreck? Or for the writer (possibly a small business owner in Tokyo) to ask a freelance copy editor to clean it up?

Not much.

(Hint: do not turn to this "first class paraphrasing service" to solve the problem, either.)

You'll find a number of high-quality online PR wire services that can ensure your verbiage doesn't read like a brochure explosion. Or independent PR professionals (myself included). Prices vary widely. Buy what you can afford.

But spend enough so that your message is clear, understandable, and compelling. Spend enough so that your reputation is burnished, not tarnished, by your news releases.

And skip the search for a PR genie in a magic lamp.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Photography made difficult

I don't have an Instagram account. But I have friends in the public relations industry who do, and use them often.

They're smart professionals. So I assume they realize that Instagram doesn't make money by hosting their gee-whiz edited photos of their trip to Savannah. It makes money by harvesting data from photos, including the metadata it contains.

Your smartphone's camera adds metadata to your photos. It knows where and when you captured the photo. The exposure, the brand of camera, etc. And I'm certain Facebook -- owners of Instagram, you'll recall -- understands how to sift out important information from your photos. And re-sell that information to its advertisers.

The PR business is about influencing people's attitudes. What do you and I care about? How can PR people and marketers use that knowledge to influence users' attitudes and behaviors?

I'm not a fool. Google does this sort of data-mining with all my searches. When I was looking for information on a new musical instrument, I soon began seeing web ads for that instrument alongside content on news pages I read.

But the data Google gleans from my searches isn't geographic. It doesn't tell Google where I bought the instrument -- unless I use Google Wallet.

Instagram, however, likely tells would-be advertisers much more about you than you'd like. Most casual iPhone photographers don't think about composing a photo. As a result, many shots have cluttered backgrounds. Maybe you don't see the boxes of cereal or the brand of stereo in the background behind your photos.

But I'm wagering Instagram does.

Indeed, I post photos to Facebook. And it's likely Facebook knows the brand of camera I used to shoot them. But the metadata I surrender doesn't tell Facebook where I shot the photo; if the camera has GPS, I turn it off.

And every so often, I post of picture of something irrelevant; a funky coffee maker, or a set of orange-handled steak knives. Just to screw up whatever demographic recipe the data-miners have been cooking up about me.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Making the Deen list

Blame Paula Deen's implosion on a slow news cycle. And no PR strategy for dealing with criticism.

The absence of legislative newsmakers this week -- the Supreme Court killed DOMA and left for the summer -- leaves an overabundance of unspent media wattage. Where did it turn? On TV food celebrity Paula Deen. In a few short days after the disclosure that Ms. Deen had used the "N" word, she's been ditched by Wal-Mart, Ballantine Books, The Food Network, and Smithfield Farms. And probably had her Exxon-Mobil card cancelled.

(Curiously, you can still obtain Ms. Deen's recipes on the Food Network's website.)

Here's a different perspective:
  1. Everyone over age 30 has used the "N" word. Everyone. Often in jest. View Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy "Blazing Saddles," and you quickly lose count of the number of times it's used. (Borrow a DVD; when it airs on cable, every potentially offensive word has been bleached from the film.)
  2. Ms. Deen's problem, in my view, was not that she used the N-word in a courtroom, in a bank, or chatting among colleagues or employees. It's her panicky, over-the-top, scattershot response. Unscripted videos, haphazardly posted and taken down. Cancelling appearances on network talk shows, then coming on for a contrition-rich chat with Matt, days later. These did far more than magnify the problem. She telescoped the problem, giving it a far longer screen-life than it deserved.
David Huddleston, Cleavon Little. Blazing Saddles, 1974.
Liberal use of the N-words and firearms.
Neither you nor I believe Paula Deen is a demonic racist. But with CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, and most other national media outfits, there's always an opportunity to ladle on another helping of "Bad, Bad Paula."

This morning, I learned that NPR had asked three PR executives in Washington, D.C. if they thought Deen could recover from this episode. Worse, they headlined the piece as: How to Prove You're Not a Racist.

Really, NPR? You spoke to three PR executives. All males. In a town packed with public relations professionals at every Metro stop, you couldn't find one female PR expert?

NPR's all-boys-club story (not their shining moment) proves my point. At some level, we all have a bias. Theirs was to talk to three men in PR suits, and no women. They had an unconcious bias. Mel Brooks pokes fun at all our biases via satire. If Lorne Michaels and the SNL crew hadn't taken vacation, we'd see Vanessa Bayer tonight in spray-tan face makeup and a silver wig.

I'm not wise enough to know whether Ms. Deen is a racist. I do know she's a salesperson. She sells cholesterolized recipes and foods that no cardiologist would endorse. When she learned she had diabetes, she changed her diet, but the fried and sugary entrees kept on coming.

She knows what sells.

The same way Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus, both vilified for discriminatory on-air comments in recent years, continue their broadcast shenanigans. They and their employers knew that their brands could overcome their poor choice of words, given time, apologies, and a measure of moderation.

Ms. Deen's strategy should have been three steps: Apologize. Abate. and Align. "Abate", as in, get off the stage. Take a powder. "Align," as in, start meaningful conversations with allies and potential adversaries. Listen more than you talk. Move foreward to rebuild credibility with small groups and organizations, to show you're able to move forward from recent events.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Getting your arms around road show photos

A marketing communications executive is doing a "road show." Marv and his team are holding learning events for customers in different cities, combining useful seminars and workshops with a little client hospitality.

A major ingredient of public relations is, in fact, food and relaxation. It's a great way to build relationships. Hand out all the screen-wipes and memo clips you like, but most clients and business partners enjoy a beverage, snacks, and some chit-chat in an atmosphere without white boards.

What's wrong with this scenario? The marcom exec leading this adventure occasionally posts photos of himself relaxing with co-workers. Most of whom appear to be happy women. Sometimes, there's hugging or arms-around-a-shoulder. And, as smart as I know Marv is, I keep asking: "Doesn't he know the message these snapshots send?"

The Clock of Nations at Rochester NY Airport
The message I get from his photos: Marv's having too much fun on his company's dime.

(Out of respect, I've chosen not to share or re-post his photos. Or links to pages where they've appeared. Instead, here's a lovely picture of the world's most disturbing clock.)

I'll be blunt: not everyone loves photos of bosses with arms around co-workers. It's collegial, in most cases. But viewed out of context. there's a signal about power hidden in those pictures.

If you're a leader in an organization -- college president, CEO, mayor, senior executive, general, ambassador, Congressional representative -- these photos have a way of haunting you, later on. (One senior leader, upon seeing a picture of himself with an arm around a female colleague who'd won an award, asked me to digitally erase his hand and arm.)

In Marv's photos, he and his cheery co-workers remind me of a skewed version of Bosley and Charlie's Angels. They are cozier than I'd want to be seen. And it doesn't help that their photos have that grainy, "I only had my camera phone" quality. The kind that litter Facebook and Instagram.

As a PR Paladin, I've run hospitality events with attractive-looking clients and colleagues. My Rule No. 5 was ALWAYS carry a camera. Not because my employer sold cameras, but because if I'm taking photos of co-workers and guests, it's difficult to appear in those photos.

As the ad hoc photographer, I could also ask people to put down their wine glasses, adjust their blouses, or straighten their ties for a more business-like appearance. Hey, stuff happens.

Hospitality photos have decreasing PR value. A pretty colleague may convince an editor to run a PR photo, but fewer publications today run shots of clients and executives enjoying wine and what-not. That's probably wise. Too often, photos of too-happy executives and guests send an unintended message.

For a communications executive who's mindful of his or her brand perception when casual photos surface on social media websites, the best advice is: always stand behind the camera.

Taking my own advice

You'll notice I've revamped the design of this blog. I wanted to improve readability, and while the white text-on-black looked cool, those long rivers of san serif text bothered my eyes.

Readability is the key here. A local company briefly flirted with a design aesthetic they called "black fade." This looked good in some collateral, but when it migrated to the LCD screens of its products, it was like viewing information through a $3 telescope.

It appealed to younger demographics, for a time. But editorial critics quickly re-christened it "fade to black." This collided with a financially bleak period for the company, and the departure of the marketing swami who pushed it forward.

Black fade is no more. Happy Reading!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Readers want to hold and fold

My earliest PR successes came from creating newsletters for business-to-business clients, alumni, and employees. These publications -- semi-weekly, monthly, and quarterly -- each helped grow relationships between my clients and their constituents (customers).

And none of them exist today.

Casualties of the digital age? In some ways. In the 1980s, desktop publishing gave almost everyone the power of the press. And some resulting newsletters were ghastly, much like some of today's blogs. But, as the internet grew, printing and mailing costs increased, and managers and marketers switched to online content: e-newsletters, or some other digital solutions.

Those managers overlooked an important factor: their audiences. People who view a newsletter as an emblem of a relationship. They're accustomed to physical connections, and willingly invest their resources and time to support those relationships. After spending their workday staring at an optically challenging computer screen, they prefer something they can hold, read, fold, revisit, and cut up to share.

In business environments, we are swamped with e-mail and e-newsletters. Am I devoting my limited time to reading a newsletter from some other business?

Think about your audience. People with discretionary income don't read everything on an iPhone. They don't drink from the fire hose of social media the way you do. They don't connect with a digital file the same way they do with a physical publication.

And I'll bet you don't, either.

E-publications don't live in customers' homes for days or weeks, either. They become lost in the e-mail torrent that floods our accounts every day. Digital articles and e-newsletters don't build conversations. Or relationships.

These two newsletters offer different approaches. The Preserve, a publication of the Genesee Land Trust, uses an effective mix of evocative photography and short articles to reach its audience. It helps drive supporters to an engaging, easy-to-read website. Meanwhile, the physically larger Community Connection focuses on the contributions of its members as philanthropists.

Community Connection isn't a better newsletter. Its photos and prose are somewhat ordinary. But it's bigger, and for a good reason: its readers are older. The type is larger and easier to read. Its editor understands this demographic and respects their needs by tailoring the publication accordingly.

Social media is powerful, without question. But it can only drive readers to content that exists in another digital form. Digital content has a long way to go, in terms of building relationships with people who have deep pockets.

Toss out newsletters? Not yet. For many stakeholders and customers, a physical publication, created with readers' needs in mind, can foster conversations and relationships in ways that Twitter and Facebook cannot achieve.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Social couponing and the Sundance Kid

In my favorite film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there's a scene where the heroes step off a train at a rural town in Bolivia. Sundance takes a few steps into the plaza, and promptly steps into cow dung -- while Butch extols how much more they can buy with their stolen dollars and pesos.

Sundance surveys the run-down plaza, looks at Butch, and says: "What could they have here that you'd possibly want to buy?"

The scene comes to mind (minus the cow dung) every time I get an email from AmazonLocal, Groupon, or LivingSocial. Each of these online deal aggregators uses the power of social networking and deal-making with retailers to offer half-price deals to members. Call it social couponing.

Ninety percent of these deals are things I would never, ever buy. Even after I've customized my Groupon settings. I've purchased one or two of these offers. The majority, however, are for goods or services I don't find valuable.

Is this a $20 burger?
One example: each of these sites invariably offers a half-price deal on bar food (burgers, wings) and beverages (beer, soda).

That's fine, if you dine at taverns. But most bar food is overpriced and hastily prepared. So the $20 coupon you bought for $40 of retail value really buys about $10 worth of food -- a meal you could prepare better and less expensively yourself, without leaving a tip.

Coupons don't build your reputation or brand. They rarely build relationships. Coupons, whether printed or e-tailed, do one thing: they entice you to try out a merchant you might not ordinarily visit yourself.

To paraphrase Sundance: do social couponing sites sell anything you'd really want to buy?

Also: merchants don't like them. One merchant asked me simply to skip Groupon next time, and call him directly. He'd give me the Groupon discount in person, thus saving himself the percentage he pays to Groupon to post his offers. He wants a relationship with me, the consumer -- not with Groupon.

Social networking (which is how Groupon-like sites wish to be viewed) should work to build relationships. Paying half-price for over-valued items isn't the way to grow your brand, or create value with first-time customers.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Forgotten roses: lost content

An effective PR strategy requires leveraging social media to drive visits to richer content: blogs, videos, podcasts, infographics, etc. Create great content, and you give a human identity to an otherwise faceless business or organization.

But, the content must be rich and active. And, if you once used Alta Vista for online search, you know that, like early roses, nothing online is forever.

Recently I revisited my list of links to blogs and other websites that carry content I’d created. To be certain the URLs were accurate, I clicked each link. More than a few articles – mostly posts I’d written for company blogs – had been vaporized.

Broken links? Worse. After digging, I discovered the hosting service that managed the blogs had folded. The client company (the one with their name on the website) hadn’t restored its missing content, or explained where it had gone. With the hosting service’s servers inoperative, a large chunk of their blog content – the “real people” stories that gave the organization a human identity – was indefinitely marooned, somewhere in cyberspace.

Is this a tragedy? Blogs and podcasts aren’t the raison-d’ĂȘtre of most websites. But, your Tweets and Facebook posts live on and on, guiding them to the payoff: your content. When followers reach a dead-headed page that doesn’t deliver promised content, their opinion of the company quickly sours. They go elsewhere.

If you’re responsible for shepherding your organization’s web content, safeguarding that content should be a priority. And maintaining relationships with your followers is essential. You owe them some explanation or apology for the broken links. And you should indicate if any steps are underway to restore the missing content.

Monday, May 13, 2013

How many public relations hats do you wear?

How many hats do you wear in PR? Counselor? Writer? Media negotiator? Strategist?

Here's one more: ethicist. we need more authenticity. In PR. On Facebook. And maybe in life.

Brian Solis, who blogs about the impact of culture, technology and business, thinks there's room for much more transparency online. Brian had an interesting take on authenticity in public relations and social media, which you can read here.

He argues for disclosing your relationship with a client or company if you write a personal blog or reviews about that company's products. Brian's post doesn't directly talk about the 2006 "Wal-marting Across America" scandal, captured here. But the connection's clear.

Fast-forward; in 2013, authenticity is on the ropes again. Facebook and Twitter, in particular, enable unbridled "liking" and "following" of products, brands, and services. When we cheerily agree to use a Facebook app, we often give it permission to "post on your behalf." That means a birthday calendar app or even "Words with Friends" can post something as YOU -- and you did nothing to initiate that process.

I didn't sign up for that. And I'm betting you didn't either. Except you did.

The worst offenders: word-puzzles that "bet you can't name a state without the letter 'E'," or something similar. Harmless trivia? When you add your answer, the traffic tally rises for the original account holder. Often, it's a radio station goosing its Facebook stats so the site's algorithms give it more exposure.

Is it authentic? Hardly. Should you wash your hands after using Facebook? Yes, you should.

Much the way "Good Morning America" asks viewers to describe their week in three words, I counsel PR clients and colleagues with three words: tell the truth. Ivy Ledbetter Lee said, "Tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway. And if the public doesn't like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what people want."

Ivy Lee had his conflicts, to be certain. So will Mark Zuckerberg. But with authenticity taking a beating, PR practitioners should do more to counsel their clients to be transparent when using social media to tell their stories.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Finding your voice on social media

This started out as some informal recommendations I shared with a colleague at a large not-for-profit institution. As with many large enterprises, not all areas within the organization get the online visibility they desire. My friend's area wants to earn some visibility with prospective customers -- but the "mother ship" organization's social media strategy doesn't provide the ability to promote individual departments or divisions.

Here's what I shared with my colleague:

Facebook would be an OK place to purchase ads, if that's where your target audience is looking -- and if they will take action based on your ads. When I visited (your department's) Facebook page, I saw 430 views, but just 24 "likes". You want the 'likes' to grow, because they show up on other people's Facebook feeds.

For comparison, a small local non-profit's Facebook page has 64 likes. It's much smaller than your organization, so word of that page spreads via word-of-mouth and some viral visitors who 'like' that page. The small non-profit doesn't spend money to advertise it.

Much of the advertising on Facebook is geared toward selling products or promoting services. There's nothing wrong with this strategy. But I've seen Facebook users grow annoyed at the influx of ads, and they'll download browser add-ons that effectively block most display ads on Facebook.

Connect your social media with content

If it were me, I'd devise a "feed strategy" that revamps and orchestrates your department's Twitter feed, LinkedIn, and other social media channels together to drive people to your "featured" content. Many of your department's Twitter posts should lead your followers to richer, more experiential content. That's content marketing, and those who follow your links expect a payoff in the form of useful or engaging content on your website or Facebook page.

This calls for a steady stream of posts. You can set up the Twitter feed to redirect posts onto Facebook, too. For this to "catch fire," the frequency of "rich posts" can help increase the modest number of followers for your department on Twitter.

But first, you need to answer some bigger questions:

  • What's the department head's objective of using social media? You must set goals and objectives.
  • Does he want to increase constituent engagement for networking and development? Does he want to increase the flow of new applicants? Does he want recognition from conventional news media? You need to prioritize and set expectations.
  • Does he want to get a larger share of mind among companies that may hire alumni of your organization, or offer internships? What persuasive messages will generate actions consistent with his goals?
Once you've addressed these questions, there needs to be a commitment to populate, listen, and engage via these social media channels. And make them work together to create a common voice. It's not "pay and pray," which is what much of online advertising boils down to. Social media needs to work to create relationships with the audiences it seeks to influence.
And that, my friend, means devoting staff resources to this effort. People don't build relationships with Twitter handles; they build relationships with other people.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Outbound Plane: One-Way PR -- Or Building Relationships that Persuade?

Great communications means building relationships: leveraging the right message, in the right voice, with the right audiences. 

You may have a working PR strategy. But, if it's not yet interwoven with building relationships via social media, content marketing and event presence, you're only doing outbound, one-way messaging.

Are you listening to your customers and stakeholders online? Can you look them in the eye and be unafraid of what you see?

With 20+ years of corporate, academic, and not-for-profit public relations successes, I'm starting a new chapter. I've broadened the definition of PR via executive presentations, video podcasts, media relations, government affairs, social media, content marketing and event management.

Please let me know about your marketing, social media and communications challenges. You have marketing and revenue targets;  I can audit, align, refine and implement your communication strategies so you're building relationships that support these targets.