Who’s Winning the Super Bowl 2012 PR Game?

The run-up to Super Bowl XLVI has definitely begun. And every year the pre-game show ( the ad-fest that leads up to Sunday) seems to get longer.

Now, the Super Bowl has never been known for cutting-edge advertising creative. The challenge is to go big, go broad, and generate chatter. And it’s the early buzz that helps justify the jaw-dropping $3.5 million per spot. Here’s a hint about 2012: cars and dogs are still big.

But the loudest noise seems to be around the commercials designed to evoke fond memories of years gone by. Call it the Nostalgia Bowl. Downy fabric softener, of all brands, is reprising the Mean Joe Greene ad that Coke made famous in 1979, with a twist. (Ordinarily this would be shameless plagiarism, but the aged Joe and the incomparable Amy Sedaris make it surprisingly fresh.)

Then there’s Seinfeld and Jay Leno fighting over an Acura, complete with the Soup Nazi thrown into the sentimental stew. Not bad, actually.

But the PR winner has to be Ferris Bueller. When Honda released a preview version of its “Matthew’s Day Off,” the ad featuring Matthew Broderick playing hooky to ride in a CR-V, Twitter went crazy. The tweets were so fast and furious that they sparked a little backlash. And there’s plenty to pick on here. A minivan isn’t the sexiest car, and some have accused Broderick of selling out his character in doing something they insist the youthful Ferris would never do.

So it may not be a perfect marketing vehicle. But the spot has racked up four million free views on one YouTube channel alone. It’s the clear front-runner five full days before kickoff, and the dozen or so “Easter eggs” – hidden references to the iconic 1980s film – probably guarantee further mileage for Honda.

What’s even more refreshing is that Bueller and other entertaining spots have crowded out the GoDaddy girls and the “banned ad” also-rans, for once. The tired PR gimmick of claiming an ad has been banned or rejected by the network and posting it online is still in evidence this year, most notably in a spot put out by dating site TheBigandThe Beautiful. It claims the sexy commercial it submitted was rejected by NBC due to bias against women of size.

But so far the hijackers have had slim pickings. Honda’s Bueller isn’t a Ferrari (either literally or creatively) but it is a crowd-pleaser. Which for Super Bowl Sunday, may be just what the doctor ordered.

5 Productivity Tricks to Employ Now!

With the first month of 2012 almost at a close, everyone is reevaluating their New Year’s Resolutions. Are you still taking advantage of your new gym membership? Did you find a way to keep fried foods off of your dinner menu? Are you still volunteering at a local organization? But most importantly to those in the PR trade, have you been able to increase your productivity at work?

It may be okay to skip the gym once in a while, but let’s look at a few ways to keep productivity up at work and ongoing for this year, and the next, and the next…

Eat the right food. Food coma is like an undiagnosed sickness. It happens to everyone and at the most crucial times – right after lunch, while you still have half a day left of work. Eat the right proportions and the right food that’ll boost up your productivity, not slow it down. Good examples are avocados, dark chocolate, nuts and seeds, or even splurge and get some fish!

Hold some paper. Yes, everything is online now but that doesn’t mean everything needs to stay on the computer screen. If you’re doing research or editing a report, print it out and manually review it in front of you. It’ll be less straining on your eyes and allow you to focus more. Use a highlighter (they’re not obsolete yet!) and make notes on the side.

The silent treatment. When confronted by a demanding assignment and if its allowed at your work place, move your office space for awhile. Choose somewhere without distractions (the library, the nearby park, coffee house or even at home). The trick is to not have any communication gadgets and if you need your laptop, don’t connect it to Wi-Fi and get to work!

Peak hours. You know if you’re a morning or a night person. Take advantage of when you feel and work the best and pinpoint hours. Use these hours to get the most important projects done.

Similarities attract. Batch similar tasks throughout the day so you’re the most efficient, e.g. if you have phone calls to make or errands to run – do it all at the same time so you’re not constantly going back and forth to it.

With 11 more months of the year, what are your best tricks for staying productive at work (or in life)?

Why Gringrich Has The PR Advantage (For Now)

Who would have thought it? Newt Gingrich, the temperamental former House Speaker with a checkered personal history, has made a comeback. Again.

Of course, political advantage is notoriously short-lived during primary season, particularly the debate-larded GOP one we’ve seen so far. And the Gingrich rise may say as much about the shallowness of Romney’s support, and his campaign’s missteps, than it does about the former Speaker. But there are some lessons here. The Gingrich campaign has shown real PR smarts in recent weeks, including mastery of the following communications and messaging principles.

Own the story. As a reputed “idea guy,” Gingrich is well schooled in floating new, or newly packaged, concepts that are often colorful and provocative. He’s skilled at elevating the narrative beyond his own issues (e.g. personal baggage) and generating buzz about the future. The latest – space travel and the promise of a moon colony –  is a stretch, but it takes some of the pressure off other, more complicated issues.

Get in front of the bad stuff. Gingrich made a smart move just hours before the CNN debate in South Carolina last week by releasing his tax returns. Though his consulting work for Freddie Mac and his relatively high income are potential liabilities, the timing was brilliant. (And his tax rate is far higher than Romney’s.) The move turned up the heat on Romney to release his own returns, distracting from the news itself and dwarfing the size of the Gingrich assets and income in a flash.

Identify a “safe” enemy. As the world knows, Gingrich’s finest PR moment came just after what could have been a fatal disclosure for his campaign, – the allegation by ex-wife Marianne that he asked her for an “open marriage.” But when CNN’s John King threw out the question for the Speaker’s comment like a slow pitch at the start of a baseball game, Gingrich knocked it out of the park. His tactic was to turn the question into an attack on the media, a favorite whipping boy of the campaign and the party base.

Turn your liabilities into assets. He’s been called thin-skinned, mercurial and grandiose. But last week, Gingrich’s passion, indignation, and outrage really sold his message. When it was focused on the “elite” media, it gave the Speaker a bit of sympathy, and even moral authority. Demonizing the media was far more effective than criticizing his fellow GOP-ers, since it was a uniting force and spoke directly to the voters.

Master your flaws. Where properly focused, as noted, Gingrich’s outrage was very effective. But a little goes a long way, particularly given his reputation for anger. So, he dialed the temperature way down in the subsequent debate this week in Florida. While it made for a far duller session, the “presidential” demeanor thwarted critics hoping for another blow-up, tempering his feisty image.

Where Gingrich has erred, in my opinion, is in sharpening his attacks on Romney after pledging not to go negative. The campaign has already backed down from a nasty anti-Romney ad in Florida, and it will be interesting to see how it walks the line as things heat up down South.

What Your Font Choice Says About You

Every year the graphic design world is treated to a variety of new fonts – the good, the bad and the ugly. Because we PR types are always looking for ways to make correspondence stand out, we checked out some of this year’s contenders. They include some pretty out-there fonts, with names like Bleeding Cowboys, Ransom Note and Aristotle Maple Hero.

These may not be up to par for business correspondence but your choice of typeface does say something about your character, your personality and your attitude, according to researchers at Wichita State University.

Here is a primer on a few popular font types and what they say about their users.

Serif Fonts are those with rounded edges on the letters or extra strokes added to the top and bottom of each character. Common examples include Antiqua and Garamond as well as Times New Roman. The researchers found that TNR projects stability, politeness, practicality and formality. It is recommended for business correspondence, but personally, I find it boring, utterly lacking character and really dated.

Courier New is also a serif, and study respondents found it rigid, sad, dull and unattractive. I can’t imagine using it for much!

Sans Serif fonts are typefaces sans embellishment and include many of those commonly associated with business writing – the aforementioned Arial and Verdana, which are also considered to be stable and conformist, but authoritative and persuasive.

Scripted/fun fonts such as Comic Sans are just what they sound like – fun and informal. They say creative, happy and attractive.

As you might imagine, the pundits come down on the side of “stable and conformist” for most business writing.

So, even though you’re an Arial on the outside, do you have a wild “inner” Bleeding Cowboys or Jokerman just screaming to get out?

Paula Deen’s Diabetes Disclosure: A Recipe for Poor PR?

As the queen of “comfort cuisine,” Paula Deen has been a favorite among many members of my family, all of whom live in Georgia or the Carolinas. I’ve admired Paula for her unapologetic taste for indulgence, and for her Southern fried authenticity and down home charm. I’ve never even watched her show, yet I feel I’ve known her for years. I even took her side in her food fight with Anthony Bourdain, though Bourdain was largely in the right.

But Paula’s recent revelation that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes has left a bad taste. And from a PR perspective, I’m not convinced that it’s been well handled. When I caught her “Today” show interview, I felt a little queasy, and since then I’ve been trying to sort out why. Here’s what it boils down to:

Timing – Paula admits that she was diagnosed three years ago. She says waited until now to reveal her illness, which has been rumored since 2010, because she wanted to “bring something to the table.” I want to believe her, but three years is an awfully long time. For someone who’s hallmark is authenticity, it’s hard to swallow. It doesn’t take a business genius to conclude that Paula and her management were worried about the impact of her illness on her show and brand.

Commerce – Paula also announced that she has signed a spokesperson contract with Novo Nordisk, a producer of the diabetes drug she now takes. There’s nothing wrong with being a paid endorser, but it leaves her open to charges of opportunism. Was she waiting for a fat opportunity to monetize her condition?

Paula and her sons, who are also Novo Nordisk spokespersons, followed Monday’s disclosure with a hasty and vaguely worded announcement that they would donate an unspecified portion of their earnings to the American Diabetes Association. When contacted for comment, the association had no knowledge of the plan. The whole thing looked like an afterthought, because it was. More poor strategy and lack of planning. A donation as a centerpiece of her education program would have softened the blatant commercialsim of her deal and sweetened the message.

Clarity – But, what is the message? That medication lets you ignore diet and exercise guidelines? That you can cut back and still enjoy life? Beyond her headline talking point, “Diabetes is not a death sentence,” there’s no call-to-action. With respect, it seems half-baked.

Commitment – Paula’s been opaque about any personal diet and lifestyle changes since the diagnosis. Perhaps she doesn’t want to offend food industry advertisers, but her reticence is confusing. I don’t think she can be a credible role model if she doesn’t talk about adapting to her illness beyond “moderation.” She’s a tremendous brand with the power to inspire millions, but that equity may be at risk, or at least underleveraged.

Brand identity – Brand experts have weighed in on any conversion to lighter fare, calling it risky. I think the risk can be managed, especially since any change is driven by an authentic, real-life event, – her health condition. There’s plenty of opportunity to adapt. (How about a side-by-side comparison, full-fat vs. substitutions?) The plan is to anoint son Bobby as the healthy-eating advocate of the family, but it remains to be seen if he can ride Mama’s apron strings to success.

Paula says her show’s focus won’t change, and beyond giving up sweet tea, she’s vague about personal lifestyle changes. Problem is, she isn’t serving up enough to be as credible and convincing as she needs to be. She seems to want to have her cake, and eat it, too. But as we’ve seen, that can only go on for so long without consequences.

Time For A Mid-Season PR Plan Replacement?

It’s that time of year again, the cold doldrums of January and a ton of mid-season TV replacements.
It’s the television industry’s annual do-over, where TV execs get to press reboot and give it another try.  Much like a PR campaign that isn’t working, new strategies occasionally need to be implemented mid-way through the year.

Any good PR pro knows when to learn from your initial miscalculations, adapt, and make those necessary changes.  For every The Playboy Club and Free Agents, there could be a classic (or great client campaign) in the waiting.  The Simpsons was a midseason replacement in 1989, so was Happy Days (1974) and The Office (2005).

Here are four signs a current client campaign might need a mid-season replacement, and who knows, your next big hit might be closer than you think.

Your time slot was bad

Timing can be everything in PR, so be aware of what’s happening in your client’s industry  and the world at large. Make sure you aren’t competing with major news events or have missed a window altogether and plan accordingly.

The budget was cut so much you don’t even recognize your original idea

If a cut-down campaign budget turns your plan into a shell of its former self, you may want to swallow your pride and find a better way to use your resources.

The pitch has gotten bad reviews from the media

Listen to the feedback from your target demographic (the media), and use it as constructive criticism to improve your next campaign.

“Bad actors”: A constantly changing cast of characters

Some clients change team members so often that it can make it difficult to gain any long term traction.  When you are constantly having to re-sell your big idea, you lose momentum and opportunity. At that point it is sometimes helpful to recast a big idea into some smaller, easier to implement initiatives.

What are some other warning signs a campaign might need to be replaced?

PR Rules For Startups

Mark Cuban’s “12 Rules for Start-Ups” has the PR industry in a lather. In addition to offering insights like “never buy branded polo shirts” (#10), and “know how your business will make money” (#4), Cuban has a strong opinion about PR. Rule #11 on his list states, “Never hire a PR firm.” He goes on to describe PR professionals in unflattering terms.

Cuban has since clarified his position on using PR consultants after much online commentary. But basically, his premise seems to be that journalists and bloggers would much rather hear from a company founder directly, rather than through an intermediary.

Fair enough. But calling Mark Cuban a spokesman for start-ups is a bit like describing Kim Kardashian as Kris Humphries’ ex-wife. It may be beside the point.

Cuban is right about at least one thing, though, which is that a PR start-up program is often very different from one on behalf of a legacy business. There are different rules. Here’s my take on the most effective way to approach PR strategy and media relations for an emerging business.

Define your needs. If fundraising is the overriding goal, your business may be better off dedicating the first year to networking in venture circles, with more highly specialized help.

Bulletproof your business. Sure, many early-stage companies will grow and evolve, but your business offering needs to be as complete as as possible, and the messaging must be fully coherent before you approach media.

Prioritize. Similarly, spend your time on targets who can support business goals. Many startups hire a PR firm or consultant to build an online community in advance of a launch, set up an influencer group, or expand product distribution, which may necessitate a laserlike focus on trade or niche media and blogs.

Assess the founder’s strengths. Be ruthless. Mark Cuban may be a skilled communicator, but that’s not true of all founders. Media training can only go so far. Some of the most passionate entrepreneurs I’ve known have been mediocre, or worse, when it comes to evangelizing with journalists. And, remember, the founder is not the brand.

Look at the ROI for time spent. One of the most brilliant CEOs I ever worked with told me that he could do a better job on industry PR than anyone on his staff or at my firm. And he may have been right; he had grown up in the business, knew all the key players and was a true visionary. But, apart from a few carefully cultivated media and analyst relationships, he never did wade very deeply into the PR program. Why? Because he had another job, of course. And a little charisma can go a long way.

Be realistic. PR is best looked at at a long-term tool for building a business or a brand. For every “snowball effect” publicity hit, there are a hundred slow-and-steady programs that create visibility and reputation over time.

Racist Receipts And Other PR Blunders

Is any industry more challenging than retail? Not only is the business tough, but your employees are your brand. And those employees are notoriously transient and often underpaid, overworked, and just plain bored.

And sometimes they do things that are just plain stupid. It takes only one misstep, powered by social media, to create a full-blown crisis. (Remember the rogue Domino’s video? The FedEx “special delivery”?) And what happens when the business is franchised? Fragmented communications only makes things worse.

The latest case in point is Papa John’s Pizza. When Minhee Cho, a 24-year-old Korean-American New Yorker, ordered a pizza at an uptown franchise, her experience was topped by an insulting ethnic reference on her customer receipt.

As it happens, Cho is a social-media-savvy communications manager for ProPublica. After she posted a photo of the damning receipt on Twitter, it swiftly became the crisis du jour, serving up a reputational mess for the chain.

To its credit, Papa Johns was quick to respond. It sacked the offending employee, posted an apology on its Facebook page, and responded individually to Twitter complaints. But just as things might have cooled, employees from the actual store were quoted about the incident. Their take was different from corporate’s.

One manager at the franchise complained that the brouhaha was “disruptive” to their business. Another defended the fired employee to Gothamist, explaining, “It’s a busy place, and it was a way to identify her and her order. We’ll write…’the guy in the green shirt.’”

Hmmm. How is “green shirt” like “lady chinky eyes”? Yet, even the franchise operations partner seemed to agree that the offense was minor, explaining that decorum and professionalism in minimum-wage jobs are hard to come by.

Problem is, he’s right. Just last month, Chick-Fil-A was roasted in the media when a California employee handed receipts to two Asian customers which identified them as “Ching” and “Chong.” And a notation on a Pizza Hut receipt given to an African-American customer sparked a lawsuit. The offensive receipt reports are such that Gawker has invited its readers to send copies of horrible receipts or stories of “casual racism” at QSRs.

So, this may be just a slice of an ugly trend. And it’s a reminder to all retail companies that they are ultimately responsible for employee behavior, and that they must own the damage control measures for any breach of service, quality, or worse. Anyone can hire a bad apple. But when you can’t control your own brand communications well enough to issue a coherent, timely response to a problem, it’s a huge obstacle to reputation management.

Papa John’s needs to go one better than the apology. They, and their competitors, should institute mandatory cultural awareness training for all staff, insist that headquarters clear all media interviews, and impose harsh penalties on franchisees who don’t follow the rules. Anything less is a reputational threat and a recipe for bad PR.

Is CES On The Way Out?

When Microsoft announced that the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show would be its last, the news unleashed a spate of predictions about the largest technology conference on earth. Is CES in decline? Could the show that attracts 130,000 attendees, including most of the biggest names in tech, actually disappear? (Anyone else remember COMDEX?)

Columnists like Troy Wolverton makes the case that CES has peaked. Changes in the formerly seasonal product launch cycle, the importance of operating systems over hardware design, the fact that Apple long ago chose to sit out CES – all could point to a gradual downshift for the Vegas extravaganza, he claims.

Others point out that many of the gadgets unveiled in Las Vegas aren’t destined for success. And it’s true that blockbuster products shown at CES are often PR statements – examples of engineering prowess or trial balloon items designed to build buzz or elicit feedback. Many never will be “productized,” to use a verb that once made me cringe, but that, after countless CES’s, now rolls off my tongue as fluently as “OLED” or “Bellagio.”

Then there’s the annual Vegas pilgrimage itself, with its cruel post-holiday timing, long travel lines, and even longer hours for attendees. It’s truly the trip you love to hate. And, yes, I do remember COMDEX, the once-indomitable computer expo that faded away in 2004 after a few years of decline.

But, still. The show that used to be a haggle-fest for manufacturers and retailers over fourth-quarter wares is much more than just a gear-and-gadget gala. It’s about connections, both the human and the unwired kind. Networks and networking. In addition to the manufacturer-retail connection, it’s a hot spot for VCs looking for investments, resellers, engineers, importers, and job-switchers. There’s simply nowhere else on earth where you can make or renew as many contacts, take as many meetings, or broker as much business in the business that is technology.

And, unlike COMDEX, whose decline started when it limited media attendance, CES is about PR. As noted, where there’s cool stuff, there will be media. And there’s always cool stuff here. For many exhibitors, a big booth and impressive product line-up is a show of strength versus competitors. It’s bragging rights among frenemies who may even share offshore manufacturing facilities. A kind of muscle-flexing for geeks. Sure, there are companies, like Apple, and now, Microsoft, that are powerful enough to generate PR independent of the show, but they’re in the minority.

Ultimately, Microsoft’s retreat from Vegas may say more about the changing relevance of its own products and the twilight of the PC era than anything else. But whatever the case, I’m betting on CES for many, many years to come.

Pre-CES PR Musings

CES 2012. Already. We’ve seen it all, haven’t we?  What can CES possibly show us?

I’ll tell you one thing it will show us: a 55-inch OLED TV from LG. I can’t even get my head around that; I remember seeing a 12-inch OLED several years ago and being knocked out, thinking, oh, it will be YEARS before this technology can translate to a larger scale. Silly me. And in case you’re in the market for a TV that will take the place of your entire living room wall, Mitsubishi is showing a 92-inch LCD that was announced back in June.

Besides the TVs, there will be notebooks, cell phones, cameras, home automation options and really bad convention-center food.  In other news…

This is your last year to catch Microsoft at CES, and your first year to catch the PMA show, now part of the Vegas-in-January action.

CityCenter is still new enough to feel novel  and the fountains at Bellagio are still novel enough to feel mandatory.

As always, there will be celebrities (Justin Bieber! Snooki!  Dennis Rodman! Chicago will perform!) and the usual crop of invite-only parties and events.

Sony is having a “wedding” – yes, a real event in a Vegas wedding chapel – to celebrate the marriage of home theater and the internet (though I think that those two have been hitched for a while now, if you’ve been paying attention.)

There will be no-longer-top-secret code words thrown around, like Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich.

I think the introductions that will matter to most of us will be the tablets, and the apps.  Next week should bring a bumper crop of both, with some exciting features like increased speed, sharper screens and more location-based options.  I’m looking for improved battery life and feature-packed video streaming devices, myself.  There will be a “Mobile Apps Showdown” Thursday afternoon in the North Hall, and I’ll go on record as saying that I’ll probably buy half of the 10 winners, along with most CES attendees.  They’ll come in handy while waiting in line at McCarran.