Friday, September 25, 2015

Road to resurrection runs through 30 Rock

While Pope Francis led a spiritual resurgence of faithful Catholics in Cuba, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City last week, a different resurrection was taking place a few steps away from St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Brian Williams went back on TV Thursday to deliver news of the Pope's visit, working out of studios at 30 Rock. Except he's on MSNBC, the cable news channel that has fewer viewers than any other NBC-Comcast-Universal property.

By fimoculous from Seattle (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons
Mr. Williams, you may recall, fell off the NBC News' anchor desk seven months ago, after sharing tall stories about his exploits in Iraq and New Orleans that proved inaccurate, to put in kindly. Williams -- affable, credible, and a good front man for NBC's news product -- had fibbed. He was suspended, and only through the graces of new leadership at NBC News, was given an opportunity to resurface at MSNBC, where he began his network career a few decades ago.

Major news competitors gave reserved approval to Williams' return. The New York Times framed his resurrection as part of a broader effort to revitalize struggling MSNBC.  Huffington Post and the New York Post also reported on Williams' comeback, but the Post dwelled on snarkisms about Williams from Twitter.

I believe the media should spend more time covering news stories, not airing random social media remarks from people with excess data plan minutes. News outlets large and small dwell too long on Tweets from casual netizens, instead of reporting facts from knowledgeable sources.

As for Williams: he's one more proof point that Americans love a second act. If he succeeds, his presence may shore up a cable news operation that's struggled to maintain a foothold. I like Lester Holt at the helm of the NBC Nightly News on the parent network. But Williams has a shot at rebranding himself and the sibling cable channel. 

But you'd hope NBC News has learned not to pin its hopes on one charismatic news anchor to lift an entire network.

Monday, September 21, 2015

My Big Data headache

One of the classes I teach involves helping students understand the concept of Big Data. And it gives me a headache to think about it.

Big Data describes all the digital transaction information organizations acquire about us. Our health records (supposedly safe) are part of Big Data. When I buy kosher hot dogs, orange seltzer, and Tums (don't ask) at Wegmans, the loyalty card I carry tags my purchase in some data file. That becomes part of Big Data.

By Thierry Gregorius (Cartoon: Big Data) ,
via Wikimedia Commons
Taken together, an immense database contains our online purchase histories, our health histories, our online tussles with Microsoft, and so on. Most companies struggle to sift and manage this trove. And few can explain how hackers get into their computer servers and swipe it.

In 2013, Target experienced a major data breach. They were hacked. The chief information officer resigned. A few months later, after Target experienced an awful fourth quarter, the CEO quit, too.

Earlier this year, the second-larger U.S. health insurer, Anthem, got hacked. Seventy-eight million customers' personal data, by some estimates, was placed at risk. Joe Swedish, Anthem's CEO, is still in place, at last report.

You'd think these high-profile examples of mismanaging Big Data would have cued other organizations to check and reinforce their data safeguards. Sadly, Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield in Rochester, NY didn't lock the gates in time. Ten million personal records -- including mine -- may have been stolen in their August 2015 hacking.

What do we get, as customers? Precious little. Two years of free credit monitoring. And assurances that don't reassure us.

There's no public relations aspirin to cure this headache. I couldn't even suggest one. Maybe a video public apology from CEOs like Anthem's Swedish or Excellus' Christopher Booth. They would be more credible than press-release promises such as ""Protecting personal information is one of our top priorities and we take this issue seriously."

Not seriously enough, I'm afraid.

Because for all the talk about Big Data, there's no public face. No leader at the corporate or government level who's truly accountable for protecting the public's private information. And in this day and age, shouldn't there be an officer at Department of Homeland Security whose job is safeguarding the public from corporate hacking failures?

As for my students, I have mixed feelings about extolling the marketing potential of unlocking Big Data. Because, so far, the people actually unlocking Big Data have been thieves and scoundrels.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Don't call us, we can't decode news releases

You've got to admire an online news release distribution channel called 24-7 Press Release.

They're honest about their service: they take a news release you write, and distribute it to media outlets via a newswire-style service. What they won't do is also pretty clear:

"Please do not attempt to contact 24-7 Press Release Newswire. We are unable to assist you with any information regarding this release."

In other words: "We aren't the writers or people quoted in the news release you're reading. We're not set up for media relations."

Honest? You bet. Helpful? Not so much, at least if you read releases on 24-7 Press Release -- in this case, "Fresh Design Studio is the First Millennial Agency in the Midwest"

Millennials, I guess.
The release's lead was a head-scratcher."Fresh Design Studio, LLC, a leading creative agency, announces its shift to a Millennial agency, thereby painting an indelible mark in the digital marketing landscape. The move to reposition the agency's focus was driven by the need to effectively capture the interests of the Millennial generation, which is now the main driving force in all areas of every industry."

They talk about landscapes. The digital marketing landscape. The consumer landscape. Everything except actual landscapes. 

Lots of words, but Do you know exactly what Fresh Design Studio does? They use 'millennial' with abandon, although it's easy to challenge the idea that the Millennial generation is "now the main driving force in all areas of every industry." (Plumbing or locksmithing, for example, aren't exactly catering to Millennials.)

Is Fresh Design really the first agency to say they're good at reaching Millennials? In Chicago, the ad capital of the Midwest? If they are, they should point to a winning campaign that demonstrates their expertise. But they don't. (For thoughts about Millennials, look here.)

Picking apart a release that dances around the exact services you offer is easy. Fresh Design actually talks about their services in boilerplate copy at the end of the release. But since you've got 2.7 seconds to grab an editor's attention, saving these details until the final paragraph is burying your value proposition.

Small wonder, then, that 24-7 Press Release wants little to do with such home-brewed releases. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Burger wars won't bring Peace One Day

Burger King earned itself a moment of PR limelight with its recent invitation to McDonald's -- yes, that McDonald's -- to collaborate on a joint sandwich, later this month on Peace Day (Sept. 21).

McDonald's' response? "No, thank you."

McWhopper, as seen on NBC's Today Show. Full segment:
From one perspective, Burger King's armistice in the "burger wars" helped it gain some visibility, albeit at the cost of full-page newspaper ads, a Twitter account (#McWhopper) and a clever-ish website. The strategy borrows a little of McDonalds' luster to portray Burger King as a near-equal.

The reality is different, however. According to QSR magazine, McDonald's is still the reigning champ, with annual sales around $35 billion. Burger King clocks in at No. 5 -- $8.5 billion -- behind Subway, Starbucks, and Wendy's. McDonald's is shuttering restaurants, paring back its menu choices, and experimenting with larger Quarter-Pounders and all-day breakfast in a move to spark tumbling sales.

Is this a PR win? Earning two minutes on NBC's Today Show can't be viewed as a loss. At the same time, students in my Public Relations class at St. Bonaventure University said the campaign -- win or lose -- trivializes the idea of battle. "Burger wars" are fine from a marketing perspective for two mature fast-food brands. But our students reminded me that war -- real war -- means suffering, death, refugees, and much worse.

Burger wars, like cola wars, are a trade magazine's contrivance. One that, from a different perspective, bends our perception of real conflict. And this campaign designed to promote Peace One Day seems way into the weeds.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Postscript to "Stopping the Barbie mentality"

A few weeks ago, I chided pen make Bic for its sexist ads. I'm not the only one. 

Here's an amusing take on what others did with the Bic ad campaign: