What We Can Learn From "Undercover Boss"

When I was 23 years old I worked for a PR entrepreneur who insisted we accompany the sales reps of a large client company on their customer calls at retail. He said it was the only way to learn how the company’s products got to market and to gain a real-world perspective on our PR planning.

What an education. My field experience was a permanent lesson in how even the most strategic marketing and PR programs can miss the mark if they’re developed in isolation.

That’s why I was interested in the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss.” You know the one, about disconnected CEOs who get down with the workforce on the front lines. It also made me think about our business. Getting your hands dirty is not only valuable, it’s more necessary than ever.

It’s not a new idea, actually. HBR reports that more than forty years ago, legendary Avis Rent-a-Car CEO Robert Townsend insisted that each senior executive spend time every month behind a rental counter. Last year, Jeff Bezos spent a week working in an Amazon distribution center in Kentucky. Some enlightened companies even make every employee spend a week per year inside that Siberia of business functions, customer service.

But, customer service means something different today. In a small way, we’ve learned just how different by creating and managing a Facebook community for a major technology brand. Most of the inquiries we field have nothing directly to do with PR. Many aren’t related to positioning or brand attributes, of course. Lots come from outside the U.S. – not our purview. None of this is really our job.

Except that it is. And, in dealing directly with consumers and working closely with our client’s customer service team, we’ve learned enormously about how consumers perceive product quality. And how the quality of even the smallest interaction with the brand has an impact on its reputation.

Many have written about the growing intersection of PR, brand reputation, and customer service. As more customers post, tweet, blog, and shout their dissatisfaction on the social Web, the risks to brand reputation grow. And, with the disintermediation of the traditional press, PR and communications has a new set of rules.

So, whatever you think about reality TV, the “undercover” concept has real relevance to what we do. The customer experience is out there. It’s public, it’s dynamic, and it’s a growing part of brand reputation. As formerly behind-the-scenes strategists and communicators, we can’t hide behind the media any longer. Our cover’s been blown. We’ve been outed, too, and, like the White Castle CEO, we’d better put on another hat and learn the ropes.

Why PR Advice Is The Last Thing Tiger Woods Needs

The Tiger Woods soap opera isn’t just a gift to the tabloid press. It’s been a championship season for PR and crisis management advice. Even before the latest statement hit the Web, communications experts were scrambling to rehash the criticisms of last November and offer another round of self-serving counsel about what Woods should do to get his reputation out of the rough. Another day, another lesson in “apology PR.”

But the recent foray into the Woods bothered me, and not just for the typical reasons. It wasn’t the awkward, makeshift setup of his statement.  Or the image of his mother in the front row, though that was strange, and, in my opinion, unnecessary. Or, even the fact that, at times, his delivery reminded me of a hostage video.

Actually, I think it’s apology fatigue. And maybe distaste for the advice industry that’s so eager to milk the situation. In the month of February alone, we’ve dissected the contrition of Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, singer John Mayer, and, now, again, Tiger Woods. And, it’s not just professionals who take shots. It’s everybody. Everyone’s a PR expert, and, by now, a cynic. CNN reported an analysis of Twitter updates before the briefing that showed 20% of tweets dismissing it as “all PR” while 18% called it “overhyped.” If those numbers seem low, it’s only because the rest were slamming Woods with harsher phrases.

But, no matter how you feel about Tiger Woods, it seems that, even if heartfelt or skillfully delivered, apologies are now seen as pro forma PR. As the pundits would have it, there’s a standard rulebook and a checklist, and once you’re done, you can work your way back into the public’s good graces. It’s just business, right?

Wrong. Rebuilding a reputation is more complicated than going through the media motions. It’s not about a template, or a checklist, or a one-size-fits-all approach. And, it goes beyond public relations.

In fact, the last thing Tiger Woods needs right now is great PR. The masterfully crafted image of him as a model of personal discipline and dedicated family man is part of what got him into this mess in the first place. It backfired when the perception clashed so utterly with reality.

So, I’m going to hold back on more advice for Woods. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t admire how his situation has been handled. But, at this point, I agree with what a colleague expressed about Woods last December.  “I used to think he had a PR problem,” he said. “Now, I think he has a life problem.”

Smith vs. Southwest: Who Wins The PR Skirmish?

It’s tough to build a good reputation as an airline these days. As musician Dave Carroll reminded us, you don’t even need to be 100% right to gain the upper hand to take on the guys who fly. Mostly, you need to be creative and funny, because airlines carry a lot of baggage when it comes to customer service and brand reputation. And it helps to have a big megaphone.

Well, the industry – symbolized by this month’s poster child, Southwest Airlines – may have met its match in Hollywood biggie Kevin Smith. Southwest hit some heavy PR weather when it took on Smith, who despite his indie creds, has a huge Twitter following and isn’t shy about throwing his weight around. His “tweak-out” was heard around the world. Some have called it “Fat-gate.”

Smith was asked to leave a Southwest flight after he was deemed too much of a, um, wide-body to fit into his seat. But, Smith, who tweeted his outrage in colorful language familiar to anyone who saw “Clerks” or “Chasing Amy,” insists he passed the “armrest test,” and wasn’t too fat to fly. Smith also lashed out at the airline for waiting until he was seated, with bags stowed, before he was bounced.

Being no social media novice, Southwest responded quickly to the gathering PR storm, contacting Smith on Twitter and eventually by telephone at his home. As the latest example of corporate apology communications, its handling of the incident showed social savvy, although it left some PR-watchers up in the air over mixed messages.

After the story blew up, Southwest at first stayed the course, politely but firmly citing its “passengers of size policy” and the comfort and safety of all who fly. Then, after speaking directly with Smith (and possibly also learning that he was invited onto the Larry King show to discuss the snafu), a Southwest rep offered a more heartfelt – if halfway – apology on its blog.

There’s something for everyone

But, here’s the thing about the Smith snafu. In my view, everybody wins a little here. First, the dustup received an extraordinary amount of attention, without a single live interview with Smith himself. Maybe it was just the holiday weekend, typically a slow news time. But, it says something about the power and weight of social media, and its influence with mainstream press.

Though Southwest took some heat, its quick response, coupled with a witty blog post and subsequent apology, makes it look in touch and engaged, as well as caring about its passengers (at least, the bulk of them) and quick to address a plus-sized PR problem.

As for Smith, some have claimed the whole thing was a publicity stunt for his upcoming film. I doubt it, particularly when the “passenger of size” policy is so randomly enforced (which is one of the problems here.) But, I’d be surprised if it didn’t boost awareness of Smith’s next project. And, given Smith’s challenge that if Southwest flies its airline seat to New York, he’ll prove he’s fit to fly by sitting in it, live, on The Daily Show, he’s not done yet.

Customer service and PR overlap, for better and worse

But, besides raising industry consciousness about sensitivity and consistency, the best thing about the Smith rampage – as expressed in 140-character updates – may be what it does for customer service. The convergence of customer service and brand public relations has real implications for both PR professionals and for how companies handle customer complaints. Any company who doesn’t realize this is risking its reputation.

Humor helps

The final benefit of the skirmish is its entertainment value. Most of his tweets can’t be repeated here, but, as some have claimed, they could be the best thing he’s written in years. After blasting the airline as “sizeist” and “rude” but finally landing, Smith tweeted,

“Hey @SouthwestAir! I’ve landed in Burbank. Don’t worry: wall of the plane was opened & I was airlifted out while Richard Simmons supervised.”

But, in the end, this particular Smith drama is also self-limiting in its power to inflict brand damage, for the same reason it’s interesting. I mean, who isn’t mad at the airlines? As one commenter put it,

“Kevin, you know who has an airline nightmare story? Everyone. Now shut up. “

Will Journalists Make PR Better?

A few weeks into the great economic meltdown of 2008, I visited a friend and former client, an ex-journalist who had left the corporate world years earlier to establish a successful PR firm. My friend told me he was besieged with calls from laid-off journalists wanting tips on setting up a PR practice. “They want advice, yet they seem to think it’s easy, what we do.” He gazed at me soberly, then smirked. “Well, they’ll find out soon enough that it’s not.”

Public relations and journalism have been allied professions for a long time – despite our uneasy and sometimes unspoken symbiosis. Yet, do journalists really make good PR people? Will an influx of reporters into our business raise the bar for core skills and professional integrity? In The Great Journalism ExodusThe Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg predicts a bleak future in which ex-journos have no one to pitch but “undertrained and underpaid bloggers,” while damning reporters as PR practitioners. (His sources cite their lack of training as advocates and habit of working independently.)

For the record, my own experience with ex-media pros who come over to the dark side is fairly mixed. I’ve worked with those who simply couldn’t seem to make the transition, not for lack of skill, but maybe for lack of will. Others struggled with the business aspects of agency life, as well as the occasional need to deliver strategic advice to senior client executives with something less than.. um, blunt force.

And, even assuming media relations chops, there are other demands on a senior PR practitioner –  strategic thinking, marketing knowledge, creative ideation, business development, staff management…and, oh, yes, client counsel. Many ex-journalists, particularly those who’ve held business-side media positions, already have some of those skills. Others need to develop them.

In the end, a successful transition from journalism to PR really comes down to the background, abilities and motivation of the individual. But, the impact of the journalistic migration on the business of PR is harder to gauge. The line between press and PR – already a little blurry – is bound to get fuzzier.

“Sponsored journalism,” like the L.A. Kings’ hiring of reporter Rich Hammond, seems to be on the rise. In the wake of the Bloomberg takeover, two former BusinessWeek editors, Steven Baker and Steve Wildstrom, departed the magazine for independent careers that now involve working for companies they recently covered as journalists.

On the flip side, corporate communicators are increasingly pumping out high-quality content, creating their own multimedia platforms platforms and channels, and producing video for mass consumption. And, the broadcast networks have never been shy about hiring non-journalists. They’ve given us the entire punditsphere, including (former PR chief) Karl Rove, and most recently, Sarah Palin.

I think the cross-pollination probably will raise skills standards, at least on the PR side. That’s a good thing, but skills don’t necessarily translate into quality. And the standards are unclear, and maybe even unrealistic. In the case of Rich Hammond, he apparently has complete editorial control. But, that’s not true for other “sponsored journalists,” and it’s hard to imagine total editorial independence from the people who sign your paycheck.

Clearly, the game is changing and the rules with it. As it stirs debate among people like me, I sure hope it draws scrutiny for the same reasons. Sometimes, when I stare at my screen or scan the paper, I’m not sure exactly what I’m taking in – a  product of journalism, a PR placement, or something in between.

Super Bowl Advertisers Score PR Points By Getting “Banned”

Someone blogged recently that the Super Bowl’s like “American Idol” for advertisers…with a little football thrown in.

They called it right. And this year, with social media kicking in like never before, the Super Bowl is still a winning PR strategy for the brands that pay to play. Most are looking to extend their investment through the social Web. In fact, there are so many ads previewed before the Bowl that the event itself might be an anti-climax.

But, with so much noise out there, how do smaller brands get attention? Some are trying to pull an end-run before game day. If you’re not Pepsi, which scored PR points by sitting out the Super Bowl, or Focus on the Family, which will air the much-discussed-but-as-yet-unseen pro-life ad with college football player Tim Tebow, your best Super Bowl strategy may be to get thrown out of the game.

That’s what happened to gay dating site ManCrunch when it submitted its Super Bowl spot. CBS rejected the ManCrunch overture, questioned its creditworthiness, and basically called its ad a cheap PR ploy. Now, I’ve no idea if ManCrunch is actually good for the $2-3 million that it costs for 30 seconds on the Super Bowl. But, whatever its intentions, the controversy lit up the blogosphere, and the ManCrunch spot has racked up nearly half a million views on YouTube. Cost to ManCrunch? Zero.

But, most benched spots are from actual Super Bowl advertisers. GoDaddy, the grandfather of game-day ad controversy, is again out-of-bounds with one of its commercials. The spot, “Lola,” about a lingerie-designing football player, was deemed “inappropriate” for the telecast. Naturally, GoDaddy has put the ad on YouTube and is inviting viewers to catch it on its website.
But my favorite “banned” spot this year was created by kgb, a company that answers trivia questions by text message. It features two women whose golfer husbands are discussing global warming and don’t know what they’re talking about. The wives complain that the men have their heads up their…um, backsides, and that’s exactly what they look like. kgb’s Bruce Stewart claims they had no idea that the ad, which naturally is posted on YouTube, would be tossed.

Some say that, given the network’s extra-stringent decency standards for the Super Bowl, the kgb marketing people are probably talking out of their – well, you know. And, they’ll be running other commercials that have been deemed more acceptable – although having viewed the “banned” spots, I find the standards pretty mystifying.

Critics complain that the ejected spots don’t exactly raise the bar for creativity and originality, and it’s true that they’re less than, um, sophisticated. But, you can’t blame the advertisers for wanting a pre-Bowl PR warm-up, and I think the kgb spot is hilarious. The faux controversy is stretching those multimillion-dollar budgets and generating some buzz around both rookie and veteran brands. The ads may not be televised, but they will be in the game.