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.

Is Oprah Still Relevant?

What does it say that the most notable Oprah story this Thanksgiving season was about her tweeted endorsement of the new Microsoft Surface tablet…posted, ironically, from an iPad? Critics of the Queen of Talk saw the tweet as a sign of hypocrisy, sloppiness, or lack of tech savvy.

Does it matter? Does she?

For so many years, Oprah was not only the most powerful endorser in the country, but she had a special relevance to the PR community. Most of us breathed a sigh of relief when she finally signed off in 2011, relinquishing her daily TV platform and an audience so vast that it will probably not be seen again in the age of media fragmentation. In particular, Oprah’s annual “favorite things” list brought fear – and opportunity – into hearts of PR pros. Who else boosts consumerism so cheerfully, skillfully, and shamelessly, to so loyal an audience?

And although her eponymous network, OWN, has struggled, Oprah astutely brought back her favorite things, right on schedule, for the 2012 holiday season. The list was featured in the magazine and achieved respectable levels of coverage, yet the most burning buzz was the iPad tweet.

On the surface – with pun intended – the iPad goof doesn’t matter much, if you consider it a goof at all.  The tech blogs and influencers who actually follow such things aren’t those who are swayed by the Oprah Effect.  And Oprah fans likely don’t care. Besides, many of us own multiple devices and the Surface probably doesn’t even have a  Twitter app yet.

But, on reflection, it’s more than bad optics. The genius of the Oprah endorsement for all these years is that somehow you believe that she believes. That she really loves the gold Uggs or the Williams Sonoma croissants, even though the list is clearly a commercial transaction. The Surface iPad tweet somehow undermines that fantasy.

The holiday list brought back Oprah the Endorser-in-Chief, but without the context of the day-to-day Oprah, the girlfriend, celebrity confidante, spiritual seeker, and dispenser of no-nonsense life advice. As many have written, the fragmentation of media, multiplicity of content choices, and the clear trend towards on-demand content consumption make a future Oprah not just unlikely, but virtually impossible.

And the fact that the Tweet-gate overshadowed the usual hubbub around the vaunted holiday list may be one more sign we have truly entered the post-Oprah era.

For PR Pros, There Will Never Be Another Oprah

As Oprah’s long goodbye at last culminated in her final show last week, many PR professionals breathed a sigh of relief. The country’s most powerful third-party endorser has moved on. No longer will consumer clients gauge PR success by whether we could land an Oprah segment.

For so many years, an appearance on Oprah was the gold standard for product publicity. Most of us have lost count of the clients or prospects who were convinced that their product or service was absolutely right for Oprah. An on-air appearance was the closest thing to a magic bullet in terms of media exposure – opening doors, triggering demand, building brands, creating stars. Heck, she even helped elect our President.

One key to Oprah’s success was her relationship to the audience. Despite the utter commerciality of her endorsements and the legendary giveaways, she was authentic. It was a girlfriend-to-girlfriend thing. All she wanted was for us to live our best life, just like her.

There will never be another Oprah. For one thing, who can fill her Louboutins? I can’t imagine Ellen taking down James Frey, or Katie Couric picking a president. Jon Stewart may rival her influence for a certain demographic, but he’ll never be the PR powerhouse that was Oprah.

And it’s not just because of her odd mix of down-home appeal, spirituality, and rank materialism. It’s also about the mass media. TV is just too fragmented to nurture and build another Oprah. She came of age before the Internet and 24-hour cable. Just look at the evening news…how many of us know, or care, that Scott Pelley is replacing Couric on CBS?

One blogger likened Oprah and her power to Johnny Carson, who reigned over late-night TV for 30 years, concluding that, in the end, Oprah would take her grand stage with her. And, whether it’s for better or worse, what goes with her is the greatest PR endorsement that ever was.

Oprah’s Departure: Doomsday For Broadcast TV?

If I hadn’t known about Oprah’s announcement before waking up to a WNYC Radio listener roundup of “what Oprah has meant to me,” – honestly, I would’ve thought she died. Of course, the impetus for the wave of coverage was not a tragic event, but merely her tearful disclosure that she will end her daily talk show within two years, in September 2011.

But for CBS, which syndicates the show, and ABC, whose stations carry it, Oprah’s move actually is a bit like a death in the family. In fact, it’s an overall blow for broadcast television and its ad-supported business model. CBS’s statement, which affirmed that it’s looking forward to the next several years, “and hopefully afterwards,” read like a plea for her to change her mind, and who can blame them? Oprah’s reason for turning out the lights after 25 extraordinary years is to concentrate more fully on her next big venture – the Oprah Winfrey cable network, or OWN.

(I can’t help but wonder about the much-publicized ancient Mayan calendar predictions that the world will end by 2012. Is Oprah preparing for the end? Or, is life without a daily dose of Oprah the apocalypse itself?)

There’s no doubt that Oprah’s departure is another sign of the growing dominance of cable television. But, to date, the plans for OWN are murky. It was originally announced in 2007 and was meant to debut last year, but it was stalled amidst executive turnover and lack of focus. Even now it’s not clear what Oprah’s role in front of the camera will be, if any. She’s told staffers that she will not simply move the show to cable, but rather will produce programming that might involve occasional appearances.

So, there’s another side to Oprah’s decision.What will happen to her influence once she’s no longer a weekday presence in our lives? Naturally, her media empire is far larger than her talk show, and her brand larger still. Yet, the show has been a powerful platform. It may be a relief for some PR people (see previous post), but the ramifications of a (broadcast) world without Oprah are as huge as her impact…including for her.

I can’t help but wonder if her diminished TV presence could also dim the influence of the woman who persuaded so many about so much – from trying Twitter to picking our president.

Red Flags: When To Say No To A Potential PR Client

Today I spoke with an old friend who’s a well-established public relations consultant. She called for advice about a prospect, since, after meeting him, she wasn’t sure he’d make a good client. Twenty seconds into the conversation, I knew she was right, and we discussed how she should gracefully decline his business.

When times are tough, it’s hard to turn down clients, even if our gut says it’s not a fit. So, after speaking with some colleagues and reviewing my own experience over many years and five agency positions, I’ve come up with a list of common red flags that might signal a short-lived relationship. While no one sign is a dealbreaker, multiple flags should give any PR professional pause.

1. They use the “O” word. That’s Oprah, of course. This is probably the top complaint among PR consultants. (So much so, in fact, that there was quiet rejoicing in some corners when the Queen of Talk announced that her show will end in 2011. But, more about that later.) It was what bothered my friend, because the client wasn’t right for Oprah. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with setting specific publicity goals, or with aiming high. But, unrealistic prospects make unhappy clients.

2. The magic bullet syndrome. Even more challenging than an Oprah-obsessed prospect is one who assumes that the big hit – whether Oprah, The Wall Street Journal, or TechCrunch – will be an instant fix for their brand, product, or business. Equating a public relations program with one publicity result is like comparing the baseball season to a home run in a single game.

3. No budget range is mentioned. I can understand wanting to get diverse responses to a given RFP, but why waste time and resources garnering big ideas if there’s no possibility of funding them?

4. The meeting’s been rescheduled multiple times. This is increasingly common (and understandable) today, but it can be a signal that a PR partnership isn’t a priority.

5. They’ve churned through agencies. If they’ve worked with more than three firms in the past five years, that’s an obvious flag, and a sign to find out more.

6. They’re talking to everyone. Though it’s common for procurement-led RFPs to go out to dozens of agencies, the system should be fairly transparent, and relatively quick. If it’s not, it could mean they’re just idea-shopping.

7. They’re mixing apples and oranges. If they don’t know whether they need an ad agency, a branding firm, or a PR partner, they have no idea what they want. Never good.

8. They don’t articulate goals. This one’s obvious. Even if given verbally, a clear scope of work and specific objectives are essential to any serious discussion about agency engagement.

9. You’ll be reporting to the CEO. Or his assistant. Or the marketing intern. The agency report should be a communications-savvy professional who is qualified to make or obtain timely decisions and who commands respect within the organization. If not, be afraid.

10. The PR person has no say in the review. I’ve had clients whose internal staff were threatened by the addition of a firm because they weren’t consulted, or they feared they’d be made redundant. At best, it’s a recipe for frustration.

11. They need a proposal by Friday. And it’s Wednesday. Need I say more?

For more on this topic from a client perspective, The Council of PR Firms offers a thorough guide to the firm selection process, and a questionnaire for agencies who can’t decide whether to go for it, or walk away. Happy selling.

Following Oprah

She’s arguably the most influential figure in our culture next to the President…except, wait, she picked our President, right?

Seriously, the social media world is atwitter after the announcement that Oprah will make her first Tweet Friday on her show.  Only @Oprah, the Queen of Everything, could rack up over 40,000 followers before posting a single update, and heaven only knows what kind of traffic will result once she actually starts using it.  And it’s not just Oprah giving Twitter the Ultimate Endorsement.  She’ll reportedly be joined by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams and Aston Kutcher (or aplusk), who’s in a kind of insane race with CNN to be the first Twitterati to claim one million followers.

I love the idea of armies of soccer moms, retirees, and others joining the social media ranks in greater numbers, although too much, too fast could spell real trouble.  Twitter traffic surged 131 percent to ten million in March, and lately its infrastructure been clearly straining to withstand the traffic.

It has definitely arrived; let’s just hope it hasn’t also jumped the shark.