Lost in Translation? What a Client Says/What it Really Means

At our New York PR agency, we sometimes wish for some kind of client translation software to confirm that what we heard is what was actually meant. For example, we’re working on a proposal for a prospective client who told us, “don’t work too hard on it, we just want to see some sample ideas.”

Now, what does that really mean? If we offer a single page of “thought-starters,” will that suffice? Or is it like when a hostess says “no gifts” and everyone but you ignores her request and actually brings something?

With that in mind, have a look at some actual client comments and our “translations.”

“I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.” What it usually really means is “I have no idea what I want and I probably won’t like what you do.” Seasoned PR pros may also infer, “and I will tear apart everything you ever present.” Try to get more direction, preferably in writing, and proceed with caution.

“I’m just a start-up, I can’t afford much now, but as we grow, we will increase our budgets.” Often said by prospects and clients who are trying to win your sympathy so that you will charge less. But, services have a price. Would they dine in a restaurant and expect to pay less because they’re a newer company?

The close relative of this comment: “We have no budget in mind, you tell us.” This usually translates as we have “no budget,” period, and want some work on the cheap. The smartest move is to set your minimum retainer in a meeting ahead of preparing a detailed proposal so as not to surprise the recipient and take you nowhere.

“My nephew/wife/friend does PR.” This may be a set-up for all kinds of critiques of your work by someone who perhaps did local PR for the PTA (not that there is anything wrong with that) but telling you about this other relationship may act as subterfuge and undermine everything from your fee to your writing and your campaign results.

“I absolutely must have this by 4:00 p.m.” This statement is usually made at 3:00 p.m. by a client with less than perfect planning skills. And if you’re good at your job, the client knows they can count on you again and again to get them out of a jam. This is not a bad thing if it’s occasional and in the spirit of partnership; otherwise, think twice about setting and repeating the precedent.

“Let’s have a short meeting.” The sin of the meandering, unstructured meeting can be be committed by anyone, but you can prevent it! Take smart steps early in the relationship to use an agenda, Outlook calendar and other tools to structure meetings and get the most out of everyone’s time.

How Deadlines Motivate Us

Every day we make (and occasionally miss) our deadlines. Catch the train by 8:30am. Get to the bank before 5pm. Submit this blog post by…well, you get the point.

Today’s definition of a deadline is “the time by which something must be finished or submitted”, but it gets its name from an older and more sinister meaning. It used to be a boundary around a military prison beyond which a prisoner could not venture without risk of being shot by the guards. Scary. Think about that next time you face a proposal due by week’s end.

The advantage of deadlines is that they’re motivational. When you make the deadline, the feeling of achievement makes the next step or task that much easier. “Publicly committing to meeting a deadline is a powerful motivator because it puts your reputation on the line,” said Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. It’s much more difficult to procrastinate when someone else is watching the clock, and you!

Here are some tips to meet that ever looming deadline:

Start with specifics
When exactly is the deadline? Clarify whether “end of the week” means 5 p.m. Friday or first thing Friday morning. Be sure to nail down the tasks and the results. What is the client expecting? How will they measure your success/effectiveness?

Make a plan and start easy
Some of us thrive on the pressure of a last-minute scramble, but rushing at the 11th hour isn’t the best way to meet a deadline. It’s better to make a plan to take tasks head-on, starting with the easy stuff – the aspects you know you are quick wins. Make a commitment to do at least a little bit at a time on a consistent basis. Even if you take a break at a certain point, the task that awaits you isn’t nearly as daunting as it was before.

Don’t be fooled
Who hasn’t reached the point when the oh-so-far away cutoff is just around the corner, resulting in a mad dash under pressure? Far-off deadlines trick us into thinking that we have all the time in the world and convince us that we don’t need to start anytime soon. Ideally, you want to meet a deadline, not have a deadline meet you! When working against the clock, be sure to set shorter deadlines along the way to get manageable chunks of the work done and make a plan to complete the task in plenty of time.

Use tools
Set reminders everywhere. On your calendar. Create tasks in Outlook. Stick a Post-It on your computer in big bold writing. Creating a sense of urgency will keep your deadline top of mind and not pushed aside by distractions.

You never know what’s on the other side of that (dead) line!

Retractions And Reversals: Best And Worst of Apology PR

This week has brought a fresh wave of public mea culpas and backpedalings – plenty of fodder for self-anointed apology PR experts.

Most proactive is the ad campaign mounted by JC Penney after the failure of its everyday low price strategy and store makeovers of last year. The spot, which is narrated in a warm, intimate female voiceover, addresses shoppers directly, admitting in heartfelt tones that the company didn’t listen to its customers and pledging to restore the “old” Penney.  It also made savvy use of social media, spreading the message with #JCPlistens hashtag and rewarding customers who say they will come return to the brand. Will the campaign pay off? It’s too early to tell, but I think the call-to-action (“We heard you. Now we’d like to see you.”) is a winner.

Less effective, at least in the moment, was the statement from PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew brand when a desperately-trying-to-be-edgy video ad sent its viewers over the edge.  After the outpouring of criticism for the video’s perceived racist and misogynist content, the brand pulled it with the statement, “We’re sorry if anyone was offended.” No responsibility, no sincerity. The initial apology was, well, flat, and the entire episode tasteless.

To be fair, the explanation offered by the rap artist who produced the video, Tyler, the Creator (that’s with a capital “C”) gave important context for the ad, but his response, which was posted by his manager, was drowned out in the backlash. Mountain Dew seemed to realized that its own statement was just a drop in the apology bucket and that it needed to step up. It followed with a promoted tweet. “Hey, guys, we made a big mistake and have removed the offensive video,” even adding the hashtag #fail.

Both could take a tip from the most successful brand walkback to date. In February, after iconic bourbon Maker’s Mark announced it would manage scarce supply by reducing the alcohol content of its famous whiskey, fans and brand-watchers revolted. Pundits called it brand suicide. Maker’s Mark initially defended its decision, but it quickly reversed course. The result seems to have made drinkers appreciate their favorite whiskey even more. After a brief hoarding binge, Maker’s Mark loyalists have forgiven the label, and they’re back by the barrelful.

Some have speculated that the whole thing was a PR ploy. Whatever the case, Maker’s Mark recent earnings were anything but watered down. The brand reported its best quarter ever, just in time for the bourbon-soaked Kentucky Derby weekend.

Sometimes you just have to show that you’re listening. There’s the proof.

What I Learned About PR from "42"

by guest blogger George Drucker

The excellent film and tremendous PR effort created on behalf of “42: The Jackie Robinson Story” which opened on screens nationwide a few weeks ago, inspired me as a PR professional.

As a long-time  Angeleno, and even longer PR practitioner, I have to take my Dodger baseball cap off to the studio, producers, director and PR marketing people. I’ve never seen a more powerful, continuous–and successful PR effort on behalf of a movie.

It shows what can be accomplished when you look at, think about, and create story angles, media pitches (pun intended) on a wide variety of subjects, all under the same umbrella. I think I counted TWELVE separate major feature stories on the film, meaning twelve distinct story angles, in the LA Times alone.

Too often, we go for quick hits and move on. But there are some opportunities that deserve a more thorough approach. Granted, there were many “gimmees” for media coverage here, including the incredible story of Robinson’s breaking the barrier in professional sports; the impact on society and his family; his courageous life; and, of course, the reviews.

But for the marketing communications folks, this was just the beginning. They went deeper. The first wave of coverage was followed by interviews with his widow; remembrances of players, sports executives, and fans from those early seasons; the local recollections in the original National League cities where he played; the business angle of producing another, updated film on the story; the search for the actor who could capture the essence of the player and the man; the director and his updating on the story, etc.

The lesson to be learned for us in the marketing communications biz is simple. Get out in front of the story. Be creative in your approach, and come up with a wealth of angles that can potentially attract media attention. Get out there and pitch. Don’t give up, and don’t be satisfied with a nice first wave of coverage. Dig deep and go into overtime.

The hits will follow.

PR Crisis Management Lessons From Behind The Headlines

Hindsight – ahem – is always 20/20, particularly when it comes to reputation management. Yet, textbook crisis successes (and failures) aren’t always what they seem. Here’s my take on some recent examples of crisis handling by top brands.

The Lululemon Yoga Pants Recall. For sheer, on-the-spot crisis management skill, Lululemon wins, hands down. PR experts saw the voluntary recall of its (unintentionally) see-through yoga pants as a “lemons to lemonade” case. And it’s true that the brand’s agile moves gave new meaning to the word “transparency.”

Yes, Lululemon did seem to bend over backwards to be proactive and minimize the inconvenience to customers. It communicated the recall, its rationale, and the timeline of events proactively to press, analysts, and its customer base. It promised refunds or exchanges for defective pants bought after March 1 and pledged to improve quality by dedicating employees to work with vendors, tightening production specs, and posting its own staff at partner factories.

But a closer look shows the seams. Lululemon’s key supplier publicly denied that anyone from the company had even been in touch.  (Were supply chain communications aligned?) Worse, product loyalists saw CEO Christine Day‘s explanation of the fabric issue as…well, a stretch.  Hardcore lulu-lovers have complained of quality problems for months. Negative comments on fan sites are packed in tighter than a Sunday bikram class, signaling deeper problems for a brand whose health depends on its cult-like community of users.

“Pants-gate” was costly for Lululemon’s stock price and for its former product chief, who resigned as a result. The verdict? Sound strategy and good journalist relations are one thing, but Lululemon has more work to do to get back in shape.

Carnival Cruise Lines.  “Is Carnival haunted?” asks one PR community commenter.  It’s a fair question.

First there was the Costa Concordia disaster. Thirty-two passengers perished, the captain abandoned ship against orders, and the company’s reputation—and stock price—hit choppy waters. And there’s been a flood of incidents since.  In February, a fire disabled the Triumph, stranding travelers amidst food shortages and overflowing toilets for five long days. That’s years in crisis management time. The company’s billionaire owner, Mickey Arison, was photographed courtside at a Miami Heat game as #cruisefromhell was trending on Twitter.

Bad optics for sure. But Carnival did act quickly to steer its reputation back to normal. It was proactive with communications, issuing consistent updates on the shipboard situation through a specially created web page and its social media channels. It promptly made amends to passengers, issuing full credits and offering $500 towards a future voyage.

What many didn’t realize is that a sea evacuation of passengers would have been impractical and dangerous—something Carnival did manage to communicate in the press. And though I question the decision to drop-ship the CEO onboard (because it didn’t calm passengers and only exposed him to their ire), it was a bold move.

Some would say its reputation is sunk, but for me, that ship hasn’t sailed. Carnival is a huge family of brands and it has learned from the past. But it needs to do all it can to ensure a steady course for the coming high season.

Rutgers University. The Rutgers basketball crisis is only just beginning, but, so far, the university’s handling has been a losing proposition. Yet as the scandal widens into an FBI investigation, one relevant issue for communicators goes back to Rutgers’ own internal review into the behavior of former basketball coach Mike Rice and the decisions made as a result.

Allegations by a whistle-blower that Rice kicked, shoved, and verbally abused players triggered an inquiry conducted by key legal players late last year. But the investigation focused almost wholly on whether Rice’s conduct constituted a “hostile work environment.”  The conclusion?  It did not.  So, Rutgers followed its lawyers’ counsel and dealt with Rice’s behavior with suspension and anger management classes. Apparently it didn’t consult with PR or reputation specialists. Rutgers Athletic Director and its HR head completely missed the ramifications beyond the basketball court and the legal courtroom.

Five months later, all hell broke loose when the video rebounded into the court of public opinion. From here it looks like a rookie reputation management error and a very costly failure to anticipate two things:  the inevitability of the video’s release, and its powerful influence in today’s digital environment.

A version of this post originally appeared on MENGBlend.