PR "Horror Stories" And Lessons Learned

It’s nearly Halloween, which means it’s time for our annual look at a top New York PR agency’s tales of terror and mysterious mishaps, with a retro nod to everyone’s favorite girl sleuth, Nancy Drew. Anyone who works in public relations will tell you that things can go dramatically and frightfully wrong, despite meticulous planning.

PR pros will remember when Michael Bay, the action film director, walked off the stage at CES over a teleprompter snafu at the start of a glitzy TV launch event. The mega-star meltdown seemed like a disaster, although the extra coverage could have been a bonus for the brand.

Read on for some nightmarish war stories that may make your head spin but in some cases actually offer a positive takeaway.

The riddle of the disappearing ink. A former colleague hand-addressed invitations to a press event in fancy gold ink on black envelopes. By the time they had been mailed, the ink rubbed off of every single invitation! Thankfully, she had included company return addresses so she was able to re-address and distribute, but with only three days to spare. Maybe the lesson is to test out a new concept and build in extra time, just in case.

The “snickering” spokesperson. He didn’t walk off the set like Michael Bay, but maybe he should have. A colleague handled PR for a major candy brand that retained a teenage heartthrob to promote its involvement in youth sports. Imagine her horror when, in a taped appearance on an MTV game show, the pop idol made a veiled reference to his, um, personal anatomy. The quick-thinking PR pro knew the client would be horrified at the innuendo, so she begged the producer to cut it. The network eventually agreed to heighten the audience laughter to muffle it and quickly cut to applause. The segment was strategically placed at the end of a very long sizzle video, and the PR pro never heard a word about it from the client. She’s still wondering if they noticed.

The case of the callous cancellation. After having been (unjustly) fired by a Midwest client in a small town, the PR team at a top ten agency was granted an audience with the CEO for a last-ditch attempt to salvage the business. The intrepid team got as far as Detroit, where they boarded a connecting flight, only to be grounded by a snowstorm. After hours on an immobile plane, they arranged to drive the five-hour trip overnight. Showerless and sleep-deprived, they arrived just in time for the morning meeting, only to be told that it was canceled and the agency’s contract terminated. There’s no lesson here, just the bitter life of the PR agency warrior.

The haunted press briefing. In the midst of our media roundtable to share a client’s new product strategy, a mysterious groaning could be heard somewhere above the private restaurant room that had been prepared for the occasion. As the CEO began his powerpoint overview, the groaning turned to rumbling and plaster began to fall from the ceiling! The building was hastily evacuated. It turned out to be a crumbling ceiling and faulty roof made weaker by recent rains. Media guests laughed it off, and fortunately, no one was hurt. It was forever after known as the press event that brought the house down.

The mystery of the medical authority.  A dentist client claimed to have developed a diagnostic tool for detecting oral cancers. The doctor was a highly credentialed professional and spoke in articulate detail about the device and its benefits. Based on this knowledge, we reached out to health and medical media, who “bit” on the story. But, alas when it came time to produce those patients he mentioned…the dentist clammed up, and we were forced to cancel and apologize to press. The obvious lesson here? Demand as much data and supportive materials as you can, don’t let a good “salesman” sell you, even if he’s a client.

Our Favorite PR Horror Stories (And Lessons)

Halloween has us thinking about some scary PR experiences we’ve personally endured or heard about. Rarely can these mishaps be predicted, but sometimes they can be avoided after we’ve stopped cringing at the memory. Here are some of our favorites.

Disaster preparedness. Two years ago, just before Halloween, Hurricane Sandy struck here in New York. We had a potential overseas client fly in to meet with us and four other agencies in a competitive search. The day before the meeting, our office was in the “dark zone” without power, our server down, and the prospect couldn’t reschedule or meet via Skype. So we scrambled to find alternate space, and in a heroic effort, the team redesigned the room to reflect our creative theme, complete with props and baked goods! We were told that we made the next round, to take place the following week, so we redoubled efforts to perfect the presentation. The day before the final pitch, the prospect emailed to say the search was put on hold. Goes to show, you can rise to meet the most dramatic (natural) disasters, but you can never know how the fickle personal or business winds might blow.

Kill ’em with kindness. Recently, some colleagues — working with a creative partner known for his tempestuous personality — were late to a meeting due to a personal medical emergency. The upshot was that the team arrived one member short, and about twenty minutes late. Though the associate was told about the (very real) health issue, he was disproportionately upset, reaming out our colleague in a crowded public place. Our colleague kept his composure, even in the face of some pretty harsh insults. Weeks later, following a successful event, the individual came around, apologizing for his histrionic behavior and recommending us for future assignments. The lesson? It’s best to keep cool, be classy, and stay positive with clients. Sometime it pays to smile through a PR nightmare.

All mixed up. We know someone who spent hours meticulously researching media for the perfect pitch. The story was compelling and certain to find a good home. But somehow emails got sent to addresses with the wrong names attached. What could be worse? What could be more obvious than the importance of getting names right? Even personal, tailored emails when you actually know the person stand a slim chance of getting a response. It’s a scary enough world out there for the PR pro without fumbling the most basic things. We include this story as a (nightmarish) reminder of how important it is to heed every detail, getting every one right.

And here’s a favorite from the vault that will make you grateful for Powerpoint...

The Emperor has no clothes. Years ago, at another agency (hint: it rhymes with “pedal man”) our West Coast colleague George Drucker had the inside track on some new business. After the initial pitch, the team was feeling great: the presentations had gone swimmingly, they were in the final round, and only one other firm was in the running. The team was told they were favored to win! They did some final prep, and, feeling confident, assembled in front of the top execs the morning of the presentation, only to realize they had left the entire slide presentation at the hotel (this was the old days of physical slide carousels; kids, see them as memorialized by Don Draper). With no time to retrieve the slides and no backup plan, they tried to improvise. And went down in flames. A frightening day indeed, but, to be sure, George has never suffered from overconfidence (or forgetfulness) again. He became a model of backing up data, double checking all materials for meetings, and arriving early to presentations — just in case.

Halloween Horror Stories From A NYC PR Firm

Every year we like to reflect on some scary tales from the PR agency world. Whether you work in consumer PR, B2B, tech or another category, most PR people have experienced a ” horror story” of some kind. This Halloween we’re focusing on mitigating some potentially scary situations typical of the PR biz, or others.

The Telltale Heart.  In this disturbing scenario, a client has trusted you with bad news about the future employment of a colleague in their organization, with whom you have a fairly close relationship. Though your conscience may tell you otherwise, it’s best to remain mum in this situation. The news is “hearsay,” after all. But should it bear out, reach out and provide career assistance if you can.

Invasion of the Body-Snatchers.  In a riff on the above, your trusted client has been replaced by a new hire. This person has no allegiance to the current PR agency and actually wants to bring in his former firm for “comparison purposes.” Keep calm and carry on! Prepare your best results in a fabulous presentation and set up some time. Follow the presentation with a lunch at the client’s favorite restaurant (you have found that out, haven’t you?)

Rocky Horror Picture Show. You’ve been promised a live broadcast segment that will feature your client’s spokesperson whose basic ground rules the outlet has also promised to follow. But they don’t. The host goes off the reservation and the segment is kind of a fiasco. Find the positives! If there are none, find the learnings. As long as you prepare a client in advance for the “vagaries of live TV” this may not have to be a horror show after all!

The Exorcist. That is what a PR practitioner has to be when social media is slamming your client. Whether it’s a spate of negative reviews on Yelp or Glass Door or a maniacal spew on their Facebook page, the savvy digital PR expert has to leap into action to stop the bloodletting. But the key here, again, is anticipation and preparation. That might mean creating a new Facebook page solely for customer service complaints, a proactive campaign to encourage positive reviews to counter the negatives, or a full-blown crisis plan. It doesn’t have to involve anyone’s head spinning 360 degrees.

The Sixth Sense. The nagging and scary feeling that all is not right with a co-worker, a client or a contact in the media. All PR people get this feeling every now and again, and it is not be ignored! First, review recent correspondence and see if you can find anything concrete to bear out your feelings.  Meet with a colleague if appropriate to try out your theory. The odds are if you are feeling something is amiss, it is,  and the sooner you can act on it, the better.

PR Tricks & Treats

For every pitch that’s exciting and enjoyable, there’s one that’s a horror story.

For every media contact who’s an angel, there’s one who’s dark and intimidating.

For every colleague or supervisor who nurtures, there is one who tortures.

As Halloween approaches, here are a few favorite examples of ways we have been delighted by “treats” in our business and alas some “tricks” of which we were less fond.

TREATS

The “sweet” client who praises and refers!
We’ve been blessed with many clients who are magnanimous enough to compliment AND critique, and generous enough to refer us to colleagues and associates.
The media contact who cultivates an ongoing relationship
Nothing is quite as magical as securing an awesome placement and hearing from the same reporter later, looking for new stories.
The colleague who happily shares the workload and the kudos
In PR, we work long hours, and mutual trust among co-workers is a key to success. It’s a treat to have co-workers (and supervisors) who will not let you down and want to see you flourish.

TRICKS

The passive-aggressive prospect
We’ve all been there – a potential client schedules an agency presentation for, oh December 26, and it’s all-hands-on-deck craziness to prepare a superb presentation. The client appears sufficiently wowed and promises to “get back to you within the week” and then, YOU NEVER HEAR FROM THEM AGAIN. Spooky….and frustrating.
The reporter with “attitude”
OK, this person didn’t like your story pitch, but is it too much to ask that they respond to a follow-up email? And if they do have a problem with the idea, could they explain instead of firing off a nasty missive? Boo to this!
The thieving colleague
This perhaps well-intentioned individual is chronically unprepared and unmotivated, and, like a zombie, steals your time, your ideas, and your support in the office. The good news? Usually you’re not the only person affected, so someone will step in to put a stop to it.

Got any business tricks or treats you’d care to share?

Facebook’s PR Dilemma: “I Can Friend Dead People”

So close to Halloween, how can I resist blogging about the latest complaint by Facebook users? I noticed it, um, in passing, earlier this week. A “reconnect” feature is part of the site’s new home page, but Facebook’s being haunted by the persistence of its algorithm. It automatically generates notices urging users to reconnect with dormant contacts. Inevitably, those include someone who’s deceased. As one user who was invited to reconnect with a friend who had died earlier in the year explained, “I hadn’t un-friended him, because that would be weird.”

But, what’s weirder – and genuinely distressing – is being invited to connect with a dead friend, not just once, but dozens of times. Others report irksome suggestions that they connect with ex-spouses or lovers, parents, or pets, prompting #FacebookFail hashtags on Twitter. As one mashable.com commenter put it, “I really don’t need Facebook to remind me that I’m ignoring you.”

Beyond the handful of #fail hashtaggers, there’s a broader issue here. What actually happens to profiles of Facebookers who have passed on? Who should have access, if anyone? Under pressure to spell out its privacy policy around these questions, Facebook took the opportunity this week to re-announce its memorialized profiles. They serve as a tribute to the deceased, but also solve the reconnect problem by taking the individual out of the Suggestions stream.

In a moving blog post that recounts the tragic death of a friend and colleague, Facebook’s Max Mon explains how the memorialized profiles work and urges friends and family of deceased users to contact them (with proper verification, of course) to set up a page. The beauty of the system is that only friends can see the profile or locate it in search, and sensitive content like contact information and updates are removed. No one can log into a memorialized profile, but friends and family can still post on the profile Wall in remembrance. If a family wants a profile taken down, it will be.

Facebook’s move to outline its policy in greater detail not only shows sensitivity, but it’s good public relations and good business. It seems to be ahead of its social networking competitors in offering a procedure that mirrors real-world mourning and remembrance, while protecting the privacy of those who cannot do it for themselves.

But, as one poster suggests, you can’t really blame the Facebook algorithm for not knowing that someone has died…or that you broke up with them six months before. And, wouldn’t it be far creepier if it did?