A Weighty Issue: Is Being Heavy Bad PR?

One of the tweets after the earthquake in August was about a certain hefty New Jersey governor and object of Republican presidential fantasies:

“I think Chris Christie just jumped into the race.”

Bada-bum. Christie’s size has been the butt of jokes, with puns always intended, since his own campaign against Jon Corzine. His bulk is the gift that keeps on giving for late-night comics. And though it never feels right to mock someone’s physical appearance, this is politics.

It’s also PR. Optics matter here. Pundits claim the turning point in the 1960 presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was the first televised debate. JFK was cool, suave and handsome, while Nixon, who rejected makeup, looked shifty and nervous as he sweated through his five o’clock shadow. A little face powder might have changed the course of history.

Of course, obesity carries the added baggage of health implications. It’s an easy metaphor for self-control, which has been a huge topic of interest among journalists and bloggers. The irony that Christie, a fiscal conservative, made his reputation on cutting consumption, is red meat for the media.

Recently, Michael Kinsley weighed in with a harsh post stating Christie is unfit to be president, which invited an op/ed feeding frenzy about his size. Many pundits were less strident, and still others have leaped to Christie’s defense, but the fact is, the governor’s girth is a central issue in his non-campaign. Talk about piling on.

Here’s my take: the press has overblown the issue. If I were advising the Governor, I’d probably tell him to kick up his exercise regimen in private, wear his suit jacket in public, and to be photographed showing vigor and vibrant good health. But I wouldn’t lose sleep over the Governor’s gains.

Part of his appeal is that he looks and speaks like a regular guy, and his size hearkens back to a simpler time, when girth suggested strength and authority, not heart disease. And if mediagenic looks were the most important criteria for political charisma, Mitt Romney would be cruising to an easy nomination instead of looking over his shoulder.

One thing’s certain; if Christie does choose to jump into the race, after all the public speculation, he’s sure to make a big splash. One way or another, the guy’s gonna be huge.

When Brand Nicknames Are Bad PR

Coke. Mickey D’s. Tar-zhay. Brand nicknames are usually a marketer’s dream. Impossible to impose (just ask RadioShack), they have enormous power when they happen organically. And they’re nearly always a sign of familiarity, engagement, or even affection. That’s what General Motors learned – the hard way – after its ill-fated attempt to legislate use of the formal name for Chevrolet and ban “Chevy.”

But occasionally nicknames are painful. Case in point: Ground Zero. Yes, the World Trade Center and the Twin Towers were national brands – drawing business and tourist traffic to New York City since their inauspicious debut in the 1970s. But post-9/11, the site of the fallen towers was a bleak, devastating location and a political black eye for the city. It instantly became known as Ground Zero.

Now, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would like us to start referring to the newly opened downtown memorial by its proper name, The World Trade Center and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum.

That’s a mouthful, but I can understand Bloomberg’s concern. After a decade of embarrassing wrangling, the ugly scar on the downtown landscape has been replaced by a fitting memorial, and the construction of One World Trade Center (formerly known as the Freedom Tower; now, that’s another rebranding story) has real momentum. “Ground Zero,’ with its evocation of the site in the early days after the attacks, is not a name that suggests dignified remembrance.

So, I’m going to do my best to use the proper name for the site, though it will probably end up as “the 9/11 Memorial.” “Ground Zero” might persist among hardcore New Yorkers, much as Avenue of the Americas is still called “6th Avenue” by us Manhattanites – 66 years after its name was officially changed. But that’s an insider thing.

I hope this nickname fades. I’m looking forward to visiting the 9/11 Memorial just as soon as I can get tickets, and to the opportunity to erase my memories of Ground Zero.

So You Wanna Be In A Holiday Gift Guide?

Holiday gift guides are the perfect resource for that unique gift each year, and great editorial exposure for PR folks. Who wouldn’t want to be included in a list of “must-have,” “gotta-get” products for the season?

Almost every publication has one – from top newspapers to local TV to lifestyle magazines to technology blogs to mommy blogs. The question is… how do you get your goods in a guide?

Start early. Most long-lead magazines have July or August deadlines, but plenty of weeklies, dailies and online opportunities are available right now. Build a relationship earlier in the year and find out if any of your clients are a fit. The more time you provide to consider your client, the better positioned you’ll be to snap up a choice spot. In early July, we made contact with editors at Real Simple and provided them with materials for art client 20×200 – new artwork and upcoming releases. Though not a guarantee, we were in the minds of the team early on, putting us in a better position to be included in a few months!

Pitch the right one. You wouldn’t give your techie pal a cookbook for Christmas, so treat gift guide editors the same way! Know what they’re looking for (i.e. Top Tech Toys under $100, Eight “Artful” Gifts for the Man of the House, etc.) and provide them with the most relevant clients/products. If you aren’t sure what they’re working on this year – ask!

Once you’ve got a nibble, act fast. Gift guide submissions might require low-res images, high-res files or even the product itself. These requests may come in a week’s time or even a couple days before, so know what you can provide in a timely fashion and stay on top of it.

Be generous with samples. Provide product. Send goodies to taste and toys to test, hold desksides to discuss, or invite them to a preview of what you can offer their audience for the upcoming season. Seeing it on a computer screen can’t compare to a firsthand experience!

Try again. So your client didn’t make the cut this year? Keep that contact handy and ask them what they’re doing for spring gift guides or even next year’s annual holiday list. Ask when you can follow up for new opportunities. You may not have been a good fit for this season, but they will be looking for something else next time.

There’s no sure-fire way to secure a place in a Holiday Gift Guide, but these may help and remember – the holidays come every year! Which gift guides help you sort out the season?

What Netflix Can Teach Us About Apology PR

Public apologies can be powerful, especially when they come from the top. Even in our crisis-of-the-day era, there’s something arresting about a chief executive admitting he was wrong, or a company making amends to customers.

As a self-appointed “apology PR” analyst, I’m fascinated by the communications strategy, language choices, and delivery of a corporate mea culpa. And all apologies are not created equal. Many are a non-apology, the “We’re sorry if anyone was offended” type of statement that can do more reputation harm than good.

Even more often, the expression of regret comes far too late. Or it’s crafted by lawyers instead of communications pros.

But the now-famous Netflix apology is the first in my memory where the mea culpa caused a far bigger problem than the problem itself. The statement, which was also communicated in a video by CEO Reed Hastings, starts out okay. Hastings acknowledges customer ire and admits to a certain “arrogance” on the company’s part when it announced a price increase in July.

But instead of letting the apology for “poor communication” stand and resolving to do better, or, better yet, offering a make-good for customers, the statement turns into an explanation of its decision to split into two companies and rebrand the DVD business.

It’s an account better suited to a corporate press release or earnings call, not a customer communication. And they had to know that the split into two companies would annoy loyal customers. If they didn’t know, that’s even worse. Maybe that’s where the arrogance comes in.

It’s likely Hastings thought he was making the case for the greater value that its customers would reap over the long term, but he made the classic mistake of focusing on its business issues rather than the customer benefit.

Netflix would have done better to take its lumps after the price increase announcement, which, after all, caused its stock to rise sharply. Then, it should have quietly worked on improving the service, and the selection, around the streaming product, and let its customers discover the value. No apology necessary.

Although its competitors have seized the opening (stay tuned for Blockbuster’s ‘September Surprise’), the Netflix brouhaha will probably die down. Yet, it’s a good reminder of a fundamental principle of apology PR: know your audience. Customers want benefits, not business strategy. If you ignore the “what’s in it for me?” factor, you’re denying your love for the customer. And that means having to say you’re sorry…in more than just words.

The Seven Deadly PR Pitching Sins

Top PR agencies know what to do, and what not to do, when pitching media. Yet, it’s easy to cut corners under time pressure. Here’s a quick list of the “Seven Deadly Pitching Sins” for PR professionals. Feel free to add your own.

1. Being boring.  A boring or irrelevant pitch will be deleted faster than a pop star’s divorce. If it doesn’t resonate, don’t bother.

2. Spamming.  The “spray and pray” strategy is not only ineffective, it can get you blacklisted.

3. Being unprepared. You only have one shot, so make sure your pitch is bulletproof and think through all logical questions.

4. Being too commercial.  Tell a story, don’t pitch a product.

5. Sloppiness.  Typos, ungrammatical sentences, obvious ‘form’ emails all send a bad message and undermine your pitch.

6. Giving up too easily.  Resourcefulness is key in publicity placement. If a pitch isn’t working, don’t give up; change it and try again.

7. Blind pitching.  Make sure you’re up-to-date on media beats, recent stories, and, if possible, reporter preferences. Never pitch blind.

Fake News Site Highlights Fine Ethical Line For PR

September is PR Ethics Month. That’s ironic, because a water utility’s ‘innovative’ PR tactics have sparked an outpouring over industry ethics while highlighting the thin line between legitimate news and faux content.

It all started when the Central Basin Municipal Water District in Southern California was outed by the Los Angeles Times for its creation of a website known as News Hawks Review.  The site is brimming with favorable stories about the utility; in fact, the last 15 posts are glowing, if somewhat eye-glazing, accounts of arcane SoCal water utility updates.

Now, you can’t blame the Central Basin for wanting to whitewash its image a bit. The utility has been the target of corruption charges, and it’s currently embroiled in a lawsuit with a rival water district. Its PR executive is quoted about the extremely challenging problem we all face, which is how to generate positive coverage for a client when the actual news is anything but. No argument there.

But there are a couple of problems with News Hawks Review. Its content was created by a corporate communications firm hired by the utility, for which it was paid over $200,000 in fees, funded by taxpayers, naturally. To ensure that favorable news items would come up readily on keyword searches, News Hawks Review was submitted – and accepted – as a legitimate news site by Google. The goal was clearly to position the utility more favorably and to drive those interested in the finer points of water supply politics and police directly to its site.

The L.A. Times story unleashed a torrent of negative publicity  about the PR gambit. That’s the cascade effect that’s driving traffic to the Central Basin site these days. And two days ago Google removed News Hawks Review from its news sites, which is roughly the equivalent of being delisted by the stock exchange.

But here’s what’s stupid about the PR water-gate. The utility might have accomplished just as much in the way of positive visibility and website traffic if it had simply disclosed its relationship to the news site. Even a casual browser would have to be pretty wet behind the ears not to recognize that something’s different about the content. And a sophisticated reader would simply assume it’s a sponsored site. It’s not that different from a paid newspaper mat service story written and placed by a client. I’d argue that, even without being indexed as a legit news site by Google, it would inevitably turn up in keyword searches.

Three days after the L.A. Times story hit, Central Basin issued a statement demanding a retraction, and pointing out its indirect relationship with News Hawks Review. But, the fact that its content is prepared and placed by a PR firm doesn’t change the disclosure issue, so the argument doesn’t seem to hold much, um, water.

With Google delisting News Hawks Review, the controversy has calmed, but it raises an interesting question. As search expert Danny Sullivan asks, “If this site’s getting away with it, are there other sites getting away with it?” Good question, and an excellent reminder for PR pros. A little transparency goes a long way.

I Don’t Know How She Does It — Secrets Of The Very Busy

A busy working mother promises her grade-schooler a homemade delicacy for the school bake sale. Having been shamed by the “stay-at-home” moms, she is crushed when she can’t follow through on her promise and instead purchases a pie which she artfully “distresses” and, voila – her secret is safe and her daughter delighted.

This is the opening scene of the new Sarah Jessica Parker movie, I Don’t Know How She Does It, from the book of the same name. While it may be slightly exaggerated, in an informal poll I recently took of working moms, it’s a pretty close take on their reality.

That said, I also know that if you ever want something done and done well, ask a busy person! How do they do it? Here are four fabulous secrets.

Know how to say “no” – There will be times when you have to focus on completing something critical at work or in your personal life, and you will have to say no to a request. Do not let guilt get in the way. Politely decline and don’t apologize or feel that you need to explain. Keep it simple and to the point.

Let people do their jobs – Always ask, ‘Is it completely necessary for ME to do this?’ before you begin a task. Do you do things out of habit, or because it’s easier than explaining to a colleague or even your kids whose responsibility it really is? Know your role and make sure others know theirs.

Aggregate appointments – The doctor’s, the hairdresser’s or your child’s school, appointments are the bane of the working person. At the beginning of the year, make a list of all the known appointments and schedule as many as you can on the same day. Schedule them geographically to save even more time.

Curate and organize your website preferences – Are there a dozen or so sites that rock your world at work as well as at home? Keep them in your favorites or as shortcuts so they are always at your fingertips.

Got any other tips that make your friends and colleagues wonder “how you do it?” Let us know here.

8 Ways To Make Your PR Program More Social

Social media is like a “secret sauce” for marketing communications. It isn’t always strong enough on its own, but it adds flavor and power to a traditional program. The key is integration.  Here are some simple steps for “socializing” a PR campaign, even if it’s a DIY (do it yourself) variety.

Set clear goals. Many companies feel pressure to make a deeper commitment to social media, yet they haven’t defined their objectives.  Do you want to drive traffic to a commerce site? Enhance reputation?  Target influencers?  Change sentiment?  Each will, of course, inform a different set of metrics, as detailed by measurement expert K.D. Paine.

Start by listening. If your brand or business is being discussed online, you’re probably already using tools to monitor the conversation. But, even if you’re off the social radar, there are relevant industry issues, trends or competitive activity that can help inform a strategy. Sometimes what you learn can even translate into quick visibility. A simple Google Alerts for your industry’s hot topics can help identify bloggers and media who cover those subjects. It might also let you jump on breaking news with your own commentary or content.

Use social platforms to build relationships. Twitter, with its liberal follow model, is unbeatable as a social tool for reaching influential media and analysts.  This is particularly valuable when more and more reporters hide behind voicemail or email. Check out Muck Rack, which organizes all journalists on Twitter into “beats,” build your own lists, or join relevant Twibes to engage users. You can also check out relevant LinkedIn discussion groups, or start your own.

Take advantage of socialized PR tools. ProfNet, or its free counterpart, HARO, are powerful ways to match media needs and interests with experts. And there’s an entire online world of press release distribution sites and engines for announcements. Check out PR Web, pitchengine, and mynewsdesk, to name just a few.

Create content. Of course, creating content is where many programs stall. If a corporate opinion blog is too much to take on, consider aggregating industry trends or issues once a week, linking and giving credit to other sources. Or, set a goal of commenting weekly on industry blogs. If that’s too much, arrange to guest blog for a trade publication or content site on a regular basis.

Reuse, recycle, repurpose.  Remember that an industry speech can be easily converted to a bylined article for a trade or business publication, which can then be republished as a blog post. In some cases, all you need do is shorten or reformat, and add a topical lead.

Optimize your PR content. Don’t forget to enhance press releases. Consider using multimedia; it serves two needs by being more searchable and more compelling to journalists and bloggers.

Anticipate feedback.  Clearly, the “command and control” messaging days are gone. Socialized news announcements and content will seek – and in many cases provide response mechanisms for – public feedback.  Have a plan for responding to engaged users, and be ready with a fully “socialized” issues and crisis plan if your brand is vulnerable.

This post recently appeared on the Marketing Executives Networking Group’s MENGBlend blog.

PR Secrets Of A Successful Blogger Event

Bloggers are powerful. One post, one tweet, from an influential blogger, and it can have a cascade effect. (Check out this recent NYT article about a blogger event gone wrong if you don’t believe me.)

Smart clients appreciate the power of the blog, and in many cases, moms – or parenting bloggers, as we like to call them – are the most persuasive and influential.

Much of our blogger outreach is one-on-one, but an efficient way to reach multiple bloggers is a hosted event. We recently held a very successful blogger soiree timed to the back-do-school season. Though it was scheduled for the dog days of August, the turnout was strong, and the posts have been coming in ever since.

This wasn’t the first such event I helped orchestrate, and it certainly won’t be my last, so here are my “secrets” to hosting a successful blogger event:

Find a cool venue. Bloggers are invited to events every day, so even if your product or news isn’t the hottest, you can make sure the venue is. We’ve had success hosting “drop-in” briefings at our office, but we prefer to invite bloggers to a cool place that’s not ordinary. While store events aren’t usually ideal, our location, the Sleepy’s flagship 5th Avenue store, is more like a showroom than a retail outlet. And it allowed the bloggers to lounge around on beds all night!

Timing.  Though August in New York City is reputed to be “dead,” it can be a good idea to plan an event during down time, since there’s far less competition! Given work and family schedules, the best time for a blogger event is usually early evening, but we often conduct a straw poll in advance of nailing down the date and time.

The takeaway. While we don’t always have breaking news to report, a good seasonal hook can go a long way. Our recent event featured a prominent sleep expert and imparted useful information about getting kids back into a healthy sleep schedule. Our attendees thought it was simple, clever, timely and useful.

Swag. Inexpensive and relevant giveaways are always a draw, and as long as you remind your attendees about disclosure rules, it’s a win-win!

Look beyond the moms. Don’t forget the daddy bloggers, and look to travel, food, and home verticals where they fit. And each can be influential. Media outreach doesn’t stop until you know you’ll have a packed house with relevant outlets.

Do you have a successful secret you want to share?

5 Tips For Monica Lewinsky In Opening A PR Firm

PR Daily reports that Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton’s infamous intern, has endured 17 years of struggle since the scandal and has now decided to open her own public relations firm.

This is sad on so many levels.  Because saying one is “in PR” has a certain non-specific glamour to it, the field has often been a sort of dumping ground for the rich and underqualified. Hollywood has added to the falsely seductive PR image. There’s a long and illustrious list of TV characters, including Kim Cattrall’s Samantha Jones, and Debi Mazar’s Shauna Roberts, who have brought a ridiculous PR woman stereotype to life in a vivid way.

Ms. Lewinsky may be very bright, but what qualifies her to manage public relations for clients? I don’t know that having “not had sex” with the president is an indication for talent in the biz.

There is also the sense that, just as Hootie and the Blowfish lead singer Darius Rucker fled to country-western when his rock career careened, some choose the PR field because it seems easy to hang a shingle and get started. As if! Several years ago, armed with a degree in journalism, a phone and a computer, yes – a hearty entrepreneurial type could make a go of it. Not so today – the world of PR has changed so much in the last few years, only the smart, capable and fearless need apply.

With that said, I wish Ms. Lewinsky luck in whatever endeavor she should choose. But she might want to heed the following before proceeding down the PR path.

Do some pro bono work for an organization that helps impressionable teen girls or kids at risk, to help bolster her commitment to both the craft of PR and a cause she may have personal connection to.

Get out of the big markets. Go somewhere where her name may mean less as time has passed and she may experience more acceptance.

Or, play up her reputation and offer to handle the scandal-plagued of today with the voice of experience. Go after Gloria Allred’s clients!

Get an education. Seek out PR guidance from the pros, either in an academic setting or a few minutes’ time with names in the business. Odds are her calls would be returned.

Make the most of social media. Craft a witty blog, tweet with verve and blog. There’s a lot of learning in scandal.

I doubt we’ve heard the last of Monica, after all, we are the “land of second acts.”