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 Dobsch├╝tz (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?