The Top Ten PR Blunders of 2011

When a serious setback or crisis occurs, not even the most talented PR pro can make it go away. Yet, a poor response invites reputation damage, while proper handling can help mitigate or limit it. Here’s my “Top 10” list, from a communications perspective, of the most badly handled public situations of the year.

10.  Governor Sam Brownback.  Something tells me the governor’s not in Kansas anymore – at least as far as his reputation goes. Brownback looked like a bully and created an unlikely teen hero with his handling of a nasty tweet about him posted by high school senior Emma Sullivan. Brownback’s staff, who tracked down the teen, put pressure on the school principal to extract an apology from Sullivan. When she ultimately refused, it was Brownback who did the apologizing. Meanwhile, the student’s Twitter following soared from 65 to over 14,000. Who’s sorry now?

9.  Delta. The airline hit rough PR weather when U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan were charged onerous fees for extra baggage, with one squadron spending nearly $3,000 out of personal funds. The disgruntled troops took the story of their rude welcome home to YouTube. Delta reacted about a day late to the video, which swiftly went viral, triggering hundreds of complaints on its blog.  It did end up changing its baggage fee policy for members of the armed services but not without reputation damage.

8.  Groupon.  Groupon’s reputation issues come in contrast to its previous image as a media darling. It started 2011 with that ill-conceived Super Bowl ad, followed by a halfhearted apology after it went wrong. It then ran into more PR hot water later as the company prepared for a much anticipated IPO. Founder Andrew Mason made impolitic remarks in an internal memo that was leaked to The Wall Street Journal, raising questions about “quiet period” violations. The Groupon IPO was a success, but its toughest reputation challenge will be to prove its business model actually works.

7.  Burson-Marsteller.  It’s notable when the world’s largest PR firm handles a crisis this poorly. In May, mega-agency Burson-Marsteller was busted by The Daily Beast‘s Dan Lyons after a clumsily executed “whisper campaign” against Google. The campaign was carried out on behalf of a mystery client who turned out to be Facebook. Not only was Burson guilty of a major ethical breach, but its response seemed to blame the client, which made it look both weak and defensive.

6.  AOL and CrunchFund.  TechCrunch Editor Michael Arrington’s plan to start an investment fund immediately raised conflict of interest questions. More troubling was the response from corporate owner AOL. CEO Tim Armstrong excused the move by referring to TechCrunch’s “different standards” of journalism. He was immediately contradicted by Arianna Huffington, who announced Arrington’s departure from AOL, which was then “clarified” by a subsequent announcement that he remained with AOL Ventures. While AOL struggled to get its stories straight, the incident undermined the credibility of senior management and its content standards.

5.  Netflix. The famous Netflix mea culpa is a good example of a public apology that backfired in a rather spectacular way. Instead of letting its admission of “poor communication” regarding a price increase stand, Netflix used the occasion to announce its split into two units – doubling the cost, and the hassle, for customers. It made the classic mistake of focusing on its business rationale rather than the customer interest and was forced to backpedal.  In the end it was Netflix that paid the price in lost business and a depressed stock value.

4.  The U.S. Congress.  One way to read the summer’s debt ceiling gridlock is a case of too great an emphasis on PR – to the detriment of real issues or progress. Both sides of the debate were so focused on their public posture — Tea Partiers hewing to the no-tax-increase line and progressives preoccupied with blaming the GOP — that everyone looked bad and absolutely nothing was done.

3.  Bank of America.  Its move to institute a $5 monthly debit card fee was not only poor judgment but terrible timing. B of A made the announcement just as the Occupy Wall Street movement was gaining steam. The new fee wasn’t tested, pre-announced, or even particularly well explained to customers, who responded with predictable outrage. Although the bank tried to justify the fee by tying it to new regulations, its argument was ineffectual. It ended up retreating a month later in the face of harsh criticism by consumers, bloggers, and even government officials.

2.  Herman Cain.  Political scandals were rife in 2011, but Cain’s meltdown stood out because he showed real mastery of public communication at the outset (remember “9-9-9”?). Yet when the candidate was hit with allegations of sexual harassment, the campaign’s response was amateurish. Politico sat on the initial story for ten days – an eternity in crisis response time – but Cain’s reactions ranged from denial, defensiveness, and hostility to humor and a plea for privacy. Consistency, credibility, and message control deserted the Cain campaign, and the result is history.

1.  Penn State. No shock here. Penn State will end 2011 taking the trophy for most egregiously bad handling of a crisis. Granted, the allegations against Jerry Sandusky would have been damaging no matter what, but it’s even worse when you consider that the Grand Jury investigation started in 2008. The university had plenty of time to prepare its public communication strategy. But when Sandusky was arrested in November, the statement by ex-President Graham Spanier, in which he called the charges “troubling,” was a study in what not to say.  Its focus on closing ranks and defending those in the know helped turn a shocking scandal into a serious breach of responsibility by the top players.

A version of this post was originally published on MENGBlend.

PR For Startups: Why It’s Different

Over the years, my firm has worked as PR agency for many startup businesses with a wide range of needs. Most have been successful relationships. Yet, more than other client programs, startups need focused attention on business-building strategies and tactics. At the same time, the typical startup, — being entrepreneurial, ambitious, and very driven – is likely to begin a relationship with outsized expectations. What’s more, it typically doesn’t have a lot of time to manage an agency partner. The combination can be a recipe for failure. Here are some things to keep in mind when evaluating a startup opportunity.

Expectations management is key. If they say, “We’re really counting on PR to drive demand, so we’re putting everything into our PR budget,” it’s a red flag. Even the most well-crafted PR program isn’t a replacement for a full marketing plan.

Startups are supposed to have lofty goals. All the more reason why it’s essential to define – and manage – them at the outset. Of course, this is true of any client-agency engagement, but startups are more passionate because they have to be. It’s their job. Which means that it’s our job is to make them see that PR is a better tool for brand visibility and positioning than demand generation. Those who expect to launch a consumer business fueled purely by publicity may be disappointed.

The founder is not the brand. This is where I think Jason Calcanis and others get it wrong. An evangelistic founder is a huge asset, and he or she is usually the most credible media and analyst spokesperson. But, the founder’s vision is only the beginning. And, not every entrepreneur is the best person to sell his story. I’ve worked with those who are either too close or too emotionally invested to connect with media and understand their point of view. A press tour is not a road show.

PR doesn’t stand for press release. A newsstream should flow from the overall business and communications strategy, but the document itself is a commodity. If they’re hiring a PR team for press releases, it’s a waste of money.

Some startups should handle PR internally. It’s not possible  to generalize, but there are many companies – particularly early-stage ones, for whom PR is basically networking and fundraising. For them, a DIY approach can work well.

Finally, PR can’t overcome a mediocre product or flawed business plan.  If it could,  Webvan,, and would be household brands today instead of symbols of vaporized cash – and dreams.

Well-Handled: FedEx Delivers On "Apology PR"

Talk about heavy lifting. Pity the communications pros at FedEx. At the height of the holiday season, when the company wants to focus on its state-of-the-art technology and customer service prowess, it’s the recipient of an unwelcome holiday gift – a viral video that threatens real damage to its brand.

One careless employee and 20 seconds – caught on camera – is all it takes these days. The video in question shows a FedEx delivery person heaving a computer monitor over a resident’s gate rather than taking an extra minute to ring the bell. The package toss instantly lit up Twitter and soon had mainstream media buzzing. At over four million views so far, it gives new meaning to the term “special delivery.”

Now, this isn’t the first time FedEx employees have been caught manhandling bags – a casual browse through YouTube can attest to that. But this mis-delivery was very clearly at a residence (where the recipient was at home and watching.) Combine that with a  slow news week and the rapidly growing social Web, and it adds up to real PR baggage.

To its credit, FedEx dropped everything – in a good way – to respond to the mini-crisis. It fast-tracked a video apology from operations executive Matthew Thornton in which Thornton vows to redouble efforts to regard each delivery as “precious cargo” and make the incident a “learning experience” for the company. The script is a bit stilted, but he’s credible and appropriately concerned.

FedEx tells us that the situation’s been handled. It has shipped out the sloppy employee (to a warehouse, apparently) and replaced the customer’s monitor. It then takes the opportunity to restate its corporate values, which is a savvy PR move.

Good job, FedEx. In a few weeks, with some luck, a kinder, gentler FedEx will emerge and the package panic will be relegated to the crisis PR archives, indexed under “well handled.” In the meantime, keep on truckin.’

If Santa Were More Social

Nowadays everyone is using social and digital media. And with so much to do before Christmas, I’m thinking that Santa could ease some stress and reinforce his personal brand by embracing digital technology. Here are a few ways for him to start:

Live Tweeting. Wouldn’t it be great to follow Santa’s every move on Twitter? Actually, there is a @santaclaus account, courtesy of NORAD. It has only about 5700 followers, so maybe Santa should start using the “list” feature a bit more shrewdly….naughty, nice, not sure, etc.

Foursquare Check-ins. Santa can create a virtual North Pole or Holiday Spirit check-in for the rest of us to log good deeds.  Or, S.C. might launch a holiday decorations photo contest among followers, seeing as he’s holding a pretty impressive prize package.

Facebook Polls. A quick Facebook survey can help pinpoint top gifts among the deserving, the better to guide his production plans.

GPS. Naturally, satellite technology has a role here. Avoiding storms can probably slice the Big Guy’s travel time in half.

Live blogging. Of course a platform like Tumblr would enable Santa to integrate the visual aspects of his big trip and share them in real time. I’m sure he could put his hands on the right smartphone for the job.

Email still works. We could use more regular holiday updates on the year’s news, or maybe a sneak peek on how Santa will spend a post-Christmas vacation. And there are so many story ideas that can be pitched via email, like, like a New Year’s resolution to slim down, or becoming more eco-friendly with a solar-powered sleigh.

Online Shopping. Can’t leave this one out. A cross-promotion with Amazon can save the elves a lot of work!

Happy Holidays!

Occupy This: Being Wealthy Is Back In Style

After the 2008 economic meltdown, conspicuous consumption fell out of fashion. Long before “the 1%” was a catchword, a new frugality gripped those in the middle class and higher. The affluent tightened their Gucci belts and made do with less, even if they didn’t have to. It just wasn’t seemly to be profligate when Citibank was trading at 97 cents a share. There was even a name for it:  luxury shame.

Not so today. Sales of high-end art are sizzling. Luxury real estate is creeping back, buoyed by low interest rates and a feeling that it’s safe to go back in the water…and buy the beachfront house to boot. Christie’s broke all previous records by raking in a jaw-dropping $116 million last week with the auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry collection. (Of course, this may have been partly due to shrewd expectations-setting and brilliant PR by Christie’s, but still.)

Not enough evidence? When in doubt, follow the money. High-end retailers like Tiffany, Burberry and others are reporting soaring profits, and private equity firms just can’t snap up luxury brands quickly enough.

So, where does the Occupy movement fit in with all this? There are some who say it’s put a damper on extravagance, even as the economy has inched toward recovery. I doubt it. Though the movement’s message has found its way into the national bloodstream, which I call a real PR success, its impact has been on the political dialogue and among so-called “ordinary” people, and its message is not so much anti-consumerist as it is anti-inequality. Those among the 99% don’t reject marketing or wealth or even consumption; rather, they want a fair share of it.

Those financiers who sipped champagne while looking out over Zuccotti Park weren’t mocking the protesters; they were just doing, well, what they do. Three years after the crisis, luxury shame is as passé as matching shoes and bags.

The one place where such optics may still matter is if you’re running for office. Being wealthy – or maybe just enjoying your wealth – might be bad PR for a serious presidential candidate. Hence, Mitt Romney’s team is busy planting stories about what a cheapskate he is, and Gingrich’s next revolving account may be at J. C. Penney. But, then there’s Trump. He’s not so much a true billionaire as a walking advertisement for living large.

So, bring on the bling.  Being wealthy – or at least, wanting your share of the wealth – is back in style, and it probably never really went out.

What Your PR Firm Isn’t Telling You

The best client-agency relationships are based on mutual respect and honesty. It’s a good sign if that candor is in evidence before the contract is signed.

Last August, Lucy Siegel wrote an insightful post, “6 Things many PR firms won’t tell you.” Her post contains some excellent red flags to look for when considering a PR firm or consultant, including my personal favorite: PR people who fail to clue in clients with absurdly high expectations until after they’ve signed on.

But, as they say in the infomercial, there’s more! I’d like to share a longer list of those tricky matters that probably won’t be volunteered by the PR team, to the detriment of the relationship.

You’ll be passed on to junior staffers

Sad to say, because I’m convinced it’s a tactic among a minority of firms, but the old “pitch and switch” isn’t dead yet. Some firms are so layered that they can only make a profit by pushing the work down to the most junior level. You’ll do well to get a commitment that the pitch team actually is the account team.

Their most relevant experience left six months ago

It’s customary for a firm to show case histories of relevant work, but you should make sure the most pertinent knowledge actually resides among those on the account team, not in another office or with the guy who left in February.

Your strategy’s not workable

An important part of expectations management is agreeing on how you’ll reach your goals. A smart PR pro should point out flaws or limitations in a communications strategy just as easily as they praise the opportunity. Better yet, they should be the ones to develop the strategy.

They’re too big (or small) for your budget

Size does matter. There are no hard-and-fast rules about this, but it’s fair to ask about average fee billings and where your program might fit into the mix. Another way to get at the same issue is to ask how many clients an average staffer actively represents. Then do your own math.

Their social media “expert” is a newbie

Talking the talk is great, but with soaring demand for social media experience, I’ve met those who have the title but haven’t ever actually run a social or digital campaign. Make sure there’s real experience behind the witty tweets.

Publicity results can take six months or more

The actual generation of publicity can vary with the client and the program, but keep in mind that no one can promise quick results. The same goes for exactly where and how your story appears.
As a former client said to her boss when he asked for a “D1” (front of section) story in a certain newspaper, there’s one way to accomplish that. It’s called advertising.

PR rarely drives sales

Another tricky aspect of a client-agency relationship is return-on-investment. PR most often supports brand building over time. Even a heavy product publicity outreach is unlikely to be a magic bullet, and it can never replace a full-on marketing campaign.

This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on MENGBlend.

Isn’t It Ironic? Lowe’s Apology Triggers PR Damage

The backlash came in a flood, like a burst pipe. The move by Lowe’s to drop its ad support for the TLC show “All-American Muslim” after pressure from a conservative Christian group may leave its reputation in serious need of repair.

But, to me, it reads like an O. Henry story where good intentions go awry, and no one wins.

Certainly Lowe’s has its hands full. Muslim community leaders have spoken out against the move, as have boldfaced names in entertainment. Lowe’s Facebook page is rapidly filling with comments – over 10,000 at last count – from supporters to those crying bigotry.

There are so many ironies here.

Irony #1 – “All-American Muslim,” which depicts the everyday lives of  five Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, was presumably created to show that Muslim Americans are just like everybody else. Instead, the show has been the catalyst for a firestorm of controversy where ugly names are exchanged on all sides.

Irony #2 – Lowe’s axed the ads after the Florida Family Association sent letters of protest. The company posted a Facebook statement that apologizes for making so many people “unhappy” and explains its intent to “respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.” (Huh?) But, in reversing itself to make one group happy, Lowe’s apparently failed to realize that others would then be unhappy. Such is the law of unintended consequences. Now, the company is stuck.

Irony #3 – Lowe’s was singled out for criticism because it tried to explain its decision. (Other companies, including archrival Home Depot, also dropped their support for the show, but more quietly.) That’s laudable, even though the language was a bit legalistic and ultimately inadequate. More importantly, the decision to give in to pressure in the first place was shortsighted. (see Irony #2)

Irony #4 –  “All-American Muslim” has garnered more PR than TLC could have ever dreamed, which just might boost ratings, leaving it more attractive to advertisers…..yet, they’ll need to be intrepid enough to wade into a PR mess.

12 Days Of Christmas For The PR-Minded)

Fellow PR practitioners, clients, media, here are the famous gifts from the “12 Days of Christmas” song. If you actually received them, what creative things would you do with them?

Twelve drummers drumming: Since being ousted from Zuccotti Park, they could use some positive PR – how about tracking down some Occupiers and resurrecting the drumming thing for the holidays? News at 11!

Eleven pipers piping: Depending on what the pipers have in their pipes, could we not use them as spokespeople for the “legalize marijuana” initiative in New Jersey? I see a front page piece in the Star-Ledger.

Ten lords a-leaping: The arts are hurting, people! What say, our lords perform serious leaping to get attention and some donations for beloved arts institutions – can anyone say NPR story?

Nine ladies dancing: Envisioning a tie-in with the uber-popular “Dancing with the Stars”! Our nine ladies can be culled from deposed “Housewives” for extra buzz potential.

Eight maids a-milking: I propose swinging a spokes-maid deal with the Milk Board, Cabot Creamery, Borden or some other big dairy producer for a media tour complete with fabulous how-to demo on Martha Stewart!

Seven swans- a-swimming: Can you see the public service spot now? Swans a-Swimming Water Safety program with viral video campaign that just takes off all over YouTube!

Six geese a-laying: Geese almost had a moment when Bjork fashioned a faux one into a dress – maybe they could serve as Project Runway inspiration this year. “Make it work” indeed!

Five golden rings: Please let the creators of the awful “He went to Jared” commercials take advantage of fabulous creative we would develop with our simple and tasteful five golden rings campaign!

Four calling birds: As 4G becomes the standard with smartphones and other tech toys, how about the “Four Calling Birds” holiday ringtone?

Three French hens: French Hens would make a delightful holiday meal. Are you seeing a showdown by Top Chefs? Giada diLaurentiis putting an Italian spin on it for “Today”? Or Rachael Ray dumbing it down for the rest of us? So versatile!

Two turtle doves: Animal conservation is always hot. The most famous turtle doves could become the centerpiece of a dwindling bird population awareness initiative – add PETA to the mix for a little controversial PR!

And a partridge in a pear tree! Who needs Rockefeller Center? We craft a creative campaign to make the partridge in a pear tree the “fresh foliage” for holiday 2011 and do on-air “window walks” at the other morning shows. Maybe a multi-city SMT! The possibilities are endless.

Got any additional ways to “spin” the 12 days? Let us know here.

o.b.’s Apology PR Campaign Is Pitch-Perfect

Maybe it should have known better than to tangle with women at, well, a certain time of the month.

After J&J began to discontinue its o.b. Ultra line of tampons, its loyal users felt betrayed. The brand was smacked with  infuriated customer comments, “girlcott” threats, an online petition and general user crankiness. But instead of defensiveness, or a by-the-book apology, the brand went one better.

Make that miles better. o.b. took advantage of the potential of customizable video with a hilarious, relevant, and compulsively shareable mea culpa called “Triple Sorry.” All you need to do is type in your first name to be serenaded with a soulful, over-the-top apology ballad, belted out by a central-casting boyfriend behind a white grand piano on the beach. Just for you. And thousands of your best girlfriends.

We talk about wooing customers, but this gives new meaning to the term “consumer engagement.” The video reminds me of the brilliant “Flight of the Conchords” in that it perfectly satirizes the cheesy, overindulgent music video, complete with doves, rainbows, and personalized skywriting. Sure, we’ve seen this gimmick before, but when the singer croons your name in a husky whisper, you can’t help but giggle.

It’s possibly the best apology a girl could want. It’s so pitch-perfect, in fact, that I nearly forgot the main thing, which is that the brand has pledged to bring back the Ultra line and never again to leave its faithful customers wanting.  A downloadable product coupon sweetens the promise.

“Triple Sorry” is a social media and marketing home run. As every funny guy knows, women will forgive a lot if you make us laugh. Call me lovestruck, but the brand’s use of the medium, and of humor, is pretty irresistible. It has me convinced its customers will not only forgive o.b.’s formerly callous treatment of them, but forget the past and recommit to the brand. That’s true romance.

Tuesday Tips: Make The Most Of PR Mailers

December is here, and tis the season of giving! But in PR, we like to “gift” media all year-long. Not your typical gift, but what we call “creative deliveries.” In short, your clients’ offerings artfully packaged to get maximum media attention. Yes, a pitch letter and a phone call will often be enough, but why not try to stand out in the plethora of packages and myriad missives receive everyday by getting as creative and thoughtful as you can.

Here are my tips for packaging mailers for media:

“Hook” us up! In PR, we are always looking timely and newsworthy events to use as an angle in our pitching. A seasonal hook goes a long way, or if the reporter has recently covered the topic (and gasp, your client was left out), send the package as a friendly reminder to keep in mind next time they write about it.

“Cleverage.” “Cleveraging” is the art of taking your client’s less than thrilling product or service and through some creative topspin, presenting a fabulous package to the press!  We can’t all represent luscious desserts and the latest must-have tech toys, but we can tap our inspirational reserves and come up with something that both represents the best of our clients and gives our press contacts something to work with! For example, we’ve packaged pretty flower seeds for a recycling company with a spring cleaning hook and gave contacts “everything but the mattress” for a sleep story. Be memorable.

Make a list…and check it twice! If you are going through the effort (and expense!) of sending out a delivery, make sure you are sending it to the editor/reporter/writer who is most likely to cover your client. While we hope it will make its way to the right recipient, you only have one opportunity, so do your homework first.

Conversation = Conversion. The items were packaged and delivered. Now what? Follow up and convert that delivery into a story for your client.

Any creative media mailer success stories out there? Please share!