Spin Doctors And Other PR Myths

I spent part of today preparing a presentation about optimizing the PR investment for a meeting of MENG (Marketing Executives Networking Group), and my advance research has reminded me that certain myths about our business persist.  Despite the growing prominence of PR and the fact that nearly everyone thinks he understands it, there’s a lot of misinformation being thrown around, even among marketing executives who should really know better.

Here, then, in no particular order, are my top 7 PR myths.

Myth #1 – Public relations = publicity.  Even sophisticated marketing professionals boil it down to delivering “ink.”  Of course, publicity is just a subset of a far broader discipline, which includes communications and media strategy, positioning, messaging, analyst relations, content development…I could go on.

Myth #2 – For good PR, all you need is contacts.  Wrong. Relationships bring access, but no amount of access will make up for bad timing, poor messaging, an inauthentic story, or just-plain-sloppy planning or execution.

Myth #3 – PR should guarantee results. There’s room for argument here, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that insisting on a predictable ROI is just an excuse for not making a management decision when the outcome is quantitative rather than qualitative. The truth is, there are no guarantees, and no perfect control over the PR-generated message, and every client should understand that. After all, can you attach an ROI to your reputation?

Myth #4 – Once I’ve hired a firm, I don’t need to do anything more. This is my personal favorite, because it’s happened to me.  Anyone contemplating an investment in PR should understand that their company’s commitment starts when the firm or consultant is hired. 

Myth #5 – Former journalists make the best PR professionals.  With due respect to reporters or producers who cross over, a journalism degree or background is no guarantee of success in PR, because PR takes more than excellent core communications skills.  Sales ability, motivation, business savvy, and creative imagination all figure in here.

Myth #6 – PR replaces advertising, for less $$. We PR professionals have been guilty of propagating this myth, but it’s so simplistic that it’s inaccurate. The truth is, the two are very distinct disciplines, and are most powerful when they work together. Jonah Bloom touches on the ad/PR relationship in his excellent piece about the basics of PR.  I also like to share one important distinction that a brilliant CEO and former client often made – use advertising for frequency, but PR for depth. 

Myth #7 – PR is about the magic bullet.  Some companies, particularly entrepreneur-led ones, think that one fantastic placement – an appearance on “Oprah,” for example – is all they need to drive visibility, sales, and profits. To quote Anthony Mora, “You’re launching a professional public relations campaign, not playing the lottery.”  Enough said.

 

Does Bing Hit The Mark?

Yesterday at the D: All Things Digital Conference, Microsoft announced that it will launch Bing, a rebuilt search engine that it hopes will help consumers make better decisions, redefine the category, and maybe even give Google a run for its money. Bing is really a rebranding of Microsoft Live Search, with some nifty new features thrown in. It’s gotten some pretty positive early reviews, and it’s expected that Microsoft will support it heavily.  Ad and media types are practically frothing over the rumored budget of $80-100 million for print, online, TV, and outdoor advertising to build the Bing brand.

But, what’s funny is that the Bing brand has gotten nearly as much ink as the fact of the launch. The choice of name has been harshly criticized by some tech wags and marketing types as evoking the strip club frequented by Tony Soprano, or the nerdy Chandler Bing on NBC’s long-running “Friends.” The widely read TechCrunch insists that another name under consideration, “Sift,” would have been preferable. (Are they kidding?)  Others joke that it’s an acronym for “Big Investment, No Goals,” or even “But It’s Not Google.”  According to the Urban Dictionary, it’s slang for “jail,” and it might mean “disease” in Chinese. Still not sure about that one.

Most entertaining, though, is “Bing vs. Bing.”  Pseudonymous Fortune writer Stanley Bing (a/k/a the hilarious Gil Schwartz) issued a mock press release detailing his “moderate outrage” at the hijacking of “his” brand by the software giant.  Stanley Bing cheerfully claims he’s “open to any reasonable offer” for his services, “or simply to provide no services” and that he looks forward to being “massively well-optimized” by the other, newer, Bing. 

For what it’s worth, I think “Bing” has a fun sound, and I did instantly take away the “bingo-we have a winner!” connotation that Steve Ballmer hopes will come to be “the sound of found.”  Plus, it’s a heck of a lot better than Kumo, the codename during its development phase. The mini-controversy over the branding might actually be a good thing for Microsoft, given its status as lightning rod for the technorati.  Since many feel obligated to be withering in their scrutiny, maybe the name will absorb some of the criticism, leaving the search engine itself to rise – or fall – on its own merits.

 

Citizen Advertising? The Future Of Sponsored Conversations

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Note: No cash or gifts were received for the writing of this post.

 

I’m being facetious, but, if this were a “sponsored” post, would you feel skeptical about the opinions expressed here? Or, would you applaud my “transparency?”

 

That’s one of the issues at the heart of the debate around sponsored blog posts and online conversations. Paid outreach to bloggers and other online influencers is practically routine, and often it’s very effective. Two recent happenings, however, have stirred fresh debate around what some call “blogola.”

 

First, the FTC is expected to issue new guidelines requiring bloggers to disclose compensation by marketers.  Now, the proposal is flawed, has plenty of loopholes, and it’s only a guideline, but in principle, it lets the Commission investigate or even levy penalties against marketers who pay those to endorse products online.  Second, Forrester issued a report, “Add Sponsored Conversations to Your Toolbox” detailing high-profile examples of sponsored online marketing and recommending the technique to clients.

 

My company has compensated influential bloggers in the form of product loans, product gifts, and gift cards on behalf of clients.  Generally these gifts are positioned as a “thank you” for taking the time to evaluate our pitch or review our product, and they come with no strings attached.  They’ve also been some our most successful programs. Then, too, I’ve admired innovative influencer campaigns that use social media, like the Fiesta Movement. Having said that, however, I think sponsored blogs represent a slippery slope.  While I’m very comfortable with a product-review format (which mirrors what we do with traditional media), I think outright payment puts both parties at risk.  Here’s why:

 

·        Ethics dictate that we require, or strongly recommend, that a blogger disclose compensation or a commercial relationship with brands or companies. In the case of a product review, that disclosure makes sense, and it doesn’t detract from the credibility of the post, in my opinion.  A cash payment or gift, however, is far murkier, and disclosure tends to have the opposite effect.

 

·        In traditional journalism, strict disclosure rules, and, more importantly, the editorial role, serve as the ultimate controls. In the disintermediated world of blogs, there are no such checks and balances, so the reader must determine the credibility of the post for himself. This is confusing at best, deceptive at worst.

 

·        Finally, from a practical standpoint, it can harm the blogger, and I don’t mean just their credibility.  Google will downgrade paid blog entries by placing them lower in search results. This policy, as BusinessWeek points out, may do more to deter blogola than any ethical guidelines.

 

 

I support professional bloggers and feel that most deserve to earn more than they do.  But, as in the world of traditional media, and even paid search, the readers deserves to know exactly what is paid for, and what isn’t.

 

 

 

Tweeting To Remember

I was surprised and proud when my five-year-old announced that she knew why she had a holiday from school today. While she needed a hint to recall the day’s name, she eagerly told me that it was to remember people who fought in wars, “like Grandpa.” We talked a little bit about World War II, and then we went on our picnic.

But there are many for whom this day is no picnic, and that includes the greviously wounded in Iraq.  This year, one Memorial Day campaign really stands out, both for its relevance, and for its use of new media.  TweetToRemind is a Twitter-based extension of Bob & Lee Woodruff’s ReMIND.org, which raises funds for American soldiers who’ve been seriously injured in Iraq, as Woodruff himself was while reporting on the war for ABC. The campaign urges a donation of $5.25 or more to support the troops, with the goal of raising a dollar for each soldier serving since 9/11, or $1.65 million, by July 4.

The Woodruffs have mobilized the ABC network, other media heavyweights, rock musicians, and celebrities to step out for the cause.  What’s even more impressive, though, is that, in its own words, it “empowers” Twitter users to do what social media is presumed to do best – share what’s meaningful to us and bring others along. The TweetToRemind website asks social media fans to follow it on Twitter, but also to use Twitter or their blogs to answer the question, “Who is your hero?” while urging friends and followers to do the same and donate to the cause through web links and banners. But the most powerful aspect is the campaign’s focus on the here and now. It’s not just about paying tribute to fallen heroes, but about honoring and helping those heroes who are still among us.

Partnership Unlimited

Spending  time at the international meeting of our sister consultancies (www.proi.org) has given me the chance to catch up with colleagues, commiserate about the economy, and share insights about trends affecting our business.

The caliber of the firms in our global partnership is extraordinarily high, and the discussions have been both passionate and eye-opening.  It also doesn’t hurt to be in Vienna, a city that’s almost magical in its beauty and evocation of history.  (It tends to put things in perspective.)

A few takeaways from our discussions that might be relevant for anyone growing a business during a time of uncertainty:

Ask yourself: What am I doing differently? Now is the time to take a risk. For us, that means on our own behalf as well as for our clients. Our partners are re-examining nearly every aspect of their businesses and in doing so, offering clients concepts and strategies that go beyond “traditional” PR thinking.

Overcommunicate to staff. That’s easy when things are good, but harder to face in a bad environment when decisions are unpopular. If you take employees for granted because the job market is tough, they could be gone when things turn around.

Think small….in the good sense of the word. Even in a large organization, an entrepreneurial spirit can be a powerful differentiator, and staff need to feel they have influence and mobility when so much is beyond our control.

Find partners. As an independent business, my firm has relied on our North America and global partners both for business development and company management issues. Think about building a network for sharing ideas or even leads with like-minded business owners in complimentary business sectors. Yesterday’s competitor is today’s ally.

Plan for the recovery. How do you want to be positioned when the recession ends? Smart businesses are planning now, and we need to do the same for our clients and our own companies.

Why American Idol Matters

Okay, it doesn’t.  Not really. But, every year as I get suckered into Idol madness just after the group dwindles to eight or less, I look for reasons that justify watching.   This year, it’s easier, since it’s become a Tuesday night treat that my daughter and I enjoy together, like a mother-daughter date night.  We tune out everything else to watch our favorites, gossiping about the judges, and critiquing wardrobe, hairstyles, and Ryan Seacrest during the boring parts.

But, this season, I found another rationalization for my Idol habit. The two finalists make for the best and most exciting match-up in years. There’s the favorite, Adam Lambert, who’s ever-fascinating with his soaring tenor pipes and theatrical appearance (complete with guyliner), against dark horse Kris Allen, a sweet-faced, self-effacing evangelical Christian from Arkansas with an acoustic guitar and a voice to match.

As musical and cultural symbols, the two couldn’t be more different – or more perfect. The Los Angeles Times likens Lambert to the late Freddie Mercury, while Allen is more like a John Mayer.  Put in more topical terms, it evokes Perez Hilton and Carrie Prejean.

Except that it doesn’t, because the two not only get along, but together they make this the best Idol season in years. Against the backdrop of media-fueled conflicts over faith, sexuality, and lifestyle, it’s heartening to see that people who differ dramatically in their musical and personal styles and attitudes can attract an enormous and eclectic following and even teach us something about musical – and cultural – harmony.

Can’t Beat ‘Em? Rebrand ‘Em!

Words are important. That’s why it’s not just the swine flu virus that’s gotten a nifty new government-issue name. Washington is in a frenzy of rebranding. The Obama administration has rejected the Bush-era “global war on terror” in favor of the more oblique “overseas contingency operation.”

In a particularly awkward phrasing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano calls acts of terrorism “man-caused disasters.” I think the idea is to move away from the ideology-infused rhetoric of the previous administration, but if that’s the best they can do, it’s not a good sign. I mean, what happened to the team that took ownership of an ordinary, overused word – “change” – and gave it new meaning?

Sometimes a rebranding reflects cultural acclimation, or even progress…as when the bailout morphed into the more precise and technical acronym “TARP” and ultimately became the “recovery” to help get legislation passed. Sometimes it’s an out-and-out euphemism that convinces no one, like the infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques” term, which in its creepiness actually sounds worse than “torture.”

But the most entertaining move to re-brand may have come recently with the Republican National Committee’s resolution to henceforth refer to the Democratic Party as the “Democratic Socialist Party.”  The rationale is that the Democrats have moved from being the “tax and spend” party to the party that wants to “tax and nationalize.”

The RNC’s proposal has received a fair amount of ridicule among members of both parties. Not only is it confusing (partly because there’s an actual Democratic Socialist Party in existence), but conventional branding wisdom says you should talk about what your brand stands for, rather then just try to tear down the other guy. For my money, the Republicans were on much stronger ground when they were “the party of ideas,” which was appealing both in its promise, and in the pressure it put on both parties to engage in real dialogue about solutions.

In any event, I’d like to propose a War Against Bad Branding. Or, maybe it should be termed “Emergency Domestic Communications Operation Against Man-Cause Brand Disasters.”

Dell Gets Cute, With Backlash

Times are tough for makers of technology products.  So tough, in fact, that Dell took a leap with the launch of “Della,” its new shopping site created especially for women.

A leap backward, that is.  The site, which was unveiled a few days ago to market its line of netbooks to female customers, created an instant backlash among many women in the media and the blogosphere. The site’s design (in soothing pastels, including pinks), its photos (like a bland version of “Sex in the City,” circa 2000), and most of all, its content, seem at least ten years out of date.  The most criticized section was “Tech Tips,” which, in girlfriend-confidential tones, read, “Once you get beyond how cute they are, you’ll find that netbooks can do a lot more than check your e-mail.” It goes on to mention such groundbreaking functions as finding recipes online, tracking calories, and watching fitness videos. (What, no mascara tips?)

The good news is that Dell seems to have learned from its marketing misstep. According to spokesman Bob Kaufman, “Many people do see their laptops and netbooks as a style statement, and we want to be part of those conversations.”  It didn’t count on the kinds of conversations that Della triggered, but to Dell’s credit, it responded to the mini-backlash within hours.  As of this writing it posted an apology of sorts on the site, edited out the offending content, and responded to some pretty harsh criticism on Facebook (“Did your marketing team used to work for the car dealer who talked to my boy friend when I was buying the car, or the one who hand-picked the special “girlie” models for me, when I wanted to buy a pickup?)

The Della brouhaha shows just how tricky it can be to market to a particular segment, and how tuned you have to be to avoid mistakes. But it makes me wonder if Dell conducted basic market research among women who use PCs – in other words, did they talk to any women?

For the record, I have a Dell netbook, and I love it….for its price, its size, its practicality, and its features.  And, it has a cool paisley-ish pattern that’s different and, well, cute.  Damn cute.

Facebook And Holocaust Deniers: Reaching A Boil

Over the past several days the blogosphere’s been on fire with news of Facebook’s refusal to take down pages by groups who deny that the Holocaust occurred.  In defending its policy, Facebook spokesperson Barry Schnitt said, “We want (the site) to be a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones.”  To those pressing Facebook to change its policies and take down the offensive pages, its refusal to do so is ironic, since its ban on pictures showing nipples of breast-feeding mothers remains in place.  

After initially arguing that Holocaust Denial groups should be banned because the groups are actually illegal in many countries (a weak point and red herring), Brian Cuban makes a passionate case that they exist only to spew hatred. Michael Arrington has been withering in his criticism, but he offers Facebook a graceful way to change its stand in saying, “These groups violate multiple sections of the TOS, particularly Section 3. There’s an easy way out of this for Facebook, and it also happens to be the right thing to do.”

Actually, Facebook’s attempt at equanimity is admirable.  I think it’s trying not to take the easy way out; it seems to be trying to separate the true psychos from those who might want to engage in some kind of civil discourse. (As of Tuesday, two of the Holocaust Denial pages, presumably the most offensive ones, were taken down.)   But, its principled stand is confusing, and, ultimately, misplaced. 

This is really not a  First Amendment issue; as a private company, Facebook is free to set its own policies.  The infamous “nipple ban” doesn’t help, because it makes the company seem out of touch and calls its values into question.  Ultimately, the question is one of corporate responsibility and corporate values.  As the world’s largest social networking community and a model when it comes to all kinds of content policy, Facebook should do the responsible thing and move to ban hate speech on its pages.