Facebook’s PR Dilemma: “I Can Friend Dead People”

So close to Halloween, how can I resist blogging about the latest complaint by Facebook users? I noticed it, um, in passing, earlier this week. A “reconnect” feature is part of the site’s new home page, but Facebook’s being haunted by the persistence of its algorithm. It automatically generates notices urging users to reconnect with dormant contacts. Inevitably, those include someone who’s deceased. As one user who was invited to reconnect with a friend who had died earlier in the year explained, “I hadn’t un-friended him, because that would be weird.”

But, what’s weirder – and genuinely distressing – is being invited to connect with a dead friend, not just once, but dozens of times. Others report irksome suggestions that they connect with ex-spouses or lovers, parents, or pets, prompting #FacebookFail hashtags on Twitter. As one mashable.com commenter put it, “I really don’t need Facebook to remind me that I’m ignoring you.”

Beyond the handful of #fail hashtaggers, there’s a broader issue here. What actually happens to profiles of Facebookers who have passed on? Who should have access, if anyone? Under pressure to spell out its privacy policy around these questions, Facebook took the opportunity this week to re-announce its memorialized profiles. They serve as a tribute to the deceased, but also solve the reconnect problem by taking the individual out of the Suggestions stream.

In a moving blog post that recounts the tragic death of a friend and colleague, Facebook’s Max Mon explains how the memorialized profiles work and urges friends and family of deceased users to contact them (with proper verification, of course) to set up a page. The beauty of the system is that only friends can see the profile or locate it in search, and sensitive content like contact information and updates are removed. No one can log into a memorialized profile, but friends and family can still post on the profile Wall in remembrance. If a family wants a profile taken down, it will be.

Facebook’s move to outline its policy in greater detail not only shows sensitivity, but it’s good public relations and good business. It seems to be ahead of its social networking competitors in offering a procedure that mirrors real-world mourning and remembrance, while protecting the privacy of those who cannot do it for themselves.

But, as one poster suggests, you can’t really blame the Facebook algorithm for not knowing that someone has died…or that you broke up with them six months before. And, wouldn’t it be far creepier if it did?

Ready Or Not, Here Comes SideWiki

Lately I’ve been involved in discussions about companies who don’t want their brands to engage with consumers online. Most PR practitioners agree that there can be legitimate reasons for a business to avoid social media – be they regulatory issues, a narrow or niche positioning, or lack of preparedness. It’s a brand’s choice, after all.

Until now, that is. If Google’s new Sidewiki toobar application takes off, brands and businesses might be facing a hypersocial Web, whether they’re ready or not. Sidewiki’s only been out a month, but already it’s the subject of controversy. It’s been called “brand anarchy,” a communicator’s “ nightmare,” and “borderline reckless.” Could it lead to brandjacking? The nicest thing I read compared it to a heckler at a press conference. Not very comfortable for brand reputation pros.

Sidewiki is just what the name implies. It’s an application that acts as a wiki, open to participation by anyone. It allows users to post comments on a sidebar just next to a given site. It looks like this. As Google describes it, Sidewiki is a wonderful tool that enables all of us to contribute “helpful” information next to any webpage. Nice, right? And, there’s that term “wiki.” To me, it conjures images of a sober-minded editorial administrator, a la Wikipedia. A stern-faced, detail-oriented academic who’s ever-vigilant for incorrect, slanderous, or obscene comments.

That’s not the case here. With Sidewiki, the people are in charge…which is both wonderful and awful. The comments belong to the toolbar, not the site. It’s not Wikipedia; it’s more like someone standing just outside your fence, posting notices, spray-painting graffiti, or even yelling taunts or chucking rocks your way.

It can be beneficial to learn about the experiences of others when it comes to a specific business or brand, sure. But, playing nice isn’t always the nature of the Web. As I’ve mentioned before, social media is the new bully pulpit for disgruntled consumers. It’s a whiner’s paradise. With Sidewiki, any site can become  a social media platform. We can vent about horrible customer service, complain about a tasteless ad, or slam a product we just tried. And there it is, right next to the company website.

And that’s not all. There are all kinds of implications if Sidewiki takes off. Competitors could theoretically place ads on the sidebar, just as they do now alongside search engine results. And, healthcare marketers already have a migraine just thinking about how pharmaceutical brands would cope with a sidewiki outbreak. By law, prescription drug brands cannot interact directly with users. And, let’s not even talk about the spam potential.

So, what’s a brand to do? Well, Google says not to worry…or something like that. Its algorithm won’t rank comments by recency, but by “quality” and “usefulness,” and it will take into account user feedback and a commenter’s previous posts, as well as “other signals.” This is Google-speak for downgrading or deleting gratuitously nasty posts. I’m assuming there will be a similar solution for spam.

Wikis have a spotty history, and Sidewiki might not even catch on. But, even if it doesn’t, brands and businesses are being mentioned every day online. If someone takes a shot at a brand on Sidewiki, chances are it’s not the first time. It’s up to us – the communicators, the brand reputation gatekeepers – to monitor, engage, and respond. Whether we like it or not, the Web is getting more and more social. We need to see the writing on the wall.

White House vs. Fox News: Who’s Winning The PR War?

As the adage goes, you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. So, what’s behind the White House’s PR offensive against Fox News?

When Obama communications director Anita Dunn first referred to Fox as not a news organization, but, rather as an arm of the Republican party, I was surprised. It seemed to run counter to conventional communications strategy, if not good sense. First, it provided several days’ worth of distraction from actual policy discussion. It also served to put a spotlight on Fox, which wasted no time in casting itself as a victim of Nixonian partisan politics. And, the administration’s interview boycott – in theory – deprives it of access to an audience that is surely broader than the most hardcore conservatives.

The PR war would also seem to go against the president’s own “brand” persona. Though the Obama campaign took plenty of shots at Fox before the election, he was supposed to be the guy who would heal our wounds, bridge the political and cultural divide, and bring us together as a nation. The White House has been careful to use surrogates in its criticism, leaving the president somewhat above the fray. But, he still risks looking partisan, or even petty. What happened?

My take is that the White House isn’t really going after Fox. At least, not solely. Sure, it probably wants to show more spine after the beating it’s taken over healthcare. But its true goal is to delegitimize the Republican party. The prize? Independent voters. A classic strategy to woo the middle ground, after all, is to marginalize the other guy.

The initial White House statement didn’t call Fox a mouthpiece for “conservatives” or “right-wingers.” Nope, it equated it with the GOP. If the administration can identify the entire Republican party with its most extreme advocates – the ranting, fist-shaking, conspiracy-spotting “mad men” like Glenn Beck – it can perhaps capture the independent-minded middle. Meanwhile, Fox also continues to position itself as serving the ordinary American. What it really comes down to is a contest to see who can be perceived as more mainstream.

Is it working? Both sides, of course, are claiming advantage. Fox says its ratings are up. The White House points to a new Washington Post/ABC news poll in which only 20 percent of Americans identify as Republicans – a  26-year low for the party.

But, it’s far too early to tell who’s going to come out on top in the PR war. Network ratings are up and down all the time with the news cycle. (Last week, “balloon boy” actually drove everyone up.) And, Republican poll numbers took a dive long before the election. As usual, the real winners are the pundits. But, the show sure is fun to watch.

PR Prank #2: It’s Another Hot-Air News Hoax

Is it the time of year? Just days after the media was taken for a ride by the balloon boy story, here comes another successful public relations prank. This time, Reuters, CNBC, and even The New York Times were punk’d, at least for a minute.

Earlier this week, an activist group called the Yes Men, pretending to represent the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, actually staged a fake press conference in which they announced a dramatic shift in the Chamber’s position on climate change. The faux briefing was at the prestigious National Press Club and featured phony handouts on Chamber letterhead, sham reporters, and a podium decorated with the Chamber logo.

Reuters ran with the story, which was subsequently carried by CNBC and various news outlets’ websites, including those of the Times and The Washington Post. (They’ve since been removed.)

The video is almost as compelling as that silver balloon flight. The bogus briefing broke up when a spokesman from the actual Chamber of Commerce burst into the room, leading to an absurdist spectacle – two guys in business suits yelling at one another, as red-faced Press Club staff and reporters looked on in bewilderment.

The back-to-back PR stunts do make you wonder about the state of the news media. Are major news organizations so strapped for cash and lean of staff that they can be so easily duped? Or, is the competitive pressure so great that they’re willing to risk embarrassment or worse? In part, the answer is yes. But, the broader issue is about the limits of today’s instant journalism. Just like the balloon flight on live TV, this is how the game is played. First, get the story. Then, figure out the truth as you go along.

What’s really notable about the latest hoax is how well it worked. The Yes Men released a statement saying that the stunt was intended to show how climate policy are held hostage to corporate greed.

Unlike the disgraced Heene family, the guerilla group, who are known for their Borat-style impersonations, have been celebrated by many who agree with their views. They were invited on news programs to talk about the prank. Being PR-savvy, they took the lead to focus on their opposition to the Chamber’s controversial position on climate change. The success of the stunt is sure to invite more of the same. The line between news and entertainment keeps getting thinner, and not in the way news organizations originally intended.

Count me as an admirer of the Yes Men’s brazen showmanship and PR skills. At least they weren’t trying to get a reality TV deal for a show about an improv group of politically idealistic pranksters.

Although, the troupe did go on to promote the release of their new documentary later in the week. As they say, everyone’s got an angle.

Taken For A Ride: What Did We Learn From Balloon Boy?

What more is there to say about the balloon boy – other than that he was never actually in a balloon?

Plenty, it seems. Four days after the country’s most overinflated news story, what’s notable is the backlash. Not just against Richard Heene, the fame-seeking father who apparently dreamed up a public relations stunt to rival “War of the Worlds.” No, the real vitriol is against the media. Both the news crews who took to the air just as the balloon did, and our celebrity-saturated culture. After all, Heene had gotten a taste of notoriety when the family appeared on the ABC show “Wife Swap,” and word was, he wanted to give some lift to his idea for a show of his own.

I was as carried away as anyone. Who wouldn’t be aghast at the idea of a child aloft in a helium balloon that resembled an old Jiffy Pop commercial? Even worse was a certain fairy-tale-gone-terribly-wrong aspect (was I the only one who thought immediately of the Disney-Pixar film “Up“?) My own child is just six years old, and for a short while, I watched with a bit of the surreal sense I had in the minutes after the planes hit on 9/11…an irrational conviction that, if the world is watching, surely someone will figure out a rescue. In this case, thankfully, no rescue was needed – unless you consider Mr. Wife Swap’s future, the cable networks’ reputations, and our own fame-obsessed values.

In the cablers’ defense, the runaway balloon was made-for-TV. It had suspense, pathos, man-against-nature, and even a kid named Falcon. As anyone in television (or in PR) knows, it’s the visual that makes the story. So, I don’t blame them for airing the whole thing as it was…um, unfolding. Could they have used more skepticism in checking out and following the story? Sure, but the sheriff, FAA, and first responders were there already. This is live TV, folks. As Howard Kurtz explains it, “you show the process live and scramble around to figure out whether it’s true.”

What’s tougher to defend is the attention the family, and various “experts” received after story ran out of gas and a hoax was suspected. Who can forget the video of poor Falcon blurting out the truth, then vomiting on live television, as his parents continued the interview? Sickening, yes, but maybe more real than any reality show I’ve seen lately.

Which brings us to what Gawker calls “the sorry state of a reality TV-addled culture.” First, the Octomom. Now, another overblown production. How far will people go to try to grab their slice of fame?  And, how weird is it that people actually feel entitled to that slice?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a reality TV fan. I’m addicted to “Top Chef” and have been known to tune into the “Rachel Zoe Project,” possibly the greatest guilty pleasure of all time. But, those programs showcase people with real skills…or, at least, great clothes.

Blaming reality TV for the balloon-boy hoax is like blaming the Internet for spammers. Nor do I agree with those who say it’s the Web that was full of hot air. For me, believe it or not, Twitter was a bright spot. The #balloonboy updates were faster than the news, and when I spotted the “Wife Swap” bit on someone’s feed, I cut my losses and went back to work. Plus, there was that built-in community of users who were also swept up in the moment – sharing fear, horror, and skepticism. Score one for the social Web.

At the end of the day, maybe we’re left with nothing more than a few days of self-reflection, anger towards the waste of public resources, and a very funny SNL bit. As my former boss, an ex-Army guy, used to say, at least no one died.

Did Amp Turn Up The Volume With #pepsifail?

As I’ve noted previously, good public relations sometimes means having to say you’re sorry. “Apology communications” is a PR buzzword these days. But, when is an apology something else altogether? (Hint: When it involves 18-year-old dudes, maybe?)

What got me wondering was the backlash to the Amp energy drink campaign. Of course, I’m talking about the now-infamous iPhone app created for the drink’s young, male customers. Amp Up Before You Score packs some punchy pickup lines for guys who want to “get lucky” with different female “types,” from “military chick” to “married.” You have to admire the breadth…and the artwork. All told, it pulls background and, um, date suggestions for 24 different types of women. If you’ve got a “treehugger” in your sights, for example, it offers a carbon footprint calculation and serves up vegan restaurant recommendations.

Kind of clever, but in this case, crude sexual references and sexist stereotypes unleashed a torrent of outrage. After Twitter users and others poured on the protest, an apology was posted on the brand’s account at @AMPwhatsnext. It read, “Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go 2 pick up women. We apologize if it’s in bad taste & appreciate your feedback. #pepsifail

I’m not actually offended by – or even terribly interested in – the app itself. Tasteless? Sure. Sophomoric? Yep. But, that’s the Amp demographic. Not exactly the Junior League. The hair-trigger brand response is something else, though. It seems to have added fuel to the online firestorm, for a few reasons.

First of all, the apologetic tweet is pretty tepid. Also, it’s odd that Amp’s Facebook feed actually defends the app. Where’s the consistency here? And since there’s been no offer to pull “Amp Up,” the mea culpa seems inauthentic, or at least half-hearted. As a mashable.com commenter put it, “It’s not a full apology when you use the word “if,” blame the offended for being offended, and continue the activity for which you are apologizing.”

She has a point. What’s harder to swallow is how and why the brand seemed to invite negative feedback. Presumably the #pepsifail hashtag enabled Amp to monitor the Twitter users most engaged in the debate. But, using it was like injecting a double shot of caffeine (or guarana?) into the comment stream. And why did the company choose to throw brand Pepsi under the social media bus? Why not try to use #ampfail? Given the size of the Pepsi portfolio, do they really want to drag in the mass-market mother ship?

Beyond the blurring of brands, I can’t tell if the communications staff at Pepsi are over-identifying with their Amp demographic…or if they’re truly ambivalent about the situation. Or – and this actually seems the most likely to me – maybe they’re interested in amping up the volume, even if it’s negative to us non-hipsters. My take on the apology strategy is that it just may be true to the drink’s cool-hunting, hypersocialized brand character. After all, the reactions of people like me (a 40+ professional mom) or an indignant female blogosphere don’t affect sales in the least. In fact, they just might help promote an edgy, in-your-face sensibility. And ignoring a flood of outrage among marketing types is in itself a kind of anti-marketing position.

I could be overthinking this, but there’s no question that Amp has caught a tremendous buzz from the social media fireworks. In a crowded, buzz-driven category, a shot of energy isn’t a bad thing. And considering the prize here – the ever-elusive young male – the online equivalent of a slapdash, muttered, self-contradictory apology just might be the most authentic piece of all.

Update: On Oct. 22, Pepsi announced it would discontinue the “Amp Up” app. Here’s the story.

Overspending Is So Last Season

Conspicuous consumption is officially dead – or, at least, it’s so…last season. For the first time in memory, the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog has discounted its fantasy gift items. This year’s flurry of stories don’t focus on the fantasy, but the downsizing. The priciest item in the 2009 catalog is a mere $250,000 – far below the seven and eight-figure indulgences of the past. (The top gift is a his-and-hers Icon aircraft, with flying lessons thrown in. So, you can be a high-flier on a budget…relatively speaking.) More to the point, nearly half the items in this year’s catalog are under $250.

I know, it’s hard so feel too shocked about the retrenchment, but I did find it ironic. After all, the Neiman’s catalog, with its over-the-top gifts, is practically the mother of luxury brand public relations – at least of the mass-market variety. No one expects anyone to actually buy the items. If the store sells a handful, that’s icing on the PR cake.

The idea, of course, is to sell the dream, courtesy of Neiman Marcus, and to link the brand with our most rarefied fantasies. You might not buy the airplane, the $105,000 Jaguar, or even my personal favorite, the $7500 tour of the Maker’s Mark distillery near Louisville, Kentucky (a trip I’ve actually taken, no-frills-style, when the brand was my client.) But amidst all the buzz, a $100 cashmere sweater from the same catalog takes on a little more cachet. It’s a classic campaign of aspiration.

But as even Gucci belts have been tightened, Neiman’s needs to bow, however discreetly, to changing sensibilities. There’s evidence that it’s more than just perception. The Wall Street Journal reports that the wealth of America’s high-net-worth individuals plummeted by more than 22 percent last year. Consulting firms who study baby boomer spending habits have released depressing predictions of a permanent change in consumption.

Though the recession seems to be lifting, for luxury marketers, it’s a good news-bad news thing. Much of the consumer research echoes the findings of Unity Marketing, which specializes in tracking luxury trends. Its latest study of consumption by the wealthy reveals that there’s a new “values-based” mindset among the affluent.

According to Unity’s chief economist, the very idea of luxury is assuming a negative connotation. Though marketers may benefit from pent-up demand for high-priced goods and services, “recession chic” is in. Acquiring upscale labels as a badge of status is not. Many experts agree with the firm’s economist, who predicts the attitudinal shift will outlast the recession.

In other words, it’s cool to be cheap. The wealthy are moving from Cartier to Costco – and bragging about it. My favorite line is from a Hollywood publicist who told the L.A.Times, “I’m biting my nails in lieu of manicures.”

So, is overindulgence simply over? Has is gone the way of Uggs and trucker hats? Worse, has fantasy been permanently marked down? Don’t count on it. Part of me likes the anti-status trend, but I don’t fully trust it. Maybe shopping in one’s closet, staycations, and brown-bagging it will still be the new normal this time next year, but I think that marketers like Neiman’s will adapt without giving away the store. And consumers who can afford it will live large, while boasting a little less, and maybe appreciating it a little more.

And those Uggs, they just won’t die. In fact, there are Uggs slippers for only $100 in – you guessed it – the Neiman Marcus catalog.

The Merrill Lynch Bull Charges Back, More Softly This Time

One of many painful sidebars to last year’s Wall Street bloodbath was the swift death of seemingly invincible brands, including former financial powerhouses Lehmann, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch. The human toll was so vast that no one gave much of a thought to the vanquished logos. But, as symbolism, their disappearance rubbed salt into an open wound. Given the iconic nature of the Merrill Lynch mark and its long-running tagline,“Bullish on America,” it seemed that more than a marketing emblem was trampled upon. The Merrill brand spoke to the very core of the quintessentially American values of independence, optimism and resilience. 

Which is why I was delighted to read that the bull is back…at least the marketing kind. (The market bull may need a bit longer for a sustained run.) One year after acquiring Merrill, Bank of America must have decided it makes more sense to revive a 38-year-old name than to come up with a new wealth management brand. It’s brought back the majestic bull, not with a roar, but with a nice flourish, supported by $20 million in advertising for the fourth quarter.

The mascot’s comeback is a good PR move, and the company used the occasion to unveil a new brand campaign and make some bullish business announcements. Plus, the old-new logo is far more visually striking than the vaguely flaglike Bank of America mark that fluttered above the Merrill name after the acquisition.

The return of the iconic beast, whose name is Dollar (pretty uninspired, but what can you do?) is part of a broader effort called “help2” designed to help clients regain their confidence in the market and get back to investing. For me, the multiple taglines “help2achieve,” “help2cherish,” “help2discover,” etc. are a little confusing. They’re meant to showcase the services and 1-to-1 relationships now available from Bank of America. But, the handles sound a little juvenile, and in my mind the soft-pedal approach doesn’t mesh with the strong, testosterone-fueled power of the bull. Or, maybe I’m just not used to the tamer, gentler version of the beast that’s been trotted out for these less showy and more uncertain times.

In fact, some experts are calling the comeback a stumble, claiming that Bank of America should create an entirely new brand rather than building on the back of a symbol from the past. And, of course, there are serious PR and legal challenges facing both brands.

For me, that view is a bunch of…well, bull. Despite quibbles with the updated campaign, and the legal standoff that threatens the merged company, I think the return of the bull logo is not only savvy, but intuitively right. It’s been less than a year since it left the arena, and not many brand icons boast such visceral power and memorability. Though the credibility of the bull has been tarnished, I don’t think it’s been lost.

The last year has taught us that even the hugest companies can collapse and disappear. But, maybe some brands really are too big to fail. I hope so.

Expense-A-Steak: Brilliant PR, Or Blatant Fraud?

We in public relations sometimes start our creative sessions with the mantra, “Let’s think up some ideas that could get us fired.” Part of what clients pay us for, after all, is to push the limits of what’s conventional. But, some concepts come really close to crossing the line.

That’s why I laughed at the recent stunt from NYC steakhouse Maloney and Porcelli, courtesy of agency Walrus. It’s a deliciously simple application called Expense-a-Steak. You simply enter the cost of your pricey steak meal at expenseasteak.com, and, presto, it downloads a sheet of phony expense receipts to justify your extravagance.

The page looks so authentic, it’s scary…it has copies of crumpled New York City taxi receipts and realistic-looking bills from just slightly off-brand retailers like “Office Supply Hut” (complete with a phony logo featuring a paper clip as the “u” in “Supply.” You have to love it.) There are even faux doggie bags to hide the evidence. According to AdAge, the camouflage sacks actually carried the logos of innocuous restaurant brands like Sbarro and Chipotle – that is, before the cease-and-desist letters started.

At first I couldn’t decide how I felt about Expense-a-Steak. It definitely sizzles with PR potential, generating lots of tongue-in-cheek coverage for M&P, but does it serve up a tempting invitation to commit expense fraud? Not really. Upon closer look, the receipts look suspicious ($399 for printer toner?), and the dates are out of whack. It might give your corporate accountant indigestion, but I doubt it would pass muster at most companies.

But the ploy makes for juicy buzz marketing, and not just because it put the M&P name on people’s lips. With the recession taking a big bite out of the traditional expense-account lunch, it brings welcome humor, a topical appeal, and even a pang of nostalgia to the table. For me, it’s a reminder that an occasional indulgent meal – in the name of business, of course – might just be a reasonable trade-off from the months of meals at my desk. It got me thinking that it’s worth cutting back in other areas.

Maybe I’ll forego a few cartloads of printer toner…oh, and cut out the taxis. They’re always going up…did I mention my last airport fare came to $400? (Lunch included.)