Shopping Holidays Are On A Roll

As an inveterate procrastinator and hater of crowds, I’ve always avoided Black Friday, except as a business angle for retail clients. And Cyber Monday, despite a similar usefulness, seemed a little like Grandparents Day…you know, an attempt by marketers to create a commercial holiday that never really, um, clicks. Maybe it’s the “cyber” label, which hasn’t been in the vernacular since the nineties. As a PR professional, I take it seriously, but as a consumer, not so much.

Things are different this year. For one, Black Friday’s morphed into a “cyber”-social occasion, with shoppers tweeting, posting, and blogging about the “doorbuster” deals they’ve found by scouring the Web. As Reuters reports, major retailers took advantage of the sharing to get more involved in social networking than in any previous year or season. Crowdsourcing deals is really hot.

And, surprisingly, so is Cyber Monday. When the National Retail Federation coined the term in 2005, it conjured images of frantic shoppers rushing to the desktops to power through their holiday lists. Yet, online sales that day were easily beaten by those later in December. Even last year, December 9 was the biggest online shopping day, racking up $887 million in sales. Cyber Monday’s, by contrast, were only $846 million, making it seem more virtual than real.

Not any more, apparently. What started as a marketing gimmick is turning into retail reality. Some 87 percent of online retailers are offering special promotions this Monday, according to the NRF. And as a recent New York Times piece suggests, it seems to be influencing shoppers. Shop.org‘s annual Cyber Monday promotion drew only about 32 percent of its member retailers four years ago, but this year’s participation will reach nearly 75 percent. Hopefully, the shopping snowball effect will keep on rolling.

It’s all an attempt to get deal-hungry shoppers, and procrastinators like me, to get an earlier start to the holiday buying season. Yet, the shopping “holidays” might have a snowball effect of their own. I just heard about a new one being pushed by a mobile firm.  Mobile Tuesday will feature coupons from various retailers, including MacDonald’s, Finish Line, and RedTag, delivered to participants via cell phone.

But, here’s the problem. We shopping slackers like to push the limits of what’s possible. At this rate, I’ll be holding out for yet another faux holiday. I’m thinking some kind of “midnight madness” sale on December 23, the ultimate deadline for holiday gift deliveries. Last-Chance Wednesday, anyone? Keep an eye out, and let me know.

Has Reality TV Gone Too Far?

salahis
The furor over the Virginia couple who evaded security and gained entry into the recent White House state dinner has many calling for a review of Secret Service procedures. When photos showed that the couple actually got close enough to the president to shake his hand, the concern, and the coverage, of “gatecrasher-gate” naturally escalated.

But, there’s a twist, of course. It turns out that the couple, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, are being considered by Bravo for a new edition of its successful “Real Housewives” franchise, this one to be set in Washington, D.C. A camera crew was actually videotaping them as they drove to the White House. (Sounds like more than an audition to me.)

The sturm and drang over their gate-crashing plays out a little like Balloon Boy redux, and it raises similar questions. To what lengths will people go for a chance at fame, however dubious? Is reality-TV “stardom” the new American dream? Shouldn’t we stop rewarding people for bad, outrageous, or even illegal behavior?

Most galling is the response from the couple – or, rather, their publicist. Her email to CNN sounds as if she’s repping Angelina Jolie. It reads, “We will begin doing press and media next week providing exclusive interviews and press junkets. If you would like to be considered in our media circuit we request that you hold your proposed published profile until then.”

Holy media tour. Mrs. Salahi is already booked on Larry King next week. I realize that reality TV attracts the publicity-hungry and the narcissistic, and the Salahis are clearly fame-seekers of a high order. In fact, there’s probably more than just a shot at a “Housewives” gig to the story, as some bloggers have suggested. But, from Omarosa to Octomom, it seems like the only thing that matters is to stand out. As reality producer Michael Hirschorn said, aspirants have become much more clever at “self-producing.”

So, where do you draw the line? And, at what point do the production company, the network, and even the viewers, share responsbility for these kinds of antics?

I’m a fan of many reality TV shows, and the “Housewives” are kind of a guilty pleasure. But, unless there’s another side to the story, I hope these guys are dealt with harshly by the law, if only to set an example. They’ve already enjoyed far more than their 15 minutes… and, honestly, if there’s a book contract in their future, I’ll organize a boycott or something. As James Poniewozik wrote his excellent piece on the Heene family, “Only in the reality TV era is unstable behavior a valid career choice.”
I think it’s time for all of us to get a life.

15 Things PR People Have To Be Thankful For

It’s that time of year… when we sit in traffic so we can stuff our faces and argue catch up with family members whom we haven’t seen all year, to gather energy for a weekend of crazy shopping – or vigorous procrastination.

But, it’s also a good occasion to consider what we appreciate in our everyday lives and careers. So, we made a list. It doesn’t include the big, obvious stuff, like good health, friends and family, and very fact of having a job, so consider those implied. Our list is more about the ordinary things that we may have overlooked or taken for granted all year. Please feel free to add to it.

Things We’re Thankful For As PR Professionals
1.  Desktop shopping (though of course we’d never do it at work.)
2.  A last-minute creative challenge right before a holiday weekend
3.  The ability to lie to ourselves (see #2)
4.  Interns
5.  Our deluxe on-site office spa (scheduled for completion in 2012, by the Mayan calendar)
6.  HARO (Thanks, Peter)
7.  Those three extra hours when delivering a proposal to the West Coast
8.  Roll-up-your-sleeves client meetings
9.  Catered leftovers from #8
10. That there are nearly two years left to pitch Oprah
11. That there are only two years left to pitch Oprah
12. The agency holiday bash
13. Facebook privacy settings (see #12)
14. Social media. If it hadn’t happened, we’d have had to invent it.
15. A heartfelt “thanks” from media, colleagues, and our clients, who are amazing.

Oprah’s Departure: Doomsday For Broadcast TV?

If I hadn’t known about Oprah’s announcement before waking up to a WNYC Radio listener roundup of “what Oprah has meant to me,” – honestly, I would’ve thought she died. Of course, the impetus for the wave of coverage was not a tragic event, but merely her tearful disclosure that she will end her daily talk show within two years, in September 2011.

But for CBS, which syndicates the show, and ABC, whose stations carry it, Oprah’s move actually is a bit like a death in the family. In fact, it’s an overall blow for broadcast television and its ad-supported business model. CBS’s statement, which affirmed that it’s looking forward to the next several years, “and hopefully afterwards,” read like a plea for her to change her mind, and who can blame them? Oprah’s reason for turning out the lights after 25 extraordinary years is to concentrate more fully on her next big venture – the Oprah Winfrey cable network, or OWN.

(I can’t help but wonder about the much-publicized ancient Mayan calendar predictions that the world will end by 2012. Is Oprah preparing for the end? Or, is life without a daily dose of Oprah the apocalypse itself?)

There’s no doubt that Oprah’s departure is another sign of the growing dominance of cable television. But, to date, the plans for OWN are murky. It was originally announced in 2007 and was meant to debut last year, but it was stalled amidst executive turnover and lack of focus. Even now it’s not clear what Oprah’s role in front of the camera will be, if any. She’s told staffers that she will not simply move the show to cable, but rather will produce programming that might involve occasional appearances.

So, there’s another side to Oprah’s decision.What will happen to her influence once she’s no longer a weekday presence in our lives? Naturally, her media empire is far larger than her talk show, and her brand larger still. Yet, the show has been a powerful platform. It may be a relief for some PR people (see previous post), but the ramifications of a (broadcast) world without Oprah are as huge as her impact…including for her.

I can’t help but wonder if her diminished TV presence could also dim the influence of the woman who persuaded so many about so much – from trying Twitter to picking our president.

Red Flags: When To Say No To A Potential PR Client

Today I spoke with an old friend who’s a well-established public relations consultant. She called for advice about a prospect, since, after meeting him, she wasn’t sure he’d make a good client. Twenty seconds into the conversation, I knew she was right, and we discussed how she should gracefully decline his business.

When times are tough, it’s hard to turn down clients, even if our gut says it’s not a fit. So, after speaking with some colleagues and reviewing my own experience over many years and five agency positions, I’ve come up with a list of common red flags that might signal a short-lived relationship. While no one sign is a dealbreaker, multiple flags should give any PR professional pause.

1. They use the “O” word. That’s Oprah, of course. This is probably the top complaint among PR consultants. (So much so, in fact, that there was quiet rejoicing in some corners when the Queen of Talk announced that her show will end in 2011. But, more about that later.) It was what bothered my friend, because the client wasn’t right for Oprah. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with setting specific publicity goals, or with aiming high. But, unrealistic prospects make unhappy clients.

2. The magic bullet syndrome. Even more challenging than an Oprah-obsessed prospect is one who assumes that the big hit – whether Oprah, The Wall Street Journal, or TechCrunch – will be an instant fix for their brand, product, or business. Equating a public relations program with one publicity result is like comparing the baseball season to a home run in a single game.

3. No budget range is mentioned. I can understand wanting to get diverse responses to a given RFP, but why waste time and resources garnering big ideas if there’s no possibility of funding them?

4. The meeting’s been rescheduled multiple times. This is increasingly common (and understandable) today, but it can be a signal that a PR partnership isn’t a priority.

5. They’ve churned through agencies. If they’ve worked with more than three firms in the past five years, that’s an obvious flag, and a sign to find out more.

6. They’re talking to everyone. Though it’s common for procurement-led RFPs to go out to dozens of agencies, the system should be fairly transparent, and relatively quick. If it’s not, it could mean they’re just idea-shopping.

7. They’re mixing apples and oranges. If they don’t know whether they need an ad agency, a branding firm, or a PR partner, they have no idea what they want. Never good.

8. They don’t articulate goals. This one’s obvious. Even if given verbally, a clear scope of work and specific objectives are essential to any serious discussion about agency engagement.

9. You’ll be reporting to the CEO. Or his assistant. Or the marketing intern. The agency report should be a communications-savvy professional who is qualified to make or obtain timely decisions and who commands respect within the organization. If not, be afraid.

10. The PR person has no say in the review. I’ve had clients whose internal staff were threatened by the addition of a firm because they weren’t consulted, or they feared they’d be made redundant. At best, it’s a recipe for frustration.

11. They need a proposal by Friday. And it’s Wednesday. Need I say more?

For more on this topic from a client perspective, The Council of PR Firms offers a thorough guide to the firm selection process, and a questionnaire for agencies who can’t decide whether to go for it, or walk away. Happy selling.

Sarah Reloaded: Palin’s PR Offensive

“She’s not retreating, she’s reloading.” That’s how Sarah Palin, quoting her father, describes her re-emergence on the scene at the end of her memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life.

It’s also a pretty fair description of the preparation for the PR offensive mounted to promote the book. Palin’s come out with guns blazing. Some reviewers have dismissed the book as little more than a rehash of her life story, with a generous helping of score-settling. But, that’s not the point. What’s far more interesting is how Palin has packaged herself, and her message, for what some see as a warm-up for the 2012 election. Though I’m not at all convinced she’s gearing up to run for President, it’s clear that Going Rogue is the launching pad for the “new and improved” Sarah Palin brand.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Palin’s politics. But, my first two PR jobs were in book publishing, and I can appreciate the brand platform that a book provides. Though the marketing campaign kicked off today with a hugely hyped interview with Oprah, and a taped sit-down with Barbara Walters, the team has taken pains to point out that it’s not a typical promotional campaign. Instead of the customary major market media or satellite tour, the woman who made “maverick” a catch word is following a different playbook. In a move dubbed the “Wal-Mart” strategy, the Palin PR team has rejected the big (liberal?) markets in favor of what she calls “the real America,” starting with Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Ring a bell? Michigan was an early battleground state for Palin. The battle was between her and the McCain campaign, which opted to skip it in favor of bigger and more certain electoral victories. Clearly, Palin wants to get in her shots at the McCain team. But, what better way to court those “real Americans”  – and snub the bicoastal media elites – than to kick off her appearances in, um, flyover country? They’ll travel by bus, of course. Call it the Heartland Maverick-mobile Marketing Tour.

I’m not sure the numbers are there in the electoral sense, but it’s shrewd positioning. What’s more, team Palin is working furiously to both leverage the mainstream press, and disintermediate it at the same time. Though they’ve granted those national TV interviews, there’s also a clear plan to go directly to her fans through use of Google keyword ads and social media. She uses her Facebook page to lambast the fact-checking efforts of Associated Press, accusing the AP of “making things up.” It’s a nice populist move.

But, Palin’s non-candidate status has enabled a softer and more contemporary brand of populism, tinged with post-feminist self-reliance. Unhampered by the need to cram for foreign policy pop quizzes, she’s free to focus for maximum resonance. Her “blame-the-other-guys” talking points are well-crafted to stretch her appeal beyond the core conservative base. They paint her campaign experience as that of a regular gal, frustrated and constrained by the out-of-touch McCain staff and jaded Washington consultants who tried – and failed – to package her like a commodity. It’s a neat packaging trick of her own. Choose the losing team as your opponent (in addition to the liberal press, of course), cast yourself as the innocent rebel, and you can come out as a winner. More importantly, it positions the Palin brand as authentic, her original core attribute.

Palin is accused by her opponents of substituting the personal for the political. But, when it comes to the new and improved Sarah Palin, there’s nothing but the personal. Which is why I  think she’s really aiming to be a kind of right-of-center Oprah, not the future Ms. President. But, we’ll see. One thing seems clear. Palin’s only just begun her brand offensive. You betcha.

How Goldman Can Beat Its Bad PR

When news broke last week that bankers at Goldman Sachs had received the H1N1 vaccine amid shortages at doctors’ offices and hospitals, it was one more public relations headache for the firm.

And there was a feverish reaction from the blogosphere and the mainstream press, including a hilarious Saturday Night Live sendup. As the bankers got their shots, everyone wanted a shot at them.

Actually, Goldman was one of over 20 companies to receive the vaccine, and the decision was made by the CDC. But, in the public view that’s irrelevant, because the brand has become synonymous with greed…you know, the long-term kind. Should it care? Though some have argued otherwise, I think it’s pretty clear to Goldman’s chiefs that it needs an image bailout, and not just on principle. The Fed has announced a crackdown on investment banking pay packages. Granted, it has loopholes, but as public outrage builds, the pressure for more regulation will grow. And, nothing’s likely to stoke public outrage like the mind-boggling $21 billion in bonuses Goldman expects to pay for 2009.

So, is there a PR cure for Goldman’s reputational ills? CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s charm offensive, though a sound strategy in principle, has been met with mixed results. A recent interview in which Blankfein said the firm “does God’s work” didn’t help. I’m told Blankfein was being tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not sure if people got his inflection. Blankfein had to have been joking, though, since, as Wall Street Journal blogger Matt Phillips suggests, “God couldn’t afford him.”

Some have opined that Goldman should make a single large donation – as much as $1 billion is rumored – to a worthy charity at year end. That would be impressive for sure, but I don’t think it’s the way to go, unless it’s part of a broader plan. I’d counsel the company to go longer-term with its philanthropy, and to put a face behind it. It should do more to re-engineer its Foundation than quietly kicking in an extra $200 million when the heat is on, as it did recently. And though its 10,000 Women initiative is exciting and creative, it’s not enough. Goldman needs to up the ante in terms of giving, and in the philanthropic goals it sets.

Remember when Bill Gates was CEO of the Evil Empire and his image was that of a monopolistic geek with tightwad tendencies? A few years and a mere $30 billion later, the picture’s very different. Say what you will about Microsoft, Gates will go down as one of the greatest philanthropists in history. It’s not a perfect analogy, and the companies and industries are too different. But, there are learnings.

Whether through the existing Goldman Sachs Foundation or the philanthropy fund launched in 2007 (hmmm…another record year), Goldman should be consistent in its giving. And it should be tied to a single, high-visibility public need, like education for at-risk youth, rather than the pet charities of its partners. It must then articulate a clear and ambitious goal, and a far-reaching agenda. Finally, it needs to place someone with real credibility at the helm. The philanthropic dimension of its brand should have a human face, in my view.

Heaven knows Goldman’s got the cash. With the right leadership, and a long-term philanthropic and communications commitment, it also has an opportunity to turn an embarrassment of riches into a dramatic move for social good. Long-term good.

What Fort Hood Taught Us About Social Media

It’s sadly ironic that on this Veterans Day, we’re not only contemplating our military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but mourning the loss of 13 soldiers on our own soil less than a week ago. As usual, the traditional media have reported not just the tragedy at Fort Hood, but the inspiring stories of bravery and selflessness, like the actions of civilian officer Kimberly Munley and Pfc. Marquest Smith. But social media, so often hailed as a hero during times of crisis, fell short that day.

The misinformation spread on Twitter Thursday included erroneous reports that the shooter was killed, as well as pictures of the wounded as they arrived at the hospital, complete with casual, even flippant updates. It was hurtful to all involved. The inaccurate tweets of a soldier inside the base (complete with her phone number for reporters to call, and requests for RTs) were harshly criticized by Paul Carr in a scathing blog post for TechCrunch. It raises disturbing questions about voyeuristic and even narcissistic “reporting” by regular people that’s been enabled by technology.

I can’t speak to the broader ethical questions here, and I won’t try to. But when it comes to the failure of citizen journalism, why are we surprised? Only because it’s been so overhyped. Just as we saw with the so-called social media revolution in Iran, the impact of even legitimate social media reporting and attention has been greatly exaggerated. Of course, professional reporters make mistakes as well, but they’re held to a pretty high standard for accuracy and objectivity, and they face very real consequences for any breach.

At the end of the day, citizen journalists are just that. Citizens. Amateurs. Regular people with cameraphones. That’s the appeal of citizen reporting –  the lack of convention, the freshness, the opinion bleeding through the story. But, the Fort Hood tragedy is a reminder of the many reasons why citizen reporting shouldn’t replace professional journalism, and why it never will.

Top Five Agency Lessons From “Mad Men”

I’m a mad fan of “Mad Men.” But I confess it’s not the soap-opera-esque personal life of ad man Don Draper that had me hooked all season. It’s life at Sterling Cooper, the fictional, but true-to-life agency. From the client meetings and internal politicking, to the bon mots of insouciant principal Roger Sterling, “Mad Men” is…well, pitch-perfect. Several episodes (like the department store client meeting from Season 1) mirrored experiences I had at major PR firms in the nineties. The more things change…

So, what can we learn from “Mad Men”? I’ve been taking notes during Season 3, right up to the killer finale that aired last night. The series, with its great writing and inside-baseball knowledge of the agency biz, offers some surprisingly up-to-date wisdom for just about anyone in a creative services firm, whether advertising, PR, or other. Here are some of my favorite nuggets from Season 3. SPOILER WARNING: This post contains references to the major reveal of “Mad Men”‘s finale, so read no further if it’s still on your DVR list. (But, if you’re clever, you saw it coming.)

#1. Relationships are everything. We saw the importance of personal chemistry throughout this season, but John Slattery’s Roger Sterling had the best line. After Pete missteps with the Admiral TV client by pressing his idea to target African Americans, an infuriated Sterling shouts, “I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you that half the time this business comes down to ‘I don’t like that guy.'” Couldn’t have said it better.

What’s more, intra-agency relationships are the lifeblood of the business. Don learns that the hard way in the last episode, when he realizes he must mend his relationship with Roger if his plan to start a new firm has a chance of working. Then, he has to hammer out a new, more equitable relationship with Peggy, by admitting her value to him.

#2. Never underappreciate the account guy. (Because, relationships are everything.) When I started work at Grey Advertising’s PR unit, I originally dismissed the account post as being for drones. The typical ad agency structure is unlike that of most PR firms, where account people often have strategic, creative and media roles. With Creative dreaming up campaigns, Media Buying handling the schedules, Strategic Services on research, etc., I thought the Account Directors were glorified client hand-holders. I was wrong.

As Draper himself confesses after his bumpy relationship with client Conrad Hilton ends, “I can run Creative, but I’m not an account guy.” It’s harder than it looks, folks. The keeper of the client relationship deserves not only respect, but as much appreciation as we can give.

#3. Never let them see you sweat. This one’s counterintuitive on the surface. But, another great agency truism is uttered by Lane Pryce, the delightful overseer-cum-bean counter for British holding company PPL, which has acquired Sterling Cooper. Pryce breaks the news to Pete that his rival Ken Cosgrove will be promoted over him. He explains that Pete’s done a fine job of meeting his clients’ needs, but that Cosgrove “has the rare gift of making them feel as if they haven’t any needs.” To me, this is about staying ahead of your clients. Anticipating is critical.

#4. For those in the idea business, creativity is a meritocracy. One of the best exchanges this season takes place between Draper and Peggy, when he dismisses the tagline she’s pitching as flat. “That one’s yours,” she protests. “That doesn’t make it good,” he snaps. He’s right. Even the Boy Genius Creative Director doesn’t nail it every time.

#5. Great work – not cost-cutting – leads to profits over the long term. When, in an earlier episode, Don and his colleague are called on the carpet about their travel expenses, Don loses his temper with Pryce, saying, “You want to make money, start getting your nails dirty…think of the men’s morale, not your own.” It’s another reminder that, after a point, cost cuts are self-defeating in a service business. It’s the work, the quality of the service, and the relationships, that build an enduring business.

For more “Mad Men” analysis in general terms, check out my favorite blogs by Salon, Time‘s James Poniewozik, and MediaPost’s “Mad Blog” by the terrific Dorothy Parker, which usually posts mid-week.

Mickey Mouse Takes The Gloves Off

I guess it had to happen. Still, I wasn’t prepared. Just in time for his birthday (November 18, 1928) Mickey Mouse, the classic Disney character, is going in for a makeover. And it’s not just a few cosmetic tweaks this time. Disney’s decided that, to remain relevant, the iconic mouse needs a new personality. Out with the cheerful, happy, mouse. The new Mickey will be darker and edgier. Disney calls him “cantankerous and cunning.”

Most eye-opening is the venue where the updated Mickey will make his debut. “Epic Mickey” will be featured next year in a new video game on the Wii platform. It’s described as the Cartoon Wasteland, an apocalyptic world where the mouse meets up with past Disney characters who are jealous of his popularity. The formerly squeaky-clean mouse must battle an evil overlord to restore the wasteland. Lovable Mickey’s going from cartoon character to action hero.

Some experts have criticized the plan as too risky. But, most brand professionals will tell you that a character needs to stay relevant to new generations. And, given Mickey’s age, this one is overdue. But, there’s a lot at stake for Disney. The change has all kinds of implications that go beyond the $5 billion in Mickey merchandise sold each year. Mickey is synonymous with Disney itself, which is precisely the problem. Disney stopped making Mickey cartoons in 1953, and the Mickey Mouse Club television show ended six years later. For most people, the Mouse has long ago morphed from cartoon cut-up to walking corporate icon. So, while Disney updates and reintroduces the cooler, darker Mickey character, it’s also tinkering with its corporate brand. That’s a tricky business.

What’s ironic, though, is that the Mickey personality change is more like a throwback to the mouse’s original character. As some of the news reports have indicated, the old Mickey, of “Steamboat Willie” days, was a mischievous, amorous rabble-rouser. So, maybe Mickey as videogame action hero isn’t so far off. He’s taking the gloves off, but going back to his roots.