Dec 19

Please Don’t Hurt My Embargo

Guest Post by Andrew Stein

As someone that pays my rent through my work as a so-called “PR flack,” I found Michael Arrington’s recent post on TechCrunch to be rather interesting.  In his “Death to the Embargo” statement, Arrington proclaims that TechCrunch, one of the world’s most influential tech blogs, will no longer honor any sort of embargo or NDAs. 

The blog’s new policy is, and I quote, “From now our new policy is to break every embargo.  We’ll happily agree to whatever you ask of us, and then we’ll just do whatever we feel like right after that.”TechCrunch-logo-270

I have worked with a few different clients where we offer news under embargo and the thought alone of explaining why their international product announcement date was blown by someone we OK’d makes me nauseous.  However, I don’t completely disagree with Arrington’s frustration.   I understand his sentiment that tech companies are desperate for coverage and some PR firms now offer pre-briefs as easily as the guys handing out strip club cards on Las Vegas Boulevard.   By offering a “special” embargo to every, it cheapens the news.  It also greatly increases the risk that will jump the gun in order to be first and create a name for itself.  I get that, and couldn’t agree more that we as “PR flacks” need to do our jobs intelligently and strategically.

However, the idea that TechCrunch will now agree to a NDA, all-the-while knowing they are not going to keep it, is dishonest.  And yes, shame on us for reading this post and thinking our agreement will be held. We have been warned.  But for a blog that strives to be considered a respected editorial outlet, there needs to be some level of trust.  PR firms are not going away and, while some may be irresponsible in their jobs, a large percentage of us represent our clients the right way.  Blogs such as TechCrunch need our help, even if they don’t want to admit it.

Embargos are meant to be issued as a win-win for both sides.  In my experience (can’t speak for all), we identify certain, top-tier reporters and bloggers that we deem as the major influencers, and offer them a head start on the news to provide time to set up their story and perhaps gain an inside perspective. The win for the client is improved relationships and visibility with important media outlets in hopes of placing positive coverage. 

By sticking to this policy, I believe TechCrunch will eventually be hurting itself.  Important technology companies that TechCrunch readers expect to read about will decide not to offer news in advance due to this “guarantee” of a blown NDA.  Arrington states that a major reason for this policy is that sites like Google News and TechMeme prioritize based on what site broke the news first, which has led to others jumping the gun.  However, by scaring companies away from offering pre-briefs, this is exactly what will happen.  The TechCrunch editors will obtain news at the same time its competitors are already posting their stories.

A double-edged sword?  Maybe.  I’m not in Arrington’s shoes to know how much PR spam email he gets.  Again, I agree with Arrington that some in the PR industry have acted unprofessionally and lazily in the way they perform their jobs and they deserve to be called out and blasted.    However, I do know there are PR pros that look to build relationships with influential outlets like TechCrunch (which can be a lot easier said than done) and I don’t appreciate how he blankets the entire industry due to the actions of a few.  It’s true in any industry, not just PR, that some people are just not good at their jobs, and I don’t believe insulting the whole lot is the way to go about it. When it comes to this “I lie, but I told you so” mentality, I think it’s childish and there’s got to be a better alternative.  

Nov 20

Fuqua’s Poster Boy of the ’90s has Become the Jeff Skilling of Our Times

When we represented Duke University's Fuqua School of Business in the 1990s, we heard faculty and administrators alike wax poetic about their shining star, Rick Wagoner. At the time, Rick was rising through the ranks of America's (and the world's) largest car company, General Motors. And, he was emblematic of how far a Fuqua grad could go in the business world. Gm_to_close_windsor

Fast forward to yesterday's Congressional hearings and, sadly, Mr. Wagoner has become an icon for the sagging American economy. Under his cautious, reactionary leadership, GM did just about everything wrong: pulling back from hybrid and electric cars, investing in gas-guzzling SUVs and Hummers, and waiting way too long to curtail excessive UAW pay scales and lifetime healthcare for former employees.

Yesterday, along with the leaders of Detroit's other two horribly-run car companies, Wagoner came before Congress to beg for a $25 billion bridge loan. To add insult to injury, he flew back-and-forth on GM's corporate jet. In fact, Wagoner and his peers have failed in all aspects of public relations.

Rick Wagoner's earned a spot alongside such other infamous American chief executives as Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap and Dennis Kozlowski. He didn't do anything illegal. Wagoner just didn't do anything smart or strategic, which is what top B-school grads are expected to do. 

When business historians analyze the rise and fall of the American automobile industry, Wagoner will most likely have the final chapter and epilogue all to himself. As for the Fuqua School, I have to believe they've started shining the spotlight on other, more successful alums.

Oct 22

Clients Better Brace Themselves for a Deluge of Direct Mail

Marketing Consultant Robb High makes a living from advising agencies of all kinds how to win new business. With the recent economic cataclysm in mind, Robb has focused his latest missive on agency mailings (assuming, I guess, that many agencies will suddenly start sending blast e-mails and conducting mass mailings to drum up business).

Robb says less than one in four agencies bother to market themselves in this way. That comes as no surprise. Most agencies disdain self promotion for one of two reasons:

1) They mistakenly believe their sole purpose in life is to represent clients and to do otherwise would be somehow less than wholesome. My reaction to this? One’s agency should always be one’s most important client. Agencies are like baseball managers. We’re hired to be fired. It may be a month, a year or a decade, but we’ll be fired at some point. I’ve always believed that focusing on what’s best for one’s agency and one’s brand is the single smartest business strategy in any type of economy.

2) They don’t allocate the proper resources to agency marketing. This is another big mistake. I must admit that I’m constantly fighting a rearguard action within Peppercom, trying to make sure my agency publicity team isn’t cherry picked away for either a new account or a client crisis. It’s an ongoing battle, but agency CEOs must treat their own account as a critically important one. We assign hours, develop an annual program, assign budgets and demand accountability. And, I do my best to make sure it’s enacted.

In his note, High also talks about not doing a mailing just for the sake of mailing. He’s absolutely right. Clients and prospects couldn’t care less about new business wins or new hires. Instead, they respond to thought leadership in the form of primary research conducted by the agency, opinion pieces on topical subjects or a particularly relevant case study (I tend to shy away from the latter since they tend to be too self-serving).

So, with the sky falling and the mass media pushing one economic horror story after another, clients and prospects should steel themselves for an onslaught of virtual and snail mail from scared agency types. Most of it belongs in the circular file, but keep your eyes open. Every now and then, you’ll receive a real gem that can provide a new or different perspective on an existing program. And, that’s what separates the wheat from the chaff in an effective mailing campaign.

Sep 30

The Business of a Client’s Business

"The business of a client’s business." That’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? I sure think so. In fact, we use it as firm’s our signature tagline.

We do so for a reason. Because we have so many more offerings than your average, plain vanilla PR firm, we "touch" a client in many different ways.

One day, we’ll work with a business continuity manager on a crisis/security plan for his organization. On another day, we’ll work with a chief marketer to close the communications gaps between her sales and marketing teams. On other occasions, we’ll liaise with a client’s interactive group to create its first intranet.

All of this adds up to a deeper understanding of the client’s business. And, that’s a big deal. Especially nowadays, with the markets tanking. Clients want to know their PR firms understand the role of public relations within the marketing mix. They also expect agencies to understand the implications of a stock’s rise or fall and meeting or missing the Street’s expectations.

GE CEO Jeff Immelt emphasized some of these points at his recent Arthur Page Society keynote address. Keith O’Brien’s PR Week opinion piece speaks to the need for PR people to "get" business. And, Brian McGee, who chairs the College of Charleston’s communications department, sees more and more students declaring business administration as their minor.
If our industry wants to claim (and maintain) a seat at the table during these times of
rollicking economic uncertainty, we need to know more than just the name of a Wall Street Journal editor, we need to understand what happens on Wall Street itself. Until then, we run the risk of being further marginalized on prices and continuing to be perceived as little more than press release writers, special events managers and party planners.

Sep 10

It’s All About Engaging in the Conversation

Our very own Sam "The Hilltopper" Ford moderated a most excellent PR Week webcast yesterday on the subject of digital communications. Specifically, Sam and his three panelists (Paula Berg from Southwest Airlines, Russ Castronovo from Sun Microsystems and Paula Drum from H&R Block) discussed best practices for closing the gap that exists in many corporations between communicators who "get" digital" and senior management who don’t.

Each panelist had different success stories and cautionary tales, but each seemed to focus on one central theme: the best way to convince the c-suite of digital’s importance is to share what’s being said about the organization on the Web. To be more precise, Paula Berg showed her executives what Southwest’s customers were saying about the airline in various chat rooms. From there, it was relatively easy to convince them to not only begin blogging, but to be strategic about it. She cited her company’s anticipation of Aloha Airlines’ chapter 11 filing and Southwest’s aggressive Web postings that offered stranded passengers immediate solutions.

Castronovo said Sun is blessed with a culture that revels in blogging and believes that not responding to what’s being said on the Web is akin to not answering the phone.

For her part, Drum credits H&R Block’s digital communications program with helping to re-position the firm away from being solely seen as "store fronts on a corner" and, instead, as a financial counselor.

Each panelist agreed that, when it comes to digital, seeing is believing. Paula Berg said her CEO’s "Eureka" moment came when she forwarded a Twitter comment from a customer. He immediately sensed the new technology’s importance and asked for a 45-minute tutorial.

I’ll add other observations in coming blogs, but rule one for closing the digital divide with the C-suite seems to be sharing what’s being said about the brand in Cyberspace and encouraging the decision-makers to engage in the dialogue.

Aug 28

Might This Be the Next Chapter in “The New Adventures of Old Christine?”

I admire initiative. And, I have a special love for entrepreneurs, what with Peppercom and all. So, when I received this unsolicited e-mail pitch from "Christine," I was initially impressed:

Attention Entrepreneurs & Executives,

Do you have a unique business or product that you want everyone to know about TODAY?

Get a $1 million dollar publicity campaign with expert publicists working for you for as little as a couple of dollars per day.

How much is an appearance on the "Good Morning America" TV show worth to you?

Join the many happy product innovators that received this offer in the past and can claim great exposure and unheard of income.

Note:  A new media campaigns launch on September 1st.

There is a selection process, so CALL ME TODAY and watch your sales SOAR Sky High.

I look forward to talking with you today,

For more details, call Christine at xxx-xxx-xxxx or send her an email at

Testimonials available upon request.

Then, I noticed the wording: "Get a $1 million publicity campaign with expert publicists working for you for as little as a few dollars a day." Hmmm. Well, okay, since this pitch is aimed at "entrepreneurs," I can certainly understand the price-cutting angle. We still receive lots of calls from small start-ups who would love to work with us, but have only a fraction of what we’d need to implement a program. So, yes Christine, those one and two-person start-ups should be your targets.

But, to suggest that "executives" of substantial companies would receive the equivalent of a $1 million publicity campaign by retaining your services is disingenuous at best.

I don’t know exactly what you do, but I’m guessing you have a Rolodex of media to whom you’d pitch the entrepreneurs’ products and services. Fine. That makes sense. But, to suggest that your smiling-and-dialing is in any way comparable to a sophisticated, million dollar public relations program is simply wrong.

Smiling-and-dialing is purely tactical and not the appropriate strategy for most, if not all, Fortune 1000 companies. Corporate executives like the ones we’re working with are struggling to understand the nuances and subtleties of the new media landscape. Smiling-and-dialing publicity pitches are just one small part of a much larger and more sophisticated outreach.
So, I wish you and your fellow expert publicists well, Christine. But, I suggest you edit
your blast e-mails. First, limit the distribution solely to entrepreneurs with limited budgets. Second, don’t suggest that your one-dimensional efforts are in any way comparable to a rigorous, multi-faceted PR program. That’s like saying The New Adventures of Old Christine is just as good as Seinfeld.

Aug 21

It May Not Be The Sopranos, But Mad Men is Catching on Fast

I can’t speak for others, but the AMC series Mad Men is white hot in PR and marketing circles.

In fact, I find myself discussing the breakaway "ad agency in the 60s" series in virtually every client or new business meeting I attend.250pxmadmenlogo

Whether it’s Sterling Cooper’s ill-fated decision to fire a small, existing airline account to pitch a larger one (Mohawk Airlines was grounded in lieu of American Airlines) or the unconscionable amount of smoking, drinking and carousing that permeates the agency’s walls, someone almost always brings up a Mad Men mention. It’s gotten to the point where not being Mad Men conversant has become a career impediment. 

True. Don Draper is no Tony Soprano. And January Jones, who plays his long-suffering wife, is no Carm, but Mad Men has all the earmarks of a huge, mainstream hit. Jon Hamm, who plays Draper, has already won an Emmy and, as we at Peppercom have found out, now charges $100,000 for a single appearance. So, clearly the series is catching on.

I’m not sure why Mad Men has become the next Sopranos, but it has. Forget about Weeds, Entourage, Generation Kill or any other wannabe. Mad Men is the real deal.

Aug 11

Talk About Fiddling While Rome Burns

I had to laugh when I read all about BP Products North America’s new lifestyle publicity campaign. It’s intended to show consumers how its new BP gasoline with Invigorate cleans and extends the use of engine parts, in the same way a healthy lifestyle contributes to a longer lifespan.

Oh, puh-lease. Is this the same BP that is racking up ungodly, $38 billion quarterly profits courtesy of its hyper-inflated gas prices? Is this the same BP that touted its environmentally-sensitive thought leadership only to be caught time and again abusing the ecosphere?512pxbp_logosvg

BP should stand for "beyond profits." Or, "Beyond the pale," if you prefer.

If this bad boy of the oil and gas crisis wants to launch a credible lifestyle campaign, they could use the very same Invigorate model, with one modification. They should focus on all the consumers who are now forced to walk, run or bike countless miles to get to and from work because of the oil company’s predatory pricing. As a result, they’re living longer, healthier lives! What a meaningful, unselfish contribution on BP’s part!

Someone at BP should have put the Invigorate campaign through the "sniff" test. When a company is being pilloried for its windfall profits, lack of corporate social responsibility and corporate misdeeds, should it launch a "feel-good" campaign highlighting athletes over the age of 30, who "….despite their age or abilities…..exemplify the Invigorate promise of feeling ‘younger for longer.’" I think not.

BP’s Invigorate campaign gets my vote for most out-of-touch program of the year. I only wish I could hit them with a surcharge for poor strategy.

Aug 04

If it’s Good Enough for the Council, Why isn’t it Good Enough for the Awards Programs?

Peppercom was one of the founding members of the Council of PR Firms ( In those early days, the Council was often criticized as being a "big agency" mouthpiece. I never felt that way, but I did understand the sentiment.

The Council retrofitted its structure, created tiered sections and now reflects the interests of small, medium and large sized agencies. Critically, the Council also tiered its membership fee structure. So, for example, Weber Shandwick pays a significantly higher fee then, say, a firm that only bills $5 million on an annualized basis.

So, why don’t PR Week, The Holmes Report, PR News and the various and sundry other industry trade media follow the same approach with their awards programs?

PR Week, for example, just announced its 2009 awards competition and lauded the fact that "…a record-setting 957 entries…" were received last year. What they fail to mention, though, is that a disproportionate percentage of those entries came from the largest agencies. Nor do they mention that large agencies almost always receive the most nominations and the most awards.Pr20weekaward

This is simply unfair. Large agencies have the wherewithal to devote the time and resources to compete for the awards. Indeed, quite a few have dedicated resources just to manage their array of submissions.

How level a playing field do we have when a Burson or Fleishman can submit 50, 60 or more entries while a small or mid-sized firm can only afford one or two? The answer is simple: the media should adopt the Council’s tiered pricing program. Large agencies should pay considerably more per submission tha
n do medium or smaller sized firms. Fair market pricing would dramatically level the playing field and make the awards programs less of a big agency feast and more of a true industry competition.

Jul 23

You Can Blame TV and the Movies for PR’s Alarming Gender Imbalance

College of Charleston Executive-in-Residence Tom Martin hits the nail on the head with his call to action on the PR industry’s growing gender imbalance.

Like Tom, I lecture at many college campuses. I also speak at PRSSA conferences and the Council of PR Firms’ most excellent Summer Internfests. Like Tom, I’ve noticed the increasing gender imbalance (he cites a current PRSA member survey revealing that 89 percent are women!). And, like Tom, I agree the lack of men is troubling, since we need to reflect the society in which we live.

Unlike Tom, though, I’m less than sanguine about the success of any education campaign aimed at attracting more young men to our ranks. Why? Because I think peer pressure is the real reason keeping the average college guy from expressing interest in public relations. What red-blooded guy wants to be seen as a "party girl?"

Most high school and college students see PR as a mix of "cocktail parties," "fashion shows" and all things "glam." The reason why is obvious: popular culture has squarely positioned PR jobs that way. "Sex and the city," "The Hills" and hundreds of lesser659x600websatcsamantha known TV shows and movies almost invariably portray PR professionals as
gum-cracking, hair-twirling young ladies. But, as those of us in the profession know, Hollywood is grossly distorting the truth. Most distaff members of the PR industry work on everything from crisis communications and new product introductions to high-level executive coaching and strategic counseling. The Lizzie Grubmans are few and far between.

But until, and unless, we can lobby Hollywood to alter its misleading stereotyping, PR will continue to be totally dominated by young women. And, that lack of gender diversity spells big trouble in the long-term, just as it would for any industry that is too heavily skewed towards a particular race or gender.