Marijane Funess has joined us as Account Director. Marijane brings a wealth of experience in consumer brand marketing. She was most recently with theOnswitch, a boutique marketing communications agency, and was previously at Burson Marsteller, Manning, Selvage & Lee, and Ogilvy & Mather Los Angeles. Marijane has developed high-profile PR programs for General Foods, Suzuki, Polaroid, and many others. Read the full press release here.
Wendell Potter’s “Deadly Spin” is a fascinating book. It’s a broadside against the health insurance industry, an insider’s account of the battle over healthcare reform, and an exposé of PR’s ugly underbelly. In our business, it has drawn criticism for portraying what we do as the most subversive of dark arts. Personally, I found it a bit over the top.
Potter recounts his years managing PR and lobbying firms who mounted faux-grassroots groups funded by industry, slapped third-party bylines on slick opinion pieces, distorted the truth, and used scare tactics to delegitimize opponents. His teams of “invisible persuaders” come across as evilly brilliant manipulators of media and public opinion.
But, Potter gives PR too much credit in my view. And his thesis that the average person – unschooled in its insidious techniques – can’t possibly discern the truth seems to underestimate most people in these cynical times.
His argument is weakened by the very examples he cites; in particular, that of the tobacco industry. If modern public relations techniques were as powerful as he implies, we’d be puffing away over our smoke-wreathed iPads, Don Draper style, brainstorming for the next big Marlboro pitch. He even cites BP, in its handling of the Gulf oil spill, as a master of media manipulation. Really?
And, yet. As I thought about it, I realized that the industry’s reaction to the book is in some ways more telling than the book itself. Richard Edelman, CEO of the largest independent PR firm (where I worked for five years in the 90s) posted an indignant rebuttal of Potter’s criticisms. Ignoring his firm’s own checkered ethical history, Edelman takes up the industry’s defense with a flourish, arguing that in the digital age, any professional who runs afoul of the truth will quickly be exposed, thanks to a “robust” journalism industry and the rise of social media.
What? It’s been a while since the traditional media business has been considered “robust.” And I doubt that the same social media strategies that gave us “death panels” will guarantee any degree of transparency. Edelman is a victim of wishful thinking, a very short memory, or both.
Here’s my bottom line on “Deadly Spin.” Though sensational, it makes many valid points. Front groups are still fairly commonplace. PR practitioners are selective with the truth. Our job, after all, is to advocate for our clients – openly, one hopes, but where is the line? And nowhere are the stakes higher than around hot-button issues. Does anyone doubt the techniques used – on both sides – during the runup to healthcare reform? Finally, Potter’s hardly the first to warn about the potential impact of journalism’s decline on the integrity of what we see in the press.
It’s easy to dismiss “Deadly Spin” as offering little that’s new. The PR industry’s PR problems are routinely debated. And Potter does seem to overstate PR’s mystique, and its subversive power. (The book’s more compelling truth, which I wish he’d written more about, may lie in Potter’s personal odyssey, and how someone becomes a whistleblower.)
But my jaded response might just be more reason to take notice. Our deep familiarity with the techniques Potter recounts – even if we’re not participants – cuts both ways. Like the frog in gradually warming water, we can’t really be objective about what we do until we step away from it.
After considering the defensive, knee-jerk reaction of our industry, I have more respect for Potter’s turnabout. At the very least, it’s an exercise in personal transparency. And if my response is to dismiss it as an overcooked stew of “nothing new,” what does that say about my faith in ethical practices? Maybe “Deadly Spin” should be on the PR practitioner’s required reading list after all.
It’s that time again. The season of lists. So, we made one. Once again, it doesn’t include the big, obvious stuff, like good health, friends and family, and very fact of having a job and/or business, so consider those implied. The items below are ordinary things that we may have overlooked or taken for granted all year. Please feel free to add to it.
1. Last-minute client events (because who needs sleep?)
2. Afternoon coffee runs powered by Starbucks 2-for-1 holiday offer. (see #1)
3. The holidays. Still a story angle…and occasional blog topic.
4. Interns! Especially our very own rockstar, Andrew.
5. A better economy (at least compared to last year.)
6. Facebook friends who “like” things just because you ask.
7. Misbehaving celebrities, the gift that keeps on giving for reputation and PR experts.
8. Eataly! Amazing lunchtime entertainment.
9. Airplane flights with Wi-Fi.
10. Flights without Wi-Fi.
11. Social media tools. What did we do before Social Mention, backtweets, PostRank, etc.?
12. LinkedIn. Because you should always be recruiting.
13. Twitter lists, especially the private ones, for stalking leads and foes!
14. Our shiny new office, with exposed brick and cool TV monitors.
15. Our clients, who make us proud to be their partners.
Last weekend I had the honor of being part of an entrepreneurship panel at the annual Student Career Conference hosted by the New York Women in Communications Foundation. Some 300 students of media, PR, and communications gathered to network, learn, and be inspired by women who’ve made careers in the field. My panel featured an amazing lineup – life stylist and author Harriette Cole, beauty and style expert Jenn Falik, and Techlicious founder Suzanne Kantra. It was a terrific discussion and a good time.
The conference also forced me to think about what I’ve learned in 15 years running my own firms, both with a partner, and, most recently as a sole owner. Here’s my list:
Know your business before you start it. Particularly in a creative service like PR, experience really counts. It pays to put in time at similar firms to gain experience and build contacts before starting your own. And why not learn on someone else’s dime?
All you really need is a client. I’ve talked to aspiring business-builders in PR and media who are very hung up on their own branding and marketing. Those things are important, and they’re fun. But in the beginning, you’re selling yourself. Just concentrate on getting one client to start.
Learn the business of business. As in, how companies make a profit. How products get to market, how a website is monetized, and, for PR, how brands are built and marketed. Just because you’re creative doesn’t mean you don’t have to understand your clients’ business. In fact, it’s all the more reason.
Ask for what you’re worth. It doesn’t pay to be shy about fees, or shrink from conversations around budget matters. Ironically, it’s often easier to stick to your fee levels when it’s not your own business, since the decision is out of your hands. But it’s even more important when building your own business.
Hire up. Never be afraid of hiring people smarter, better, or more talented than you. This is one thing I learned when at Edelman, which is today the largest independent PR firm. At times, it felt like they hired some individuals based purely on talent, then figured out later what to do with them. The point is not to be overly impulsive in hiring, but to look at talent as a long-term investment.
Take the long view. And not just when hiring. I used to gnash my teeth about losing a big pitch. But I can’t tell you how often a client who didn’t hire us has called back within the year to say things hadn’t worked out as they expected, and could we talk about working together? Try to learn something from every setback, and, above all, never burn bridges.
Manage your own reputation like you do your clients’. In the agency business we often become aligned with our clients. That’s why a sketchy company, or one who truly doesn’t understand your services, is nearly always a bad bet.
Ask for help. When I founded my second firm, I realized just how willing people are to help. The trick is in being specific about your needs (“could I ask for an introduction at X company?”) , and in doing so with the spirit of reciprocity.
Do it wrong (maybe), but do it quickly. Mike Moran‘s famous call to action (Do It Wrong Quickly) is about experimentation and risk-taking. But, it’s become a mantra for me on prompt and proactive decision-making. Generally, it’s better to commit to something and regret it later than to never try something new, or worse, let key issues drift. And, after sharing responsibility with someone who had a painfully deliberate style on high-priority matters, I learned that a non-decision is a decision in itself. Usually a poor one.
“Fake it ’til you make it.” This was uttered by Jenn Falik and reiterated by nearly every panel member at the NYWICI Student Conference. The point is not that new business owners should be false or misleading. It’s that when an opportunity comes, we should grab it, especially if it can push us to a new level of skill, challenge, and visibility. If the prospect scares you a little, maybe that’s a good sign.
When Gap unveiled a new logo last month, the negative buzz forced it to backpedal and eventually restore the original, iconic identity. It was a miss for Gap…or was it? Logo-gate may have awakened brand fans and made it more relevant than it’s been in years.
Accident? Probably. But there are ways to turn a PR failure into something that strengthens your brand and your business. Here are a few techniques that helped companies turn around embarrassing mistakes.
Apologize. Where offense has been given, a prompt apology is necessary. And it shouldn’t be drafted by lawyers. To have teeth, a mea culpa should be swift and sincere, and it should take responsibility. A textbook example is Jet Blue’s response to the “Valentine’s Day massacre” that stranded passengers and buffeted its reputation in 2007. Then-CEO David Neeleman hit the right notes in an apology tour that helped it straighten up and fly right.
Fix the problem. Better yet, be part of a larger solution. The classic lemons-to-lemonade strategy after a misstep is to be part of the fix for everyone. Mattel set a new standard when it announced enhanced product inspection and supplier audits following massive product recalls of toys made in China. JetBlue also raised the airline industry bar with its “Passenger Bill of Rights,” a kind of flight plan to prevent incidents like the one that nearly grounded its business.
Share your learnings. Office Depot, a client of my former firm, took advantage of its own experience weathering successive hurricanes at its Delray Beach, Florida headquarters over a period of years. It turned adversity to advantage with a PR campaign that focused on disaster preparation and management for small businesses, – a key customer segment.
Stay the course. What if you’re right, despite a public rush to judgment? Royal Caribbean opted to keep on going, even in the face of withering criticism, after it chose to have its luxury cruise liner call at Labadee, Haiti in the days after the earthquake. It was undoubtedly a tough call, but most experts (and more importantly, passengers) agree that supporting the Haitian community with both supplies and commerce was the right move.
Fight back. Years ago, a New York Post photographer snapped a photo of a mouse eating a doughnut in the window of a midtown Manhattan Dunkin’ Donuts franchise. It was front-page news, and the late-night media feasted on the embarrassment for weeks. Dunkin promptly slapped franchisee Riese Organization with a lawsuit. Though the suit dragged on, it helped send a message that the company was serious about health and safety violations.
Use humor. For a self-inflicted wound, you don’t always need to dust off the crisis handbook. Sometimes a blend of straightforwardness and humor can do the job, especially if it’s authentic to your brand. David Letterman proved it in his handling of the extortion plot against him.
Overcompensate. Often it’s better to “do the time” – in the form of financial penalties, customer retribution, or legal settlement. Alaska Airlines probably wishes it had offered more to passenger Dan Blais when he first complained about his family’s treatment by the carrier. Blais created a blog titled “Alaska Airlines Hates Families” after tangling with the airline. His family’s tickets were given away just before take-off as his wife struggled with a baby diaper emergency in a restroom. Personally, I think the airline was within its rights. But they bungled the customer service piece, and often, being right isn’t enough to save you from the wrong kind of PR.
No matter how you feel about the results of the 2010 midterms, it’s been an interesting election season. Start with a stagnant economy, add a soured electorate, pour on the tea party activists, and it’s a bitter brew, at least for incumbents. The election also offers lessons for communicators. Here’s what marketing and PR pros can take from 2010.
Be authentic. Pollster Andy Kohut of The Pew Research Center says the voter polls point to one thing – disillusionment. I’d say it goes even deeper, into mistrust. The emerging tea party candidates might not be my cup of…whatever, but they spoke and behaved not like typical politicians, but like real people – mad as hell, and determined to do something about it. Truth can work wonders in a marketing campaign as well. Just ask Domino’s.
Be exciting. A fresh, engaging story breaks through the noise. The shiniest new brands in politics – relative newcomers like Nikki Haley and Marco Rubio won big this season. I think that’s because a disillusioned electorate, like a jaded consumer, is quick to change the channel if they’re not engaged.
But not too exciting. Extremism gets you noticed (Sharron Angle) but it doesn’t win the middle. Likewise, Carl Paladino’s erratic behavior was ultimately too scary for New York voters, and O’Donnell was haunted by her kooky, 16-year-old TV sound bites. In troubled times, competence and stability inspire trust.
Narrative counts. Yes, all pols like to talk about their humble roots, impoverished childhoods, and sainted mothers, but Rubio’s praise of his immigrant father and self-identification as the “son of exiles” was so eloquent it melted even cynical hearts. We love a good, emotional narrative, whether about a senator, a business, or a brand.
Connect with the customer. Former C-suite dwellers Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina went down in flames. WWF cofounder Linda MacMahon landed hard, despite a roaring start. Some call sexism, but I think it’s bad branding and poor communications. These ladies came across as cold, out-of-touch, and even patronizing. And it doesn’t help that mistrust of business is at an all-time high.
Be transparent. Let’s face it, privacy is a thing of the past. Whitman should have come clean earlier about her undocumented housekeeper. O’Donnell might have anticipated her comic skeletons would come out of the closet. Maybe they did prepare, but like a big brand caught in a crisis situation, they didn’t seem to have a plan.
Don’t take your fans for granted. Most pundits agree that the Democratic challenge was to turn out the core constituencies that helped put Obama over the top in 2008 – primarily young voters and minority groups. Winning their support is like gaining the trust of a fickle or skeptical consumer. You have to earn it, every day.
Stay on message. This is where both the GOP and the tea party, with its razor focus on jobs and spending, really resonated. (Never mind that no one has articulated exactly how those jobs will be created.) In actually fulfilling his campaign promises of passing healthcare and financial reform, the President may have fallen short here.
Listen. One reason the business candidates failed is because they acted like CEOs. Candidates can’t do command and control. Politics is about the customer, and marketing communications in the digital age is the same way. It’s critical to have a relevant message, and to convey it well, but if you don’t listen, you lose.
Guest post by Patricia Gibney
A large, competitive agency search can be time-consuming and crazy-making for everyone. It helps when a search consultant is involved, but that happens less frequently in these days of tight budgets. Often the client is on its own — and frequently in unfamiliar territory. The result: agency teams don’t have the information they need, clients are overwhelmed, and the pitch is hit-or-miss.
Here are a few tips to tilt the balance in your favor.
Pose thoughtful questions. Always ask for a call with the prospect, and use it as a first step in demonstrating your qualifications. If the prospect can’t speak to you due to time constraints or concerns about a level playing field, ask for a blind call, where all interested firms participate, with no one identified. The prospect may appreciate your desire for quality information and see the benefit.
Be transparent. Frequently clients want to know where they will fit within your current roster. They’ll ask about billings, size, conflicts, market reach, etc. Don’t hedge. Be up front. In the end, putting your cards on the table may take you out of the game but will demonstrate your ethics – and may buy you another opportunity down the road.
Follow directions. In my years as a search consultant, I was astonished by how many firms colored outside the lines. One well-known advertising personality, famous for his on-camera appearances, made a point to flout every rule we set forth. Needless to say, he didn’t win the business.
Yes, you need to stand out, but you’re better off doing that in other ways. When a potential client requests information in a specific format, asks you to limit the team size, or is strict about internal access, be respectful and follow the rules. If you can’t honor simple requests, what kind of partner will you be when there’s a critical issue at hand? If you really have an issue with the request, call and discuss it. Most people are very understanding when there’s a good reason.
Why you? Many agencies focus so much on the creative presentation that they forget to hone their own elevator pitch. What are the two or three things that will really show why you’re the best choice? Set yourself apart here.
Don’t get hung up on chemistry. Easy to say. Not so easy to do. When creative is on target, you show an understanding of the business, and your qualifications are apparent, then chemistry takes care of itself. Focus on demonstrating why you can do the job better than anyone else. If you do, who wouldn’t want to hire you to do it?
Patricia Gibney is a communications professional and a former advertising and PR search consultant.