Monday, November 30, 2015

What about Amazon's need for speed?

Perhaps the one memorable line from the weakest Star Trek film -- Star Trek V, The Final Frontier -- was uttered by William Shatner's Captain Kirk: "What does God need with a starship?"

I asked a variant of that question last week, when online retail juggernaut Amazon demonstrated a re-usable rocket that, after completing its mission, returned safely to its launch pad. I'm not sure who's ordering Adele CDs on the moon, but it's impressive to know that Amazon's been thinking about this.

Jeremy Clarkson, By Ed Perchick (flickr) ,
 via Wikimedia Commons
Then I asked: What does Amazon need with a rocket ship?

Next, over the Thanksgiving holiday, Amazon posted a video of ex-Top Gear bad boy Jeremy Clarkson, using his wry sarcasm to provide an update on the Amazon delivery-by-drone technology, called Prime Air. Looks like it'll be a hit, assuming you have few trees or overhead electrical feeds. (Clarkson, along with Top Gear alumni Richard Hammond and James May, are filming a new automotive adventure show for Amazon Prime Video.)

Now, Amazon's increasing benefits to employees (after the New York Times' August expose of a supposedly brutal corporate culture at headquarters). And Amazon opened a pop-up physical bookstore in Seattle, not far from its headquarters.

Clearly, Amazon has plenty of PR firepower. But not aimed at driving sales. Not one of these innovations, no matter how tech-sexy, will goose the company's online sales in 2015. Or, for that matter, affect the company's stock price -- which has climbed steadily since August to nearly $675 a share. Without drones or rockets.

What do Clarkson, rockets, drones, and Amazon have in common? A need for speed?

Best guess: Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO, is repositioning the company. Sharply differentiating it from any other retailer. Wal-mart, for example, has thousands of employees and hundreds of gigantic stores -- but probably doesn't have a re-usable rocket.

We may need to get more curious about a Bezos universe of products and services; think Richard Branson's Virgin Group empire of airlines, telecommunications, music, etc.

Because when we see this kind of showmanship from a company that's dominant in selling stuff, we ought to start asking: why does a retailer need a rocket ship?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Job search before the turkey calls

Thanksgiving's around the corner. I don't wish to stand between you and your Butterball. So I'll be brief.

I often tell students that public relations is "doing the right thing and getting credit for it." Other times, I say -- with apologies to Leonard Nimoy -- that PR is "a wreath of pretty flowers which smells bad."

But, no matter what I say about PR, says it worse. Much worse.

Try searching for a public relations job on This is what you'd find in Buffalo, NY:

Of the "public relations opportunities" served up in this message, only the "Sr. Marketing Analyst/ Communications Specialist position could reasonably include PR duties.

(The Public Relations Director job at Superior Group is a paid ad that's been up for weeks, which means Superior Group -- a contract employer -- may have filled it already.)

The others? Who knows? The Infant-Toddler Specialist position? The restaurant manager? Each may call for dealing with a certain constituency -- unhappy parent, unhappy diner, unhappy employee, reeeallly unhappy baby. But that's not public relations. 

[Bizarro Interview Moment: "I have considerable binkie expertise, both right and left handed."]

Whoever writes the code that gurgles up's search results needs to get his or her act together. Public relations isn't running a restaurant. It doesn't involve running a Presbyterian church. If I were job-searching and sent my resume in to the restaurant manager job, they wouldn't hire me -- despite my considerable PR experience. Because the job requires experience managing a restaurant. 

You want real PR job opportunities? PRSA's website and the IABC's career center list real PR jobs. No experience with toddlers required. 

Although you might want to pack a binkie, in case you meet a nap-deprived hiring manager.

Good luck with your search, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Combating the doorbuster mindset

A few retailers recently gained some media praise for deciding not to open for pre-Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day. Nordstrom, A.C. Moore, Barnes & Noble, and Costco are among those choosing to pass up quick-buck opportunities and rampant doorbuster-ism and allow employees to celebrate Thanksgiving with their loved ones.

Bravo to them for choosing family over profits. But REI did them all one better.

Recreational Equipment Company -- REI, the big sporting goods retailer -- took it even further: they won't be open on Friday, Nov. 27, actual Black Friday. They earned national TV coverage, telling NBC News among others, that employees would be paid for Nov. 27, even though the stores would be closed. "We're paying our employees to go outside," they said.

A great move, earning REI plenty of free publicity. Except when the CEO took his message to social media via the "Ask Me Anything" forum on . While Jerry Stritzke, REI's chief executive, at first earned praise during his A.M.A. session, The New York Times reported that REI employees chimed in afterward, claiming the company didn't promote employees who didn't sell enough memberships (like a BJ's Wholesale Club membership).


Stritzke, to his credit, took ownership of this dialogue. He promised publicly that he'd take a closer look at the questionable employee practice.

The PR lessons here: in a retail-frenzied season, it can pay to differentiate your business by stepping back from the crush of unbridled doorbuster-ism. And earning recognition for passing up Black Friday is one way to strengthen your reputation. (As of writing this blog, REI's site says some 860,000 customers have signed up to "go outside" on Black Friday, rather than shop.)

But taking your message too far -- in this case, to the wild frontier of Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" forum -- invites criticisms from unexpected vectors. It's a social media channel that, to some PR people, resembles a box of snakes.

Could even the best public relations executive predict the employee gripes that REI's CEO encountered?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Are you a visual carpet bomber?

By Greg Rakozy (,

More than one friend of mine likes to post photos to Facebook. Photos of their travels. Snapshots from their parties. Lots of photos.

Every. single. photo.

Like a sky full of stars, that's too much to absorb. What's worse? Often, they're near-identical images -- group shots of three or four people, taken moment by moment, with little change of gesture or expression. Or the dreaded BOH (backs of heads). Not action photos, which might call for a rapid-fire sequence of images. Just group photos. People grinning for the camera.

Do we need to see four, five, or six iterations of the same snapshot? No. That's unfair to everyone who follows you.

Sure, social media is a visual medium. Visual communications, from infographics to vlogs, are the common currency of the internet. And, one outcome of citizen journalism and the proliferation of smartphone cameras is that people take countless photos. This isn't a judgment of whether they're good or not. They simply exist.

Too few of us pause to edit our photos before posting them on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. One-hundred fifty-three photos from whatever event they attended is 150 too many.

You need to edit. Even if they're not PR photos, an avalanche of relentlessly similar photos speaks to your personal brand. Post them all, and you're saying: "I can't help myself. I'm a compulsive sharer."

Except it's not sharing. It's more like visual carpet-bombing.

In our era of citizen journalism, we need to learn to self-edit. One good photo says much more than 20 mediocre ones.

It's not hard to edit photos. Every smartphone comes with photo editing functions. Deleting the less-satisfying ones (blurry or BOH shots) requires the swipe of a finger. Free photo editing software is available for laptops, phones, tablets, and desktops. (I use Picasa for basic editing; it's free and does a good job.)

If you need more motivation, also consider: every photo you share via Facebook grants Mark Zuckerberg -- as well as other Facebook users -- a license to re-use that image, without compensating you.

Why would you give the social media universe a right to every single photo you shoot?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Well-worn ruts in the road

When a newspaper gives you a soapbox to comment on business trends, aren't there better topics than revisiting the decline of once-dominant manufacturers who long ago lost their edge?

When I read Patrick Burke's column, "Tough times for Rochester's former Big Three," I thought: "Great opinion piece. For 2010."

Kodak's in financial trouble? Tired old news. The company struggled with digital innovation, and hasn't yet regained its footing. Xerox is having trouble? Surprise -- it's tough when you're elbowing against nimble system integrators. Bausch & Lomb's parent company, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, has earned scrutiny for questionable financial practices? Those behaviors pre-date Valeant's 2013 purchase of B&L and its move to New Jersey.

Xerox's Gil Hatch Center, Webster, NY. Photo by
DanielPenfield (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Big companies now compete in a global arena. They aren't always adept at great execution. That makes it easy for bloggers and columnists to point fingers at them for mediocre performance.

Mr. Burke's observations travel well-worn ruts in our business landscape. The Rochester region has fresher success stories in small- and medium-sized companies, the emerging photonics manufacturing initiative, surging real estate, and its largest employers: the University of Rochester and Wegmans.

As a former Kodak employee, with friends employed at Xerox, B&L, and Kodak, I wish them all a resurgence and success. But more than this, I wish newspapers would let go of the "former Big Three" mindset. None of these companies will likely return to the dominance they had in a pre-global economy.

(And it's more than convenient to overlook the fortunes of another former big player: Gannett Corp., which hosts Mr. Burke's column.)

Please lose the preoccupation with a Big Three that hasn't been "big" for years. And start looking forward.