The PR Verdict On Paula Deen’s Apology (Again)

From the frying pan to….yesterday Paula Deen, the queen of comfort cooking, faced Matt Lauer, and the outcome was not so comfortable for either one.

Some have criticized Lauer for his brusque grilling of Deen. My view is that he took a no-nonsense approach, cutting to the business issues and her motive for finally living up to her original commitment to a live interview.

The real story here is Paula’s apology, if you can call it that. It was all over the place. Things started out okay, with Deen describing herself as “overwhelmed” – an honest, but not loaded, word. Then she thanked the partners who have stood by her and declined to blame The Food Network for dropping her. All good.

Then things really got overwhelming. First, she insisted she had used the n-word only once, after being robbed at gunpoint by a black person “a world ago.” This contradicted her deposition and her original excuse that she grew up in the days of Jim Crow. Her demeanor became indulgently sorrowful. The drama peaked when she tearfully challenged anyone watching who has never said something they regret to “please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me.” Whoa, Paula. It was both a not-so-coded biblical reference and an overemotional response.

As the interview wrapped, defiant Paula emerged, proclaiming “I is what I is,” and referring darkly to “someone evil out there” who sabotaged her out of envy, presumably the former restaurant manager who filed the suit that set up the media feast. Lauer, rather than following up on her reference to enemies and “horrible lies”, ended the interview. For Deen, this was probably a good thing.

Is Paula cooked? It does look that way. Her handling of the interview lacked the key ingredients for an effective public apology and her inconsistent and overemotional responses stirred things up instead of calming them down. It’s best to take responsibility, express sincere remorse, then make amends if possible. Deen would have done well to admit the truth, talk about what she has learned, ask for forgiveness, and pledge her time and/or money to a cause or program that promotes tolerance.

Also, an effective mea culpa doesn’t focus on the one apologizing. It should be about those offended or harmed by the situation, – in this case, sponsors, staff, viewers, and fans. It would have been impossible to deflect all the questions about her business and her brand, but she didn’t even try to take herself out of it. Ironically, her apology video, though stilted and inadequate, did a better job on that score.

Deen’s fumbles may also be tied to a lack of good PR counsel. Her original publicist, a 36-year veteran of the biz, resigned after Deen disclosed her diabetic condition and announced a partnership with Novo Nordisk. I’ve no idea who’s been advising her now, but she should consider a change. There’s a rumor that she’s hired Judy Smith, the D.C.-based crisis guru known as the model for Kerry Washington’s character on “Scandal.” I hope it’s true, because Paula needs professional help.

Is "Dumb Ways to Die" A Smart PR Campaign?

“Dumb Ways to Die” delighted PR-watchers when it recently swept the Cannes Lions, the Oscars of the creative industry, and a very prestigious award for a public relations program. The Cannes Festival, in fact, has had cachet since Don Draper’s day, but it was virtually closed to the public relations biz. Like a poor relation, PR has been trying to crash Cannes ever since.

But after “Dumb Ways to Die,” a public safety program created by Metro Trains of Melbourne, Australia, it seemed those doors had opened. We’ve arrived! And all on the momentum of an insidiously catchy music video about being smart and safe.

Or have we? If “Dumb Ways to Die” represents a milestone for PR, I’d say we still have a ways to go.

Make no mistake, the campaign is irresistible. (See Barbara Lippert’s review here.) My 9-year-old turned me on to it last year. She’d heard about it from a friend, naturally. And though she fell in love with the sweetly adorable characters dying cartoonishly gruesome deaths (over and over again), the safety message wasn’t lost. That’s precisely why “Dumb Ways” is such a little viral juggernaut. That and the song, which refuses to die once you hear it.

“Dumb Ways” has racked up over 50 million YouTube views, and it’s now an app and a videogame. It’s also the basis for a safety pledge inviting Melbourne residents to be mindful of commonsense rules when taking public transit. The pledge, presumably, is the heart of the PR component.

At Cannes, the campaign won Grand Prix awards for film, integrated marketing, direct marketing, radio, and PR categories, as well as 18 Gold Lions, three silvers, and one bronze. That’s a lot of ways to win.

But “Dumb Ways” wasn’t created by a PR agency. It’s McCann’s campaign, and PR is, well, along for the ride.
In an interview, McCann Melbourne Executive Creative Director John Mescall says he doesn’t think any Melbourne PR agency could have birthed the idea, in part because PR teams are called upon later, to execute brand activations or tell the campaign’s success story. Further, he doesn’t think PR pros are trained to think in terms of simple, big ideas that rely on a shared content model.

This is discouraging because there’s some truth to it. Packaging the message takes talent and skill. But when you can create the message in a totally original way, that’s when you break new ground. And the fact is, for all the expertise we have in content development, the typical PR content approach is a journalistic one, not a creative or entertainment model.

“Dumb Ways to Die” is a triumph, but PR can’t claim it. It’s a step in the right direction. One day, I hope to see more programs like it, campaigns that show heroic work for underbudgeted clients or generate stunning levels of shared and earned media for companies we’ve never heard of. The best way to do that is the old marketing formula: simple ideas, well packaged, but with a different content mindset. Now, that would be smart.

Summer Work Wear In A PR Office

Summer is in full swing, which means that the fashionable PR pro has officially switched over her (or his) closet from warm and cozy to cool and comfortable.

And with the warmer weather comes a slight shift in PR workplace dress code.  As a general rule of thumb, summer dress code is more casual, but there is a fine line between workplace appropriate and too casual.  Follow the tips below to be comfortable – yet polished – this summer.

When in doubt, rethink. First and foremost, if you’re questioning whether what you’re wearing is appropriate for the office, your colleagues (and your boss) will, too.  Bag the outfit and save it for a weekend trip to Central Park.

Use the fingertip rule. Dresses and skirts should reach the bottom of your fingertips when your arms are placed down at your side.  At the risk of sounding like my high school principal, THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS.

Wear flip flops with discretion. In some offices they’re allowed, and in others, they’re considered way too casual.  Typically, women can get away with flip flops if the rest of their outfit is a bit dressier (a sundress or a skirt and blouse), while wearing flip flops with jeans can look sloppy.  The same rule applies for Sperry’s boat shoes.

Shorts are okay if they are the appropriate length (see rule #2 above) and if they’re dressed up with a blouse and pumps. Short shorts and/or shorts with a t-shirt and flip flops are never okay.

Brightly colored pants are a good way to switch it up, if done right!  A colleague of mine rocked a pair of hot pink cropped pants yesterday and paired them with a button-up to give the outfit a classy edge.  When making a statement with a bold piece, the rest of your outfit should be more toned down (no crazy animal prints, funky jewelry, etc.).  The only exception is neon pants, which aren’t appropriate for the office in my view.  To get your neon fix during your 9 – 5, try dressing up a boat necked dress with neon accessories.

Go conservative for evening. For an after-5:00 affair (whether a PR industry event, client dinner, etc.) always err on the side of caution.  Other companies might have a different office dress code than yours, and you want to reflect well on your agency.  A black dress is always a safe option; you will never be critiqued for being too polished.

When in doubt, a good test is to ask yourself, Would I wear this to meet my significant other’s  parents for the first time? If the answer is no,  you need to revisit your closet and pick out something else to wear.

Paula Deen’s PR Crisis: Is She Done?

It pains me to be dishing up another post about Paula Deen’s PR crisis. Deen’s rags-to-riches story and Southern-fried charm has won her many fans, including members of my own family. But her most recent controversy makes me wonder if Paula can recover.

It was bad enough that she hid her diabetes diagnosis for a full three years before cashing in with a Novo Nordisk endorsement. But this week, choice bits of  Paula’s deposition in a discrimination lawsuit brought by a former manager of the restaurant owned by Deen and her brother were the topic of a media feeding frenzy. When deposed by the plaintiff’s counsel and asked if she’d ever used the “n-word”, Paula’s response was, “Yes, of course.”

“Yes, of course?” Really? Yet, Forbes contributor Jonathan Baskin calls this a non-event. He writes, “The idea that anybody would be surprised by this is hard to fathom.”

I beg to differ. Yes, I’m younger than Paula. And I was born and raised in Atlanta, which is far larger and more cosmopolitan than Albany, Georgia, Paula’s hometown. But the first time I heard the “n-word” used in casual conversation was when I visited a college friend from Connecticut at the age of 19, and her brother told an offensive joke. I was speechless.

Today, it’s hard to blame your upbringing for casual racism. But my personal perspective isn’t as relevant as Deen’s response to her reputation melting like a stick of butter. The real question is whether she can recover from the grilling, however deserved. So far, despite well-publicized objections by hardcore fans, it’s not looking good.

A bland and weak apology

After days of silence, Paula canceled her interview with Matt Lauer at the last minute and instead served up a weak apology PR response on YouTube. After an initial video that apparently didn’t pass muster (it was deleted) she posted a second video apology that was stilted and inadequate. Shortly afterward, The Food Network announced that it would not renew her contract.

If I were Paula Deen’s PR counsel, I’d urge her to dig more deeply. Though not perfectly analogous, actor Jason Alexander’s apology after he made gay jokes about cricket are an excellent model.

Deen was also the object of unexpected support from Bill Maher, who publicly wondered “if everyone who makes a mistake has to go away.” Maher was shouted down by his guest panel, but the point is that Deen could serve as a role model for others.  If she can convey in a heartfelt and authentic way that she’s come to understand why her earlier attitudes and language are not only tasteless, but toxic, it just might be worth her public sauteeing.

Deen stands to lose millions in TV and endorsement fees, and it may be a case of just desserts. But every mistake is a lesson. Before her deposition, she was controversial because of her high-fat cooking, and she became a symbol of just-plain-folks, down-home indulgence vs elitist bicoastal attitudes about food and health. Now, she has a chance to tackle something more important.

Celebrity is powerful, and I’d like to think that Paula Deen’s crisis can somehow be a recipe not just for her recovery, but for a larger-than-life personality to use her notoriety to educate others. Paula should face the media, make an honest apology, and commit herself to changing not just her own attitude, but those of her contemporaries and their elected representatives. There’s still plenty of work to be done. What she offers over the next weeks and months will be more significant, and potentially healthier, than anything cooked up in her Food Network career. We’ll be watching.

Beyond Traditional PR – Death Goes Digital

Sadly, this has been a week of loss, both for me personally and in the entertainment world, as we said goodbye way too early to the tremendous actor James Gandolfini.

It made me reflect on how we mourn. So-called deathcare is experiencing its “15 minutes” as the industry uses social sharing to make funerals and conversations about death a more acceptable part of life. Funerals have always generated “buzz” via newspaper obits and calendar listings, – built-in PR since the dawn of newspaper publishing. But recently the “death business” has come out of the social media closet.

Case in point, a recent funeral not only featured the now-standard online guest book, but the entire service was streamed live for friends and family who couldn’t attend. Additionally, for attendees who wanted to check in on any others already buried at the cemetery, there was an online registry of grave markers and Google maps to locate exactly the spot.

In fact, much of the business of death is online, from downloadable obituary templates to casket shopping. Facebook also makes it easy to memorialize someone on their page and live on long after their passing.

The industry even has “event planners” to ensure your guests have the ultimate funeral experience. If you’re already planning your own farewell – from the music and flowers to the dress code – there’s an app for that. Just check out iFuneral.

Finally, ask yourself how you shared your shock about the untimely passing of James Gandolfini. Twitter? Text? Facebook? After all, births, weddings and other important life moments are online; why not funerals?

Can Bad PR Be Good Marketing?

Lifestyle clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch ran into some nasty PR recently when comments by CEO Mike Jeffries were reposted from a 2006 interview and blew up the Internet.  In the piece, Jeffries boasts about the brand’s “exclusionary” marketing practices. He explains, in his typical unapologetic style, that Abercrombie won’t carry larger women’s because it simply doesn’t want frumpy old ladies to wear its clothes.

Jeffries’ comments weren’t shocking; this, after all, is the same A&F that paid Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino not to wear its garments (a naked PR ploy, but one that worked).

But this time the brand’s disdain for the “uncool” masses, i.e., anyone who isn’t young, slim, and sexy, caught up with it.  (Mind you, Jeffries is 68 years old…not exactly young.) His attitude offended plenty of people, among them, an unknown videographer and aspiring author named Greg Karber. Karber decided to channel his anger into action. He scoured thrift shops for donated A&F garments, then persuaded homeless people in L.A.’s skid row to wear them and videotaped the results, urging others to follow suit.  #Fitchthehomeless went viral almost instantly. A PR coup. Yet few would argue that this is good PR for the Abercrombie brand.

Still, despite Jeffries’ arrogant attitude, the brand’s turnaround has been based in part on one thing—its “exclusionary” marketing.  Since he became CEO, in fact, company profits have soared. Former analyst Robert Buchanan calls his record “the most amazing record that exists in U.S. retailing, period.

What Jeffries knew is that marketing exclusivity is a time-tested way to differentiate.  Often it’s based on price, product scarcity, ties to boldfaced names, or all three. But exclusivity can also turn on brand values. Even when it risks alienating other market segments, it’s powerful.  One pundit points out that the Abercrombie strategy takes a leaf from the Steve Jobs handbook. Roger Dooley posits that Apple’s early campaigns did something similar by reinforcing its appeal to creative hipster types while casting PC users as soulless corporate drones.

For me, the Apple comparison is a stretch, but a more analogous example may be Chick-fil-A. When its CEO, Dan Cathy, spoke out against marriage equality last summer, his words triggered a cascade of negative buzz in social media communities. The comments sparked boycotts and even talk of zoning prohibitions on new Chick-fil-A stores.

Yet, the squawking probably didn’t damage the brand. Chick-fil-A makes no bones about its Christian roots and values, and many loyal patrons are either Christians, or they’re agnostic—about its brand values, that is. They care about the chicken sandwich. So, although Cathy’s stand was almost certainly not a planned or proactive marketing move, you can make the argument that it appealed to a certain segment of loyal customers and possibly attracted new ones.

This type of values-based marketing is risky, because runaway controversy is hard to control and it can definitely damage a brand’s reputation. In fact, Abercrombie’s CEO has apologized for his remarks, just as Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy decided to leave his personal views out of the company business. But the communication of clear brand values, backed by a passionate following and marketed exclusively to that core, can be a potent and defensible marketing strategy. Even when it amounts to bad PR.

A version of this post was originally published on MENGBlend.

PR Tips For The Big Media Interview

Successful media coverage is a defining component of a successful PR plan, and the most straightforward way to get it is a client interview. These opportunities come in all different shapes and sizes, from casual coffee shop background briefings to in-depth phoners. Though every interview may not carry the same clout as “O’Reilly-Obama,” that doesn’t mean your executive or spokesperson can afford to squander an opportunity to present and position themselves in the best possible light. Here are a few tips to keep in mind to ensure that they knock their interviews out of the park.

Prep. Start preparing your spokesperson by highlighting the story’s objective, the reporter’s background and outlet reach and focus. Gather as much information as you can, including what questions will be asked, how your client’s insight will be used and target audience details. This advance legwork will enable you to focus on appropriate messaging points and present them in a way that is relevant to the audience. Remember, interviews can always shift, but in-depth preparation helps maximize the chances of success.

Practice. The time leading up to a media interview is no time to just go through the motions. Suggest a (or multiple) face-to-face meeting in which you can provide constructive criticism and offer role-playing exercises along the way. Consider using video recording and playback to provide your client with a view of their media skills and areas for improvement.

Perfect the message. Once you have the interview details buttoned up, make sure your client is well-versed on the most relevant messages. Work to identify the top three aspects to highlight and flag for repeated mention during the interview; supporting them with facts, headlines and quotable language to establish your client as an expert in their given field.

Plan for the unexpected. Interviews can veer in any direction and thus may not always present the perfect opportunity to incorporate a point. Help your client keep in mind flagging techniques and phrases to bridge naturally to key points even when the opportunity isn’t obvious.

Person-to-person. Offer strategies to incorporate some of the “personal” into an interview to break the ice or establish some common ground. With advance organization and practice, they can relax a bit and inject an anecdote or ask questions without losing sight of the interview goal. After all, an interview is about relationship-building as much as anything.

PR Pros Know Your Prose

I read a tweet recently which featured the phrase “case and point.”  I knew the correct phrase was, of course, “case in point,” but it gave me pause as I thought about other similar examples. The problem with many of these idiomatic phrases is that people have often said or heard the phrases but have seldom, if ever, read or written them.

Hence, the following examples of often misheard/misused phrases that you will want to brush up on for more effective PR writing.

Deep-seeded vs. deep-seated. Even though deep-seeded kind of does make sense, the expression has nothing to do with a feeling being planted deep within one, but instead refers to its being seated firmly within one’s being: “My aversion to anchovies is deep-seated.”

For all intensive purposes vs.  for all intents and purposes.  Intensive purposes? Purposes that are exceptionally concentrated? No, in effect; for all practical purposes. “For all intents and purposes, I do not text and drive.”

Wet vs. whet one’s appetite. While imbibing may have an effect on your appetite, the proper word is whet. It is just such an uncommon word that people seldom see it spelled out. The word literally means to sharpen a knife or to excite or stimulate (someone’s desire, interest, or appetite).

Pore over vs. pour over. If you’re “pouring over” documents be prepared for some messy paperwork! What you should be doing is “poring over” them, or examining them closely.

Home in vs. hone in. Home in means to direct on a target and derives from the 19th-century use of homing pigeons! Used metaphorically, one can home in on something or focus on and make progress toward it. To hone is to sharpen, and it has become an alteration of home in. Although many people regard it as an error, it has become so common that many dictionaries now list it. We can think of honing in as a sharpening of focus or a perfecting of one’s trajectory toward a target. So while it might not make strict logical sense, extending hone this way is not a huge leap.

So, remember the next time you treat something with disdain by saying “I could care less,” no, in fact you could! So use the proper phrase, “I couldn’t care less.”

Any improperly used expressions that irk you? Let us know in the comments.

When Brands Overreact To PR Problems

Social-media-fueled brand controversies are more common than ever in the digital age. But even in the current crisis-of-the-hour media environment, it’s natural for major brands to take slights very seriously. Where millions of dollars are spent and fat profit margins are at stake, overreactions are understandable. You can almost sense the confusion, conflicting advice, and panic beneath the surface.

Most businesses will back down in the face of controversy, even when the criticisms are groundless. Remember when Gap backpedaled as brand-watchers criticized its new logo? Admittedly, the new logo was bland and the backlash probably added color to its reputation, but it was a stunning reversal in such a short time.

Sometimes a brand will simply cave. Home center chain Lowe’s pulled its ads when threatened with a boycott over its support of a reality show called “All-American Muslim.” The decision was met with fresh outrage from progressives, so it was a true lose-lose for the chain. But word like “one million moms” have been known to trigger a hasty media planning redesign.

That’s why it was refreshing when Cheerios, assaulted by YouTube trolls over a charming ad featuring an interracial family, was so unfazed in its response to criticism. Not only did it refuse to back down (and why should it?) but the tone of the brand’s response made it clear that the ad would go on.

Of course, it’s easy to stand your ground when confronted with ugliness, but lots of companies would have quietly killed the ad. More importantly, most probably wouldn’t have produced it in the first place.

So, cheers to Cheerios for wanting to position its brand as inclusive and up-to-date. And even more for unapologetically disabling nasty comments and seeing the PR gold in letting the commercial’s actors speak for the brand.

By meeting its critics head-on instead of overreacting, Cheerios elevated the spot from a progressive commercial to a statement about brand values. And it reaped bowlfuls of good will in the process. Well done.

Overcoming The “Sweatiest” PR Moments

PR is a stressful industry, but some moments are clearly more “sweat worthy” than others. It’s these moments, though, that really keep PR pros on their feet and teach invaluable lessons.

After crowd sourcing some PR colleagues, here are some of the most sweat-worthy PR moments folks have dealt with and tips for overcoming them:

Late, late, late. While pitching a prospective client in suburban Atlanta, we got lost on the way to the office and were about a half-hour late to meet with C-level execs. The busy prospects glared at us through the meeting and cut us off early to show their displeasure. (Needless to say, we didn’t win the business.) If you’re unfamiliar with an area, consider doing a “dry-run,” even including driving to the prospect’s office. Even the best GPS isn’t infallible!

Conference line conundrum. For a top-tier reporter interview with one of my clients, I circulated our conference line details without double checking with the rest of my team to confirm the line’s availability. Six other team members ended up dialing in accidentally for a totally unrelated call, some even scolding me for not double checking!  Always check to make sure the conference line is free.

Promoting the “awkward” product. While pitching an “adult diaper” client, I was asked – in mixed company – my impressions of having “tried it out myself.” Oh, the discomfort! If you find yourself in a similar position, I recommend you take a deep breath and just go with it, despite the embarrassment; just keep it clinical and professional!

The forgotten presentation. At a previous agency we were a finalist for a large account. We were even told that we were the clear favorites after the first round. The final presentation was at the company’s HQ in the midafternoon so our team spent the morning and afternoon rehearsing, casually having lunch and then heading to the office only to realize we forgot our presentation! We tried going along with it as if we’d always intended to present this way, but that didn’t fly. Since then, I’ve always made sure we have backup and more backup (sending via email, on extra thumb drives, saving in the cloud).

The speechless spokesperson. After coordinating a call with a reporter and a client, briefing the client as usual, and confirming journalist questions, I got on the conference line and the client spokesperson went mute. He wasn’t able to answer any of the questions. It was clear the reporter was getting upset. Luckily, I was familiar enough with the issues to jump in with answers, and where I wasn’t I steered things in another direction. The lesson is don’t take anything for granted, and for phoners, make a “cheat sheet.”

What’s your most sweat-worthy PR moment?