Jun 09

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Guest Post by Anonymous

June 9 Once upon a time, people relied on this cool invention called a telephone to remotely communicate with others. Then, e-mail came onto the scene and people practically forgot about this nifty communication device. While e-mail can be a time-saving method for getting messages out, it can also be unreliable ― an aspect that can be a reputation killer in today’s fast-paced business world.

For example, a reporter recently sent me a request via e-mail, which I gladly would have replied to if I had received it. However, due to the mysteries of e-mail servers and fiber optic cables, the message never reached my inbox.  Instead, it ended up in that black hole known as “cyberspace.”

Now, you may think this seems harmless, but this reporter was extremely offended by my lack of response (mind you, I was completely unaware of his request). Rather than pick up the phone to determine if I received his message, he decided to email the head of my company and bash my PR skills. Thankfully, my boss knows I would never be so unprofessional so he did not take this to heart. However, if I did not build this rapport with him this email could have completely damaged my reputation. 

All that said, my advice to everyone is to remember that e-mail is not always reliable. So whether you are managing your reputation or others’, if  e-mail is not getting the job done, take AT&T’s advice: “Reach out and touch someone.” 

Jun 04

Allowing PR firms to advertise is like handing a loaded gun to a child

June 4 - mad_men I hate almost all forms of advertising. But, having perused the brand, spanking new monthly version of PR Week and seen some of the print ads from PR firms, I must say we are especially inept at the dying art form.

Advertising, on the rare occasion when and where it makes sense, should strike a connection between the brand and the consumer. It should make me want to experience the 'product' being hyped by convincing me I need it in my world. Most ads suck because creative directors are more concerned with impressing other creative directors and winning awards than in selling their clients' services.

That same myopic approach holds true in spades for the PR firms who advertise. With one notable exception, the ads in the new PR Week are all inward-facing, boast about the agency, its people or its acumen and do absolutely nothing to connect with the pain that's keeping corporate clients up at night. Here are some examples (with the names excised to protect the guilty):

  • 'HTML. Spanish. Twitter. Mandarin. Newspeak. JavaScript. Slang. Layman's terms. Plain English. Jargon. Word-of-mouth. Arabic. We speak your language.' (Note from Rep: You damn well better speak the client's language.)
  • 'You come to us for perspective. So here's some. With eight agencies, several core disciplines, but one shared focus, XYZ has the ability to see what others can't – yada, yada, yada.' (Ho hum. So can every other agency. Next.)
  • 'Mission Statement: Our mission is not to be the best agency in America, but the best agency to work for (cite awards). If we are the best place to work, we will retain the best people (cite retention rate). If we have the best people, we will attract the best clients (insert client list). With the best people and clients, how can be not be the best agency in America? (Cite awards). Mission accomplished.' (My, aren't we a bit self-centered? And, btw, what image comes immediately to mind when one sees the phrase ‘Mission Accomplished’? Think aircraft carrier and a former president.)

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Jun 03

Identify your arch nemesis

I just attended this year's PRSA Counselors Academy Spring Conference.

I've belonged to the Academy for at least 15 years and believe it to be the single, smartest professional development I've ever made.

I always seem to take away a gem of an idea or two that make me and my firm just a little bit better. And this year's conference was no different.

June 3 - geek-squad2 Monday's keynote speaker was Stephen Roberts, founder of Geek Squad, a 24,000 employee strong, global tech support company. Despite being a self-confessed geek, Roberts is way cool. And, way smart. And a big believer in public relations. He thinks "advertising is the price you pay for being unremarkable." He sees PR as the real deal since reporters have to be convinced your story is of value to their readers, viewers or listeners or else it ends up in the circular file (virtual or physical).

Roberts shared his views on how he created and expanded his company and how he keeps it authentic. He also told us what keeps him up at night: the fear that a newer, hipper, more cost effective competitor will appear unexpectedly and steal market share.

To prevent (or forestall) that from happening, he's in the process of creating the Geek Squad's 'arch nemesis.' Check this out: he's literally creating the business model for a company that would compete with his own. He's anticipating everything from virtual service models to lower pricing structures. How cool is that? It's a 2009 version of Clayton Christianson's disruptive technology strategies of eight to 10 years back.

And, it got me thinking.

When I conjure up images of an arch nemesis, brands like Edelman, Weber and other aircraft carrier types come to mind. But, then, I think, nah: Peppercom's real arch nemesis is some start-up or some hybrid model I'm not thinking of. The traditional firms won't be the big winners in a few years time. And, it may not be the independent midsized firms either. In fact, it may not even be a PR firm.

I have no idea who my arch nemesis is (or will be), but I do know that I want to devote several hours of our upcoming management retreat to think long and hard about the type of agency I'd create today if I wanted to take away Peppercom's market share tomorrow.

And, that my friends, is why I belong to the Counselors Academy.

May 19

The spokesperson from hell

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. has some kind of crisis on its hands. Seems a 'celebrity' spokesperson hired by the pharmaceutical maker to shill for its bipolar disorder medication, Abilify, not only stopped taking it, but now says the pill made him feel worse than anything else he's taken before or since. Ouch!

May 19 - Sum05_SOAndy Behrman, who suffers from bipolar disorder, underwent electric shock therapy and later wrote a book about his struggles, was paid a total of $400,000 over the course of a few years to say good things about Abilify. Problem is, he didn't like it, only took it for a few days and said it caused 'stiffness and agitation in his legs' and 'clouded his thinking.'

Bristol-Myers spokespeople said Berman never breathed a word about his issues with the drug while under contract. Behrman says otherwise. In addition to slamming Bristol-Myers, the spokesperson from hell also threw a PR agency media trainer named Elyse Margolis under the bus. He says she schooled him to reiterate in interviews that Abilify had no side effects; to say the drug had 'saved' him; and to avoid mentioning he was being paid by Bristol-Myers. If asked about the latter, he was to answer truthfully, say he couldn't disclose the amount and 'move on.'

This is one tough dilemma. What does an organization do when it has a rogue spokesperson on its hands? Behrman is no longer under contract and free to say anything he wants (which he's obviously doing in spades). For its part, Bristol-Myers is trotting out other, happier spokespeople to defend the drug, which rang up sales of $2.15 billion last year. The big pharma company can only hope The Wall Street Journal article doesn't spawn a feeding frenzy by a 24X7 news beast just spoiling for a new crisis.

We've never had to deal with a true spokesperson from hell. My partner, Ed, once worked with a software maker CEO who also happened to be a part-time cult leader. He claimed to elevate people and turn conference rooms gold. Happily, he only discussed software challenges in the interviews we arranged. Another media-trained client did a remarkable job in a Crain's Chicago Business interview. He kept to the script, nailed his points and happily escorted the reporter to the elevator. And, that's where everything went South. 'Great office space,' mused the reporter. 'Oh, we're moving next week,' responded the effusive client. 'In fact, we've signed a long-term lease for 20,000 square feet on Main Street.' Guess what angle the reporter chose to pursue?

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May 12

World class networking and a chance to honor Valerie Di Maria? What more could you ask for?

May 12 - big apples Winning PRSA New York's Big Apple awards in the mid and late 1990s helped put a fledgling Peppercom on the radar screen of PR's movers and shakers. The events also helped yours truly hone my nascent networking skills.

So, when I was asked to chair the sponsorship committee for this year's event, I readily agreed despite the challenges of doing so in the worst economy in recent times. I'm happy to report we've raised quite a few bucks and that the event, set for May 21st at the Rainbow Room, should be way cool.

I'm doubly pleased that longtime buddy and erstwhile client, Valerie Di Maria, will be receiving the John W. Hill Award that night. Valerie, you see, was also instrumental in my firm's early success. It was Valerie who, as head of GE Capital's corporate communications at the time, rolled the dice and hired a very new and still relatively inexperienced Peppercom for a major branding program. It was a huge breakthrough win for us and established our street cred in a major way.

So, here's hoping you can join hundreds of other PR types in an uber networking event and pay homage to a most deserving industry leader, Valerie Di Maria. Trust me, it's a relatively small, but strategically smart, investment for you and your organization.

Apr 15

I hate to say I told you so, but….

You know a seismic upheaval is underway when an advertising professional says public relations is the smartest marketing investment a company can make in a recession. I'll let you read what Steve McKee of a Cleveland-based ad agency has to say, but I will add a few other points:April 15 - credibility1

1) Advertising has always insisted upon an inside-out approach along the lines of: "Hey! Look at our new product or service! Isn't it wonderful?'' Public relations, on the other hand, has always engaged a reporter and his/her audience in a problem-solution dialogue: "Hey! Did you know that 88 percent of Americans just surveyed said the number one thing they need is ABC? Our client has a next generation ABC that I think you and your readers will want to know more about."

2) People don't need to pay for advertising anymore, so they don't. Web 2.0 consumers depend upon word-of-mouth and other forms of credible endorsement to make informed decisions. They TiVo their way through television programs and delete intrusive online ads. That said, they search like mad for news and information from credible sources.

3.) PR is much, much more than what Mr. McKee describes. In the postEnron, current AIG environment in which we live, PR has become fundamental to a brand's image and reputation. Open and honest internal and external dialogue, transparent conversations and fiscal responsibility are the new watchwords of the consumer conversation.

Mr. McKee quotes the ad agency Crispin Porter Bogusky's definition of advertising as: "Making our clients heroes." In this 'new normal' in which we live, my definition of PR might be "Making our clients credible."

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Apr 09

We have no intention of becoming PR’s version of the Packard

Al Ries, marketing, branding and positioning guru
extraordinaire, has penned a most fascinating opinion piece in a recent Ad Age. April 9 - Packard

The Ries piece (I couldn't resist) warns such marketers as
Starbucks and Cadillac to stop cheapening their brand before it's too late.
Ries says the long lost Packard automobile did just that and died as a result.

Prior to The Great Depression, says Ries, Packard totally
dominated the U.S.
luxury car market. In fact, Cadillac was little more than a distant blip in
Packard's rear view mirror. But, when the downturn came, Packard developed a
much lower cost alternative. The cars sold well. But, when the economy
rebounded, newly affluent Americans went with Cadillac, which had remained true
to its high-priced, high-quality roots throughout the Depression. Packard never
recovered and eventually disappeared altogether in 1957.

Now, fast forward to today. I see lots of commentary in the
PR and advertising trades from agency leaders who are suggesting that others
follow their lead in cutting billing rates to 'ensure ongoing business and
demonstrate value.' I see other 'leaders' offering 'lite' versions of their
positioning, media training and media relations services or charging $500 per
press release. I think such 'strategies' scream desperation and cheapen an
agency's brand.

I think, instead, we should be providing additional value by
being more creative, getting closer to our clients' customers and helping our
clients fight the good fight when their purchasing, finance or legal
departments suggest wholesale marketing cuts.

Cheapening your brand by lowering your billing rates or
giving away your services in "a la carte" menu style will cause you
huge headaches when the economy rebounds. And good luck convincing your clients
that you deserve a rate increase just because other vendors have increased

We all have to endure budget cuts. They're a fact of life.
But offering the PR version of instant coffee a la Starbucks or a Cimarron a la Cadillac is a penny-wise, pound-foolish
strategy. (And Cadillac's mistake of the 1980s was all the more dumbfounding,
considering that it defied the very strategy that made them a big name brand
coming out of the Depression.)

The good times will return. Maintaining one's position as a
high quality service provider during the downturn will ensure a swifter return
to heady profits in the days to come. We, for one, have no interest in
becoming our industry's version of the Packard.

Jul 08

Bottom rail on top now

It warms the heart of this public relations practitioner to read the June 23rd PR Week headline: ‘AnPr
unstable media landscape has journalists seeking PR positions.

Frank Washkuch’s article says that more and more journalists are leaving the newsroom to, gasp, go over to the dark side and become PR practitioners. Yes, Virginia, the handwriting is on the proverbial wall (or whiteboard, if you prefer) and the exodus has begun.

Over the years, many an erstwhile journalist has left his chosen profession to become a PR flack for the higher pay and better stability. But, says Washkuch, the recent across-the-board downsizing at all the major media outlets has turned the trickle into a torrent.

I think it’s great for the public relations profession. We benefit when we have more and more seasoned journalists to help noodle over client challenges. And, we really benefit from their built-in bullshit detectors. Journos know what constitutes a story and what doesn’t. Sadly, there are more than a few PR types who churn out ‘brochure speak" and have no nose for news.

So, give us your hungry, your poor, your huddled masses of journalists. We’ll take ’em. And, in the meantime, maybe some of you journalists should think twice about bashing public relations in your next column. The industry you skewer may one day be your own.

Apr 08

When the aircraft carriers sail into your waters

Economists and pundits alike are quick to point to telltale signs of an impending Recession. Some citePr
housing starts. Others look at consumer spending habits. Me, I look at what the large PR agencies are doing. And, when I experience what I just experienced, I know that, yes Virginia, the economy is indeed heading South.

The experience I’m referring to was a recent new business pitch for a Web 2.0 start-up. We were up against a few other midsized firms as well as one aircraft carrier (that’s inside PR speak for a large agency). The prospect loved our ideas, loved our team and called to tell us we’d won. Yay! Break out the champagne! Or, based upon the smallish-sized budget, break out the Bud Light! Regardless, it was time for a mini-celebration.

And, then, things changed. A day or so after we’d been told we’d won, the prospect called to say they were "still reviewing a few other proposals." Oh. Then, another day passed and we were told it was between us and another top midsized firm. Uh oh. Finally, the prospect called to say they’d selected the aircraft carrier. Apparently, the large firm’s CFO had called the prospect over the weekend, committed to an amazingly small retainer and guaranteed, in writing, that the firm would invest $50k in time of their senior account manager. I told the prospect we couldn’t and wouldn’t compete with that.

So, what does it say when the big guys are willing to compromise the rest of the playing field by slashing fees and giving away their time? In my mind, it cheapens our industry and belittles our value add. It’s also probably a pretty good economic indicator of what the big guys are experiencing now and what might lie ahead for the rest of us. If so, batten down the hatches and be prepared for more aircraft carriers to start sailing into your waters.

Feb 27

Fear is innovation’s mortal enemy

Lots of us work, or have worked, for people who made us afraid to fail. They scared us so much that weYelling
became paralyzed with fear. One of my bosses routinely screamed at me and others. Another took his cigarette and lit one of my newsletters on fire to show his displeasure. A third would surreptitiously undercut many of my moves behind my back.

Beth Comstock, president of NBC Universal Integrated Media, recently addressed the subjects of fear and risk-taking at an Institute of Public Relations audience. During her address, she asked: ‘Is there anyone here who hasn’t spent a sleepless night anticipating the next day’s big story, having quite confidently told our boss or our client we knew the outcome and then living in fear of being fired the next morning for not delivering what we promised? I’ve been fired in my imagination at least a couple hundred times.’

While I can totally sympathize with Beth (a former client, btw), I’d like to think the draconian work environments I knew in the 1980s and early ’90s (and she apparently knew until quite recently) are the exception, and not the norm.

Managing by fear may be a sure fire prescription for Six Sigma-type compliance, but in today’s rapidly-changing world, businesses desperately need risk takers. To her credit, Comstock says she encourages risk taking at NBC. I sure hope so, because staying awake nights worrying if a failed media placement might cost a job, is no way to inspire out-of-the-box thinking. Come to think of it, it’s not much of a way to live either.