PR Lessons From The 2012 Campaign

Since the primaries began, I’ve been thinking about the PR strategies we’ve witnessed so far during this election season. On the surface, campaign PR doesn’t offer many similarities to corporate and brand communications. After all, it tends to be more localized, more combative, and, recently, shockingly negative. Yet, campaign 2012, as well as the ones that preceded it, holds learnings for PR pros.

Narrative trumps policy. Many believe Barack Obama was able to win in 2008 because his narrative of hope and change was more compelling than John McCain’s warnings about a dangerous world and the need for experience at the helm. An inspiring story is worth a thousand policy statements. For my money, Herman Cain was the master of narrative (while he lasted), with Rick Santorum trying hard to weave a strong story of his own. Marketing and corporate PR professionals are increasingly harnessing the power of storytelling for our clients. Whether a product, corporation, entertainer, or service, we need to take our audience on a “hero’s journey” through challenges and changes to arrive at a new destination.

Speed counts. No one’s more conscious of this than a political operative. With pundits parsing every word and opposition specialists ready to pounce, a rapid response machine is a critical survival skill. We’ve seen how a small slip, poor turn of phrase, or slow reaction can lose the news cycle for days. (See: Mitt Romney, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”) Brand PR pros can learn from the typical “war room” setup pioneered by James Carville. When hit with the unexpected, respond early and respond often.

Mobilize allies and advocates. Using friends and third-party allies to evangelize is a classic PR strategy, but campaign pros probably do it better than anyone. The late Michael Deaver set the bar when he created a “message of the day” strategy for the Reagan White House, which literally had every level of representatives saying the same thing. Message consistency is more important than ever in today’s fragmented media environment. Here, Romney holds the advantage, as local governors and representatives have increasingly fallen in line for the candidate.

Keep it simple. Have we forgotten “It’s the economy, stupid?” Or Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” tax proposal? The reality is often complicated, but no one wants to hear it. We see this often in technology PR, where engineers and product specialists can get caught up in the back-end explanation of product superiority. Don’t try to explain the technology, detail the solutions, or list all the features. Just tell me why it’s awesome.

Authenticity counts. Politics is about real people, and no amount of packaging, prettifying, or spin can hide the individual’s true essence. Romney runs into trouble when he tries to act like a regular guy, because he’s simply not. That’s why his best moment may have been the Florida debate, where, helped by a new coach, he forcefully defended his wealth and success. The best positioning nearly always builds on what’s real.

For PR pros, the best is yet to be. The final match-up is bound to offer more communications lessons for all of us.

Savvy PR Spokesperson Selection

In PR we are often called upon to help a client find a third-party expert to get its message to the masses. It is the agency’s task to define the spokesperson role, vet candidates and negotiate terms of an agreement. We like to follow 3 “golden rules” of savvy spokesperson selection to ensure success.

Fit like a glove (or very close) We look for spokespeople who have an authentic connection to the product or service being pitched. For example, in securing a spokesperson for a weight loss product, the assignment called for an expert who was not only well-versed in “diet-speak” but actually needed to trim down. We also ask ourselves if the person appeals to the demographic and is a “believer” in the product or service.

Credentials are key In today’s competitive media market, a spokesperson who perfectly aligns with your client’s product or service is not enough to effectively spread the word. We look for sought-after spokespeople who are interviewed often, who have their own media contacts and their own creative ideas for TV segments and print pieces. It also helps bolster credibility if the spokesperson has penned any previous articles or written a book or blog on the subject.

(Many happy) Returns on the Investment Investigate all fees associated with the spokesperson agreement so there are no surprises. For example, most contracted spokespeople have a “day rate” for working days and a lesser rate for travel days. These often include expected incidentals such as meals, but can also include some that require finessing such as the spokesperson that wanted their child care paid for. Experienced spokespeople will charge for hair and make-up and transportation which may really tax a budget unless you are prepared.

What else do you look for when securing a spokesperson?

They’d Like to Thank the Academy – Oscar PR Hijacks!

Leveraging the Academy Awards to steal thunder for some Hollywood project or another is a longstanding PR tradition.
It’s playing out now as Sacha Baron Cohen, master of on-camera disguise (and, some would say, disgust!) has been banned from attending as his latest character, “The Dictator.” The Academy feels he might “violate the sanctity” of an event that regards itself as a celebration of film-making, not an example of crass commercialism. You’d think the savvy strategists behind this most PR-able of events would realize that the minute they “banned” Baron Cohen, his publicity quotient shot sky-high!

The movie industry isn’t exactly shy about self-promotion. The Academy Awards began as a way to generate press coverage for the movies and stars of the day. Well-orchestrated PR campaigns designed to get people into theaters have helped many films’ box office success.

In fact, The Blair Witch Project was not nominated for an Academy Award when it came out in 1999, but that didn’t stop it from receiving major press and setting the standard for today’s scary movies made from “found footage.” Producers intimated that the thriller’s documentary style was authentic. They even listed the film’s lead actors (the supposed filmmakers) as “missing, presumed dead” on the fledgling IMDB. The film cost just $35,000 to make but pulled in more than $248 million worldwide.

Another recent showbiz PR stunt is The Golden Collar Awards. You’ve never heard of the prestigious honor? It’s important this year because one of the stars of Best Picture favorite “The Artist” won the coveted prize, adding to the film’s media momentum. Uggie, (“You-gie”) the canine cutie from the film, beat out other nominees — Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a hand puppet, and Antonio Banderas on behalf Puss in Boots, an animated cat. The “losers” then staged a “protest” which only added to the hype.

Keep your eyes peeled this Awards weekend; there may be more highjinks to come!

7 (More) Myths About PR And Publicity

Describing exactly what PR is and what public relations people do has always been a challenge, even to those of us who work in it. Just ask the Public Relations Society of America, which is concluding a lengthy search for the perfect “modern definition” of what we do.

Like many professions, it’s changed, grown, and become far more specialized in recent years. But myths and false stereotypes abound. I’ve written about the most persistent ones here, like the confusion between PR and publicity, or the suggestion that PR is advertising “lite.” But, there’s more! Here’s a short list of my current favorites.

Any press is good press. In the age of reality TV, this is one myth that’s less ridiculous than it used to be. It may even hold true if you’re Snooki or Kim Kardashian. But probably not. Risky stunts or tasteless tweets can be costly. More to the point, negative publicity is much more challenging to manage today. The Web is forever, so that unguarded quote or nasty headline can do lasting reputation damage.

PR is all about contacts. Not really. Contacts are overrated. They can help you gain a hearing, and generate valuable feedback on a story idea or pitch, but contacts alone won’t get you very far unless the idea’s a good one.

Startups shouldn’t hire PR consultants. This is a topic of raging controversy in PR-land. Some larger-than-life entrepreneurs have gone on the record against the use of professional PR by start-ups. Most recently, Mark Cuban explained that reporters just want to talk to a business owner, without interference from PR types. And in Cuban’s case, that’s probably true. Problem is, most new entrepreneurs aren’t Mark Cuban.

Journalists hate PR. The reality here is, well, complicated. Suffice to say that the PR-journalism relationship is a symbiotic, cooperative, and often collegial one, but there can be tensions. At present, many journos are trying to get jobs in PR, which may have calmed the waters, just as it’s reinforced another stereotype. (see below)

The best PR people are ex-journalists. This one’s open to debate. In my view the best PR people are strategic thinkers and excellent communicators who understand business, but who are plugged into trends, culture, and media. So, many journalists may qualify. Yet the difference between running down stories in a newsroom and counseling a corporate client are vast.

A good story will sell itself. Sure, that can happen. And sometimes the perfect resume crosses my desk at the very moment I have the right job opening. But not very often.  Packaging, access, and – maybe most importantly, timing – can make the critical difference between publicity success and failure.

PR is about controlling the message. The spin thing is hugely overblown, and PR people do ourselves a disservice when we perpetuate it. Often a PR pro will try to influence a story on behalf of a client, and the process can be like a negotiation, but the outcome is a trade-off. We give up control for credibility. And that credibility is the real magic of publicity.

Unwinding For The Long Weekend

If you are planning to rest and de-stress over this long weekend, why not make it a goal to catch up on all the good entertainment you might have missed working long hours at a busy job like public relations!

Here is our list of media musts to savor and enjoy over the next three days.

TV Go to Netflix or Showtime on Demand, upload the entire season of “Homeland,”  the drama/thriller about a returning American soldier who may not be who he appears and the slightly unstable yet brilliant CIA agent with suspicions. Prepare to be blown away by expert writing, compelling acting and twists and turns that will keep you mesmerized until the last minute. Then, be very patient until the next season begins months from now.

Film If you haven’t seen everything that is nominated for this year’s Academy Awards, time is running out. While not a big blockbuster year, there were some “quiet” films that really resonated. And, yes I am talking about the silent film, “The Artist.” The first fifteen minutes require an adjustment to a film without human voices but the acting, costumes, art direction, dancing and poignant story will grab you and keep you until the last frame. Even if you don’t fall in love with the film, fall in love with the canine co-star.

Books The cornucopia of good reading boggles the mind! If you’re looking to be on the edge of your seat the entire weekend, you won’t be disappointed with Stephen King’s “11/22/63.” For biography lovers, of course read Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs.” Looking to get that extra edge in business?   Why not learn how to grow your career like a Silicon Valley billionaire with LinkedIn Cofounder and Chairman Reid Hoffman’s “The Start up of You.”

Music The Grammys celebrated much of the best of 2011 music from Adele to the Foo Fighters. Why not use this downtime to explore something from each category such as Louis CK’s comedy album, “Hilarious” or Tony Bennett’s “Duets II.”  For a real treat, download the award-winning soundtrack to “Book of Mormon.”

We want to know what you consider the best of the best in recent media memory. Share here!

Goldman Sachs CEO Embraces Marriage Equality: A Good PR Move?

The Human Rights Campaign’s push for marriage equality follows the PR-savvy methods of similar campaigns, like the It Gets Better project. Boldfaced names from politics, sports, and entertainment star in video testimonials to express support for the right to marry, regardless of gender. The latest videos feature Anna Wintour, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and Lloyd Blankfein.

That’s right, Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO and Chairman, has publicly embraced a hot-button social issue that, on the surface, has little to do with Goldman’s business. He is, in fact, the first national corporate spokesperson for marriage equality.
It’s an unusual position, particularly for a financial executive. For every Howard Schultz, there are probably a thousand public-company CEOs who shun controversy at all costs. Particularly in today’s polarized political climate, keeping your head down is good risk management.

Or is it? Many have speculated that Blankfein’s position is a PR strategy. But what’s the goal? To humanize the great and terrible “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”? Maybe he was advised to embrace marriage equality because it’s a safe bet, being practically a fait accompli. Or, as Matt Taibbi, the guy who birthed the “vampire squid” meme, writes, perhaps it’s Goldman’s plan to seduce liberals by embracing a socially progressive cause that is risk-free and “utterly inexpensive.” Could it also be the equivalent of Newt Gingrich’s moon colony — a clever distraction from darker and more complicated issues?

All are possible, of course. But if it’s a PR ploy, it’s an odd choice of issue. And according to news reports, Blankfein is a longtime supporter of gay rights who agreed to the HRC gig after being approached by a Goldman employee who’s engaged in the issue.

I’m as cynical as the next person, but, to me, the whole thing has the earmarks of personal conviction. Not because Blankfein is a good guy or a social progressive (though he may or may not be either), but because he’s a shrewd judge of talent and also serves as Goldman’s Recruiter-in-Chief.  Blankfein is a businessman above all, and what he and his company value over all things is the storied, performance-driven Goldman culture. So, for my money, it’s not really a PR play, but a move that coincides with Goldman’s own interests, and that probably has the additional benefit of being authentic. Imagine that.

Maybe, just maybe, Blankfein wants to send a message that performance is sex-blind, and that non-discrimination is simply good business.

TGIF: @#$% That Clients Say

This week New York Magazine reported on the “most- and least-critically acclaimed “@#$% People Say” videos on YouTube. Apparently, the category for things that “girls” say has the highest number of “likes.”

Well, if you’re in the PR industry, I think you might find some of the choice comments made by your clients would earn more “likes,” or at least some curiosity. Here are a few of our favorites:

1.  “So, this will make CNN, right?”

2.  “I love the idea, but it needs something. I’m not sure what, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

3.  “I’m looking for a firm to grow with me.”

4.  “Can you resend that again?”

5.  “I need a press release to drive lots of traffic to the website.”

6.  “Don’t write a program. Just give me an idea of how you’d approach it.”

7.  “Budget? There’s no budget. But for the right idea, we’ll try to find it.”

8.  “I need to double my Facebook followers by next month.”

9.  “Did you tell the reporter we advertise with them?”

10. “Steve Jobs was on the cover of TIME.  Can we get our CEO there?”

And the list goes on and on… What are your favorites?

How To Recharge Your (Client) Relationship

If agency searches are a lot like dating, then long-term client relationships can be a little like marriage. The best are based on mutual trust and transparency, with some occasional renegotiation along the way.

But what if the relationship has gotten a little… humdrum? Worse, you’re taking each other for granted (which may be fine for the client, but it obviously spells danger for any agency or consultant.)

In honor of Valentine’s Day, here are some practical ways to refresh your mutual attraction and spice up the client relationship.

Shake things up. Continuity is a beautiful thing, but don’t get into a rut. Consider swapping out a staff member, or just inviting fresh eyes onto your latest program or idea. New blood can serve two goals; it injects new thinking into your programs and offers new opportunities to staff.

Listen. Like a longstanding couple, we can sometimes stop hearing what a client’s really saying…or, in some cases, what they aren’t communicating. Internal pressures, corporate shifts, personal issues – all can influence an ongoing partnership. If you sense a change in the relationship, schedule a check-in meeting.

Start over. Just for a day. One of my favorite strategies is to throw everything out (mentally) and pretend to be pitching the business for the first time. Invite the client to participate. Sometimes it helps to forget what you think you know.

Embrace planned spontaneity. Set a goal of delivering a new idea or suggestion every two weeks, for example. Let different team members be the messengers. Make things seem spontaneous, but write it into your plans so it happens regularly, without fail.

Mix it up. Do you always email a memo attachment with thoughts and ideas? Pick up the phone instead. (I remember a client praising a young PR rockstar’s habit of calling her with new ideas, as if she just couldn’t stop thinking about their business.) Or pitch your idea over a breakfast meeting, or invite the team over for a whiteboard session. Small changes can have a ripple effect.

Be there. Invite yourself to the client’s office if possible and wander the halls. You always learn something.

Spend time together. Yes, there’s that quality time thing. Go to lunch, dinner, or drinks. Attend a conference together. Go hear an inspirational speaker or just see a show. It does double duty by enabling easy interaction while also giving you a shared experience or stimulating new thoughts.


Can Komen Recover From Its PR Disaster?

Susan G. Komen For the Cure, the force behind the ubiquitous pink breast-cancer ribbon, had a lot of people seeing red this week. After withering social criticism and fierce pressure from influentials, Komen reversed its controversial decision to defund Planned Parenthood. But a formidable symbol of grassroots activism built over 30 years has taken a beating. What happened? Can Komen recover?

Maybe because it comes on the heels of the SOPA defeat, PR and crisis experts are calling the Komen-Planned Parenthood bloodbath a victory for the social Web. I don’t think so. Sure, Facebook and Twitter helped accelerate the outrage cycle on both sides. But, this crisis isn’t fundamentally about social media. It’s not even about politics, though our polarized culture has seeped into the public dialogue.

It’s about complacency. Mission drift. And poor communications, of course. The upshot of all the sound and fury is a breach of trust by an extraordinarily powerful brand.

As the largest network of breast cancer survivors and activists, the Komen organization has been the 800-pound gorilla of social marketing and a fundraising powerhouse. Its mission – a world without breast cancer – and the personal story behind it, is brilliant in its simplicity and fervor.

But somewhere along the line, Komen lost sight of the finish line. Its trademarking of the word “cure” and large spend on marketing and promotion (as opposed to research), raised questions about priorities. It tried to keep other anti-cancer groups from using the color pink. It became a bit of a bully. And, who can forget Buckets for the Cure?

But with its recent self-inflicted troubles, it seems that Komen took the vast pink army it mobilized for granted. Now, that army has turned on it.

And in PR terms, Komen erred in several very basic ways. Its apology is likely to infuriate pro-life advocates who welcomed the Planned Parenthood defunding, while not fully convincing original advocates that it’s sincere. It’s a lose-lose. To recover its own brand health, it needs to return to its roots, and to recommit to the fundamentals of public and constituent communications, as follows.

The mission is the message. No organization that relies on individual and corporate donations can afford to politicize a fundamentally non-political, non-partisan mission. Whatever its true reason for changing funding guidelines (and it now seems clear it saw Planned Parenthood as a drag on fundraising), it had to know that it was a risky move.

Transparency is critical. Komen’s fundamental strategic error was compounded by a lack of planning and poor communications. First, it tied the funding change to a new policy to withhold grants to organizations “under investigation.” When that triggered indignant questions about a double standard, the story shifted to one about direct support for screening clinics rather than referrers. Nothing kills credibility like a changing narrative.

Stand together. Preferably, armed with the truth. CEO Nancy Brinker was swiftly contradicted by a Board member who publicly linked the change to a plan to drop Planned Parenthood. The resignation of a senior Komen executive was seen as protest, and no one was prepared to challenge, or even respond, to the stories. It’s hard enough to fight antagonists. But when you’re fighting your own people, it’s nearly impossible.

Speak from the heart. Though Brinker tried to focus her talking points on tighter standards for outcomes, she was clearly unprepared for the cynical reaction to the move. Breast cancer, women’s health, income inequality, reproductive rights, – all are highly charged issues, yet Brinker’s video response came off a bit as defensive policy-speak that sidestepped the questions about motives.

Rally your advocates. The juggernaut that inspired so much loyalty seemed sadly alone as it faced the swirl of questions around its decision. The low point was Brinker’s interview with a clearly infuriated Andrea Mitchell, herself a cancer survivor and one-time Komen supporter.

Where does Komen go from here? Though its apology was welcomed by many who had angrily protested the change, Komen’s carefully worded statement isn’t strong enough to restore the trust of its supporters. The reversal is an obvious response to public pressure, and it’s hard to tell if Komen will truly restore the previous Planned Parenthood relationship.

To recover, Komen needs to refocus on its real enemy – cancer. It has confused fundraising prowess with success. It doesn’t need to be the biggest, the strongest, or even the pinkest. It simply needs to recommit to its original goal of protecting women’s health, while restoring confidence among corporate sponsors that their brands are once again safe with the pink ribbon.

What The NFL Can Teach PR Pros

The Super Bowl is this Sunday, and football is on everyone’s mind.  Whether you’re a Patriots fan, Giants fan, or don’t even know what a field goal is, chances are you‘ll be watching this weekend.  Sports can teach us a lot about life in the PR world.  Here are just a few of the reasons why.
Study the Film

NFL teams spend an incredible amount of time studying their opponents, watching film and learning exactly what to expect in any situation.  This kind of competitor analysis is needed in PR as well.  Clients want to know where the competition is gaining exposure, and you need to know exactly what’s happening in that industry.

It Takes 53 Men to Win the Super Bowl

You can’t win a game with one player.  The quarterback needs a strong line blocking for him, reliable receivers, and an aggressive defense.  The same goes for a PR team.  Whether you’re the account supervisor, responsible for media relations, social media, or monitoring, every role is essential to getting the job done, and accountability is necessary.

Putting in the time

Tom Brady and Eli Manning didn’t just wake up one day and decide to become world class athletes.  It takes a life time of hard work, studying, and practice.  The same is necessary for PR pros (most won’t be able to successfully pitch The New York Times on their first day as an intern.)  Experience means everything in this industry and without putting the necessary time in you’ll never get the results you’re looking for.

Coaching is everything

Every office environment needs structure.  While the structure of a PR agency may not be as rigid as that of an NFL organization, the concept is similar.  It starts from the top with the head coach or CEO providing guidance and making personnel decisions, and trickles down, with everyone knowing their own responsibilities and where they fit in.
What other lessons could we learn from the NFL? And most importantly, who’s your pick for Sunday?