More Productive PR Meetings

There has been some buzz lately about the “walking meeting”. While not a new phenomenon, (Aristotle was said to have walked with his students as he taught) the most recent iteration is said to enable groups to be more productive and creative. While enjoying physical activity that energizes, group members are more alert and experiencing different environments which can inspire new ideas and stimulate new thinking.

But, let’s be realistic! In our busy back-to-back meeting packed day, the only walking you may do is down the hall for another cup of coffee. So for those meetings that must take place around a conference table, here are some tips to keep meetings crisp, on-pace and fruitful.

Determine the objective: Meeting agendas function as a roadmap for a meeting. They’re essential. Is this a regular weekly meeting? Are new plans and ideas being introduced, or just updates on ongoing projects? Make sure the agenda is designed with outcomes in mind. This will keep the team focused, on time and result in the most tangible next steps and agreed-upon plans.

You cannot be over-prepared: There’s no such thing when it comes to planning a meeting. Are there ample meeting agendas printed? Will visual aids be required? If multimedia is necessary, test out computer, video and audio beforehand or you may end up presenting with shadow puppets! Always have presentations backed up on a laptop or thumb drive in case you need access.

Ponder the participants: Does every team member need to be present? Unless they have a role, perhaps not. Make sure team members know their role whether they’re leading the meeting, explaining a section or coordinating refreshments and décor. Everyone should know their part.

Best Type of Skype: There are some specific rules for a Skype meeting including: think about your dress and surroundings before initiating or accepting a video call. Extremely casual dress, strange settings, colleagues walking by in the background, and close-up views of eating are just a few examples of Skype “don’ts”.

Make some noise: It may be instinctual for some to stick with the status quo during a meeting: Wrong! Of course there’s a time and place for comments, but feel free to express valuable thoughts and ideas that will help move the meeting forward.

Own your mistakes and learn from them: Every meeting offers an opportunity to improve. Are staff meetings losing steam over time? Are agenda items languishing from week to week? Is everyone on their iPhone?

Maybe you should try a walking meeting! We’d love to hear any meeting do’s and don’ts you may have.

Why Climategate’s An Epic PR Fail

Call it a perfect storm… of scandal. As world leaders have gathered in Copenhagen to discuss global climate issues, the ill winds of “Climategate” are still blowing. Since hundreds of private emails between some of the world’s leading climate scientists were hacked and leaked online, skeptics have cried foul. Sarah Palin’s opinion piece in today’s Washington Post is just one example of how the scandal has become a cloud over Copenhagen.

Many claim the email discussion of how to present raw data to “hide the decline” of global temperatures is evidence that researchers conspired to conceal the data that might refute evidence of global warming. The Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia is feeling the heat. Already, the head of the university’s research unit has stepped down until an official review of the incident is completed.

The longer-term result is a loss of credibility, and an undermining of the very case the scientists were striving to make. Climategate’s been called everything from “scientific fascism” to a mere “PR problem.” Though the origins of the scandal clearly extend beyond public relations, the reputational impact is …well, I’d call it a Category 5. And, it’s made more difficult by the arcane quality of the data involved. (One of the clearest accounts is Newsweek science editor Sharon Begley’s article posted here.)

There’s enough failure to go around here. And, there are plenty of lessons for academia, as pointed out by the scientific blogosphere. The learnings for research PR and public information professionals, on the other hand, are a bit simpler. I’m sure they might seem naive to a veteran scientist, but here is my take.

Never assume privacy. Especially when it comes to sensitive or politicized issues. Imagining your email or client memos in The New York Times isn’t just an exercise in discretion…it’s a kind of ethical litmus test. If you’d be uncomfortable about someone reading it, you should re-think your role in its dissemination.

Anticipate FOIA requests. Increasingly, research information is subject to Freedom of Information Act Requests. In many countries (like the UK, where the scandal erupted), it’s a criminal offense to ignore or evade such requests, so it should be borne in mind. Talking about deleting or destroying data, as in this case, just compounds the error.

Be precise about language. Having worked with health researchers, I’m amazed at the language the climate scientists used, even among peers. I’m a believer in climate change, but, to me, the word “trick” suggests manipulation, not statistical rigor. “Hide the decline” wasn’t even an accurate description of what the scientists were discussing. They were concerned about so-called proxy reconstruction data from tree rings that wasn’t consistent with other research in demonstrating a gradual global temperature rise. So, it was really more about explaining an inconsistency or aberration in the data that should have been flagged and compensated for, openly.

Be transparent where possible. It’s easy to fall into a bunker mentality when you’re in the eye of a political storm. But, if the techniques had been explained openly, perhaps the skeptics wouldn’t have had so much ammunition.

Don’t try to bury dissent. This is tough, given the increasing politicization of the climate change debate. But, instead of discussing how to evade requests for data, or daydreaming of beating up deniers (as one scientist did) researchers and their agents should put themselves in the shoes of their antagonists. If they, the experts, can’t rise above ignorance and partisanship, how can we?

Don’t cut corners. That’s what Jon Stewart shouts at the end of his hilarious report on the scandal, and the opportunity it’s given to some of the, um, windbags in our own government to exploit the scandal. He says it better than I can. All the rest is hot air.

How Method Cleaned Up A PR Mess

How do you clean up a PR mess? That’s the question Method, the natural cleaning products company, asks after a video created to rally support for the Household Products Labeling Act, which would mandate disclosure of chemical ingredients in common cleansers, somehow went toxic. It went from being the toast of the ad world to…well, just toast.

In “Shiny Suds,” a young mom enters her freshly-cleaned bathroom shower, only to be met with toxic animated soap bubbles who explain they’re chemical residue left by her cleanser. In male, frat-boy voices, the bubbles leer and jeer at her as she showers, while she cringes in embarrassment. The bubbles hoot, heckle, and egg her on to “scrubsy dubsy, baby!” Finally, they begin to chant, “Loofah, loofah!”

The point – that you can’t know what toxins could be lurking in your home without proper labeling – is clear. It struck me as a bit over the top, but memorable and mildly funny, especially the loofah bit. “Shiny Suds” was an instant hit with the trade press and blogosphere. It was hailed as a creative, witty way to promote Method’s labeling agenda and praised by marketers at the Association of National Advertisers conference last month and went modestly viral on YouTube.

Yet, a couple of weeks later, Method found itself on the defensive. called the video “creepy” and said its message was that the woman “deserved to be sexually harassed” by the dirty bubbles. Commenters, mostly women, were also in a lather. Many said they had already contacted Method to express their disgust. The Method madness continued when the feminist blog linked “Shiny Suds” to “rape culture,” drawing over 100 comments.

Talk about toxic. No doubt wondering how they went from viral marketing geniuses to sex offenders in three short weeks, Method moved swiftly lest the public relations controversy sully its (fairly spotless) brand reputation. It issued an apology for those disturbed by the video and promptly pulled it from official websites like YouTube. So, within a month, “Shiny Suds” was…well, scrubbed.

I’m as turned off by sexism as any other female professional, but I didn’t see it in “Shiny Suds,” let alone sexual violence. The bubbles seemed harmless. But, some might have missed that the video was meant as a parody of the classic household soap commercial, like Mr. Clean or Wisk’s “ring around the collar.” At least, that’s how I saw it as a marketing PR person, and others seemed to agree.

But, then it hit me. Method’s error – if there was one – was in not anticipating the sensibilities of its core customers. It’s a little like the flap over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op/ed about healthcare reform. Mackey’s ideas weren’t unreasonable, but he should have known that his views would clash with the progressive values of the typical Whole Foods customer.

The “Shiny Suds” agitation is also reminiscent of the Motrin ad that hit a nerve with the momosphere last year. But, the difference here is in how Method responded…quickly and respectfully. They actually handled each complaint individually, and the statement the company put out was well crafted and timely.

The bottom line is this. Good public relations can sometimes mean standing up to criticism from a vocal minority, particularly when it goes against corporate or brand values. But, in this case, the protesters weren’t Method haters.

They were concerned women with strong political and social values who take any objectification of females very seriously. In other words, they were Method customers, by and large. By cleaning up its act, Method prevented the bubble of controversy from becoming a full-blown crisis.

The Prince, The Frog, And The Rainforest

My kindergarten-aged daughter brings home a stream of stories, hand-drawn art, and songs with a “green” theme – all part of the not-so-subtle propaganda that I dearly hope will lead to an entire generation of more environmentally-aware adults. But as she explains, wide-eyed, about how and why we need to protect the Earth, I’m struck by how little of that childlike wonder survives in the marketing of “green” behavior and actions to adults.  Eco-marketing tends to make uninspired use of celebs and other personalities and can at times take on an “eat your vegetables” tone.
That’s why I found Prince Charles’ public service announcements to save the rainforest so freshing. The Prince is joined by his sons, Prince Harry and Prince William, and a diverse lineup of luminaries that includes Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Pele, Robin Williams, and the Dalai Lama in a new video promoting conservation of the rainforests.
“Our aim…is to build an online community to call for urgent action to protect the rainforests, without which we will most certainly lose the battle against catastrophic climate change,” intones Charles. But the gravity of his words is lightened by a whimsical computer-animated frog sitting next to him.  In fact, the green guy upstages the stars in every frame.  It’s a lovely touch, and one that adds a little magic to the spots, and to the message.