Monday, December 29, 2014

Resolve to be authentic, not animatronic

I didn't know you could buy surplus animatronic figures from Disney parks. Let alone install one from the Hall of Presidents as a company CEO.

Animatronic at Disney Hall of Progress
By SteamFan (own work (Nikon D80)) [GFDL
CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
via Wikimedia Commons
You'll read countless New Year's resolutions in the coming week. Some will be preposterous or hard to keep.

But if you're a CEO or executive director of an organization, and you don't wish to be mistaken for an animatronic historical figure, there's an easy resolution to keep -- one that will help your internal communications far more than any newsletter or video message.

It's simple:

Be authentic. Be human. 

Not every CEO is a "people person." The leader I'm describing -- call him Gerry -- was a good strategist and a charismatic sales leader. But he was never at ease talking about himself, his values, or his family. Ask about such topics, and he'd go semi-rigid. As one of his speechwriters, I struggled to get Gerry to share glimpses of his background, or anecdotes of events that informed his leadership style today. 

Eventually, I cobbled together a few stories that helped create a public persona for Gerry. But it was somehow incomplete, and further complicated by another PR manager who insisted on painting the boss as a business visionary. 

Yawn. The business visionary fable only works when the business you lead is wildly successful. Gerry's was struggling. No one bought the "visionary" story. And it told the company's employees that their leader was disconnected from the realities of the business.

Contrast this with the legendary honesty of Jim Sinegal, co-founder and former CEO of Costco. He engaged with employees, had a modest cubicle of an office, and connected in shirtsleeves. When employees' health care costs rose, he defied logic and decided that Costco would bear about 90 percent of their costs.

But, even with financial challenges, Gerry could have found ways to show his human side. During his tenure, we learned that Gerry had a close relative who was seriously ill. Gerry let down his guard during a meeting with a small group of employees. Serious illness touches everyone, and we understood his anguish. He momentarily lost his composure. We all empathized.

Suddenly, he was human.

You needn't have an emotional moment to be authentic, either. A newly named department head I know took the time to write hand-written thank-you's to her team, and included a scratch-off lottery ticket. Cost? Miniscule. 

Had Gerry shared a moment of being human now and then, prior to this emotional moment, it would have resonated far more than any "business visionary" fable. We all recognize and appreciate authenticity. Sometimes, it enables us to rally around a leader in difficult circumstances. 

Gerry didn't succeed, although his shortage of humanity wasn't the only reason. Had he broken out from his animatronic facade, he'd have connected with employees -- who might have rallied to help the business succeed.

Friday, December 19, 2014

This season's wisest PR advice

Did you hear about the CEO who gave back his bonus because the company missed its financial target?

If you did, great. If not, you'll have to look up the story elsewhere. I'm not going into it here.

The most important part of public relations is being authentic. Being real. Acting like a human.

So if you're reading this, a few short days before Christmas, here's my professional advice:

Turn off your your computer. Browser. Tablet. Phone. Whatever. 

Go out and do something real. Something authentic. Something that has nothing to do with clients, product publicity, or crisis communications. It'll keep.

Be human. Celebrate the love of others, and be generous with your time and talents.

Happy holiday. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Five PR Basics: saying less is saying more

When you need to drop 2,000 words on "what PR Is not about," as a recent online opinion piece does, you're too much in love with the sound of your own words. And losing readers with every sentence.
By Joost J. Bakker (Flickr: Do The
Right Thing graffiti Amsterdam)
[CC BY-2.0 (
licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Is this really a checklist? It feels like a rant -- a long-winded epistle about what PR is not about that strayed into TLDR* territory after 300 words. 

So, in the interest of brevity and casting PR in a less-defensive light, here's a much shorter list of what public relations is:

1. Public relations is about building trust between an organization and its stakeholders: customers, members, employees, investors, partners, and media. Do this by telling the truth. 

2. PR is about helping organizations and their leadership act and sound smart, innovative, and authentic. 

3. PR is about doing the right thing and getting recognition for it. (I always attribute this to David Culver at Boyd Tamney Cross, who's the smartest public relations leader I know.)

4. PR is writing and sharing an organization's best stories in ways that connect their people, products, and services with others. And building relationships. 

5. PR is one essential element in an integrated marketing communications strategy. Advertising, digital content, social media, and event marketing are a few others. They should work together.

You can lengthen this list if you like. But saying less is often saying more.

*Too Long, Didn't Read

Monday, December 8, 2014

On Twitter, it's all about you

By lululemon athletica
[CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.
org/licenses/by/2.0)], via
Wikimedia Commons
There's a bit of Twitter real estate that can help your organization or client create brand presence. And too often, it's just thrown away. 

It's the "bio." That's what Twitter calls the 160-character summary about yourself or your company. One hundred sixty characters isn't much, but I'm often astounded how many organizations squander this real estate in unrelenting hyperbole. 

Creativity's fine here. But jargon isn't helpful. Here's one example:

BLANK BLANK, one of the nation's leading drug store chains, proactively empowers you in your pursuit of personal wellness. (Website)

What does this mean? Should I expect the drugstore's employees to drop by and be my personal trainer? They sell vitamins, bandages, and personal beauty products. My pursuit of "personal wellness," such as it is, comes from diet, exercise, and some ukulele playing. Not a wellness tag on my key ring. 


 award-winning chef/restaurateur 's casual neighborhood joint |  Est. 2011 •  Est. 2015

This is for Harry's Pizzeria in Miami, FL. -- but they never mention pizza! Astounding!  

I'm not crazy about using other Twitter addresses in that space that's supposed to be all about you. I might figure out James Beard's foundation, but I don't know @chefmschwartz -- and would be a bit confused. Just tell me you serve great pizza.

One more:

The D&C is the best source of local news in Rochester, bar none. Compared to the competition, its coverage is deep, varied and enriching.

Very prideful. Boastful, even. Doesn't say "daily," "newspaper," or even "media group," however. Comparisons are hard to make when there's no other daily newspaper in the market. So "compared to the competition" would mean what, exactly? The 30-minute local TV newscast, which on some days runs longer than the time it takes to read the D&C? 

My advice: Don't brag. Don't name drop. Don't wallow in hyperbole. Just tell me who you are. 

By Zesmerelda from (
/zesmerelda/175053378/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
A fine example is actor/LGBT activist George Takei, who's known for his immense Facebook following. But his @GeorgeTakei Twitter account has 1.4 million followers. So he's pretty specific: 

My name is George Takei. Some know me as Mr. Sulu but I hope all know me as a believer in, and a fighter for, the equality and dignity of all human beings.

George tells me what he does -- and does so with passion. All Twitter bios should follow his example.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Giving back in the direct marketing arena

Thousands of years ago, Bedrock Motors mailed Fred Flintstone a fake granite car key. The mailer promised a chance at starting a new car. Fred went over to the dealer, tried the key, and it didn't work. He was annoyed and left to shoot pool with Barney.

By Schumi4ever (Own work) [GFDL
or CC-BY-SA-4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0
, via Wikimedia Commons
And this hoary old marketing technique has continued unchanged ever since.

I'm sick of it. Even more today, because the fake keys sent by my town's Dodge dealer are plastic and metal -- and therefore not recyclable.

If the dealer sends out 1,000s of key mailers twice a year, that's a needless burden on the waste stream.

It's bad PR for his business if I mention the name of the Dodge dealer here. But there's just one Dodge dealer in my town. Its name rhymes with "arena." You can figure this out.

So, here's what I did:

I gave him back his key.

On Thanksgiving Day, when the place was closed, I went over to Rhymes-with-Arena Dodge, by the marina. I parked across the street, walked over, and placed the mailer/key under the snow-packed windshield wiper of a Hyundai. I'm hoping it will freeze against the glass when the temperature drops. Or make a wet paper mess if the temperature rises.

Then, I turned to Facebook to urge my friends and neighbors to do the same. As I'm urging you to do.

Look, direct mail marketing isn't evil. But all direct mail should be two things: informative and recyclable. Rhymes-with-Arena Dodge's direct mail isn't recyclable, and for that matter, treats me like a simpleton. It's also a cluttered graphic design nightmare.

So, in the spirit of the season, I've chosen to give back. Rhymes-with-Arena Dodge deserves their keys back. All of them. If you're in the neighborhood, they close around 9 pm. And there are plenty of windshields to choose from.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Cosby and the unending half-life of accusations

I can't begin to talk about the psychology of rape or rape victims. I don't know what I don't know. And, probably, neither do you.

But when the recent round of accusations against Bill Cosby surfaced last week, and the only rebuttals came from Dr. Cosby's attorney (an interesting choice of spokesperson), my PR gene kicked in.

By cropped by JGHowes from
File:Lee Archer memorial service
 (2010).jpg [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Cosby calls these charges "innuendos." Given the number of women who've stepped forward with claims, the word "predatory" comes to mind. Either way, it's a sad capstone for Dr. Cosby's decades of professional achievement and acclaim. Here's a recent account:

The PR guy in me asked: "If I'm a beloved 77-year-old entertainer whose bank accounts total an estimated $400 million, and I'm facing rampant accusations in an era when nonstop media coverage amplifies any and every story, what's my path forward?"

My answer: I apologize. I donate a respectful contribution to organizations that work to help prevent rape and assist rape victims. 

And then, I retire. 

It's not like the era of matinee movie idols, when actors such as Errol Flynn's personal exploits were seen as "dalliances" and had a short shelf-life in glossy movie magazines. Media coverage on the Internet is relentless. One hard reality: rarely is an article taken down, even if it's later proven inaccurate. 

Cosby has had a great run. (Not counting Ghost Dad and Leonard Part 6). While continuing a string of concert performances and attempting to launch another weekly TV sitcom might fatten his wallet, these endeavors won't burnish his reputation. True or hollow, the accusations will dog him at every public or talk-show appearance.

As an entertainer, he has little left to prove.

Among the first comedy recordings I purchased was Cosby's hysterical 200 MPH LP. He was an innovator in stand-up, and as a black lead actor in the NBC-TV series I Spy. I'd prefer to remember him that way, not as a senior citizen fighting a chorus of charges by clamming up and delivering a silent 'No Comment.'

Monday, November 17, 2014

Talk to me and I'll follow you

Eric Friedman makes a number of good points about employee communications in this blog:

10 Steps to Keeping Employees Engaged and Motivated

-- but he skims past an important step: listening to employees, face-to-face.

His communications advice: "Communicate well and often. Training sessions, memos, newsletters, FAQs, and regular meetings can all be used to present your vision to your employees. Make sure to ask questions, and if they are confused, redesign the way the information reaches them."

"Trim for ansatte hos NVE" by
Henrik Svedahl/Norges vassdrags- og
 energidirektorat -
nve/4174242876/. Licensed under
Creative Commons Attribution-Share
 Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
This advice feels at once both intelligent and dated, because Eric's cited source is about 10 years old. Memos and newsletters -- increasingly lost in today's daily crush of emails, and rarely committed to print -- are less relevant.  Many employees either don't have access to desktop or laptop connectivity, or are restricted from using mobile phones on the worksite.

So what's the solution?

Try listening instead of memo'ing.

One of my best supervisors in my corporate career, hours after assuming the job, scheduled short, face-to-face meetings with each team member. He asked what I did, where we were successful and where our efforts came up short, where I wanted to grow, and then asked what I needed to be more successful. He also spoke of taking ownership of decisions, and empowered me to make decisions -- but added, "I own every decision you make."

The relationship started off with a shared path forward, and I felt empowered for months after that 45-minute conversation.

Whether you choose to call this "emotional intelligence" or management by walking around, it's a very effective communications strategy. Until my last day with the organization, I knew that supervisor's objectives and knew how to meet and exceed our shared goals.

Yes, face-to-face dialogue is time-consuming. But it builds relationships that no newsletter, memo, or group meeting can achieve. It engages employees and gives them a sense of empowerment. And if you're building an internal communications strategy for managers, it's wise to equip those supervisors -- who may never have led others before -- on how to grow their listening skills.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Video with restroom acoustics

PR people know how to tell and sell a story. They know how to persuade.

They don't always know how to promote themselves.

This week, an agency sent a pitch and a link to their YouTube channel. They offered a series of 90-second clips showcasing their wisdom regarding social media. Here's one:

Each of their videos sounded like it was recorded in a restroom. At a fast-food restaurant. Not how I'd want to come across on the web.

PR is a business of persuasion. You must persuade clients that you know your topic, know your media targets -- and you know what you're doing.

I'm sure these people are smart. But when you post videos with poor audio quality, or don't re-shoot segments in which a speaker makes an obvious on-camera flub, you're not persuading anyone. You're only telling me that you don't attend to the quality of content that's the meat of social media.

Truly smart shops recognize that you can't persuade anyone with video shot on an iPhone, using an on-camera mike.

Some tips to avoid this:

  • Hire staff who know video and audio production. 
  • Purchase those services from external vendors. 
  • Buy a camera that can accept an off-camera mike.
  • Get over to a studio where the acoustics aren't school-corridor dreadful.

If you're going to self-promote using video, you must be sure the video content reflects the quality of your brand -- visually and audibly.

Monday, November 3, 2014

First move: Jian Ghomeshi and public opinion

This one's pretty simple, really. CBC talk show guru Jian Ghomeshi was let go last week by his employer. And before tongues started wagging, he got out in front of the story, publicly describing the circumstances surrounding his departure in an online missive.
Jian Ghomeshi (2009)
By Penmachine (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0
 or GFDL (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Both CBC and Ghomeshi claimed he was sexually active. Sometimes past the point you might expect. The Vancouver Sun has a succinct summary of activities to date:

Jian Ghomeshi’s CBC lawsuit is hopeless — even if he’s telling the truth

Credit Ghomeshi for getting his story out first. He defused the kind of protracted gossip and speculation that fuels much of the U.S. media's obsession with celebrity misbehavior.

The PR lessons:
  • Tell your story first, with a singularity of voice and message
  • Do it without a news conference
  • Give no interviews later on, to avoid extending the life of the story
I wonder why more public figures in the U.S. don't try this approach. It would have spared people like Mel Gibson, Amanda Bynes, and at least one Kardashian a great deal of protracted embarrassment.

The outcome's easy to predict, too. Ghomeshi's $50 million lawsuit against CBC is unlikely to come to trial. Neither side wants more salacious headlines. Although some women claiming to have had encounters with the radio star are coming forward, so the headlines may creep along.

There will be some settlement at some point, and CBC will run Q (Ghomeshi's talk show) with new hosts and contributors, until someone decides to rename it.

The real headache for Ghomeshi will be returning to employment in broadcasting, now that he's been very public about his sexual preferences. On the other hand, Rush Limbaugh's overdue for retirement.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Remembering your orphaned content

I have a bunch of orphans to look after.

Not long ago, I worked on a series of video podcasts. Created them, actually, with the help of some very talented video professionals. Our videos profiled professional photographers (see the screen shot below), many of whom championed the virtues of film and digital photography.

No one called our work "content creation" at the time. But we produced online material to help build the reputation and brand of a company struggling to re-imagine itself for the digital era. Digital eventually supplanted film, and the company filed for bankruptcy reorganization.

Our videos, however, reflect the company's view at the time: that film gave photographers creative latitude that digital cameras did not. (View the series at this link.) This view, in 2014, has changed.

The podcasts -- including this one, profiling British photographer Jocelyn Bain Hogg -- live on as created in 2011. Frozen in time. I would have forgotten them altogether, had I not received messages this week from YouTube that someone had found the Bain Hogg video and shared it with online friends.

Online content is plentiful, but it ages more rapidly than we realize. Bain Hogg's concepts are still valid, but the company that created it has all but left the business of pro photography, licensing its brand and products to another company. The content has become orphaned.

So, add to your list of PR job responsibilities: content curation. Someone needs to remember that content ages, and doesn't always synch with the organization's current objectives. 

If your PR programs include podcasts or other online content, it's essential to audit this content. Compare it with the company's current product portfolio and business objectives. If it's no longer relevant, consider removing the material, or perhaps make it available as archival content to the subjects in the video. If the content includes copyrighted material, it may compel you to remove it in order to comply with your licensing agreements.

Just don't let it become orphaned.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Realism and shoe leather in research

There's no shortage of companies eager to conduct research to fuel your PR recommendations for clients. Good data is helpful, sure. But I recommend a different approach:

Listen to your customers. Face to face. And not at a noisy, overstimulated trade show.

Author and market researcher Paco Underhill's firm makes a practice of doing retail research by having a staff member track a consumer's behavior, in detail, as he or she navigates through the store. Me, I'd be highly suspicious of anyone stalking me with a clipboard. 

However, the research I'm talking about does not involve clipboards or stalking. Here's how one experience went:

On a brief trip to the west coast, I had time to spare. I wandered into a small camera shop that catered to serious photographers. I asked "how's business," and then added that I worked for Kodak -- at the time, a powerhouse brand in photography. 

Unknown to me, the shop owner had serious issues -- not worth detailing here -- but the biggest was that no one at my employer's office had acknowledged his concerns. I listened, made mental notes, and promised I'd inform people higher up the food chain of his issues. Which I did.

You won't get an earful like that from a market researcher. But you also won't build a relationship by relying on online surveys and statistics as your sole source of insight. 

The best research? It involves an expenditure of shoe leather, and listening to customers. Those interpersonal exchanges will stick with you. And as you develop PR strategies, those experiences will influence your creative process. You'll remember that mildly annoyed retailer, and keep his concerns in mind.

That's research you can't buy.

Monday, October 13, 2014

When Public Relations isn't Public Relations

I coach and advise students about careers in public relations. So I see my share of online job postings for PR positions. Too often, they read like this:
By Esra / Esra
 [see page for license],
via Wikimedia Commons

[Headline:] Entry-Level Public Relations/Sales/Marketing

In Your Eye Marketing Inc is currently offering entry level sales and marketing positions that include comprehensive training. No prior sales or marketing experience is necessary, and we will train you at the entry level to learn a variety of skills from sales and marketing to management and mentor-ship. (sic -- mentorship is seldom hyphenated)
Responsibilities in Entry Level Include:

  • Assisting in the daily growth and development of our company
  • Assisting with efforts of new business acquisition
  • Expertly managing the needs of external customers
  • Developing strong leadership and interpersonal skills
  • Face to face sales of services to new business and/or consumer prospects
  • Preparing marketing and sales strategies alongside our Marketing Managers
  • Great interpersonal skills and social competency
  • Professional demeanor, organized, reliable
  • Effective and skillful communication skills
  • Ambition, a strong work ethic, and an earnest willingness to learn
  • Results driven attitude with a hunger for success
  • Ability to excel in a high-energy, fast-paced environment
This ISN'T public relations. It's sales. Period. If you don't see words like writing, news release, social media, media relations, or strategic planning, it's not public relations. It doesn't talk about working with editors or developing relationships with influencers or gatekeepers.

You may contact members of the public, but it's not a PR job. You won't be building a brand or working to understand attitudes. It's just sales promotion. Nothing wrong with a job like that, but if your goal is to do PR work for NASA, Ford, United Way, a college or professional organization, this isn't the best first step.

Yes, I get it; "entry level" opportunities are intentionally vague. But to suggest this role has much to do with the public relations profession is an outright lie. And the first rule of real PR is: "do not lie to the media."

Or, in this case, through the media. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Adrian Peterson at your breakfast table

I vowed not to give more airtime to Roger Goodell and the National Football League's problems. So despite the headline, this isn't about Ray Rice, or Goodell, or the league's inability to utter two simple words: "Zero Tolerance."

It's about using sports figures to promote consumer products. And whether it's time to end this practice.

The cereal box here shows Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back who's accused of child abuse for injuring his young son. The most recent coverage appears here. 

You'll struggle to find this Wheaties box on a store shelf. Maybe collectors snatched them up. Or store managers thought it wise to remove them. Maybe General Mills recalled them and shipped them to a country that never heard of Adrian Peterson. It doesn't matter.

As a society, we deify our sports heroes, pasting their likenesses on or in automobiles, footwear, food products, and even pain remedies. And when they make mistakes or cause off-the-field injury to others, we're shocked.

Olympian Michael Phelps faces a DUI charge. Cyclist Lance Armstrong lied about using performance-enhancing drugs. NBA star Kobe Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman. Tiger Woods, his mistakes are legendary. And on and on.

Surprised? They're human. They're well-paid athletes, and well-paid athletes face temptation at every turn. Sometimes, they make mistakes or errors in judgment. Just like those of us whose workplace isn't the Metrodome or the Staples Center.

Most parents know eating Wheaties won't help their kid burst past defensive linemen like Adrian. Or collect gold medals like Phelps. Wheaties has less sugar than some breakfast cereals, so maybe that's General Mills' motivation for putting sports figures on cereal boxes, because no one ever mistook Wheaties for Cap'n Crunch.

But the practice backfires -- often enough to call on marketers to revisit the practice. The marketing business is rich with very creative minds. I'm betting there are better marketing strategies to sell ready-to-eat cereals that don't involve showcasing fallible sports heroes at my breakfast table. And eventually dumping boxes of cereal in some distant country to help erase the embarrassment.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Escaping the firing squad

I love employee recognition. I despise 90 percent of the photos taken to recognize great employees.

HR leaders love to talk about employee engagement. If they wish to do more than talk, they'll advocate for a communications person to strengthen internal communications. 

One strategy: beef up employee recognition programs. Some organizations do employee recognition well. Hospitals and health care providers do a good job of honoring their employees. Colleges and corporations, less so. 

Often, someone will line up a group of employees for a recognition photo that's destined for a local newspaper, company newsletter, or website. The photo itself? It's often rushed, unposed, and you wonder if the organization is recognizing people, or lining them up for a firing squad.

Look at these actual employee recognition photos, and consider the following suggestions:

1. The Line-Up: a non-motion perp walk featuring a casual, backlit gaggle of employees who don't know where to stand or look. You or the photographer need to take ownership of this shot, and make it less deadly. Try dividing this ensemble; seat a few in a front row, and move in closer so it doesn't look as if they're awaiting the firing squad. And crop! (My rule: no head-to-toe shots. No one's shoes are that photogenic, except perhaps on "Sex and the City.")

2. Lighting from Hell: Every camera built in the last 10 years has an LCD screen that lets you review your photos. This shot, with sunlight creating weird reverse goatees on the award winners' faces, screams "delete." A simple fill-in flash would have made this photo 90% better. Digitally removing Lefty's creepy hand on the shoulder would take care of the other 10%.

3. Waving Your Award: Not the most flattering image,but Mr. Vest not only waves his big white envelope in front of a co-worker's face -- it's an ENVELOPE, not the award itself. Did no one tell him it's OK to open the envelope? Again, own the shoot: it's your job to pose the subjects, get the certificate out of the envelope, and tell Mr. Vest not to wave it around. Award winner should hold their award in front of them, at chest level, angled slightly so the camera flash doesn't wash them out.

4. Too Many Faces: you want to accommodate all honorees, but large group photos guarantee that someone's face will be obscured. Or, your shot will include pieces of mismatched lobby furniture. (Stripes and patterns? Hope it's not a rehab clinic.) Recommendation: Don't Be Stingy. There's no rule that says you must cram every honoree into one photo. Break up this crowd into three separate group photos, and make certain every face is clearly visible in each picture.

Honoring employees' achievements and hard work shouldn't be an afterthought. Some organizations do a fine job of celebrating their workforce. I've never visited Liberty University in Virginia, but I'm very impressed with the scrolling, 24-image online gallery that mixes posed and casual shots of the event where its employees were recognized. Even the posed group photos -- captured from a balcony, so every face (not their footwear) is visible -- are fresh and appealing.

This online real estate costs almost nothing, but its pass-along value is limitless. More organizations could do this with in-house resources. It's a fine way to engage employees and their families. And avoid the tired "line-up" photo.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Embracing hyperspace, or not

A headline that failed: "have you embraced the new Instagram Hyperspace app yet?"

By Braden Kowitz (Hugs!) [CC-BY-SA-2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Seriously? Embraced?

First: you can call Instagram an app if you wish, but that's a misnomer. It's a thief.

When you post an image, the metadata in your photo tells Instagram (and its corporate overlord, Facebook) where and when the image was created. Algorithms comb the image for clues about your buying habits and likes. The image's information becomes something InstaFacebook can re-sell to marketers.

I don't embrace thieves.

If anything, InstaFacebook has you in more than an embrace. It's got you in a headlock.

Second, Hyperspace: compressed time-lapse videos that make the best footage look like it went through a cappuccino machine. I could do this with a $75 digital camera, but I prefer high-quality videos that lovingly showcase my scenes, or my clients' products.

Third: From a prose perspective, I don't "embrace" software or apps. I use them. They are appliances. 'Embrace' suggests you have an emotional investment in an app.

You don't, do you?

I embrace people. I can embrace some beliefs, ideas, and philosophies. I cannot embrace an app.

PR and marketing copywriters possess a vast Dopp kit of prosaic words -- passion, embrace, companion, etc. -- for tech pursuits. And, I'm a fierce user of technology. But neither you nor I truly embrace these appliances. Unless you go to sleep with an iPhone under your pillow.

And if that's true, consider re-thinking your priorities. Embrace life. Not tech.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Roger, over and out

If Roger Goodell is still commissar -- er, commissioner -- of the National Football League by the time you read this, it's because he has 32 team owners who love him. And a legion of fans who'll buy anything with an NFL logo. Including balderdash.

Roger Goodell,
 By Staff Sgt. Bradley Lail, USAF [Public domain],
 via Wikimedia Commons
Last week, I led my public relations class through a discussion of the Ray Rice-hit-his-fiancee-now-wife episode. But I might as well have done the lecture in origami, because new details keep unfolding.

Last Friday, Baltimore Ravens fans -- including many women -- were shown in USA Today wearing replicas of Rice's jersey in support of the banned running back. The story continues to change, but here's a reasonable snapshot of what's taken place. It's not pretty.

Rice and his wife may be right in blaming the media for their woes, including his indefinite suspension. They both appear to have behaved with amazing stupidity. Public opinion labelled Rice as an abusive personality long before the punch-in-the-elevator video went viral.

But Goodell's claims that the NFL never saw the latest video sound hollow, if not false. When he told CBS News that the NFL hadn't seen the in-the-elevator footage before Monday, Sept. 8, he shifted the public's furor away from the Rices, and onto himself.

But then, that's Roger's job.

Goodell's credibility -- already stretched thin by the NFL's long dance around the concussions and brain injury issues -- wasn't helped when the AP reported that the punch video was sent to the NFL in April.

Goodell's job is to be the lightning rod for any and all criticism of the NFL. That's so the 32 team owners don't have to take the heat when a player or coach behaves foolishly or violently. And, as the  New York Times' Joe Nocera points out, Goodell's well-paid for taking all that heat.

Meanwhile, NFL fans consistently overlook its mistakes and its arrogance. Why? Perhaps because the league -- with its own cable network, plus incredible influence over other TV networks through multi-billion dollar contracts -- manages public opinion better than any celebrity rock star.

Their tax-exempt, anti-trust exempt status frees the NFL from meaningful scrutiny. And no one's held accountable. At least, until now, when U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller's asking for federal hearings about the NFL's domestic violence issues, which may be more widespread than just between the Rices.

My view: the NFL needs to get its stories straight. Goodell appears either out-of-touch or an exceptionally gifted hoodwinker. Either way, his credibility as an in-touch senior leader is severely impeded. And the team owners can't hide behind a $44 million man with zero credibility.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The PR issue we're not ready to talk about

(c) DKassnoff, 2008
Next week (Sept. 18-19), hundreds of public relations pros will visit Rochester for the Public Relations Society of America's northeast regional conference. They'll talk about social media, SEO, media relations, and many other hot PR topics.

They'll drink coffee. They'll multitask. They'll swap and lose business cards.

But they won't talk about communicating with diverse audiences, or hiring diverse account executives.

A colleague invited six diversity PR experts (including me) for a panel discussion. But it isn't taking place. Just one attendee registered for the panel, so it's been cancelled.

That's disheartening for PRSA's Rochester chapter, which has had a very active diversity committee for about five years. A committee that has earned national recognition for a pioneering "Diversity Apprentice" initiative introducing high school students to public relations.

That just one PR practitioner signs up for a discussion about diversity communications is a disgrace. It says that our PR profession doesn't understand segmentation, or speaking to different audiences in ways that respect their needs and cultures. It says we don't need to reach out to African Americans, Latinos, Asian, Native Americans, LGBTQ and other segments any differently. That one message works for everyone.

That's just dumb. And for a profession that just a few years ago was branded a "pink-collar ghetto," it's incomprehensible. 

Ours is a profession that's supposed to engage untapped and under-represented audiences. Cultivate those audiences who are growing faster than the majority population. Not ignore them.

Yet in Rochester -- a town with a handful of minority-owned agencies, a number of women-owned marcom shops, growing ethnic and LGBTQ populations, plus simmering racial problems -- we're just going to say: "Skip it."

That's a PR fail far worse than any corporate blunder I can write about. And it sucks.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Are you WED?

This is not asking about your marital status. It's about becoming an extraordinary PR pro.
(c) DKassnoff, 2014

In my workplace, "WED" is more than a word on a calendar page. It's a personal reminder:  WRITE. EVERY. DAY. WED. 

The surest way to become extraordinary at some skill is to practice it every day. That's how Derek Jeter, Mo'ne Davis, and Jimmie Johnson become legends in their sports. Jeter takes batting practice before every game. Johnson doesn't wait til race day to log hours at the wheel at 180 mph.

Writing is the same. Do it every day. You'll get better at it. Even if you're not writing a news release or a speech script. An actual letter to a friend will do. (Caveat: texts and emails don't count. Use paper and ink, not your thumbs. Your writing will have a greater sense of permanence, and you'll impress whomever receives your letter.)

Yes, we all know some PR people who don't write. They may be capable delegators. They may have great media relations skills. But they stumble when pressed to place words on paper, and if you've honed that skill, you'll be in constant demand. Because you'll be able to build relationships for yourself, your clients, and your co-workers -- based on the calibre of your prose.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Slaves to fashion of sorts

Lady Gaga may or may not be a fashion icon. But someone at Pearson Publishing thinks she's a barometer of public relations, and chose her as the cover photo for Fraser Seitel's The Practice of Public Relations (12th edition).

Footnote: some guy named Obama was the cover photo of the 11th edition.

This isn't about tastes in music or whether Mr. Obama is a successful president. It's about our attitudes toward celebrity, and how we eagerly accept entertainers as exemplars of brilliance. I don't follow Lady Gaga or her music, but I do see how she's adept at leveraging opportunity when it comes her way. Examples:

  • Polaroid -- today a foonote in photography -- made a splash in 2010 when it named Lady Gaga its "creative director." Digital cameras were wildly popular then, and manufacturers churned them out in semi-bedazzling colors. Polaroid's marketing move cued plenty of headlines. However, Polaroid's brand image never rose above the "Big Lots" discount electronics category.
  • Next month, you can buy Lady Gaga's CD of duets with legendary crooner Tony Bennett. Tony doesn't need the money or a singing partner. Gaga, on the other hand, basks in Tony's music halo, perhaps extending her brand to a demographic that knows her best for buying dresses in the meat department at PathMark.
Lady Gaga knows opportunity when she sees it. She doesn't know PR the way professionals do, but has good instincts about what's popular and a smart strategy team helping her. And when you have a $90 million empire and more than 47 million Facebook fans, it's hard to fault her choices.

On the other hand, you wouldn't go to her for PR advice if you were, say, a singer named Justin on a never-ending bender. So while she profits from a good instinct for notoriety, I'm reluctant to crown her a master of PR. 

STILL, it says something when you bump a sitting president off the cover of a PR textbook. He, too, has a similar strategy team -- apparently with less smarts than Gaga's.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Planning for a PR squall

Through an intriguing cross-marketing agreement, Lands End recently sent copies of GQ to its most loyal customers, along with their catalogs. Some were unhappy with the semi-risqué photos of an under-dressed female model. (You can view the image here.) They complained loudly, and L.E.'s CEO apologized. Read about it here:

From a crisis communications viewpoint, Lands End -- inventor of the Squall jacket -- did most things right, especially with CEO Edgar Huber's direct apology: “There are simply no excuses; this was a mistake.” And removing customers' names from the GQ mailing list was a smart move, too.

Cross-promotions involving trendy media are tricky. A case could be made that Conde Nast, GQ's publisher, severely misjudged the clothier's demographic; conservative, middle-of-the-road consumers who want durable fashions. Hint: sweater vests and bulge-hiding swimsuits are a pretty strong clue.

Lands End's customers are aging, and mail-order clothing companies are either closing (see Coldwater Creek) or struggling to reach new consumers (see L.L. Bean's struggling Signature line). And print magazines aren't faring well in a digital age. In theory, these companies could help each other.

But in Lands End's case, the PR team should have been involved before the cross-marketing push. Did the marketing team ask its PR managers to conduct some research? Run a few focus groups? Ask Conde Nast for a peek at the next few months' cover stories?

Probably not.

The real value of having a public relations team isn't in doing crisis communications or drafting a CEO's apologies. The best public relations are those you never see -- because you've engaged the PR team before committing to a marketing strategy.

If the marketing leads at Lands End double-hat as their own PR execs, then they own the blame for this. If they had a separate PR team -- internal or agency -- then shame on Lands End for not getting them involved before the GQ fumble unfolded.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Seeing isn't believing anymore

Photojournalists have been fired for altering news photos. Public relations people disseminate art-directed, staged, or Photoshopped publicity photos. Somewhere in-between: crowdsourced photos used online by news media. Local TV and newspaper staffs are pretty lean, so they solicit photos from viewers and readers.

Asking readers and viewers to send photos is a handy way to engage your audience but there's risk involved. A scheming news junkie with a smartphone could contrive an image, although most editors are wise enough to spot a faked photo.

But what happens when a news outlet alters a submitted news photo for no apparent reason?

Look carefully at these two images, posted by two competing TV news outlets on their websites. Both show a burning car, from which the driver was rescued. A closer look reveals a subtle alteration between the two shots.

For unexplained reasons, the first news outlet omitted the license plate numbers. The second news channel ran the photo without the edit.

Why is this a big deal?

"Channel 1" enjoys a well-deserved reputation for its fine news coverage. It has experienced on-air journalists who are almost uniformly trusted for accuracy.

Posting altered images places the station's reputation in doubt. Curiously, they haven't done this with consistency; earlier submitted photos of accidents show the plate numbers of wrecked cars.

It's one thing to pixelate an image or video segment to hide a whistle-blower's identity, or obscure offensive language or gestures. The license plate number isn't offensive.

Do we chalk this one up to an over-cautious intern? Over-zealous editing?

Personally, I bristle at needlessly adulterated images. It's a practice that falsifies reality. We hardly notice the too-skinny women in over-edited shots of fashion models. And we routinely filter a digital image with Instagram or Photoshop before posting, in the name of fun and Facebook.

But news editors should draw the line, and resist editing photos just because they can.

We shouldn't whitewash reality from photos, unless there's a real risk to the safety of someone in the shot. Just as PR people need to earn the trust of media gatekeepers, readers and viewers should be able to believe in what they see on  news sites. Because that's where most news media are ultimately headed.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Who's missing from diversity arts dialogue

Bill Destler, RIT president
A few days ago, I volunteered at an intriguing symposium discussing diversity in the arts in Rochester, NY. My friend Rachel's 21st Century Arts organized this event. I had no role except running a wireless mike to audience members during Q&A sessions, and snapping a few photos.
Essie Calhoun-McDavid, retired Vice President, Kodak

Kevin McDonald, Associate Provost,
Division of Diversity, RIT
I've worked in diversity, higher education, community affairs, and public relations for some time. Every so often, I found ways to bring two or more of these areas together. The arts need more diversity, and the companies and individuals who fund these organizations can help bring more diverse artists into the picture.

With these modest qualifications, I made a few observations:

  • While many executives from arts organizations (museums, dance companies, art galleries, theatres, etc) attended the symposium, just two individuals with corporate giving expertise took part. One, a foundation president, was an audience member; the other is retired from her corporate role. The absence of business executives who help fund arts programs was apparent.

  • All attendees agreed that new pathways to financing arts organizations must be trailblazed. Missing from this conversation? Elected leaders. Why do they matter? Because even if they can't tap taxpayer dollars for arts initiatives, they can bring together arts organizations and corporate partners. No elected officials took part in this symposium.
  • Colleges and universities have a role to play in growing diversity in the arts. I applaud Bill Destler, president of Rochester Institute of Technology, and RIT Associate Provost and Diversity Officer Kevin McDonald for hosting the symposium, as well as delivering opening remarks. Other colleges in the region (and there are many) weren't represented.
My take-away? You can advocate and brainstorm ways to increase diverse representation in the performing arts, fine arts, and museums. But enacting meaningful reform calls for the participation of genuine influencers who can bring actual funding to the dialogue.

We need visible buy-in from business leaders and government. If they can't bring cash, they can help connect arts organizations with potential funders in their circles of acquaintances.

Sidebar: Rochester (NY)'s mayor is touting the town as a "City of the Arts." That's a good way to begin to change perceptions. But she and her colleagues need to bring business executives and others together to help make this more than a slogan.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Blowing off the gift guides

To you, it may be mid-summer. To a PR person, it's now the Christmas season.

By Sigismund von Dobschütz (Own work)
 [GFDL ( or
via Wikimedia Commons
Public relations people can't use regular calendars. Especially if they're working on product publicity. Most need to gear their PR strategies to reach consumers in the November-December retail window.

Which is why I loathe "Christmas in July" media events.

The people at Cision have created a 2014 Holiday Gift Guide pitching kit. You can download it here. It may be useful if you have clients who sell packaged goods, pricey hams, electronic products, or sports items, and who count on PR to help drive their year-end sales. Such a "kit" can help you spend the next few weeks convincing print, broadcast, and online media to include those products in their roundups.

You may get a 15-second mention on the Today show. Or a few lines on a tech blogger's page. Or a few re-pins on Pinterest.

My view? Most gift guides are like store-brand potato chips. Empty calories. No nutrition. Time wasters. Easily forgotten. 

There are more gift guides than you can realistically reach. And each has the shelf life of a bruised poinsettia. Did that gift guide suggest a Sony camera or a Canon? Living.Well says they cover the entire gamut of consumer items, from pets and video games to wines and spirits. Who's really ready to sift through all these gift ideas?

Not me. Your client's product will likely get lost in a sea of gift guide recommendations.

So, I recommend blowing off the gift guides. 

Instead, try a PR strategy than helps your client earn recognition for doing the right thing, and let the halo effect of that effort influence audiences. Maybe it's a partnership with a regional or national children's charity. Or a well-orchestrated effort to provide meaningful job training or housing for veterans. Or a significant cause marketing strategy that puts food on someone's table in lean times.

As a PR person, you can promote these good works without the retail fol-de-rol. Skip the gift guides. And give assignment editors and segment producers real stories to share with readers and viewers.

PR people are often great persuaders. Well, here's your chance. Persuade your client that one more 50-word blurb in a holiday gift guide won't generate nearly as much brand value as a well-planned effort to reach out to those in need.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

In times of crisis, where are your allies?

Last week's crisis communications misfires were plentiful, but let's focus on a Geneva, NY college (two, actually) and a media onslaught.

Hobart & William Smith Colleges and The New York Times went toe-to-toe over the Times' account of an alleged rape and its aftermath. It's a tragic story, no matter who spins the tale. A freshman student is subjected to an alleged rape, and the resulting investigations by college and local law enforcement failed to bring about action to discipline the offender(s) or change policy.

Hobart's response to the Times' devastating article? At first, no comments to the media, a letter on their website, and a follow-up letter to the editor of the Times from the chair of the colleges' board of trustees. Later, a heartfelt letter from college President Mark Gearan.

HWS President Mark Gearan,
By Kevin Colton (Kevin Colton)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I worked at the Colleges a few years ago, when a student died in a fall from a balcony during a fraternity-sponsored party. I hope things have changed since then. At the time, the Colleges had no crisis communications plan. From the looks of the "Anna" story, the response has involved relying on the Colleges' president and Board chair as their spokespeople on this painful issue.

Expressing defense and sympathy is fine, but repairing HWS' reputation calls for external validation and action from an objective third party or ally, not a president or trustee. Enlisting and updating external allies prior to the Times' story would have been a sound strategy. Now, they'll struggle to buy a friend.

The district attorney, interviewed by a local TV station, told reporters that the victim's parents declined to pursue a criminal investigation, and took issue with some details in the Times' article. The Times stood by its story.

Now, Gearan, the Colleges' president, will be pressed into extended damage control duty.

What can colleges and universities learn from this firefight? You need a crisis communications plan, no matter how warm the relations between students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumni. HWS is an expensive private college, favored by families with plenty of wherewithal. And trial lawyers.

A plan should include:
  • a communications audit, 
  • determining whether the college president becomes the sole spokesperson (he or she doesn't need to wear that hat), 
  • identifying and cultivating third-party advisors who can speak on your behalf, and 
  • scenario training. 
If your college communications office doesn't have the bench depth to conduct an audit or train for scenarios, enlist an external and experienced public relations pro to bring a dispassionate eye to the process.

I'm available.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Unions, collaboration, and NASCAR's millionaires

If you know what a green-white checker finish is, you'll like this post. If you don't, you'll learn something about how businesses view unions in an era when unions are in decline.

Last week, the top teams in NASCAR racing -- including those whose drivers include such marquee names as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Newman -- aligned to form a "collaborative business organization." Whatever that means.
Daytona 500, 2006
(c) David Kassnoff

The Race Team Alliance (RTA) may not be a union. Their stated mission is to explore areas of common interest and to work collaboratively on initiatives to help preserve, promote, and grow the sport of stock car racing. Millionaire drivers are abundant in NASCAR, so traditional labor issues might come down to what pit crew and garage teams are paid. That sounds noble.

But, remember, NASCAR's a family-owned enterprise, not a franchise-managing league like those in football and basketball. The France family didn't invent the sport, but they've exerted total control since the era of racing stock cars on the sands of Daytona Beach. NASCAR has long told teams and drivers what to do and where they'll do it, or their cars never see the race track.

RTA has the potential to alter that relationship. And NASCAR has to evolve. NASCAR's playoff model, the Chase for the Cup, hasn't been the success they'd hoped, despite years of tinkering. Top drivers (Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, and others) have missed the season-ending race sequence, causing legions of fans to tune out. Track attendance has decreased. In the name of safety and controlling costs, they've homogenized the race cars so as to minimize brand loyalty. And when Johnson -- a legitimate champion -- takes home the top prize six times in the last seven years, it's frankly time to shake up the sport.

To NASCAR's credit, its president, Mike Helton, issued a statement that promises to "listen to a lot of stakeholders." It never mentions collaboration. That's hardly a promise to work with RTA, because Helton's statement follows a long-time PR tactic: avoid legitimizing the opponent's brand by not mentioning them, per se.

Race enthusiasts and racing sponsors know from experience that the RTA and NASCAR must cooperate, lest the sport stumble badly. In the 1970s, a few unhappy race teams split from the U.S. Auto Club, the sanctioning body that ran the Indianapolis 500 and other open-wheel races. The USAC-Indy Racing League debacle lasted for years, and sundered fan loyalty. Indy never fully recovered.

Want proof? You've probably heard of Dale Earnhardt or Jimmie Johnson. Can you name the winner of this year's Indy 500?

I was one fan who never returned. I enjoy NASCAR racing, but any prolonged dispute between RTA and NASCAR will weaken the enthusiasm of fans like me.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Google's diversity hat trick is 2/3 complete

Hats off to Google for opening their wallet where it's needed: in diversifying its workforce.
Geneva Hats. Photo (c) DKassnoff, 2014.

Google is paying to help women and minorities learn to write computer code, according to Business Insider. A month ago, the company admitted it didn't have enough women or people of color in those IT jobs, and cited a lack of women and minorities studying IT to assume those jobs.

This, tied with its $50 million "Made with Code" initiative, are fine steps toward ensuring a more diverse workforce.

But, as I wrote here a month ago, Google's diversity effort is only 2/3 complete. Transforming the Internet colossus into a more-diverse business will really succeed if it also diversifies its leadership ranks. That's where the biggest gaps existed, according to Google's own numbers. Women and multicultural executives are essential to creating a business culture that's consistently mindful of the need for continued focus on diversity.

Good move, Google.

Monday, July 7, 2014

My kind of town and the truth

By (WT-shared) Inas at wts wikivoyage
 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
If you're a CEO, President, Executive Director, etc. -- or one day wish to be -- please read this message from the head of Raindrop Products.

It's a perfect example of how to treat customers, take responsibility, spell out a path forward, and do public relations around a thorny problem:

Dear Citizens of Webster,

Earlier this year the town of Webster officials made a decision to provide a new Spray Park on the grounds of the Webster Recreation Center. In addition to providing the citizens with a new community gathering place offering a fun, safe aquatic play experience, the officials decided to honor the town’s police officers and firefighters by theming this spray park with custom made spray toys with a “first responders” theme. 

The purchase order was issued for the manufacturing of the custom made pieces with the hopes of having the equipment in place for a July 4th Grand opening. Unfortunately due to unforeseen complications in the production of the products combined with our unwillingness to rush the production potentially jeopardizing our quality standards, the equipment will not be ready in time for Holiday grand opening. 

Your town officials all have done everything within their power to ensure the grand opening deadline was met, the blame for the delays falls squarely on the manufacturer of the equipment. As the president and CEO of the company that was selected to manufacture these products I want to apologize to the Citizens of Webster for our inability to hit the target grand opening. Despite using all available resources to ensure an on time delivery we were unable to meet the deadline. 

When complete, I am certain everyone will enjoy this exciting addition to the town of Webster. We are doing everything we can to ship these products as soon as possible.

Mark Williams
President & CEO
Raindrop Products

Is there anything simpler? Mr. Williams' letter was posted on the Town of Webster (NY's) Facebook page. (Good move; Webster's official web page is pretty ordinary, while Facebook gets abundant traffic.) Mr. Williams' letter is unaltered, with no additional massaging from town officials. So, kudos for the town's leadership for not adding needless spin and placing the message where citizens could find it with ease.

And the community's response? See the screen shot of comments left by Facebook users:

Overwhelmingly positive and understanding.

What business leader couldn't benefit from this level of transparency and truth in dealing with customers?