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.