Archive for February, 2008

PR’s world: bad writing, bad pitching and PO’d journalists

Sally Saville Hodge

One of my more mortifying moments since hanging up my PR shingle 20 years ago:

I was having lunch with a former colleague who was the editor of a local business publication when he pulled out a news release, liberally doused with red ink, that had been sent out by my firm.

“I was really surprised, Sal, to see this coming from you,” he said. And he proceeded to itemize why: A variety of typos had, er, slipped through – including our phone number and in the spelling of the name of our business. There were grammatical errors. The run-on sentences took my breath away.

As these things went, he told me kindly, this was not one of the worst press releases he’d ever seen. He (as I in my journalism days) could cite example upon example of purely dreadful crap issued in the guise of “public relations.” Ten-page releases chock-full of irrelevant information (like where a business owner’s oldest son had graduated from college). Pieces that were only marginally veiled sales sheets. Releases where you might find the point if you had the patience to read through to the last page (most journalists don’t).

Mortified, I still thanked my friend, telling him that I was just as surprised as he was, as this was the first time I was seeing the release myself. Yes, the account executive had broken my cardinal rule that I see everything before it is distributed. And, yes, she would have been fired immediately upon my return to the office had she not resigned as soon as I confronted her.

The drek produced by many shops is only one reason why journalists and PR practitioners have a love/hate relationship. The fact is that we need each other, even though many with the media hate to admit it. But too many agencies and their people work in a way that makes it harder for those of us who are more thoughtful in positioning storylines that meet the needs of the media as well as our clients.

Two blogs of note for clients and agencies to monitor to grow their understanding of best practices in media relations – by virtue of negative examples. One is The Bad Pitch Blog, providing appallingly hilarious tales from the trenches. These guys just wrote about another blog that makes for interesting reading, AngryJournalist.com. On this front, I find it very comforting to note that while its contributors are angry at bad flaks, they are equally angry at themselves, their editors, their co-horts and peers, their advertising staff, their advertisers…

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February 28, 2008 at 9:24 pm Leave a comment

How higher ed can lower marketing costs

Judi Schindler

Institutions of higher learning typically benefit from a weak economy because unemployed workers are often forced back to school to learn new skills. With the current credit crunch, that may not be true this time around. According to recent press coverage in the Chicago Tribune and on MarketWatch, students who want to take out a loan to finance advanced education are encountering high interest rates or failing to qualify. Financing also has dried up for currently enrolled students.

That means lower enrollments for universities, colleges and trade schools, which are now scrambling to cut costs. Unfortunately, one place where most of the chopping occurs appears to be the marketing budget.

We all understand the need to trim. But the paring needs to be done with a scalpel, not an axe. And those wielding the sharp instruments should scrutinize the ROI of each item. Rather than simply reducing high-cost advertising and direct marketing campaigns, they may want to consider beefing up lower cost, targeted public relations and social marketing efforts.

Some ideas:

  1. Develop career and job placement stories for monster.com, careerbuilder.com and other Web sites geared to job seekers.
  2. Place feature stories on students or recent graduates in their hometown newspapers.
  3. Develop a career blog for each educational program and encourage contributors to promote their postings on their MySpace and Facebook profiles.
  4. Gain local visibility by inviting area residents and businesses to attend school performances, exhibits and lectures.
  5. Gain industry visibility by inviting a local company to sponsor a student, academic or career-focused competition.
  6. Develop a speakers’ bureau for your faculty and actively market these speakers for industry and chamber events.
  7. Look for opportunities for faculty and administrators to write bylined articles and/or op-ed pieces.

While such ideas are comparatively low cost, they do take time and effort to execute well.

It is easy to just hack away at the budget. But when you simply reduce spending, you also reduce your returns. In the long run, a more strategic approach that calls for reallocating part of the budget to new, creative initiatives will pay off in bigger dividends.

February 26, 2008 at 9:21 pm 4 comments

Monster Cable response to blog post is scary

Helena Bouchez

Note to Monster Cable Company: Hire someone who understands social media, immediately!

The company recently sent a two-page rebuttal to The Consumerist regarding the article “Monster Cables, Monster Ripoff: 80% Markups,” written and posted on Feb. 7 by Ben Popken, editor of this blog about consumerism. In a nutshell, a Radio Shack employee sent his store’s entire inventory list to The Consumerist, which included the wholesale and retail prices of every item in stock. The blog posted a list of Monster Cable items along with their wholesale and retail prices and then proceeded to rip on the company for over-inflating not just prices, but product performance assertions (especially on HDMI cables made for HDTVs, etc.).

Fair? Maybe. Maybe not. What matters more is that Monster Cable’s response, posted on Feb. 19, may have compounded the damage and also scared away potential customers by its lengthy, defensive and jargon-laden comeback.

The comments on Monster’s post offer insight on how the company might have turned this lemon into lemonade. As Hawk07 wrote:

“If it’s certified to be an HDMI cable, it’ll have the same quality regardless of who makes it since a digital signal is a digital signal.

“I would challenge the President or a videophile of his choosing to have 10 HDTVs setup using content of their choice (blu-ray or a live HDTV feed) and see if they can tell the difference between their top HDMI cable and a generic one bought for under $10.

“If they can pass that test, I think it would certainly give their company a lot more credibility. It’s also deceitful for them to try and pass a white paper off as credible like they did above. Either that, or their marketing department doesn’t know the difference between a white paper and an independent study.”

For a big picture view of just how important it is for companies to get their arms around social media asap, it might try reading Business Week’s Feb. 20 piece, “Social Media Will Change Your Business.”

Incidentally, if I were in PR over at Monoprice (Monster’s biggest competitor) I’d be dancing with joy right now, as Monoprice was mentioned in about every other comment on both posts, a combined 369 to date. Score one for Monoprice – and boo for  Monster Cables.

February 20, 2008 at 9:27 pm 4 comments

Technology on the edge: ooVoo

Helena Bouchez

Try as I might, I can’t seem to let go completely of my connection to the advertising business, where I worked for six years leading tech initiatives before crossing over to PR.

A search on my former employer landed me on George Parker’s AdScam blog, where I learned of a new (and free) video conferencing and video messaging site, ooVoo.com.

From the Web site: ooVoo is the next evolution in online communication — a remarkably easy way to have a face-to-face video conversation with friends, family or colleagues, no matter where they are in the world. OoVoo is remarkably easy to use, easy to download, easy to install, and best of all: it’s FREE!

OoVoo is promoting a series of “ooVoo days” during which bloggers host small video conversations with members of their online communities on various topics. Parker was hosting a few sessions, so I signed up for one. A complete technology meltdown (on my end) prevented me from doing more than listening to and seeing Parker and two other participants, but I experienced enough to see the potential benefits of this technology for all aspects of business (not just marketing).

Communicating this way is personal, immediate and powerful. That’s because it’s much more dynamic than straight chat or one-to-one video chat, as you can see people’s expressions and see them moving and talking.

It’s also pretty easy to use (my issues were Mac-based). To get started you need only to download the software and get a cheap webcam and a headset (or speakers and a microphone). Then you should be good to go (if you’re on a PC, that is). The biggest problem as I see it is going to be Internet bandwidth. As it was, the video was cutting in and out frequently and the voice was buffering so the participants sounded like they had a terrible stutter (we have a T-1 line).

But for those of us whose clients are always looking for ways to lower the cost of PR and marketing (and whose aren’t?) this technology (with a tad more maturity) is a powerful and low/no cost addition to the toolkit. We’re going to keep an eye on it. You should too.

February 19, 2008 at 9:12 pm 6 comments

Crisis communications: Have a plan, don’t panic, be smart

Chris Scott

Let’s face it: There’s a reason why “crisis communications” is a PR specialty that not every firm offers.

You see clients at their worst since responses are, as a rule, hasty, reactionary and dissected by all. It’s a pressure cooker for the agency charged with managing the situation because of the need to respond quickly and smartly – often in circumstances where the client is disinclined to follow its advice. And in addition to traditional media scrutiny, there are customers to consider, who have increasing word-of-mouth clout making them even more difficult to manage than the press.

But helping companies deal with the PR maelstrom created by recalls, product tampering or embarrassing behavior by top executives is part of an extremely important job, one that most companies are smart enough to not handle on their own.

Just ask officials at Wendy’s, who in 2005 had to deal with a customer claiming that she bit into a human finger in a bowl of chili. While the woman was eventually convicted of attempted grand theft and conspiracy in the fraudulent claim, the chain reportedly lost $2.5 million in sales thanks to the bad publicity. In essence, even proper handling of the incident still hammered Wendy’s reputation and its bottom line.

So what’s a smart company to do? The worst response, obviously, is to bury one’s head in the sand and hope the crisis will just go away. It’s also not a good idea to test the public’s (or the media’s) sense of trust when addressing the situation. Did absolutely no one at Mattell – anywhere – know that a manufacturing plant in China was using lead paint on Dora the Explorer and her buddies? And tread lightly with “dark blogs,” which are designed to be activated when a crisis happens. Their credibility is questionable since they often come off looking pre-packaged and not necessarily a direct response to the issue at hand.

A better idea is to consider crisis communications like your relationship with the dentist: Brushing and flossing every day will make you better prepared in the event a tooth unexpectedly chips or breaks. Likewise, having a concrete plan in place and not panicking once the crisis erupts can prevent the situation from becoming a catastrophe.

February 15, 2008 at 7:12 pm Leave a comment

Is this a kingly way to treat brand loyalists?

Sally Saville Hodge

It’s difficult to argue against an advertising campaign that so clearly, definitively – and, indeed, creatively – demonstrates the role that brand loyalty plays in a business’ success.

And yet, while I admire the minds behind Burger King’s latest advertising campaign, there’s something about its basic premise that makes me very uncomfortable.

Few can have missed either the commercials or the viral buzz around the effort. In a nutshell: Take away the reason why the vast majority of Burger King fans visit its restaurants to begin with – the Whopper – and listen to the howls of protest. For two full days that’s exactly what Burger King did at two of its restaurants in Nevada. The ostensive rationale, deadpanned one cashier to a stunned customer: “…they got too popular. The sandwich got too big for the menu.”

As the Wall Street Journal reported, it all paid off quite nicely for the No. 2 fast food chain, helping drive up Burger King’s sales in the quarter ended Dec. 31 by double-digits. (Even as things were flat under the golden arches.)

It was all filmed by hidden cameras at two outlets in Nevada, using actors as cashiers. But the customers and their outrage over a Burger King without Whoppers were quite real, as footage, seen in commercials and virally (a special Burger King site and on YouTube), so aptly showed. Part of the act was to slip a competitor’s burger in customers’ bags and watch their befuddlement. “I didn’t bring that in here,” said one. “I hate Wendy’s!”

Interestingly enough, the Wall Street Journal used one word several times to describe the campaign, which might partially explain why it so discomfits me: Hoax. Synonyms would include “trick,” “swindle” and “ruse.” Other words that come to mind: Dishonest. Mean.

I think I’m probably in the minority in letting this bother me. But then again, I’m not a big fan of humor that involves pratfalls and physical pain, or of “reality” TV in general, for that matter.

Burger King got a great campaign out of this effort. But it was derived from a cruel joke on people who are its most die-hard fans. Is that any way to build a brand?

February 12, 2008 at 10:48 pm 1 comment

Chicken. Egg. Press Release. Pitch. Which comes first? Who cares?

Sally Saville Hodge

One of the most time-honored questions that I have been asked more times than I can possibly count over a very long career as a communicator has also got to be one of the most inane:

Do you send the press release to the reporter first? Or pitch first?

This burning issue reared its head again as a non sequitur at the end of a long thread of comments on a recent Tough Sledding post. Author/moderator Bill Sledzik was gracious but apparently nonplussed: Dunno, he said. When he was a practitioner, he hated doing media relations.

For those of us who do it anyway, here are some ways to look at it.

First, the press release is only one tool in the PR arsenal. And a lot of people, myself included, believe that it’s losing its relevance for many purposes. In an environment where “mass” is losing ground to one-on-one relationship building, a release that the journalist knows is also being send to hundreds of other reporters (since most PR folks follow the “more s— you throw against the wall” theory) will pretty much prompt a hit on the delete button.

Secondly, how do most practitioners “pitch” these days? Maybe our brand of PR is different, but 99 percent of our pitching is done via e-mail. We save the phone – when it’s necessary – for follow-up conversations after we’ve established a contact. Using the phone for the initial pitch (whether it’s been preceded by a release or not) is almost guaranteed to get you lost in voicemail hell.

But if you must do a press release (a fact sheet or FAQ won’t do), here’s an answer to this pressing question, a solution that seems tailor-made for the times. Which comes first? Both!

Your pitch is the text of the e-mail. Short, sweet, customized, and clearly showing that you understand your idea’s relevance to each reporter and his/her readers. And, might I mention, well-written, as well. But you also embed the release in the text field below the pitch and mention its presence for the reporter’s convenience.

A two-fer. Another issue solved.

February 8, 2008 at 6:41 pm Leave a comment

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