Robert Gibbs On PR, Politics, And Social Media

“Whether or not someone is camped in a park literally, there will always be someone camped in a park, figuratively.”

Nice, tweetable quote from former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Gibbs spoke yesterday at the Council of PR Firms Critical Issues Forum about the power of social media to mobilize change. As a veteran of policy PR wars, he had plenty to share about PR, politics, and social media in an era of increasing media and attention fragmentation.

Gibbs feels that 2012 will bring “the Twitter election,” remarking that, both as a digital medium and an agent for the advent of social change, the platform has matured in a short period of time. He noted that, just like the brands and companies many of us represent, government (as a brand) must go where the customers are; hence, Obama appearing on Leno, and being heard on Twitter.

But, as astute as Gibbs is, the White House press room probably isn’t a cauldron for early adoption of social media, and his predictions are pretty non-controversial. I was more interested in what Gibbs had to say about how we’ve arrived at this point – where politics is more partisan than ever, the media seem weak and subjective, and trust in our institutions, especially government, is at an all-time low.

Gibbs has experienced firsthand the polarizing effects of media and the focus on process, or communications around policy, rather than the substance of the policy itself. (Who can forget his masterful takedown of Sean Hannity on the “guilt by association” attacks on candidate Obama?)

One issue seemed to be the disintermediation of traditional press – as the White House began to go talk directly to voters (through social media) about actual campaign strategy, media felt out of the loop and needed to adapt to the changing environment; hence, the rise of cable infotainment.

Gibbs also notes that on the major issues – the healthcare debate, the war in Afghanistan – the preponderance of coverage was about the process, the communications strategies and tactics of either side, the literal politics of the topic, rather than its substance. We’re covering the debate itself instead of the issue.

And he admits that, as both have retired from politics and daily public spotlight, he and a bitter partisan opponent like Karl Rove find areas of commonality or even agreement. But when the camera light goes on, each retreats to his side of the ring and they can literally argue about whether the sky is blue.

I’m editorializing, but he seemed to imply that Twitter, with its 140-character updates, and people virtually camping out in a park, might hold more strength and substance than much of the media we consume every day. Which, if true, might say less about the growth and influence of social communities than it does about the decline of quality journalism.

PR Horror Stories

In public relations, horror stories usually mean something has happened out of our control with a difficult or “no-win” solution.  But often the most terrible tales leave something to be learned. In honor of Halloween here are some hair-raising stories from an array of PR pros.

Where is everyone? – The PR team for an online service company had spent weeks preparing for a demo event for their client’s new product.  They had an RSVP list of around 10 and were expecting a smaller, more “intimate” crowd. Turns out it was a little too intimate when, on the day of the event, no one showed up.  As frightening as that was, there are steps to take to prevent such a nightmare:  Agree on a go/no-go attendee number for your event before you commit.  If your attendee number gets too close to go/no-go, be prepared to call it off – or have a faithful journalist buddy on standby to show up for some one-on-one personal attention!

Sweet deal – The PR team for a popular snack company was given the task of convincing media that new research revealed chocolate to be a healthy part of your diet (small print: if you were a triathlete.)  The agency stepped up to the task, but they were soon faced with scorn  —  media wasn’t buying it. The lesson here? Work with a client to craft a message that is honest and “supportable” under scrutiny. Conversely, prepare a client for the worst-case scenario when dealing with a dicey message.

Just in time for Halloween – Candy manufacturer New England Confectionery Company, producer of the popular 150 year-old Necco Wafers, thought it was doing some good when it launched the new “All Natural” Necco Wafers in 2009, made with natural colorings and flavors. Little did they know the gambit would backfire big time.  After falling sales and negative letters from long-time customers, the company decided to drop the all-natural and went back to the artificial.  In this case, any publicity was good publicity, and the return to original formula story was a sure-fire hit.

Do you have any PR horror stories of your own? Please share them so we can all be scared together.

When To Kill A Live Interview

This weekend, New York Jets star Darrelle Revis was instructed to hang up during a live radio interview by a member of the team’s PR staff after the conversation started to get testy. It seemed that the host was baiting Revis into saying something he’d regret (which could have hurt the image and selling power of one of the franchise’s top stars, and even the team.)  The PR staffer has since admitted he made a mistake, however, saying he should have simply suggested moving on to a new topic.

When is it truly necessary for a PR person to step in and kill a live media interview? It’s highly debatable, and some may say that it should never be done, given the possible relationship consequences of the “dead air” that can result.  In my opinion, it’s a reasonable option for the following examples.

The client is doing irreparable harm to his career or image (Charlie Sheen)
This is an extreme example, but it was impossible to avoid and hard to look away.  This drugged up version of Charlie Sheen desperately needed a PR person to step in and end the interview. He clearly wasn’t in a healthy state of mind, by his own admission. He ended up losing his job and forever tarnishing his image. If a client is doing career-ending damage during an interview, any good PR pro will step in and pull the plug. (If only it had been that simple.)

The reporter isn’t playing by the rules (Matt Lauer vs. Kanye West)
It could very well be necessary to stop a live interview if the reporter fails to follow a set of pre-determined guidelines and starts discussing off-limit topics. It’s unprofessional and sets your client up to be ambushed unfairly. In the example above, Matt Lauer all but admits doing just that to Kanye West by playing his infamous VMA clip while asking him if he is a racist. It would be tough for just about anyone to answer that question.

The client appears “out of sorts” (Paula Abdul)
This one is pretty obvious.  It’s the PR pro’s job to protect the reputation of the client being interviewed while making sure the correct message gets across. This fluff piece promoting American Idol quickly turned into a joke, and the “Paula is stoned” meme was born.  Whether she was just exhausted, took some bad medication, or was actually intoxicated, the interview never should have been allowed to go as long as it did.

Please add to our list of “when to kill an interview” examples right here.

How To Turn Bad Publicity Into Good PR

There are those who think any PR is good PR, but let’s face it, sometimes it’s just plain bad.

Faced with withering reviews for its plan to separate its DVD and streaming businesses into two distinct units, Netflix has canceled Qwikster. This latest plot twist is a bit reminiscent of Gap’s unveiling of that infamous new logo. The negative buzz forced it to backpedal and eventually restore the original, iconic identity. Though at first it seemed like a miss for Gap, many brand-watchers think it made the brand more relevant than it had been in a long while.

Netflix doesn’t suffer from lack of currency, and it’s a bit early to tell if it can woo back irate customers. (If Reed Hastings’ recent New York Times magazine interview is any indication, I’d say they still have some work to do.) But bad publicity can, paradoxically, wake up a brand’s loyalists. And there are ways to turn a PR failure into a net gain. Here are a few techniques that helped companies turn around embarrassing mistakes.

Apologize. If offense has been given or customer safety or satisfaction threatened, 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. One of my favorite public apologies is the widely viewed video of Domino’s Pizza President Patrick Doyle after the employee stunt that made us all lose our appetites in 2009. Doyle, and the Domino’s brand, had an advantage as the victim of a disgusting hoax. But as brand crises go, the stakes were pretty high, and the company delivered in a way that helped feed our natural sympathy.

The mistake Netflix made, by contrast, was in wrapping a half-hearted mea culpa with additional news that was bound to anger customers. Not good.

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 buffeted its reputation on Valentine’s Day 2008.

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. Sometimes, despite a public rush to judgment, a brand is right. Royal Caribbean opted to keep on going, even in the face of annihalating coverage, after its luxury cruise liner resumed calls at Labadee, Haiti shortly after the earthquake. It was undoubtedly a tough call, but most experts and passengers agree that supporting survivors with both supplies and commerce was the right move.

Fight back. That’s what Taco Bell did when it was slapped with a lawsuit by a customer who had a beef with the meat content of its tacos. It jumped into the food fight, threatening a countersuit, and launching a response through executive videos, a statement on its website, and a major market ad campaign about ingredient quality. The customer suit was quietly dropped.

Make good. Sometimes it’s better to pay – financial penalties, customer retribution, or legal settlement – to protect a brand’s reputation. For many companies, this also comes down to empowering retail or ground-level employees to spot and nip problems in the bud. If a Delta attendant had been able to waive excess luggage fees for returning U.S. veterans, the airline could have saved itself loads of bad reputation baggage after the servicemen took their complaints to YouTube.

Did You Get The Memo?

In a fast-paced industry like public relations, long emails and flowery prose don’t cut it. Clients and colleagues appreciate memos that are quick and to the point because no one has time to filter through lengthy missives to understand what you need or what the next steps are.

“Getting the memo” – and writing your own well – is still important to workplace survival (see this famous Office Space clip), so learn how to make yours work:

Keep it short and sweet. Memos should not look like an essay (one page to two pages maximum.) Use headers and bullet points so text doesn’t get lost.

Have a point of view. Never present a concept to a client without an agency recommendation for or against and some smart supportive insights.  Clients hire you for your expertise and experience in the field so say it loud and clear.

Be active. Use active versus passive voice, since the active voice is more direct and stronger. For example, “We recommend” versus “It is recommended” show confidence. But don’t confuse the active voice with a personal tone and avoid being too conversational.

Be organized. Meeting recaps should indicate who is responsible for what, with clear deadlines. For campaign recaps with results, impression numbers are a given, but consider screen grabs and clips. It’s useful for the recipient to have a consolidated list of the results to refer to the memo and “see” success.

Back it up. Provide supporting information if needed, but make it in the form of an attachment rather than the body of the memo. If offering a recommendation, make sure you include all pertinent data needed for the decision in question.

Be specific. Above all, be clear and specific about exactly what’s needed – whether it’s approval by EOD, scheduling for an interview with a reporter, or feedback about the plan.

Keys To Successful Media Events

I’m fortunate enough to work with great clients who understand the importance of creating tasteful , “mediable” events. Every quarter my team and I work very hard to put together something special for Verizon Wireless in order to showcase the latest and greatest devices on the market and we always learn something new. Below are my top three “event imperatives.”

Don’t be a media snob, invite everyone. Make sure that you invite industry bloggers, mommy bloggers, influencers and radio. It can also be very worthwhile to open the event to a select number of customers or “super users.”  Remember that media might show up for the free drinks and food but sometimes what “makes” an event is an enthusiastic crowd that is genuinely enjoying themselves.

Or, if feasible, partner with the right media outlet. Working with a credible and well respected media partner has many benefits. (We are big fans of Mashable.) It will instantly help you reach the right people, generate buzz within the industry and bring more attendees to the event. Use the opportunity to tap into their resources and post about the event on their website, Twitter stream and other social media platforms. A word of caution, however:  your media partner will likely demand category exclusivity, so it is a trade-off for the guarantee of coverage.

Nail down the logistics. Often, it’s the little things that rock the house. Create a do-to list at the beginning and stay on top of it. Assign your team specific responsibilities before, during and after the event. Keep the venue staff and your client well informed about your plans and your progress. But most importantly, make sure that you leave yourself plenty of time for everything because even the most experienced event planners stumble upon something unexpected!

When A New Name Is Bad PR: A Rebranding Gone Sour

A new name often brings a reputation lift – suggesting renewed relevance or sweetening an unpalatable handle. Which would you rather eat – Patagonian Tooth Fish or Chilean Sea Bass?

But beware the rebranding for reputation reasons. It can make news, but not always in a good way. Right now, a bitter battle’s brewing over the corn syrup industry’s plan to rebrand its product as “corn sugar.”

As any nutrition-minded consumer knows, high-fructose corn syrup has been blamed for a myriad of ills, from tooth decay to our skyrocketing national obesity rate.

Now, Big Corn is moving to challenge that reputation. It’s cooked up a new, more natural name and backed  its rebranding with TV spots that position corn syrup as natural, and as virtually identical to sugar. The commercials are beautifully choreographed scenes of a wholesome family wandering through sunlit cornfields. Each culminates in the tagline, “Sugar is sugar.”

Not so, says the beet and cane sugar industry. The corn syrup competitors allege that because HFCS doesn’t occur naturally and must undergo a chemical process to be created, Big Corn is trying to, uh, sugar-coat the facts.

The government seems to agree. This week the FDA issued another warning to the corn refiners industry about use of the term. Though the FDA can’t regulate the industry, they can cite individual companies who claim it as an ingredient in their products.
So far, Big Corn has not backed down. But the rebranding campaign has done the opposite of what it intended. A new name may be easier to swallow, but reputation management goes beyond sweet talk.

Don’t Take My Landline! (yet)

This week may ultimately be remembered for other news stories, but the one touching most people I know is the great “Blackberry breakdown.” Millions of people were without emails for about 24 hours and a feeling of helplessness has prevailed.

Yet, there remains the humble landline. Of course, pundits believe it will soon join its decrepit denizens, the tape deck and tube TV, among others, but I posit that we aren’t ready to be rid of it or some other technology stalwarts just yet.

The landline is often the only equipment “left standing” in certain kinds of disasters and the only way 911 operators have to dispatch emergency workers to a location.

The fax machine, another near-relic seemingly on the brink, still has relevance as well. As the media database Cision often shows, some reporters and producers actually prefer to receive faxed or mailed pitches! I asked a producer for “Live with Regis and Kelly” about this and was told that it’s so much faster and easier to “rip a pitch out of the fax machine” and sit down with a bunch of colleagues to go over multiple story ideas. Far be it for me to deny the media their missives by mail or fax!

Paper. People have been predicting the passing of paper ever since “going green” entered the vernacular. At our office, we do our best to print as little as possible, but an informal poll shows that paper, along with pens and pencils, aren’t ready for the trash heap just yet. Here are just a couple examples: Hand-editing a press release often allows for more accuracy; and reviewing detailed spread sheets such as survey data is often easier if you can spread out and compare pages manually.

Email. Some people want to replace it with social media alternatives. To this, we say “rubbish.” Email is immediate, efficient, inclusive and omnipresent. Messages are easy to store, to reference, to repurpose and nothing beats it for productivity. And we’re not just saying that because our client is email innovator Silverpop!

What workplace workhorses still do the trick for you? What would you like to see disappear?

The Care And Feeding Of Bloggers: Tips For PR Pros

Last month, a top-ten firm cooked up a PR mess when it tried to surprise bloggers by serving frozen entrees from a client brand instead of the freshly cooked meals the guests were led to expect. The duped bloggers started an epic food fight, dishing on the agency and their client online for weeks after the event.

More recently, a boutique firm ran afoul of Jenny Lawson, a/k/a The Bloggess, by pitching her a news item that wasn’t germane to her brand of personal and highly irreverent humor. The situation would likely not have risen to the level that it did, except that an unfortunate PR exec hit “Reply All” when complaining about Lawson to a colleague, calling her a “f–king bitch.” Of course, Lawson instantly posted the note, and a subsequent (badly crafted) apology, and her legions of loyal readers leaped to her defense. Over a thousand comments were posted in a couple of days.

So, what is it with these bloggers? Are they just overly sensitive, or are PR people inept at engaging with them?

Of course, many of the principles of good media relations apply to bloggers, but it’s a mistake to equate the two as audiences. Bloggers aren’t just like everyday journalists; in most cases, they don’t answer to an editor or publisher, and many have a highly individualistic voice and following that is unique to their blog. It often makes more sense to look at them as influencers than media.

Here, then, are some blogger relations basics that may bear repeating.

Be personal. Unlike traditional journalists, most bloggers cover topics of intense personal interest. It’s their job to be biased, subjective, or even provocative. So, approach them the same way. Know the blog and its subject matter, and whatever you do, show some personality and awareness of their voice and following. Anyone who’s read The Bloggess, for example, will know that it’s not suited for a commercial pitch.

Be relevant. Ditto. Of course, any pitch should be preceded by research, but just know that, while a typical reporter may ignore an ill-advised approach, a blogger just might make you the poster child for PR spam. Many bloggers just don’t need or accept mainstream pitches, so know that before you go there.

Know the community. Better yet, be a part of it. Start by commenting on a recent post. If you like it, RT it on your own feed.

Be collaborative. If appropriate, think in terms of traffic-building ideas like reader promotions and giveaways; exclusive content angles; or sweepstakes that build readership.

Be respectful. Don’t be dismissive of smaller or niche blogs, as sometimes narrow outlets have deeply passionate followings. My team arranged a modest reader giveaway for an e-commerce client on a home design blog I’d frankly never heard of; the result was 8000 new newsletter sign-ups in a single day.

The Bloggess says it best. “Treat every blogger as if they have a dark army at their disposal.” Because, often, they do.

How Workplace Superstitions Can Boost Business

The quarterback of my alma mater played every game wearing the same socks.  Ernest Hemingway always wrote standing up. Matthew Weiner, creator of “Mad Men,” claims all of these superstitions in this recent NY Times article:

“No hat on the bed. No shoes on the bed. Do not step over people on the floor. Put a piece of thread in your mouth if someone is doing anything to your clothing. When I am leaving a room where something important has happened, I will back out.”

A recent conversation with colleagues revealed some interesting rituals and superstitions in the PR workplace. Don’t ask me why, but I always use the same highlighter to illuminate my assigned portion of a presentation. Dorothy never puts company budgets in a red folder, fearing the deeper implications of being “in the red.” (Green or black are far better.) She also likes to sit facing the door during a high-stakes meeting. Briana always distributes her news releases at the same time of day. I had a colleague who responded to new business defeat by never wearing the same outfit to a similar meeting. (You could run out of clothing quickly during a busy period by adopting this practice!)

If you’re in PR, I bet you knocked wood before calling a difficult media contact, or maybe you “crossed all body parts” awaiting client approval on a big idea. Now these may all seem ridiculous, even illogical. Yet “lucky” rituals can be cultural, part of team cohesiveness, or just an attempt to repeat successes of the past.

The next time someone in your office asks you to change the date of a huge new business presentation from Friday the 13th, remember these observations from the business experts at American Express, who believe some superstitions can have the following positive results in the workplace:

Focus – Superstitions can increase focus on a business outcome (as long as the superstitious behavior isn’t too distracting!)

Relaxation – Rituals help to increase familiarity and ease anxiety. We can’t control everything, but we can feel more in charge by focusing on certain elements, like using our lucky pen.

Placebo effect – People may perform better simply because they believe they will.

So, ‘fess up. What are some of your superstitions?