Crenshaw Communications Open Chicago’s New River Hotel

International business hotel chain Club Quarters has brought us on to handle media relations for the May 2009 opening of River Hotel, a new boutique hotel in downtown Chicago. We’re excited to help make River Hotel’s mark in the city and beyond by getting the word out to regional markets, as well as hospitality, hotel, and travel trade publications. See the full story here.

Branding A Pandemic Or “Aporkalypse Now”

The media buzz surrounding the influenza virus formerly known as swine flu has resulted in an epidemic of both controversy and criticism.  Is it overkill? Many think so. But over the past 24 hours, the PR offensive around the flu hasn’t been about prevention or panic…it’s about the virus’s brand.  As of yesterday, the World Health Organization, the CDC and others have firmly rejected the swine handle and are insisting that the strain of flu that could possibly reach pandemic proportions be referred to as Influenza H1N1.

The chief reason given for the change is that the references to swine have hurt the pork industry, since people might think they could catch the flu by eating it. It also has particular sensitivities in Muslim and Jewish cultures, among others. This makes partial sense, but there’s another benefit to the name change. It’s more scientific, more serious, and less likely to be the butt of jokes among the press and blogosphere.

With luck, the more dignified Influenza H1N1 will help stop the jokes about the coming “Aporkalypse” or “Hamaggedon.” Yet, today’s report made gave me pause. Fiona Fleck, a WHO spokesperson, admitted that the new name isn’t “user-friendly.” She actually suggested there could be a competition in which members of the public come up with a new name.

A naming contest can be a great idea for, say, a new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor…but a branding vehicle for a deadly flu epidemic?  When pigs fly.

Can Craigslist Limit The Damage?

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 We’ve seen all kinds of business crises in the past several weeks, from the #Amazonfail glitch that took over Twitter to the Domino’s Pizza social media storm.  But, from a PR perspective, it doesn’t get much worse than having your brand be the descriptor for a horrifying crime. Yes, it’s happened before to Craigslist, and maybe it comes with the territory, but the recent case of a Boston University med student being charged with murdering a woman he met through an “erotic services” ad on the site has triggered scrutiny of Craigslist business practices as well as its crisis management methods.

Craigslist has been the target of scathing remarks by law enforcement officials and legislators; the Connecticut Attorney General demanded that the site stop “pimping and prostitution.”  In marketing circles, its PR strategy has been questioned, in particular its choice to put its CEO out in front of the story, rather than popular and visible founder Craig Newmark. It’s also been accused of a too-tepid response to the situation.

I don’t blame the team for not wanting Newmark to bear the brunt of the corporate response here (although he has appeared in some national TV interviews about the incident); why risk squandering his equity by making him the Defender in Chief? And, it’s critically important that any business crisis involving a death (no matter how removed) be handled with caution and sensitivity, lest it look like the company’s blaming the victim. Craigslist should keep channeling its response to those who would use its classified services to commit criminal acts, as it did in a BusinessWeek report. But, the bottom line is, it will obviously continue to be vulnerable to crimes against its brand due to the nature of its business.

It needs to rethink its erotic services business, or consider far greater security measures than it has in the past, and to trumpet them loudly. This is a case where a business decision must be made, and the PR strategy will follow.

Facebook Tears Down The Wall

At over 200 million monthly users, Facebook is vastly more popular than Twitter, but the micro-blogging service seems to be a growing public and media obsession.  Even Twitter-hater Maureen Dowd recently penned an interview with its co-founder, which, while ostensibly satirical, only fanned a Twitstorm of interest.  Remember when Facebook drew that kind of love-hate?

Now Facebook is set to announce tomorrow that it will permit third-party developers to build applications and services that will access user videos, photos, notes, and comments, with users’ permission.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the service will be free and will work within current open standards.

That’s a big change for Facebook, which has always insisted that developers work within its site to keep its content, and its users, firmly within its walls. But Facebook is both following in Twitter’s footsteps and recognizing that it can leverage its enormous user base to fill a need….basically, to allow people to update and search with far greater flexibility than before.  For those on Twitter, according to PC World, that means being able to copy tweets to their Facebook status in a single click.

And that’s just the beginning.  Look for more Twitter-like tools and applications in the coming months as Facebook flexes its muscles. Even though I think both services can and will coexist, the social-media battle is entertaining, and it only makes things more fun for us, the users.

Staying Green When You’re In The Red

For the past several years, just before Earth Day, we’ve done a survey on behalf of Call2Recycle, a battery and product collection and recycling program, about “green guilt,” a term we coined that’s pretty self-explanatory. Green guilt is what you feel when you toss your soda can into the regular garbage, or shove that once-trendy-but-now-obsolete cell phone into the junk drawer.

The good news this year is that we knew we had a story; the survey results showed that green guilt was down by ten percentage points compared to last year. The not-so-good news?  We’re not sure why.  It’s easy to wonder if, given our economic woes, people report less guilt because they’re more apathetic about environmentally responsible behavior.

That glass-half-empty possibility was reported in a New York Times story triggered by our pitch. Yet, if you look at the bigger picture, there’s pretty solid evidence that many simple behaviors like turning off lights and appliances, switching to CFL light bulbs, and recycling battery-powered products – have become habits. Studies suggest a creeping behavior change, and a sense that newly frugal Americans link conserving resources with saving, well, green.

This is intuitive…after all, things like energy and water cost us directly. A recent Harris Poll showed that most Americans feel that environmental and economic goals should be aligned, with a huge majority reporting that their pro-environment behavior has either increased or stayed the same versus one year ago. And corporations aren’t off the hook, either. A Cisco survey reports that twice as many business leaders say they’ll press on with green initiatives as say their pro-environment practices will have to take a back seat due to the economy.

Of course, what people say and what they do aren’t always the same. Yet, my sense is that many of the simple green behaviors documented in the surveys have become habits.  I also suspect that the public outcry over greedy and irresponsible business practices has seeped into other areas, like environmental stewardship.  People aren’t going to let businesses abandon green practices just because times are tough, and we’ll expect no less from the government at the end of the day.  We’re also turning our scrutiny on ourselves. Indulgence is out, sacrifice is in. Who needs guilt?

Ford Throws A Social Media Fiesta

At last, some good news from Detroit…or at least, an interesting move in which the words “bailout” and “bankruptcy” have no place. Ford recently announced that it will offer Fiesta subcompact cars to 100 Web types – bloggers, Twitter rockstars,  and social media influencers – for six months.  The lucky 100 will receive car insurance and gas, so they can test-drive the Fiestas and tell the world about them, or at least clue in those within their plugged-in social spheres. Ford’s asking for “honest feedback,” about the product, and you can tune in today via Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube.
None of this is new. It’s what PR and marketing people have done for years…loaning products to people with influence. Yes, the fact that the Web-savvy road-testers are being gifted might affect the tone of the coverage. But, the campaign is so transparent, and the number of participants relatively large enough, that it’s hard to call a fix.
The real significance of the campaign is what it says about “alternative” media channels, and putting influencers in the driver’s seat. For a marketer in such a mass-media-intensive category to make this kind of commitment to social media is exciting. Instead of another forgettable commercial featuring footage of sleek and shiny vehicles hugging curves, it’s a cost-efficient and entirely practical campaign that addresses how people actually hear about, recommend, and buy cars.
Plus, it’s accomplished what every marketer dreams of – seeding buzz and anticipation in advance of a product launch. The 100 drivers were selected from 4,000 applicants, and Ford has said it will offer 100,000 pre-launch test drives to those interested. So, its reach will extend far beyond the “reviewers.”
It’s a nifty program, and it actually seems like a strategic bullseye for the Fiesta’s target driver. Mostly, it’s precedent-setting. When a major player from an old-line industry goes full-speed into social media, it’s fair to say we’ve turned a corner.

Following Oprah

She’s arguably the most influential figure in our culture next to the President…except, wait, she picked our President, right?

Seriously, the social media world is atwitter after the announcement that Oprah will make her first Tweet Friday on her show.  Only @Oprah, the Queen of Everything, could rack up over 40,000 followers before posting a single update, and heaven only knows what kind of traffic will result once she actually starts using it.  And it’s not just Oprah giving Twitter the Ultimate Endorsement.  She’ll reportedly be joined by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams and Aston Kutcher (or aplusk), who’s in a kind of insane race with CNN to be the first Twitterati to claim one million followers.

I love the idea of armies of soccer moms, retirees, and others joining the social media ranks in greater numbers, although too much, too fast could spell real trouble.  Twitter traffic surged 131 percent to ten million in March, and lately its infrastructure been clearly straining to withstand the traffic.

It has definitely arrived; let’s just hope it hasn’t also jumped the shark.

When Bad Things Happen To Good Brands

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 Too often, a company’s own failings can put its brand at risk.  But, as the world knows, sometimes — well, stuff just happens.

Earlier this week, Domino’s Pizza found itself facing a brand reputation crisis when two North Carolina store employees videotaped themselves doing disgusting things to food and placed the video on YouTube

Although the employees later claimed the whole episode was a prank, within hours, the video racked up over a million views, with many customers vowing never to eat its pizza again.

Domino’s response to the incident as it escalated wasn’t as swift as it could have been…primarily because no corporation can act as fast as necessary to contain a wildfire social media crisis. Yet, the response did come, and it was largely out of the reputation management playbook. Like another fast-food brand that was the victim of a malicious act (remember the severed finger incident that dogged Wendy’s several years ago?), Dominos went on the offensive, fighting back as if its business depended on it…which it did.

The situation highlights the importance of a few principles of crisis management.

Seize control. After some initial hesitation, Domino’s acted swiftly to respond directly to its stakeholders and the public at large.

Use the medium. Besides reaching out to traditional media, Domino’s produced a video to communicate its response in an unfiltered way, calling for the same social media  networks that fanned the flames of the crisis to help get its story out.

Apologize, then correct. Even if a victim of the actions of others, the company must accept responsibility and immediately demonstrate that it’s taking the necessary steps to correct the situation.  In this case, that included vigorous prosecution of the offenders and a review of hiring practices, among others. Many companies worry about overreacting (as I believe JetBlue did after its Valentine’s Day fiasco of 2007), but nothing is worse than appearing insensitive to the well-being of customers.

Feel it.  Many companies avoid this, but sincere emotion inspires trust. In its video Domino’s president apologized and discussed the incident in a heartfelt and personal way.  Its spokesperson’s comments expressed disgust and anger on behalf of the company’s employees and franchised business owners, and pointing out that they were the true victims of the incident.

Because of their structure, franchised and retail companies are more prone to such crisis situations than others, but no company or brand is immune.  And in the age of social media, the stakes are higher than ever.

Susan Boyle, Marketer’s Dream?

PR people often talk about “packaging” a client’s story, or framing it in a way that’s current, visual, or relevant.

But, every once in a while, something comes along that defies the rules…or rewrites them. Right now, that something is a someone – Susan Boyle. Boyle is the decidely unglamorous 48-year-old who wowed a panel of jaded judges to win an international following last week on the televised auditon for “Britain’s Got Talent,” the British “American Idol.”

The story of her unlikely breakthrough is so arresting, and so emotional, that already it’s bled outside pop culture, making headlines and generating nearly 6 million YouTube views. It’s also being touted as an example for marketers.                                                                                                                                                                                                  But, to talk about marketing doesn’t feel quite right, or at least, it’s not everything when you consider Boyle. At a time when authenticity is routinely offered as a brand attribute, here is the real deal. At first blush, what her story says is simply that talent will out. The woman can sing.

But, it wasn’t just her striking vocal ability, or even her soaring song choice (the quixotic “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miserables) that moved so many. It was the set-up. The contrast between the audience’s patronizing smiles and eye rolls and the shocked expressions and emotional outpouring when she nailed the song. Andrew Eklund of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune calls her “the most important marketer of the 21st century.”

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Hyberbolic? Maybe, but timing is everything. As our most purely authentic new star, Boyle is also the perfect symbol for a culture that’s newly in love with simple pleasures and basic values.

Where will she go from here? I’m curious to see how she handles being an international icon, not to mention a marketing case study. And since half the fascination of Idol-type shows is watching the contestants morph into more polished and sophisticated performers, part of me wants to see her spiffed up and given different material.

But, a better instinct says Boyle’s essence will stay as is. As for the show, it matters not a bit if she wins, because she already has a recording contract, and in any event, she’s made her mark.

Susan Boyle is a Rocky for the post-recession age. When everything else seems to be failing, she’s someone we can believe in.                                                 

Amazon Turns Up The Gaydar?

Last week a friend joked that, based on her Caucasian husband’s onetime purchase of a novel by bestselling author Toni Morrison as a gift on amazon.com, the site now “thinks he’s an African-American lesbian,” and we had a laugh about the advantages (and drawbacks) of collaborative filtering software.

So, I was unaware of the furor surrounding an apparent change in amazon’s search protocol, until the twittersphere caught fire over the weekend. Some say that a de-ranking of certain titles has led to certain books being omitted from searches, or ranked lower than they’d otherwise be.  To hear them tell it, some books are affected more than others.  Books about sexuality. In particular, books with gay themes.

If true, it seems a curious strategy. To be fair, when I tried to test this by searching for well-known books with gay themes, I had no trouble locating the titles, so it may be that the glitch is nothing more than that. Being more family-friendly is one thing, but appearing to exclude adult themes in the post-culture-wars, Adam-Lambert-crazed era makes no sense.

Look for amazon to address the issue proactively, both from a technology standpoint and in its communications, particularly now that it’s hit the mainstream press.   Given the e-tailers’s longstanding commitment to both customer service and customization, I’d bet on a quick fix.