Shirley Sherrod And The Death Of Context

It’s practically a given that privacy is dead. Just ask Mel Gibson. His creepy rantings (and pantings), as recorded by his girlfriend, have probably ended his career. In a different way, General Stanley McChrystal was also brought down by a breach in the traditional discretion granted to subjects of his ilk, greatly amplified by digital media. All it took was a couple of careless remarks made by aides when they mistakenly counted on a wall of privacy. The general was no match for the social web.

Just last month, Helen Thomas was caught on tape blasting Israel and advising that Jews should “go back to Germany,” precipitating a sad end to a long career. Of course she knew she was being recorded, but she somehow never thought her remarks would be on YouTube within a day.

I wouldn’t put those three in the same category, and in each case, the consequences were probably deserved. But social media helped hasten a harsh denouement and ensure that no second chances were granted. When stories are retweeted and shared within minutes, there’s no room to deny, delay, or clarify. You can die by your own hand within hours.

There’s another reputation that was recently shredded, that of USDA officer Shirley Sherrod. Social media was at work here, too. Sherrod was unfairly branded as racist and lost her job in the time it took to say “viral video.”

Should we blame the digital age – with its privacy-destroying technologies and 24-hour news cycle – for the Sherrod mess, too? The speed of the web was a factor, sure. Even more, it was the “gotcha” approach of the race-baiting Andrew Breitbart, who has tried, and briefly succeeded, in actually delegitimizing real journalism.

What happened to Sherrod is about racism, the knee-jerk response of the White House, and, yes, digital culture. But when the video snippet was released, and the early media pounced on the story, something else was sacrificed. Not privacy. Context.

Context is what journalists are supposed to create and provide. They’re meant to vet material, its source, and seek comment, at minimum. McChrystal, Thomas, even Mel Gibson all had that opportunity. Breitbart didn’t do that when he posted the video, proving he’s not a journalist. But, what’s even more disturbing, for too long a while, neither did some of the so-called legitimate press.

Should PR Own Social Media?

This week’s news that ad and PR behemoth Interpublic Group has launched Rally, a social media unit, has the industry buzzing. The launch gave fresh fodder to the old turf debate, spiced with speculation about infighting under a single corporate roof. EVP Heidi Browning says Rally won’t mean new competition for IPG-owned PR firms. Insiders say that’s hard to believe.

And it is. With marketing budgets under scrutiny, everyone wants a piece of the social media pie. And not just crumbs…we’re after the juicy, buzz-generating campaigns that require fat budgets and make reputations rise. In fact, we’ve spent huge portions of time and energy arguing that the whole pie should belong to us, by dint of experience, natural inclination, or sheer talent.

Ad agencies are the traditional marketing stewards, so the case they make starts there. They have the key ingredients – brand strategy chops, consumer insights, and creative flair. Some fault PR pros for lacking the necessary skills to own the new landscape. They claim we’re not savvy about tech tools or sophisticated about metrics, which in some cases is quite true.

The PR response is often that social media belongs with us because we’re natural storytellers. We’ve always been the content generators, we know how to build buzz, and, besides, we’re the relationship guys. (It says so in our name, right?)

Then there are the digital marketing experts, social media consultants, refashioned web gurus, and so-called strategists rushing to claim a seat at the social media banquet. Everyone wants to be master chef in the marketing mix.

It takes a village…and a new mindset for PR

But, the truth is, none of us has the full spread to satisfy every need – or even the mindset. Traditional advertising types tend to default to the old, control-the-message approach. Like a cook who tweaks a favorite recipe, they think social media’s about getting your ad campaign to go viral. (While that can be a wonderful thing – just ask Old Spice – it’s beyond myopic as a point of view.) But just as many PR pros cling to their familiar formula. They’ve replaced media relations with blogger outreach, without embracing the new world of consumer engagement.

The answer to who owns social media, of course, is that it’s the wrong question. It’s like asking who should own traditional media. It’s a tool, of course. A customer service program on Twitter and a Foursquare frequent-visitor promotion are both social media-driven. Yet, the goals, strategies, and execution teams are likely to be drastically different.

I know what they say about too many cooks….and it’s true that every campaign needs a leader. Some will be PR-centric while others involve paid media. But, maybe – just maybe – we should stop arguing over the dessert that none of us owns and try to figure out how to work together to serve our clients.

What Nicknames Say About Brands: Chevy, Meet The Y

A brand nickname is a little like a viral video. No matter how badly you want it, planning alone won’t make it happen. It has to come about naturally.

I’m not talking about mere abbreviations, like AmEx or P&G. I mean real nicknames…those insider-y monikers that make us feel cool because we drive a Beamer or, these days, shop at Tar-zhay. A nickname speaks of a personal relationship with a brand. (Notice how President Obama keeps calling BP “British Petroleum” in public remarks about the Gulf oil spill? It may be an attempt to mobilize U.S. nationalism, but to me it seems like a distancing tactic, like a stern father using your full name to signal you’re in big trouble.)

Brands should embrace a consumer-given street name

How a brand responds to its handle says something about its marketing savvy. When General Motors tried to dump “Chevy” in favor of “Chevrolet,” it ran straight into a brick wall of resistance. GM quickly shifted gears and blamed the brouhaha on a “poorly worded memo.” It was a clear PR blunder, though probably the most excitement that Chevy’s enjoyed since Don McLean. But how could Detroit’s marketing minds think that a once-great brand could ever outgrow the iconic nickname that’s a slice of American Pie?

Don’t they know that when a brand tag is bestowed by the public – instead of the marketer – it’s nearly always a good thing? On the other hand, I never quite understood the UPS “Brown” campaign, or RadioShack’s adoption of “the Shack.”  Because those names weren’t consumer-generated, they felt a little like trying too hard to be cool.

Marketers lucky enough to actually earn a nickname should not only accept it; they should embrace it. Federal Express may have started the trend when it officially shortened its name to FedEx a decade ago. Coca-Cola has never been shy about using Coke in its marketing. And Harley-Davidson tried to claim its classic “Hog” moniker, although the nickname was ruled too generic to be trademarked.

That’s why the YMCA was right to slim its brand this week to the “Y.” The name may have started as an abbreviation, but after 166 years, I think it’s gained full nickname status. The Y’s press release explains it as a by-product of the trend toward shorter brand names, made necessary by our 140-character culture. The most entertaining part of the story, though, may be where the Village People got into the act. Still belting out “Y-M-C-A” on tour after all these years, they put out a statement saying they won’t change the 1970’s anthem that memorialized the YMCA name in a way that the Y surely never intended.

But, for me, the Y nickname isn’t about Twitter, or IM-speak, or even breaking with the past. It’s about a brand claiming its own street name, like Bud or Mickey D’s. It epitomizes our experience and relationship with its brand. A nickname, after all, is a term of endearment. It is the Y to most of us. So, why not?

Why Do PR People Lie?

The latest PR war between tech blog Boy Genius Report and Apple has ignited some pretty harsh accusations, including charges that Apple’s PR is lying about emails BGR claims were sent by Steve Jobs. For me, the outcome of the drama isn’t important, except as it affects the reputation of those of us who earn a living doing public relations.

Among all the things we’ve been called, the most stinging may be that PR people are professional liars. There’s that ten-year-old PR Week survey in which 25% of PR pros admitted to lying on the job. Ugh – and those are the liars who’re telling the truth! The Boy Genius flap reminded me of Newsweek reporter (and fake Steve Jobs blogger) Dan Lyons’ charges that Yahoo’s PR team were “lying sacks of s–t” for misinforming him about CEO Jerry Yang’s plans to step down. More recently, there was Erick Schonfeld’s evisceration of AOL’s communications chief for denying a rumor about an executive departure that was later proven true.

So, do PR people really need to lie to hang onto their jobs? True, sometimes a corporate spokesperson has to hide behind a technicality, or split hairs to avoid premature disclosure of material news. But, an outright fabrication?  It doesn’t make sense. Why lie when you can usually fail to return calls or emails?  Where’s the sense in making a public statement that’s proven untrue mere days later?

There’s another explanation, of course. When there’s a major development afoot, the PR person is sometimes the last to know. I’d argue that in many of the high-profile disputes about truth in public relations, the communications officers in question weren’t lying, at least not consciously. They actually didn’t know what was going on, because they weren’t told.

I believe it because I’ve been there. Even at large companies with plenty of PR savvy, the communications staff is sometimes the last to know. An agency relationship is more removed, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve read important client news in the press, only to be told by the client that they got the news at the last minute….or not at all. We joke about it, but it’s not a laughing matter.

Is it that we can’t handle the truth? Is the PR team thought of as the clean-up crew, helping with damage control after the fact? Are we viewed as too cozy with the press to be trusted? A somewhat kinder explanation is that keeping PR in the dark offers deniability later. In any case, it’s a credibility-killer. And, it’s a sorry situation when your best defense is that you’re out of the loop.

The Boy Genius-Apple dispute might be semantics. But, in many cases, the “liar” label is a symptom of a more frequent and therefore more disturbing issue –  that senior PR officers don’t always have the confidence of top management when the big news is breaking. Which leads to the frustrating, Catch-22 question. How does PR offer quality counsel and effectively manage public and stakeholder communications if we’re in the dark? Yet, how do we gain that “seat at the table” without the credibility that honest counsel inspires?