7 Deadly PR Sins or How Not To Be An Amateur

My favorite TV character rant, linked (loosely) to the practice of public relations, is the one delivered by PR pro Eli Gold of “The Good Wife,” who is played superbly by Alan Cumming. Faced with a boneheaded media relations move by a political colleague, Gold lets loose with a wonderfully escalating barrage of outrage. He caps the tirade by spitting out a final, scorn-saturated insult,The one thing I hate is an amateur.”

In the spirit of Eli Gold, but with a kinder, gentler attitude, I present the worst, most avoidable, most amateurish PR mistakes. Call them the 7 deadly sins.

Overpromising. This is a tough one, because publicity results cannot be predicted with 100 accuracy. In the heat of battle, it’s easy for an agency team to escalate the potential return-on-investment. Sometimes it’s simple expectations creep abetted by a long selling cycle. In the worst cases, it’s the utter failure to discuss expectations. There’s usually hell to pay.

Missing deadlines. The media opportunity missed. A proposal emailed too late. A soft seasonal story idea conceived after most articles are put to bed. This one’s a tactical crime of omission, but still. Deadlines are sacred in the PR game, and blowing one is a crime punishable by expulsion from the biz.

Spamming. The more desperate (or ignorant) among us are called out for the sin of “spray and pray” media relations practice on a weekly basis. But it bears repeating. It’s not evil, but it’s unprofessional at best. A personalized approach will always work better.

The on-and-off approach. This one’s on the client side. Some companies think of PR like a spigot they can turn on or off as budgets or business conditions dictate. Big mistake. Public relations works best as a long-term branding tool, unlike sales promotion or direct marketing. There’s a large opportunity cost here.

Using (or abusing) ad clout. Most agency pros have a story about a client who insists on trying to leverage an ad buy to generate editorial coverage, or who threatens to pull a schedule if a story is less than positive. The truth is, this can work, but it’s rarely worth the cost to the media relationship. And it’s been known to backfire in a punishing way.

Thinking PR = press release. One of my pet peeves is the client or company who feels a PR program is the equivalent of a paid, SEO-enhanced newsstream. It’s not, and the buyer is selling himself short.

Confusing language. Sadly, this bedeviling practice isn’t limited to amateurs. Instead of “unique, integrated, industry-leading, strategic solution,” can we learn to write and speak in simple, powerful words? Blessed are those who communicate clearly.

A November To Remember

In addition to the traditional Thanksgiving bounty of food and family, this month has offered its share of embarrassing political viral videos.  This cornucopia of candidate catastrophes demonstrates how powerful and influential social media has become.  Online social sharing is now as common, if not more, than reading the newspaper, and celebrating the successful is not nearly as crucial as mitigating the miserable. What can be learned from this month’s mishaps?

“Rick Perry’s Drunken Speech” video has over 500,000 views on Youtube and shows a loopy Governor giggling and yelping through a campaign stop.  Perry’s communications and press people had to have known that even if a silly speech isn’t televised, it’ll still be all over the Today Show the next morning.  It’s just how today’s media works.  What kind of damage control would have worked best here, if any?

The Texas governor needed a rebound after the “drunken” video debacle, and his handlers rightly assumed a national debate would be a great platform to change the Rick Perry storyline.  It’s simple:  know the talking points, stay on topic, and get the appropriate message across.  Mr. Perry failed miserably at the debate on November 9th with his now infamous “Oops” moment.  How much message training is really enough?

Next up:  Herman Cain. When asked if he agreed with President Obama’s handling of Libya, he seemed comically confused.  Thanks to the power of social media, the non-televised interview has been everywhere (Jon Stewart even professed his love for Mr. Cain over it).   Was the “lack of sleep” excuse a credible one? Who thinks up these things?

While you mull over these incidents, a few lessons from the modern media world:
     The cameras are always rolling. (even an iPhone in the audience)
     With message training, one size does NOT fit all. Some folks will always need extra prep and notes.
     “Snark is the new black (to quote The Good Wife)  No matter how innocuous the gaffe, it will be twisted and tweaked     for maximum (negative) media appeal.

Share your observations and lessons here.

When PR And Legal Strategies Clash

A recent episode of “The Good Wife” offers a highly entertaining look at crisis management inside a law firm and the tension between PR advice and legal counsel. A strategy session for a client whose tainted cheese has sickened dozens of schoolchildren erupts in war between the attorney, who wants to stonewall media calls, and a $60,000-a-month spinmeister (played to the hilt by Alan Cumming), who pushes for “the full Toyota.”

It’s over the top, but it illustrates the classic court of law/court of public opinion debate. Add social media, and the picture gets cloudier. Take the blogstorm around a cheeky ad for Pfizer’s Chapstick. Pfizer’s stilted response to critical comments and its legalistic web disclaimers had bloggers smacking their lips about a “social media death spiral.” It wasn’t that, but maybe there’s a good reason for lawyers not to be the voice of a brand’s Facebook page.

And, I don’t want to harp on the Penn State nightmare, but I’d be surprised if anyone other than lawyers crafted ex-President Graham Spanier’s terrible excuse for a public statement last week.

The job of legal counsel is to minimize liability. A PR counselor’s priority is to protect reputation, often by advocating  an apology PR tour from the top guy. Those goals can come into conflict where public disclosure is concerned. Yet there’s a growing need for PR and legal to learn to work together. So, how do we make it work?

Collaborate. There’s no reason to have lawyers drafting social media policy or controlling internal communications. A collaborative treatment of non-urgent communications and overall policy will always beat a unilateral approach. This means you have to get in the same room (or on the same call) and hash things out on a regular basis.

Involve PR early. A seasoned practitioner can help ward off trouble down the road, or at the very least articulate the risk involved in poor or non-existent communications to the corporation or brand. And if litigation is inevitable, a professional communicator or litigation PR expert can be an invaluable part of the team.

Look at public communication as a strategic tool. An offensive PR strategy can convince potential litigants that they’ve a weaker case than they thought. If properly handled, it might help influence public opinion in the event of a trial, — but only in concert with a skilled attorney.

Assess the image liability as well as the legal one. It’s all about risk. The risk of brand damage, customer anger, etc. is as real as the downside of legal action. Studies have shown that when a company is accused of wrongdoing in a suit, more than a third of the public believes that it is probably guilty. And far more (58% by one study) will think a company is guilty when it responds to charges of wrongdoing with a “no comment.”

Educate one another. Take it from me, PR professionals tend to see the attorney as “Dr. No,” with good reason. Yet we’re ignorant of the finer points of legal risk analysis and strategy. A corporate attorney, on the other hand, has many priorities that don’t include public reputation. Each side needs to be more open to the goals and priorities of the other, especially when the stakes are high.

Apology PR: What Happened To The ‘Good Wife’?

For the record, I thought Rep. Anthony Weiner’s apology was fairly strong. He accepted responsibility, admitted that he lied, vowed to change, and issued apologies to practically everyone in the universe, even the Democrats’ Darth Vader, Andrew Breitbart. (Who, in a surreal move, nearly hijacked Weiner’s air time…but that’s another post.) Weiner then subjected himself to endless cringe-inducing questions from the press rabble.

But there was one thing missing from Weiner’s exercise in apology PR, and that was his wife, Huma Abedin. Ms. Abedin’s absence, and her low profile throughout “Weinergate,” has been noted by the press.  It’s indicative of an independent spouse’s prerogative, but also possibly of changing attitudes about the role of “the good wife” in crisis management strategy and public perception.

We’re accustomed to the supportive, unwavering spouse who literally stands by her man, — in public,  in the most humiliating circumstances possible. Who can forget Silda Spitzer’s hollow gaze, or Dina McGreevy’s odd smile? The good wife has been an essential element of the reputation playbook. Observers, especially female observers, are meant to think, “If she can forgive him and stay by his side, then surely I can do the same.”

But things are changing. Part of it may be that high-achieving political wives like Maria Shriver and Huma Abedin have more to lose by expressing tacit approval, or at least forbearance, in the face of bad behavior. They have their own careers, goals, and identities that aren’t inextricably bound to their marital status.

But I also think that public opinion has evolved. The dutiful spouse who must demonstrate unquestionable loyalty to her husband is no longer a part of the crisis management handbook or the apology formula. A wife isn’t merely an accoutrement in the drama. Nor is she a lighting rod or surrogate for the female demographic.

Here’s one reason why I think public perception has changed. I’ll bet that if Ms. Abedin had appeared at her husband’s presser, we’d have thought, “Why does he have to drag her into this mess?” And rightly so. I’m not sure if the good wife is dead, but she’s definitely getting more independent, and more interesting.

And that’s a good thing.