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.