Will E-Books Save Publishing?

While scanning the post-holiday news this weekend, I was gripped by what might be the biggest retail story of the season. Amazon, in a PR release, reported a first. On Christmas day, it sold more e-books than regular print titles.

Holy page-turner. This latest chapter took me by surprise. Just this summer, Amazon-watchers and tech pundits were dismissive of its e-book vision, and plenty were critical of the Kindle DX. Today, Kindle is living up to its name — it’s caught fire. Analysts are upping forecasts, and skepticism has been replaced with euphoria.

There’s a twist, of course. When you break it down, the story’s not that simple, and maybe not so compelling. It stands to reason that, with all those freshly gifted Kindles fired up on Christmas, many new owners would immediately move to download digital titles for their new toy. Traditional bookstores, by comparison, would have been slower than usual.

And then, the announcement itself was maddeningly vague, with no actual numbers attached. Some wonder if the many public domain and other free “bestselling” titles offered by Amazon could have been included in the calculation, thus artificially inflating the numbers.

No matter how you read it, though, this holiday was the season of the e-book. And with the Kindle surging ahead of competitive devices and plans, Amazon has more leverage than ever to make more deals with publishers. The publishers loathe the terms, of course.  And there’s plenty of intrigue. Even treachery. Just two weeks ago, best-selling author Stephen Covey made an exclusive e-book deal with Amazon, cutting out  longtime publisher Simon & Schuster. Still more clout for Amazon, right?

Sure. But it’s not just through brute force that it’s been able to succeed with Kindle. It’s about smart marketing, or really un-marketing. The Amazon formula is to invest in engineering and customer service, then let customers do the evangelizing, aided by savvy PR and media relations.

Yet, what’s a good story without a great rivalry? Suddenly, everyone’s launching Kindle-killers. And, rumor has it that Apple’s next big product introduction – the long-rumored tablet that could debut as early as January – will be have a robust e-reader functionality.

Apple’s a worthy adversary. As Venturebeat.com puts it, why wouldn’t it use its vaunted design talents to “steal an already proven market, the way the company invaded personal computers, MP3 players, TV consoles, and smartphones.” And it’s not exactly a marketing slouch either.

So, the plot thickens. Not only will the book publishing industry be upturned by a real e-reader success story, but a true mass market for e-books might give the newspaper and magazine businesses a shot at salvaging their business.

The story’s still playing out. I’m betting it’s a bestseller…for somebody.

Pepsi Super Bowl Snub Scores PR Points, Changes Marketing Game

In recent years, the Super Bowl has become as much a brand PR vehicle as an advertising showcase. Companies can score big by announcing their participation in the adfest, and if they hit, their commercial will be replayed and discussed by pundits like Barbara Lippert and Donnie Deutsch throughout the post–game news cycle.

That’s why it’s ironic that Pepsi’s recent announcement that it won’t advertise in the 2010 Super Bowl has generated so much coverage. The reason is not only because the brand is breaking a  23-year marketing tradition. It’s also because Pepsi has said it will instead pour its budget into an ambitious campaign called Project Refresh that will be promoted through social media.

Project Refresh seems to blend philanthropy, community relations, and crowdsourcing, not to mention canny timing. Pepsi will invite the public to submit ideas on how it should spend a cool $20 million to “refresh” local communities. Starting February 1, people can vote for the projects they favor, and the ones that garner the most votes will be funded.

The brand’s decision to take a pass on the Super Bowl this year may not be as unexpected as it seems, however. With “Project Refresh” already in the works, they may have felt a big buy would send a mixed signal. It’s tough to talk philanthropy on the one hand, then get into the commercial huddle at a time when CBS is asking $2.5 or $3 million for a single spot. Maybe Pepsi’s marketers thought it wiser to let its other brands, like Gatorade, carry the ball when it comes to splashy ads.

But, Pepsi’s move is a game-changer when it comes to TV advertising. As a marketing leader, it’s a model for other advertisers. When a brand that’s spent $142 million over the decade changes direction, it’s a clear sign that the old rules are history.

Domino’s Serves Up A New PR Recipe

Call it a mid-life crisis. On the eve of its 50th birthday, Domino’s is throwing its pizza recipe – and its business – up in the air. The company recently announced it has changed “everything” about its products, from crust to sauce. To top things off, it’s invited influential bloggers, some of whom have criticized its product – to comment on the changes.

Brand gurus have pointed out the risks involved in changing its core product – as embodied by examples like the new Coke launch. It’s true that regular customers are probably happily accustomed to their pizzas. And, then, there’s its vulnerability. Think of the food bloggers ready to heap on the snark, and pizza snobs with knives out…and not in a good way.

But, let’s face it. People order Domino’s for convenience, not for authenticity or even flavor. In fact, one category study ranks Domino’s number one among major pizza chains, but it comes in dead last for taste – tied with Chuck E Cheese. Pizza snobs aren’t likely to be customers anyway; my bet is that Domino’s wants into eat into the market share of its main competitors, and to win back lapsed customers who might be bored with its offering.

Most importantly, a proactive social media push generates the type of “free” coverage that advertising can’t accomplish. Customers will either like the new recipe, or they won’t. But it sure does generate buzz and make the marketing job easier.

What I’m savoring about the Domino’s strategy is its willingness to reach out to social media influencers – especially those who might not be fans – to spread the word, just months after the YouTube video crisis created by rogue employees.

It’s another indication that social media is an essential ingredient to a product launch today. And, for Domino’s, it’s not only in line with the current trend to use Web influencers to boost branding efforts, but it’s a bold move that shows confidence in its own decision.

It’s too early to tell if the Domino’s gamble to get a larger slice of the industry pie will pay off. The blogger reviews are starting to come in, though, and they’re okay. For blog reviews, that is. My philosophy there is a little like one of the comments I saw.  “Pizza is like sex. Even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good.”

Facebook Privacy Fix Is A Very Public Problem

As the mother of social networks, Facebook has struggled with privacy issues. It hasn’t gotten credit for many of the tools it offers, possibly because many users don’t understand them. So, the bar was raised a while back when CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised “a simpler model for privacy control.”

What happened instead was a very mixed reaction to its new privacy settings, and a fresh PR problem for the company. This time, it’s not just the user backlash that greets any Facebook change. There’s a measure of genuine confusion, doubt about its intentions, and a modest public relations blunder by Zuckerberg himself.

Given the build-up to the unveiling of the new privacy tool, the expectation was that Facebook would help users tighten their controls and limit the information they share with the world. Instead, the opposite message was communicated. It’s not all bad. The transition wizard forces you to examine your settings. That’s good, because many people, like me, signed up ages ago and have forgotten what we did then, if anything.

But instead of offering options based on a user’s current settings, the transition tool encourages its own recommendations. And, guess what? The recommended defaults nearly always urge sharing with “friends of friends” or “everyone.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not eager for “everyone” to see photos of my young daughter. But, that’s what Facebook recommends.

So does did CEO Mark Zuckerberg. To call attention to the change, Zuckerberg adjusted his own settings. Good PR move, right? But perhaps he didn’t realize that his family photos and contacts would be available to “friends of friends.” Or maybe he was just setting an example in following the recommended defaults. Facebook claims that he always meant to make certain areas accessible to everyone. Yet, mysteriously, after gawker.com and others rifled through them and posted many online, Zuckerberg’s settings were changed to make personal photos off-limits.

I can’t blame Zuckerberg for his about-face. Who wouldn’t want to keep their personal photos safe from prying eyes…and snarky gossip websites? The good news for users is that the online community has jumped into the breach. Within a day or two of the launch of the new settings, hundreds of blog posts appeared with clear, how-to tips and guidelines on protecting privacy and identity on Facebook. And, to be fair, Facebook’s put plenty of information on its own site.

In explaining the default, Facebook told Reuters that making updates available to everyone is “the way the world is moving.” That may be true, but in pushing members to open up online, Facebook is both becoming more Twitter-like, and seeming to bow to pressure to monetize the wealth of personal user information on the site. Both risk eliminating the very thing that many members found so appealing about it in the first place.

The Tabloid Carnival: Celebrities As Entertainment

One of the more troubling aspects of the Tiger Woods scandal is what a political consultant famously referred to as “bimbo eruptions.” That devastating (and devastatingly accurate) description of then-president  Bill Clinton’s extramarital history, and his PR problems, feels pretty familiar right now. Especially as more women come out of the woodwork to grab their tawdry piece of the action.

Which is why, when I heard that the New York Post‘s newest advice columnist is Ashley Dupre, it seemed like a sign of the apocalypse. The call girl implicated in the 2008 Eliot Spitzer scandal is now a member of the press. As a struggling freelance reporter posted in her Twitter update this morning, “I’ve been going about this writer thing all wrong.”

There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t know where to start. The desperation of the mainstream media to stay relevant and profitable. Our reality-show-obsessed, celebrity-saturated culture. The glorification of (for lack of a better term) bad behavior. Our anything-for-a-buck national mentality. The inane and growing list of people who are famous for…being famous. In short, the tabloid-ing of America.

Then I saw Neal Gabler’s excellent Newsweek piece about modern celebrity. Drawing on the work of Daniel Boorstin, he argues that the narrative, not the individual, is what is truly celebrated in today’s culture of fame. Which is why Joey Buttafuco or Tila Tequila might actually trump Queen Elizabeth. Gabler posits that celebrity has become our new art form, edging out the more traditional forms of entertainment like movies and novels. What’s more, celebrity-worship (or excoriation) might actually brings us together at a time when everything else (politics, values, and common experience) divides us.

After reading Gabler’s article, I now feel educated, whereas before I just felt dirty. See, to me, it still seems more about schadenfreude, a way of feeling better about ourselves. We can be morally superior to the cocktail waitress who sells her story, and at the same time, we wouldn’t want to be in Tiger’s shoes.

Yet, after reading Dupre’s debut column, I was mildly surprised. Her “advice” is pretty far from her Girls Gone Wild history. It’s solid, commonsense, and self-referential only where it needs to be. Coming from someone else it would be boring. But, as advice from somebody with her, um, narrative, it has more weight.

So, as our tabloid values take over not just the national consciousness, but the national media, “like cultural kudzu,” I’ve decided to give my indignation a rest and enjoy the entertainment factor. On his Twitter feed, actor James Urbiank offers, “Rachel Uchitel in talks to be new NY Post ombudsman.” That’s a joke. At least, I think it is.

Will Tiger Woods Sink Celebrity Endorsement?

The seemingly endless Tiger Woods scandal, and the well-worn implications for PR and crisis management, have me thinking instead about another aspect of our business – the celebrity endorsement. In this case, the negative fallout is so dramatic – and so unanticipated – that I have to wonder. Could brands become wary of getting into bed with celebrities?

Timing is everything, of course. GM was chagrined to announce the end of its long-running deal with Woods after its business drove into the rough a year ago. How do you think they feel now? And, Cover Girl couldn’t have been too happy about its campaign featuring Rihanna earlier this year, even though Rihanna wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing. Should marketers go back to invented personalities, like Betty Crocker or the Maytag repairman?

Not really. I researched a few of the major celebrity scandals of recent years. In virtually every case, the brands involved were only temporarily in the news, and they came away unscathed. In fact, if you run down a short list of major personalities caught up in negative publicity, nearly all have made a comeback….or are on the way there.

Take Kobe Bryant, for example. Many have compared Tiger’s troubles to his arrest and trial for sexual assault in 2003, and the subsequent loss of major sponsors like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. But, after Bryant was cleared, he came back. So did advertisers.

A tougher comparison might be Michael Vick, who served jail time after pleading guilty to crimes involving dogfighting. Though the marketing jury’s still out on Vick’s brand reputation, his image rehab is underway. Nike, Vick’s major brand sponsor, took a hit after his conviction. It was reportedly stuck with $1.5 million worth of shoe inventory that couldn’t be sold. But, it’s hard to argue any brand damage, given that Vick is once again a Nike endorser.

For me, the Woods fiasco is a little like Martha Stewart‘s fall from grace, only because it was so unexpected. Her 2005 arrest for insider trading was most definitely not a good thing for retail partner KMart. Some would say the scandal helped push KMart into bankruptcy, although it’s arguable. Stewart was forced to resign her MSLO Board seat and position as Chief Creative Officer, and the company stock price is still in the basement, yet brand Martha is very much among the living.

Then there’s Kate Moss, who blew lucrative deals with H&M, Chanel, and Burberry after she was photographed snorting cocaine. The sponsors staved off collateral damage by dropping her, and today, Moss has a chic new collection of brands on her roster, including Dior, Calvin Klein, and Louis Vuitton.

Even Chris Brown has a good shot at redemption. In fact, there’s only one major former celebrity endorser on my list that I’d say has no chance of image rehab, and that’s O.J. Simpson. Murder charges, not to mention jail time, tend to have a chilling effect on marketability.

As for the rest, it looks like the long and lucrative marriage between marketers and celebrities is still intact. I wish I could say the same for the Woods’ union. Time will tell.

Why Climategate’s An Epic PR Fail

Call it a perfect storm… of scandal. As world leaders have gathered in Copenhagen to discuss global climate issues, the ill winds of “Climategate” are still blowing. Since hundreds of private emails between some of the world’s leading climate scientists were hacked and leaked online, skeptics have cried foul. Sarah Palin’s opinion piece in today’s Washington Post is just one example of how the scandal has become a cloud over Copenhagen.

Many claim the email discussion of how to present raw data to “hide the decline” of global temperatures is evidence that researchers conspired to conceal the data that might refute evidence of global warming. The Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia is feeling the heat. Already, the head of the university’s research unit has stepped down until an official review of the incident is completed.

The longer-term result is a loss of credibility, and an undermining of the very case the scientists were striving to make. Climategate’s been called everything from “scientific fascism” to a mere “PR problem.” Though the origins of the scandal clearly extend beyond public relations, the reputational impact is …well, I’d call it a Category 5. And, it’s made more difficult by the arcane quality of the data involved. (One of the clearest accounts is Newsweek science editor Sharon Begley’s article posted here.)

There’s enough failure to go around here. And, there are plenty of lessons for academia, as pointed out by the scientific blogosphere. The learnings for research PR and public information professionals, on the other hand, are a bit simpler. I’m sure they might seem naive to a veteran scientist, but here is my take.

Never assume privacy. Especially when it comes to sensitive or politicized issues. Imagining your email or client memos in The New York Times isn’t just an exercise in discretion…it’s a kind of ethical litmus test. If you’d be uncomfortable about someone reading it, you should re-think your role in its dissemination.

Anticipate FOIA requests. Increasingly, research information is subject to Freedom of Information Act Requests. In many countries (like the UK, where the scandal erupted), it’s a criminal offense to ignore or evade such requests, so it should be borne in mind. Talking about deleting or destroying data, as in this case, just compounds the error.

Be precise about language. Having worked with health researchers, I’m amazed at the language the climate scientists used, even among peers. I’m a believer in climate change, but, to me, the word “trick” suggests manipulation, not statistical rigor. “Hide the decline” wasn’t even an accurate description of what the scientists were discussing. They were concerned about so-called proxy reconstruction data from tree rings that wasn’t consistent with other research in demonstrating a gradual global temperature rise. So, it was really more about explaining an inconsistency or aberration in the data that should have been flagged and compensated for, openly.

Be transparent where possible. It’s easy to fall into a bunker mentality when you’re in the eye of a political storm. But, if the techniques had been explained openly, perhaps the skeptics wouldn’t have had so much ammunition.

Don’t try to bury dissent. This is tough, given the increasing politicization of the climate change debate. But, instead of discussing how to evade requests for data, or daydreaming of beating up deniers (as one scientist did) researchers and their agents should put themselves in the shoes of their antagonists. If they, the experts, can’t rise above ignorance and partisanship, how can we?

Don’t cut corners. That’s what Jon Stewart shouts at the end of his hilarious report on the scandal, and the opportunity it’s given to some of the, um, windbags in our own government to exploit the scandal. He says it better than I can. All the rest is hot air.

A Dimmer Picture For Broadcast TV


I’m a TV fan, and I’m not ashamed. In fact, my first thought when I heard about the NBC-Comcast deal was of Jack Donaghy. You know, the growly-voiced Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for GE on NBC’s “30 Rock.” I’ve always given GE props for letting Tina Fey and the rest of the cast satirize it so hilariously.

But, the deal has unleashed a fresh round of predictions that broadcast TV is dead. In fact, what adds insult to injury is how small a role in the overall transaction the NBC broadcast stations play. As the ground shifts under their feet, I’m wondering how Donaghy, and his real-life counterparts at the networks, will adjust. And whether they could have saved “free” TV.

The broadcast picture started fading long before the Comcast deal. Before Oprah’s announcement that she’ll decamp for her cable network. And long before NBC’s controversial decision to air Jay Leno’s show every weeknight in primetime instead of investing in original programming.

Tina Fey captured it poignantly at last year’s TV Critics Association Awards when she thanked critics for making her show “the most successful cable show on broadcast TV.” Her final line really wrote the epitaph, though. “It’s a great time to be in broadcast television. Exciting. Like being in vaudeville in the ’60s.”

Of course, the cloudy picture is largely due to the advertising-supported broadcast revenue model, which has, in TV jargon, jumped the shark. It’s far easier for a cable channel to be profitable in today’s TV universe. And, the Web has definitely eroded the audience for network news.

When writing the obit for broadcast TV, though, you have to look at the programming. I remember when, a couple of years ago, I mentally ran through my DVR list and realized that “30 Rock” was the only broadcast show on it. (Okay, I have friends who’re obsessed with “Lost,” and “Grey’s Anatomy” had its day of glory. And, there are others.) But, in general, the breakthrough shows are on cable, and everyone knows it. And, it’s not just because they can swear and show sexual content.

I’m old enough to be sentimental about the networks, and I have apprehensions about the results of an approved merger, not to mention the possibility of the brand that gave us “Friends” and “Seinfeld” going away. But, sentiment doesn’t really stand up when you think about the convergence of broadcast distribution changes, online advertising, and fragmented viewership.

In the meantime, the deal has given us some entertaining content already. Conan O’Brien has started a tongue-in-cheek segment called “Sucking Up to Comcast,” while Leno dubbed it “the TV industry’s version of ‘cash for clunkers.'” On the Jack Donaghy front, when asked about the character’s probable reaction to the news, Alec Baldwin says he’d like Donaghy to barricade himself in his office and refuse to take calls from anyone other than former GE chief Jack Welch. Ah, nostalgia.

How Method Cleaned Up A PR Mess

How do you clean up a PR mess? That’s the question Method, the natural cleaning products company, asks after a video created to rally support for the Household Products Labeling Act, which would mandate disclosure of chemical ingredients in common cleansers, somehow went toxic. It went from being the toast of the ad world to…well, just toast.

In “Shiny Suds,” a young mom enters her freshly-cleaned bathroom shower, only to be met with toxic animated soap bubbles who explain they’re chemical residue left by her cleanser. In male, frat-boy voices, the bubbles leer and jeer at her as she showers, while she cringes in embarrassment. The bubbles hoot, heckle, and egg her on to “scrubsy dubsy, baby!” Finally, they begin to chant, “Loofah, loofah!”

The point – that you can’t know what toxins could be lurking in your home without proper labeling – is clear. It struck me as a bit over the top, but memorable and mildly funny, especially the loofah bit. “Shiny Suds” was an instant hit with the trade press and blogosphere. It was hailed as a creative, witty way to promote Method’s labeling agenda and praised by marketers at the Association of National Advertisers conference last month and went modestly viral on YouTube.

Yet, a couple of weeks later, Method found itself on the defensive. Jezebel.com called the video “creepy” and said its message was that the woman “deserved to be sexually harassed” by the dirty bubbles. Commenters, mostly women, were also in a lather. Many said they had already contacted Method to express their disgust. The Method madness continued when the feminist blog shakesville.com linked “Shiny Suds” to “rape culture,” drawing over 100 comments.

Talk about toxic. No doubt wondering how they went from viral marketing geniuses to sex offenders in three short weeks, Method moved swiftly lest the public relations controversy sully its (fairly spotless) brand reputation. It issued an apology for those disturbed by the video and promptly pulled it from official websites like YouTube. So, within a month, “Shiny Suds” was…well, scrubbed.

I’m as turned off by sexism as any other female professional, but I didn’t see it in “Shiny Suds,” let alone sexual violence. The bubbles seemed harmless. But, some might have missed that the video was meant as a parody of the classic household soap commercial, like Mr. Clean or Wisk’s “ring around the collar.” At least, that’s how I saw it as a marketing PR person, and others seemed to agree.

But, then it hit me. Method’s error – if there was one – was in not anticipating the sensibilities of its core customers. It’s a little like the flap over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op/ed about healthcare reform. Mackey’s ideas weren’t unreasonable, but he should have known that his views would clash with the progressive values of the typical Whole Foods customer.

The “Shiny Suds” agitation is also reminiscent of the Motrin ad that hit a nerve with the momosphere last year. But, the difference here is in how Method responded…quickly and respectfully. They actually handled each complaint individually, and the statement the company put out was well crafted and timely.

The bottom line is this. Good public relations can sometimes mean standing up to criticism from a vocal minority, particularly when it goes against corporate or brand values. But, in this case, the protesters weren’t Method haters.

They were concerned women with strong political and social values who take any objectification of females very seriously. In other words, they were Method customers, by and large. By cleaning up its act, Method prevented the bubble of controversy from becoming a full-blown crisis.