Monday, August 31, 2015

The PR Apprentice, 100% Trump-free

Now and then, I have the privilege of leveraging the craft of public relations to do some real-world good. In a few weeks, that opportunity comes around again with our "PR Apprentice" competition -- where we'll ask college students to dive in to the deep end of the PR pool.

It's a sink or swim event.

This year's program (Oct. 2-3) involves members of the PRSA chapter in Rochester, NY and local media representatives serving as coaches and judges of teams from several colleges and universities in Western New York.

Over a 36-hour period, the teams of students will strategize and pitch their best plans to promote a dual-language awareness campaign for Ibero American Action League's Early Childhood Center. View a video and full details on PRSA Rochester's website.

Engaging undergraduates in this competition gives them both exposure to a real-world PR challenge, and helps them demonstrate their skills to agency, not-for-profit, and corporate practitioners who may help them network and find career opportunities. It also helps them engage with a diverse audience, and try to wrap their heads around engaging audiences they might not encounter on a college campus.

Did I mention that the winners will also have opportunities to put their great ideas into action? They'll be writing content and blog posts and capturing video for actual media consumption, not a college class.

And, we hope, they'll move the needle on awareness for Ibero's program.

(Full disclosure: we adapted the program's "PR Apprentice" name in an earlier iteration a few years ago, before the TV series' star entertained notions of political campaigning. Thus, we have zero connection with Mr. Trump.)

Check back here in a few weeks to see how we did.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Deciphering the "Shop Your Way" approach

Kmart talks "asset light" and "member-centric" while removing services

I stopped in at Kmart to buy a shirt.

And I discovered they'd removed the walk-up electronic price scanners that helped shoppers verify item prices and discounts. I now needed to wander the floor, hoping to uncover an employee with a pricing gun. Good luck with finding floor personnel at any Kmart.

Really? At a time when retailers should be doing everything to build engagement with consumers, Kmart is removing most of its ways to deliver value to customers. Seems counter-intuitive to a retailer that touts a "Shop Your Way" connection with customers. 

No store generates more paper at the register
than Kmart. (c) DKassnoff
At the checkout, the cashier announced to a fellow clerk, "I'm clocking out at five," before handing me a wad of auto-printed coupons and promotions. Five slips of junk for products I'd never buy.

If there's a PR strategy behind this, it's very well hidden. 

Edward Lampert, the Kmart/Sears CEO, is quoted in recent news releases, talking about the effort to "transform (Kmart/Sears) from a traditional, store-network based retail business model to a more asset-light, member-centric integrated retailer leveraging our Shop Your Way platform." 

"Asset-light" means closing and selling off low-performing stores. Removing most of the consumer electronics department. And ripping out fully-amortized price-checkers that helped consumers make purchase decisions. 

"Member-centric" means extracting data from customers in exchange for inane slips of paper that reflect zero regard for customer relationship management.

I bought the shirt. But whatever "Shop Your Way" means to Lampert, it's unlikely to get me back into that store anytime soon.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Stopping the Barbie mentality

Two companies recently took steps to change how they approach the female demographic. Target took a step forward. BIC took a step backward.

Target announced it would remove in-store signs that categorize products as gender-specific. Good move; it should be up to the parents and their kids to determine which toys sons and daughters prefer. While a minor issue -- no one had filed a lawsuit over the "girls' building sets" signs -- it's a simple change that shows the big retailer's listening to its customers. The company earned positive media coverage for it.

BIC's faux pas was a hastily launched and withdrawn online ad tied to Women's Day in South Africa. You can read about it here. Bad form, BIC. Objectifying women and telling them to "think like a man" insults every woman who's ever had her suggestions batted down by a lame-brained male executive. 

BIC, you'll recall, launched a line of pink and purple "BIC for Her" pens that earned scorn and mockery from consumers, who plastered with sarcastic comments. In the PR universe, BIC has a tin ear about what women want in a pen. Or a disposable razor. Or an ad campaign.

Every consumer-focused business thinks they know their audience demographic. Common corporate wisdom says that women make the majority of purchase decisions in most households. So women should, and do, call foul over gender pandering when companies slap a pink logo on a product and call it "Just for Her."

Regardless of gender, communications professionals can also offer insights that may prevent a company from making repeated BIC-like mistakes. I once had to tell a client not to do a news release promoting the client's first outdoor ad campaign to feature black models because critics would ding the company for not having done it years earlier.

You'd expect someone at BIC has enough insight to warn managers about Barbie-dolling women in their campaigns. But you never know.

And while we're at it -- why is there no Women's Day in the U.S.?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Banging the drum for active voice houses a wealth of executive-written news releases. If you're a CEO with a do-it-yourself gene, you'll find plenty of friends here. Their writing's not brilliant, but someone at appears to edit them.

The weakest element of the writing? Most rely on passive voice, or over-dependence on “to be” verb phrases. Unless you're auditioning for Hamlet, I'd excise any use of the "to be" verb phrase. A simple example:

By Stephan Czuratis (Jazz-face)
(Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
Passive Voice:  “It was announced today that a new ergonomic drum stick is being launched by Chicken Percussion, Inc.”

Active Voice:  “Chicken Percussion today launched a new line of ergonomic drum sticks.”

A reliance on weak to-be verbs kills any energy in your news story. “It was announced…” and “is being launched” sounds as if everything’s after-the-fact. Remember, news releases should deliver news – and in today’s 24/7 news cycle, immediacy (or conveying a sense of immediacy) is essential.

Speaking of voices, I found a good example in a news release from Voicebrook, Inc. Consider two versions of the lead paragraph for a news release:


Lake Success, NY, August 06, 2015 --( Voicebrook, Inc. is sponsoring Cerner’s 2015 Laboratory Learning Workshop. This two and a half day educational opportunity will be held at Cerner’s World Headquarters campus, in Kansas City, MO. The Workshop is being held on August 10th through the 12th. A Voicebrook representative will be available to answer questions and discuss seamless speech recognition reporting solutions for laboratories using Cerner’s Anatomic Pathology solutions.


Kansas City, MO., August 6, 2015 --(— An Aug. 10-12 Laboratory Learning Workshop exploring speech recognition reporting solutions for labs takes place here at Cerner’s World Headquarters campus in Kansas City. The workshop, sponsored by Voicebrook, Inc., will include a Voicebrook representative to answer questions and discuss seamless speech recognition reporting  for labs using Cerner’s Anatomic Pathology solutions.

The shift in tone makes a difference. Removing passive-voice phrases such as “is sponsoring,” “will be held,” and “will be available” focuses the reader's attention on what’s happening. Active verbs such as sponsored  help add a sense of immediacy to the release.

One minor quibble: use the location of the event – Kansas City, in this case – as your dateline, rather than the location of your company (Lake Success, NY). A business editor in KC scans for local datelines, and may skip a release that talks about a business from another state.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Angle adjustments: $7. Scintillating prose is extra.

I was feeling a little blue the other day. So I looked online for something to amuse me. A news release with poor prose usually brings a smile to my face.

I didn't need to look far. At, I found sentences like these:
  • "The advancement in science and technology has escalated the living standard of the people to far greater heights." 
  • "Thousands of customers have already made it the integral part of their life and many more are on the verge of getting it soon."
  • "Why is the reason that this USB Adjust Angle has received such a substantial response within a short period of time? Well, many people still wonder; however, the users have already got the answers."
These aren't the observations of a drunken platinum futures salesperson in Des Moines. They are all direct excerpts from a news release for a "Conveniently Adjustable Mini USB Adjust Angle for Night Book Reading."
The product is a run-of-the-mill USB-powered lamp that a user can plug into a port on a laptop. This enables you to view the keyboard in the dark. It costs $7.

About as much as the company spent on writing its news release.

I'm not certain how an 8.5-inch bending lamp can illuminate a book for nighttime reading. The news release isn't crystal clear on this. The headline itself never uses the words "lamp" or "light."

When you find the lamp online, you'll notice that the "substantial response" consists of eight five-star ratings on Some of which may not be from actual purchasers of this LED wonder.

Be warned: MyPRGenie is in the business of taking customers' money and allowing them to publish their own badly written news releases. I have yet to meet the news editor who can attest to using a news release generated by MyPRGenie -- a company that might be taken more seriously if it edited its clients' news releases.

Or told them to hire a real writer.