The Governor, The Teenager And Twitter: A PR Lesson

The awesome power of social media may be matched only by the withering force of teenage scorn.

I was startled by the social blowback resulting from Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s public feud with a local high school student. It started last week when Emma Sullivan and her class attended a youth event in Topeka where Brownback was a speaker. Sullivan, a self-professed liberal and arts lover, tweeted her distaste for the arts-defunding governor to her 65 followers, capped by a hashtag created for the occasion – #heblowsalot.

Juvenile, right? Rude, or silly, depending on your point of view, yet harmless. But Brownback’s staff, who obviously track hashtags like #heblowsalot, spotted the surly tweet and contacted Sullivan’s high school principal, who demanded an apology from her. She ultimately refused. The 18-year-old’s stance, and her story, has spread faster than a prairie brushfire. She’s added 14,000 Twitter followers and has been interviewed by dozens of media outlets.  (My mother would have washed my iPhone out with soap, but never mind.) A Rosa Parks for subversive tweeting has been born.

The governor’s Facebook page (which to his staff’s credit, has apparently not been filtered) is overrun with comments, mostly negative. And yesterday the inciting tweet came home to roost when Brownback, clearly on the defensive, was the one apologizing. He posted an official statement claiming an overreaction by his staff and issuing a mea culpa of sorts to the 18-year-old.

There are many lessons here. The PR learning may lie in the Brownback team’s hamhanded reaction. Rather than ignoring the rogue tweet, laughing it off, or trying to reach out to a disaffected constituent, they attempted to extract an apology by pressuring the school, which some say is an attempt to stifle Sullivan’s right to free speech. Others, like The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, think the whole twitstorm came down to Sullivan’s bad ‘tude and simple discourtesy.

Still, it doesn’t go over well when an authority figure overreacts to the harmless actions of a younger person. It can make you look like a bully. And reason, or – better yet –  humor, is far more disarming than punitive measures. It was just a hashtag. (Sullivan’s claim that she insulted the Governor to his face wasn’t even true.)

It’s also interesting that so many commenters were offended that taxpayer dollars were spent on social media monitoring by the Governor’s staff. Now, as any communicator will tell you, it’s smart to track constituent messages in real time, but it just points out the damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t dilemma facing so many elected officials. I fault the Brownback response, not the monitoring. The team overplayed its hand, and the public apology was the right move. For the record, however, he shouldn’t have blamed the twittereaction on his staff.

But, it seems obvious that the Brownback backpedaling says more about public cynicism and fed-up-ness than it does about freedom of tweets, teenagers, or even a slow news week. With Congressional approval at 8%, and most elected officials gearing up for a nasty battle in 2012, it’s hard out there for a pol. A little social media savvy – and PR sense – can go a long way.

PR Holidays To Hijack

Yesterday, we celebrated Cyber Monday, a day that was brought to us by Shop.org in 2005 after coining the phrase to recognize this day as the biggest online shopping day.  It’s not a “real” holiday but it is treated like one, and turned into PR gold every year.

There are many examples of wonderful and wacky holidays that can be gently “hijacked” for PR purposes. Oh, how we “relished” National Pickle Day when working a gherkin campaign. We also helped antivirus software brand avast! take advantage of a holiday that only a brand called avast! could – the quirky International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Clients that we can attach to an obscure, but not ridiculous, holiday can provide great natural news hooks if handled properly.

Below are a few tips on ways that we think you can use the ordinary or not so ordinary holidays and turn them into PR-extraordinary.

Know your product.  You would be shocked by the number of bizarre and unique holidays that exist.  Chances are, if a product exists, there’s a holiday (official or unofficial) that pertains. Did you know there’s an unofficial National Hat Day in January? Lids PR team must celebrate it every year!

Make a natural connection.  Just because it’s Daylight Savings Time doesn’t mean that only watch brands or smoke alarm companies benefit.  What about mattress companies or pillow makers?  What use is that extra hour of sleep if you’re sleeping on a bad mattress or a lumpy pillow? See what we did here for client, Sleepy’s? Make sure your client connection makes sense and the idea appears unforced.

Tap into an issue or cause.  Social initiatives and nonprofit organizations are a great way to get everyday companies involved in special days, weeks or months of recognition.  Your client has a current campaign devoted to reading literacy and donates to the cause?  Well you’re in luck, because there is both a Family Literacy Day and a National Book Lovers Day.  You can use these both these “holidays” to spread the word of their donations and CSR programming.

Get creative, just not too creative.  Chances are you can use your smarts and contort a holiday to your advantage, but be sure to keep it within limits.  Most likely media won’t go for something that’s too much of a stretch (National Mud Pack Day, anyone?). They will go for something that’s clever. Like, for example, Publicity Stunt Week, appropriately timed for April 1-7.

What are some of your hijacked holidays?

Redefining Public Relations: Does It Matter?

Years ago, a colleague who’d spent 20+ years at PR agencies joined a large marketing services firm. He told me he’d cracked the code to winning new business, significantly increasing his batting average in selling programs to existing ad and marketing clients. The secret? Never calling it “public relations.” Instead, he would say “promotion,” or refer to “adding news value.”

Silly? Maybe, but his point was that many of his clients didn’t understand PR, or its usefulness, either as a standalone tool or one piece of a larger marketing mix. Also, they needed to be spoken to in their own language.

I like to think that prospective clients are more sophisticated about what we do today. But, what does it say when you have to make up new words to communicate what you bring to the table? And the misconceptions persist, if the terms used are any indication. Last year I had a client tell me that PR is the cheapest form of advertising. Others insist that it’s interchangeable with publicity. Some call it buzz. Perception management. Spin. Optics.

What we do has many synonyms and quite a few definitions, but most are outdated, narrow, or wildly off the mark. That’s why it’s interesting that the Public Relations Society of America has set out to update the definition of PR for the 21st Century. PRSA is asking its own members, PR pros across the country, for help in crowdsourcing a more refined and relevant definition of what we do. Reading PRSA’s Rosanna Fiske joke about her parents not understanding what she’s been doing all these years struck a familiar, frustrating note.

When I read about the PRSA search in The New York Times, I was impressed by the prominence of the story (a huge win for the association), but a bit underwhelmed by the campaign itself. The crowdsourcing was a nice twist, it seemed, but overall, these types of exercises don’t amount to much. After all, there are so many other issues our industry is grappling with, from diversity, to ethics, to impact measurement.

And yet. There has never been a time of faster change – or greater relevance -for our industry.  And shouldn’t “better PR for PR” start with us? Also, the article spurred me to look back at the working definition of public relations. Get ready. It’s “public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

That’s it. Talk about underwhelming. I admire the restraint, but the definition is anything but meaningful. As a sentence, it’s awkward and jargon-y. (Done any mutual adapting lately?)

It made me think about how often we urge a client to substitute more differentiated language in describing a brand benefit, add power to a quote, or make an interview message more crisp. Or what it feels like when a mangled headline or misconstrued message makes its way into the free Web, never to be erased. Words matter.

One of the reasons I’m working in PR today is because I love language. And I believe passionately in the power of content – written, spoken, shared, mashed-up, etc., to influence, provoke, or spur action.

So, bring it on, PRSA. If we can’t articulate what we do, then who can? And it might make me, for one, feel a little prouder to have built a career in an industry that has grown and evolved so dramatically, and whose value and relevance is more accepted than ever before. Though I doubt it will make my mother any clearer about what it is I really do.

Top Ten Gifts PR Pros Are Thankful For

10. TweetReach, Compete, TV Eyes: services which have our admiration

9. Mommy bloggers: who “get” our pitches and understand collaboration

8. Never again hearing a client ask “When will Oprah have me as a guest?”

7. Gayle King on the Early Show where there just might be hope for that request

6. The enduring power of social media to help with contact “stalking”

5. Clients who appreciate creative ideas and say “yes” without balking

4. Intrepid business start-ups in this precarious economy

3. Political gaffes on both sides –blog fodder – and it’s free!

2. Co-workers and allies who support you through the good and bad

1. Anyone who knows (its true!) a press release is not an ad!

Anything in the workplace that you’re grateful for this Thanksgiving?

A November To Remember

In addition to the traditional Thanksgiving bounty of food and family, this month has offered its share of embarrassing political viral videos.  This cornucopia of candidate catastrophes demonstrates how powerful and influential social media has become.  Online social sharing is now as common, if not more, than reading the newspaper, and celebrating the successful is not nearly as crucial as mitigating the miserable. What can be learned from this month’s mishaps?

“Rick Perry’s Drunken Speech” video has over 500,000 views on Youtube and shows a loopy Governor giggling and yelping through a campaign stop.  Perry’s communications and press people had to have known that even if a silly speech isn’t televised, it’ll still be all over the Today Show the next morning.  It’s just how today’s media works.  What kind of damage control would have worked best here, if any?

The Texas governor needed a rebound after the “drunken” video debacle, and his handlers rightly assumed a national debate would be a great platform to change the Rick Perry storyline.  It’s simple:  know the talking points, stay on topic, and get the appropriate message across.  Mr. Perry failed miserably at the debate on November 9th with his now infamous “Oops” moment.  How much message training is really enough?

Next up:  Herman Cain. When asked if he agreed with President Obama’s handling of Libya, he seemed comically confused.  Thanks to the power of social media, the non-televised interview has been everywhere (Jon Stewart even professed his love for Mr. Cain over it).   Was the “lack of sleep” excuse a credible one? Who thinks up these things?

While you mull over these incidents, a few lessons from the modern media world:
     The cameras are always rolling. (even an iPhone in the audience)
     With message training, one size does NOT fit all. Some folks will always need extra prep and notes.
     “Snark is the new black (to quote The Good Wife)  No matter how innocuous the gaffe, it will be twisted and tweaked     for maximum (negative) media appeal.

Share your observations and lessons here.

PR Lessons From Occupy Wall Street

Today is the National Day of Action, and the media noise around the Occupy Wall Street movement is louder than it’s been since the start. The mood around here is mostly business as usual, flavored with a little anxiety and mild distraction.

But, is OWS a PR success? Many have criticized its lack of coherent message, and the absence of specific demands or conventional leadership. Others point to the bad apples, like the guy who threatened violence. Regular working people resent the movement’s threats to tie up subway stops. CNN’s Erin Burnett famously wondered if it’s just a bunch of slackers with time on their hands.  Even Jon Stewart mostly mocks it.

But despite not playing by the PR rulebook. I’d call OWS a PR home run. Here’s how I think it has succeeded.

It’s on-message. Sure, the demands aren’t specific (or even practical in some cases), but the overall message is clear and consistent. “We are the 99%” says it. It’s about inequality, the decline of the middle class, and the loss of dreams and privileges once considered basic for most Americans.

It’s focused on the human story. The mom pleading for a judge’s leniency in the face of foreclosure. The unemployed students with advanced degrees and six-figure loans to pay. The retired Philadelphia police captain who offered himself to be arrested while chiding the NYPD. These are just a few of the “real-people” narratives that OWS has brought to life.

It defines its opponents. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg just may have played into the movement’s hands when he ordered the evacuation of Zuccotti Park, – in the middle of the night, presumably to avoid major media coverage.

It has attracted allies and advocates. A real turning point for the OWS movement was the endorsement of organized labor. This is big. And so are the lesser-known stakeholders, like the City Council member arrested at the protest, and the journalists claiming police interference with newsgathering.

It has entered the public bloodstream. OWS hasn’t articulated a roadmap to prosperity, endorsed a political candidate, or drafted a platform. But they’ve changed the conversation. That’s where I think the OWS participants have succeeded beyond the media and punditsphere’s expectations, and maybe even beyond their own.

Savvy Surveys That Work For PR

The nationally projectable consumer survey has long been a very popular tool in the PR arsenal. Polls on hot topics packaged effectively make easy work for time-starved media and are a great way to connect your client to the topical and timely. Win-win, right?

Not so fast – there are surveys that succeed and surveys that sink. Here are five tips to make your client surveys soar every time.

Pick at least one provocative question – It is not enough to think newsworthy. Not enough to think how a topic relates best to your client. The savvy survey has to include at least one provocative question that you can picture has a headline. For example, we conducted a survey recently on behalf of a client seeking opinions on 9/11 commemoration. The “grabber” question was “should 9/11 be declared a national holiday?” This one question became the story for USA Today.

Learn to speak in survey language – Often times the slant of a particular question helps or (or does not help) support a desired outcome. Often, you can control the release of that information with simple language choices. For example, if 28% of respondents answer a question a certain way, the stat can be either – “…nearly one in three” or “…only 28% .”

Let the pros do the heavy lifting – Assuming you have engaged a professional survey provider such as Toluna – take advantage of the full array of services they provide. For example, engage the company to vet all of your potential questions and edit to perfection in order to elicit the most spot-on responses. Once your data is in, a quality survey company will go over it painstakingly with you to make sure you understand all the statistical nuances. They will even help edit wording in a press release to make sure it reflects as accurately as possible.

Slice and dice the data for different audiences – Look hard at the different media that could use your survey info – from bloggers to TV news to trade pubs and reporters in various consumer categories. You may end up with a few different leading stats and different headlines, but the extra work can result in extra placements for your client

Release your data with infographics – Nothing will make your statistics more user-friendly and understandable than one or two detailed charts and graphs. Take the most salient points and illustrate them so media can grasp handily and be more inclined to use.

Got any survey strategies of your own to impart? Share them here.