SodaStream Enjoys PR Pop Before Super Bowl

I swore I wouldn’t pay attention to so-called “banned” Super Bowl ads ever again. The rejected-ad ploy has grown tired, as well as transparent, and it’s often pulled by brands who could never muster the price of a Super Bowl spot. After extramarital dating site Ashley Madison tried a PR intercept by claiming Fox banned its spot because of its business model, I threw in the towel on bogus-ad PR. (AdAge’s Ken Wheaton warned that he would “ban bans” in his coverage of Super Bowl, and who am I to disagree?)

But this year, DIY soda company SodaStream has made a splash – legitimately. Apparently it submitted a broadcast ad that was rejected for this year’s Super Bowl by CBS because it tweaks Big Soda – the guys who spend plenty on game day.

Unlike other smaller companies, SodaStream isn’t just posturing. It’s poured a large portion of its budget into national advertising and will run a Super Bowl commercial, although not the spot it intended.

What’s more, it was created by ad legend Alex Bogusky and is similar to spots the soda giants themselves have run against one another.

Too close? You decide. But as SodaStream president Yonah Lloyd put it in a recent interview, it knows how to turn lemons into lemonade…or, maybe lemon soda. The Israeli upstart is running the banned spot on other networks, and, of course, it’s posted on YouTube, where it’s already been viewed over 2 million times.

That’s a lot of bubbles. Three days before kickoff, the beverage brouhaha has generated more coverage than the original commercial ever would have.

You have to hand it to SodaStream. For a smaller company to get attention, it has to make waves. The Super Bowl rejection may be a PR ploy, but it’s on-brand and easy to swallow. After the tired stunts of years past, I call that refreshing.

PR Is Where You Find It!

In the last couple of days a cover letter from a student seeking an internship with a Wall Street firm has caught the eye of the media as well as other companies, notably Smith & Wollensky, which expressed interest in hiring the note’s author via a full-page ad in The New York Times.

What makes the note special is the particularly self-deprecating and refreshingly honest appraisal of the applicant’s lack of “unbelievably special skills or genius eccentricities.”

I, for one, am on pins and needles to see where this sought-after prospect finally ends up – slicing steak or crunching numbers?

What makes the story special to PR pros, though, is the brilliant way Smith & Wollensky leveraged the intern’s mention of the landmark New York City restaurant. In the note, the author begins by reminding his would-be employer that they “met the summer before last at Smith & Wollensky’s.”

I imagine that this mere mention in the note stirred creative brilliance in a PR person connected to Smith & Wollensky and an entire campaign was born predicated on the restaurant’s eagerness to hire smart and interesting employees. The ad appeared followed by an avalanche of good PR in places like Forbes and MSN.

There’s a great lesson here for all practitioners – PR is where you find it; more precisely, it’s where you look for it, and we should always be looking for it!

As you consume content in its various online and traditional forms, be on the lookout for ways to weave your client’s story into something entering the zeitgeist. Not a force-fit, but something that organically makes sense for your client to become an interesting spin to an existing story, or to take off in an entirely new direction.

You may not have this Smith & Wollensky-type story fall in your lap, but if you’re looking for it, you should be able to find opportunities that work for clients.
Any great examples? Let us know here.

Why Subway’s Apology PR Fell Short

Maybe because I’m reading John Kenney’s excellent novel, Truth in Advertising, I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity in brand marketing and public relations. It’s one of those things that we take for granted when present, but that can be a time bomb when absent.

Yet, when I first heard about the lawsuits served up against Subway for misrepresenting its footlong sandwich, they seemed pretty half-baked. One complaint calculates that by shorting customers as much as an inch over a period of years, Subway has amassed $142 million in deceptively earned revenues.

Another asks for $5 million in damages for a loyal customer due to false advertising. That’s a lot of dough.

Who takes these seriously? Is it a plot cooked up by Quiznos?

More likely, it’s the law firm that wants to make a reputation for itself by building a class-action case over a truth-in-advertising issue that could be widely applicable. The firm had someone test the footlong sandwiches in 17 Subway restaurants, and all were a half-inch or a full inch smaller than the requisite 12 inches.

It started when a customer’s Facebook post went viral, after others started to measure their sandwiches and found them lacking. The heat was on. Smelling an investigative story, The New York Post ran with its own inquiry into the “subway scandal.”

So there’s a real issue here, no matter how you slice it. Size matters, and so does truth in advertising. But where Subway really fell short, with pun intended, was in its initial response to the feeding frenzy. It claimed that “footlong” is simply a generic name, not to be taken literally.

Really? Hard to swallow, because Subway has based its marketing on the length of the footlong sandwich from the product’s launch. It even sued a convenience chain who used the term, rejecting their argument that it’s a “generic” name.

Subway quickly changed course, blaming inconsistencies in the dough kneading, rising, and baking process for the difference in sandwich size. Kind of like “contents may settle during shipping.” It’s a more palatable explanation, but it still doesn’t measure up. When customers feel cheated, they want to know what you will do about it. Sometimes a simple apology, coupled with a pledge to make it right, will suffice. In a classic case of too little, too late, the chain botched its response, prolonging the food fight.
On Thursday Subway finally released a statement of apology for the substandard subs, pledging to work harder to hit the 12-inch size and achieve sandwich uniformity. And, no doubt, customers will hold them to it.

It’s Award Season – Even In PR

by guest blogger George Drucker

We’re getting into awards season. . . in film, television, even public relations. It reminds me of a learning from years ago that has affected my modus operandi for business development and client relations ever since.

Winning awards for creativity is great for the ego. But it’s not necessarily what clients want. At least, it’s not everything.

I will never forget my shock and surprise when Tom Harris – of Golin/Harris fame – published the first of his client surveys of perceptions, wants, needs, and  interests in hiring and retaining outside public relations firms.

Through the years, I had the good fortune to win several PR Awards for creative programs and implementation, from PRSA Silver Anvil to CIPRAs, Golden Apples, Golden Trumpets and everything in between. I thought creativity ruled, that original thinking, tactical implementation and creative results were what impressed and motivated clients to hire and retain their agencies.

It came as an eye-opener to me that, according to Tom’s first study, the #1 priority for clients is actually SERVICE. No matter how you sliced and diced the data, responsiveness and service level were the most important factors in prospect and ongoing client decision making. Out of Tom’s “Top 10 Needs” for clients, creativity ranked #9. It was a factor–but not a vitally important one.

His ongoing surveys through the years have borne this out, and it certainly changed my perspective. Creative product is very important, but not at the expense of client service.

Whether you’re an agency working with corporate communications or marketing departments, or an internal PR function whose “clients” are inside the company, keep in mind that returning phone calls promptly, anticipating client needs, and essentially crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s might be among the most important things you do.

When you can combine that service ethic and flawless execution with inventive thinking and a creative package, you’re running on all cylinders. But start with the basics, and show your clients where your values lie.

Armstrong Interview Is A Winner for Oprah

Lance Armstrong’s much-touted one-on-one confessional with Oprah, broadcast last Thursday and Friday on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), was a winning performance. Not for Armstrong; for him, the road ahead seems very rocky.

But for Oprah and her namesake network, the sitdown was a breakout accomplishment. You could practically hear the sound of millions of U.S. television remotes searching the upper tiers for the OWN channel. The network reports that tune-in reached 3.2 million viewers for the first night’s interview, followed by an additional million for the repeated airing immediately afterward. Those ratings were topped only by the network’s interview with Whitney Houston’s family following her death last spring.

At last, OWN seems to be gaining momentum.

Oprah’s coup wasn’t just in the “get,” – though it was huge – or even in the ratings. She was widely credited with a skillful interview that stripped away the nonessentials and exposed the ugly lie of Lance Armstrong’s public image. We viewers simply had to sit back and watch it happen, train-wreck style.

Many within the journalist chattering class had set low expectations for Oprah’s session. Some predicted a soft approach like her empathetic on-air treatment of disgraced sprinter Marion Jones; others thought she couldn’t master the political intricacies of the doping investigation.

But Oprah brought it. She led off with a series of yes-or-no questions that established the scope of Armstrong’s doping with quiet drama. Even better, she kept the pressure on, gently, but with a welcome focus not just on Armstrong’s drug use, but on his repeated denials, and his combative moves to litigate against anyone who spoke the truth. My favorite part was her response to his weak attempt at humor.

When Armstrong shared that, yes, he’d tried to ruin Betsy Andreu, calling her “crazy,” and “a bitch,” but “never called her fat,” Oprah leveled him with a flinty gaze. Silence. The joke fell flat.

It’s hard to know what’s next for Lance Armstrong and his brand, but brand Oprah was definitely juiced by the moment. Here’s hoping it can pick up speed in the months ahead.

Why Boring Isn’t Always Bad

It’s probably fair to say that in today’s plugged-in, social world, our boredom threshold is very low. I know even waiting at Starbucks for a few minutes can induce severe ennui. There are some current theories though, that suggest a little boredom is good for everyone. Here is why.

First, the researchers had to come up with the most succinct definition of boredom: [the experience of] “wanting to, but being unable to engage in satisfying activity.” Thankfully this differs from apathy, where the subject has no urge to do anything, or depression, in which people see their inability to engage as a problem with themselves, not their surroundings.

Glad we cleared that up! Now here is the interesting part about how to harness boredom for something good.

It has been said that “boredom is the brain’s way to tell you you should be doing something else.” Therefore, if you can’t seem to get a “boring” report written without glancing at your iPhone or Facebook every five minutes – take five minutes to do just that and then go back to the task at hand. Better still, the experts say, clear your head entirely, or “reboot” before revisiting the situation.

If you are bored with one “to-do” on your list and can creatively steer that energy to something you enjoy more, do that! Then clear the decks again and go back to “eat that frog” the Mark Twainism co-opted by business folk and interpreted as that most onerous job one has each day.

Finally, researchers also suggest that boredom can serve as a great portal to creativity. Try this: the next time you find yourself less than stimulated by what you are doing – see where your mind-wandering takes you, but capture it (take notes, send yourself a text) whatever you need to do to see if you did in fact hatch a big idea while head-nodding at your desk.

If you were not too bored by this post, let us know some of the ways you prevent (or use boredom.)

What I Learned About PR From Dan Edelman

When I heard the news that Dan Edelman, founder of the eponymous public relations firm, had passed away at 92, I was stunned. Then I asked myself why. After all, 92 isn’t young, and I’d heard from former associates that Dan had been in poor health. Sad, yes, but why was it so shocking?

If you knew Dan, you’d understand. He was such a colorful and vigorous character, and so dominant during the time I worked at Edelman New York, that I suppose I thought he’d live forever. And in a way, he will. His legacy is huge.

I was at Edelman for five years in the nineties – more than a pit stop, maybe, but less than a career. To be truthful, I had my difficulties with Dan, and no doubt things have changed enormously since that slice of time in the agency’s history. But I was proud to have worked there and became a better PR professional for it. I learned a lot from Dan Edelman, both directly and through his son Richard. And at least one lesson has stayed with me all these years.

Hire smart people

During one of Dan’s New York visits he gathered us in the conference room and exhorted us to “hire smart people.” He shouted it like a football coach at halftime until the colleague next to me in the packed room rolled his eyes and murmured sardonically, “Good thing he didn’t see our ‘Dummies Wanted’ ad.”  We giggled, but as an example, Dan mentioned a recent D.C. office hire, a rising young public affairs star named Leslie Dach. “He’s so bright we didn’t know what to do with him,” explained Dan. “But we knew we had to hire him and figure it out.” That was a classic Edelman move that I saw repeated over and over. Hire smart people and figure out the job later.

It seems basic, but talent is not just the most important thing in a creative service business, it’s the only thing. And now I think that what Dan was really saying that day was this: Take a risk. Don’t be afraid to bring in someone who’s smarter, better, more talented, or more aggressive than you. In fact, make that your mission.

I’ve reflected on the “hire smart people” mantra quite a bit since then, and it’s not as self-evident as it seems. In fact, in those nearly 20 years, I’ve worked and partnered with some truly excellent and talented PR professionals and savvy managers who couldn’t quite bring themselves to follow Dan’s advice. Either they didn’t try hard enough, or they felt threatened, or they thought they couldn’t afford it, or they simply wouldn’t risk it.

But it pays to have high standards and to push the boundaries of your comfort zone. Recruiting is only one example, but it’s a big one. Rather than hiring to fill a box in an org chart, Dan and Richard would often seek out the best and the brightest and shape a role for them. It didn’t always work out, but when it did, it was spectacular.

And risk-taking has its own rewards. In an industry of client-pleasers and behind-the-scenes types, Richard Edelman was one of a handful of CEOs who believed fervently that the greatest threat to business was the status quo. Like Dan, he pushed relentlessly to open ever more offices, establish up-and-coming practice areas, expand at breakneck speed, and basically shake things up to avoid stagnation or complacency. It was tough, but the results speak for themselves.

It’s that simple. And that difficult. Hire smart people. Thanks, Dan.

The Hellfire And Damnation School Of Journalism

Confession: I am a word nerd. I read incessantly. I love Scrabble, the Times crossword and Words with Friends. When I’m bored, I anagram, just for fun.

Therefore, I’m always on the lookout and (listenout?) for great turns of phrase and colorful language, particularly when there’s evidence of a trend afoot. I noticed just such a microtrend in some interesting news coverage of late. I call it #helltrending. Read on for some proof.

Barely a week ago, Atlantic Monthly published a scathing account of the current state of US banks. In this terrifically well-reported piece, author Frank Partnoy variously refers to banking ills with the following fiery language, like “dry rot”; “toxic legacies”; “inferno”; and “Dante’s descent into Hell.”

Jon Stewart added to the “heated” conversation venting at AIG and HSBC and accusing AIG of bringing the world to the “brink of Armageddon.”

In the same vein, earlier this week CBS’ Scott Pelley interviewed U.S. Anti-Doping Agency head, Travis Tygart regarding reports that disgraced former cycling champ Lance Armstrong tried to make a donation to the agency when it appeared his carefully constructed anti-doping façade was beginning to crumble. In discussing blood test results now coming to light, Tygart labeled them “flaming positive” and said teammates feared that if they told the truth, Armstrong would “incinerate them.”

Ouch! What can we take from the use of all this passionate, burning language? Our recent close encounter with the Mayans? The fact that 2012 was the hottest year on record? You decide!

AIG Avoids PR Disaster, But Barely

It seemed like a joke. AIG, the poster child for the greed, profligacy, and fiscal incompetence that helped trigger the 2008 financial meltdown, announced it would consider suing the U.S. government over the terms of its $182 billion rescue.

This, just a week after the company launched a pricey ad campaign trumpeting its turnaround and thanking America for the controversial bailout. The tagline, “Thank you, America,” was the creative flourish for the unveiling of the “new” AIG – if not kinder and gentler, then at least more restrained, fiscally healthier, and more professional.

The truth is a little more complicated than the optics. AIG’s Board was obligated to weigh the merits of joining ex-Chairman Hank Greenberg’s suit, which complains that the bailout cost shareholders billions of dollars and constituted a violation of 5th Amendment, which prohibits the taking of private property for public use “without just compensation.” The Board’s duty was to consider the move as a possible benefit to shareholders, but this is a clear case of corporate governance clashing with sensible reputation management.

AIG tried to explain its position through behind-the-scenes experts in a nuanced article in the New York Times. In other accounts, Chief Executive Robert H. Benmosche pointed out the board’s “fiduciary and legal obligations” to weigh the merits of joining the suit and signaled that it would decide by month’s end.

But the mere suggestion that AIG might turn around and slap American taxpayers with a fat lawsuit for saving its bacon sparked a furious backlash. PR and reputation experts excoriated the statement. Some shareholders publicly threatened to dump the stock. In a letter, legislators advised the board Chairman on Tuesday against the move in very blunt terms. “Don’t even think about it,” it said.

AIG did think about it, but not for very long. The outrage was so vehement that it quickly announced its decision not to join the suit. It took a little over 24 hours for millions of dollars of reputation advertising and public outreach to be undone by bad timing, a clumsy strategy and underwritten statement.

Logo Logic

There have been many logo debacles over the last few years. One of the more recent and notable uproars occurred within the University of California statewide system.  UC officials decided to change its look after 144 years by “quietly” unveiling a new logo this past November. As casual as that may sound to some, it was in no way a small change that went unnoticed.

After much student and public outcry, UC went back to the original logo and suspended further use of the new one, removing it wherever they could.

So what can your brand do to avoid a logo no-go?

If it ain’t broke…
How cliché.  But it’s the truth, sometimes modern and fresh can’t replace classic and beloved and you should stick with the traditional.  Remember what happened when Gap changed its logo?

Ask yourself why.
Why do you and others in the company think the logo needs to be changed?  Let your goals inform your plan of action. Is your company going in a new direction? Or has the look simply become dated? Some situations may call for a small evolution of your original logo, rather than an overhaul.

Put your money where your mouth is.
A company’s logo is its visual representation, however small, and it’s often the public’s first impression.  A well designed brand image is critical and not something that “your old college friend the graphic freelancer” should undertake. It’s best to let the pros take the lead in developing one in partnership with marketing and other professionals within your company.

Look to your customers.
Consider setting up a focus group to learn more about your customers, what they think of your brand, what appeals to them, etc.  If it makes sense for your company, ask your social media followers to weigh in.  After all, these are some of the biggest supporters of your business and crowd-sourcing has become a viable way to vet VIP opinion.

Don’t stop there.
Chances are, if you’re considering a logo change you should also consider taking another look at your brand strategy.  Has your overall objective changed over the course of time?  Rebranding efforts don’t start and end with a new logo!

Any new logos you love… or loathe? Let us know in the comments section.