PR Nightmares, Volume One

April 29, 2008

Because my co-workers have set the bar so high here, I decided to go in another direction with today’s post. (And seriously, have you read the rest of the posts on BlogCaster? There’s some great writing and incredible marketing/public relations advice here, just ripe for the taking.)

Anyhow, because the rest of the internet occasionally exists for the sole purpose of giving me potentially shoddy and/or inspired ideas, I did the ol’ “So what’s in the news today?” drive-by, and I came across a few stories that really tickled me. I figured I’d share them with you and we could maybe make a project of this.

The project: Solving the Most Terrifying PR Problems Imaginable. If we all put our heads together, maybe we can devise strategies for helping these poor entities dig out of their undoubtedly huge PR holes. Alternatively, we could just make sophomoric jokes and/or attempt to be more clever than each other.

Our first three contestants:

A Baltimore-area condo whose residents are regularly startled late at night by a jarring explosion of light and sound that no one (not even Lester from The Wire, I would assume) can yet identify.

Imagine owning this condo development:

“The bedroom actually lights up like day,” says Elaine O’Mansky, who lives in the Stevenson Commons condominium building near Beth Tfiloh. “It’s instantaneous and wakes us up out of a very deep sleep.”

She isn’t alone. Barbara Friedman is Homeowner’s Association president for the area.

She was up late one night sweeping her back patio when she heard the boom.

“I hit the deck,” Friedman explained. “It was so loud, I thought I was being shot. I literally hit the deck.”

After she realized she hadn’t been shot, she started emailing other homeowners to see if they heard it too.

“Then my email got flooded because hundreds of people were hearing these noises and thought it was their imagination,” she said.

So how does Stevenson Commons spin its way out of this one? Only the comments section knows!

Then there’s the classic, textbook case of the abandoned U.S. Army minefield that became a beloved drive-in-movie theater and then a notoriously scuzzy flea market that was recently shut down because the state declared the site unsafe for the public because there’s, like, active mines and stuff still on the site. Which is unfortunate for the tiny, neglected borough of Palmyra, N.J., which has big, hopeful, puppy-dog designs on redeveloping the land. So, with a little bit of PR know-how, how do we make this site sound appealing, especially if the state doesn’t eventually step forward and basically pay people to develop there? (Don’t count that option out, of course. This is why we pay taxes, after all.)

And finally, add 9 to 411 and we have Josh Howard. I know Mark Cuban is anxiously awaiting our solid, sage, presumably sober advice with this one.

Let’s see if we can’t save these poor people from themselves, shall we?

Posted by: Joe Paone


PR for bloggers

April 29, 2008

It is cliche in the blogging world to write about blogging.  Meta-blogging, as it’s called, delves into the intricacies and anomalies of this ever growing medium of the weblog.  It seems everyone these days can’t wait to write down their innermost thoughts, hit publish and share their lives with an community of virtual strangers.

I started blogging as a way to put words on a page every day; an exercise in creative writing that I otherwise lack in my day-to-day life.  I have a small group of faithful readers who visit daily to comment on the inane ramblings and world views of a neurotic 20-something wanna-be writer.  I started out just wanting to vent and ended up entering a whole world that I never knew existed.  When my blog began getting linked to some more popular sites, the PR pitches began. 

The first pitch I received was to test out an online e-card service and complete a write-up on my site.  Mildly shocked that someone in public relations thought I was a worthy enough medium for their product to be reviewed, I took a look at the site.  It was a bit of a disaster and knowing there was no way in good faith I could recommend it to anyone, I politely declined.  By the time I joined the PR world, I had been pitched about a dozen times to review or discuss product on my blog.  I declined eleven out of the twelve offers.  Some of them were so far-fetched and beyond anything I had ever discussed on my blog, I couldn’t imagine why someone had wasted their time even pitching me.  That’s when I began to learn about the ongoing struggle the public relations field was having with the blogging world. 

Blogs have become our news sources and information guides and as such, they have a certain power to convey messages.  Waist-deep in the age of the internet,  bloggers can be incredibly influential and many are treated like journalists.  Tech blogs such as Engadget and Gizmodo hold about as much rank in the consumer electronics industry as any mainstream tech magazine.  But as much as we  like to compare them with journalists, the forum of blogging does not lend itself to the same pitches or story ideas that mainstream media outlets do.  Therein lies the struggle.

Case in point.

PR professional A decides to pitch blogs 1, 2 and 3 on a cool new tech product coming out in a few weeks.  Instead of reading through blogs 1, 2 and 3’s archives, PR pro A decides to just go ahead and write a generic pitch with press release attached to send to the bloggers.

PR professional B decides to pitch blogs 4, 5, and 6 on yet another cool tech product coming out but he takes the time to truly learn what the blogs write about, what they consider to be blog worthy, and what types of things they don’t typically cover.  When PR pro B writes his pitch, he mentions other products like his new product that the bloggers have written about before and makes an effort to show them why his product would make a good fit for a post on their sites. 

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which PR professional is more likely to get coverage for their client’s product.

Like all journalists, bloggers need to receive pitches applicable to the genre and content of their site.  But unlike all media oulets, blogs represent the new form of 24/7 news and information, with high content turnover and a necessary wow-factor to each post to give them the edge.  The plethora of weblogs on the internet make it important for each site to distinguish itself and its content to first gain a community and then to retain those readers.

The only pitch I ever responded to positively on my personal blog was one from an author wondering if she could send me a complimentary copy of her newest book and have me review it on my blog.  Being an avid reader and occasionally discussing books, movies and music on my site made this offer a perfect pitch for me.  Everything else – the astrology website, the garden tools, the high-chair company who wanted to send me the latest state of art high-chair for my baby?  (My very nonexistent baby?) 

Completely missed the mark. 

Posted by: Ashley


Would you like fries with that?

April 25, 2008

In London, Burger King is about to offer a burger for £85. That’s $167.45 US dollars. As part of a strategy to boost their premium market, the burger we’ve come to know will now likely contain wagyu beef and foie gras.

To make it fancy.

The driving force behind the initiative is two-fold: to convince diners that Burger King is not just a one-stop shop for grease, fat and carbs, but to also prove they are more high-scale than McDonald’s. In addition to the burger that costs more than I would ever spend on shoes (and I love shoes), plans for a number of exotic burgers using ingredients such as tiger prawns, steak and guacamole are in the works.

But McDonald’s is fighting back. UK execs have hired design legend Bruce Oldfield (he has designed for Princess Diana and Sienna Miller, among others) to revamp the uniforms you know and love. The goal? To reflect a more affluent, sophisticated image.

This means that bright colors will be replaced with muted blacks, beiges and browns and female management and front of house will wear high heels, pencil skirts and scarves. Men will wear suits.

Are you laughing yet?

The Chief People Officer for McDonald’s said, “The new uniform reflects how there is now a more up-market feel to the business. You still have the value meals but there are also the premium ones, and these uniforms give a more premium feel.”

Still laughing? Me too. Because working for an agency that caters to an affluent market, I feel like I need to send these UK fast food chains a message:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.

Just as I would never pitch high-end electronics to a publication looking for design on a dime, these restaurants should know that their “clients” want the food they know and love — quick, easy, familiar and affordable.

Know your demographic. Can Burger King customers afford a burger with such a hefty price tag? Perhaps some, but all? No way.  Seems to me like this PR team was standing a little too close to the frialator.

As for me, I don’t think I’ll be frequenting either establishment. I’m much more of a Wendy’s girl.

Posted by: Molly


Boston U Event Features PR Icon, Free Cheese

April 24, 2008

 

To celebrate the 60th Anniversary of its Master of Science Degree in Public Relations, my esteemed alma mater Boston University held a networking and panel event yesterday focused on “The Progress of Public Relations over the Years.”

 

Headlining the panel was Harold Burson, co-founder of Burson-Marsteller, the first public relations firm to amass revenues of $100 million and the industry’s “Most influential person of the 20th Century,” according to PRWeek in 1999.

 

After arriving late and in a rush (just like in college), I washed several wedges of cheese down with complimentary pinot grigio before deciding to “network” a bit with some of my fellow alums. Armed with a few of my favorite icebreakers such as, “Can I network with you (look at nametag and smile)…Carol?” and “The cheese is really great, isn’t it Bill?” I started to make my rounds.

 

With no press around for the PR flaks to fight over and share their agenda with, many of the attendees who were flying solo looked a bit bewildered. Not being shy, I approached a woman in her 40s who handled public policy for a major energy provider and asked about her cheese. She laughed and we started talking about our jobs before the conversation devolved into a debate over whether we would be more likely to give up all forms of cheese or all forms of alcohol.

 

The lesson: In face-to-face networking situations, it’s not about being a riveting conversationalist, it’s about having the confidence to approach someone and share your opinions, as absurd as they might be.

 

Once the panel started, there were long-winded and well-deserved introductions of the panelists followed by opening remarks. While much of the dialogue involved the history of PR and lessons learned, I found one topic especially compelling: The accountability of major corporations and how that can be tied into diplomacy, and what effects PR can have on the process. The example of the highly protested Olympic torch run was offered, with the question, “Should major sponsors pull out because of the Tibet issue?”

 

On the surface, it would seem that an American company would do well to position itself as a supporter of human rights and make a big deal about its withdrawal of sponsorship money as a sign of protest. A PR win, right? Not so much. While being associated with the Olympic brand has its advantages, these sponsors are really spending millions of dollars to reach consumers in China. From the accountability perspective, is it really worth sacrificing 1.2 billion potential customers for a soon-forgotten domestic PR “victory” against a foreign regime?

 

The lesson: Taking the moral high-road only appeases those who share the same morals as you, and acting on the impulses of an agitated public can often be the worst thing to do in a crisis situation. 

 

All in all, it was a good show put on by my alma mater, and I look forward to the 120th anniversary panel.

 

Oh, and regarding the booze and cheese discussion, I decided I would give up all beer and wine in exchange for being able to keep eating Italian cheeses.

 

Posted by: Nick


Celebrity Endorsements: The Good. The Bad. And the Good to Know.

April 23, 2008

Manufacturers beware. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

In general, celebrities get paid ridiculous amounts of money for their appearances, roles, voices, etc., and we all buy into this by seeing their movies, buying their albums and reading the gossip rags. The fact is, manufacturers seek out these megastars to pimp out their products…and pay a hefty amount to do so.

When does this all become unreasonable? Because we have bought into this industry and so heavily rely on celebrities to set trends in fashion, technology, entertainment and lifestyle, we have molded many of them into thinking that they are entitled to anything they want for free, and then ask for more.

The opportunity to “donate” product to a Hollywood “cause” comes up quite often in the PR atmosphere. More times than not, agency X calls upon PR representatives with the “best promotional opportunity ever,” and all for a low-low cost. And much like the used car salesman, that low-low cost comes with a ton of red tape and fine print that isn’t always clearly presented. Before you commit to anything, be sure to assess the situation, once the silver lining has faded.

From a PR perspective, the chance to leverage a brand using a well-known “It” person can be very advantageous, but at what cost? You most certainly think that the circulation and reach supersede the bottom line, right? Wrong. Don’t expect anything in return unless it is clearly stated in a contract.

It is daunting when an agent asks us for free product in return for a quote or two. Dare ask if the recipient of the products will appear in a print ad promoting the brand? You may hear, “He/she gets paid thousands, even millions to appear in ads”, but don’t be afraid to ask, “Then why does this person need free product?”

Don’t be afraid. This is a mutual agreement. It is their job to try and negotiate FULL donation, but if it makes you uncomfortable or goes beyond your budget, offer the products at an accommodation price that meets your needs. Or, suggest a different product that will help in your publicity efforts while sticking to the budget. Most will be willing to bargain; some will not. And be sure to address the returned favor–the slated opportunities: Will your products be prominently featured in these articles or segments?

Make sure you don’t overlook the celebrity that they are presenting to you. Are they classily spanning across decades and generations? Do they appeal to your target audience? Will they show up in tomorrow’s rags showing their unmentionables or partaking in publicly drunken stupors? Make sure the celebrity fits YOUR company, not the other way around. Don’t be afraid to say no if the opportunity isn’t right. Believe me, in about three days, another one will come along.

It is amazing how many unauthorized people will call to try and swindle a deal for free product. You have every right, then, to question the integrity of the agent. Ask for credentials before you begin the process. If they have nothing to show, then just walk away.

I know the temptation of celebrity endorsements can be strong, and you may feel like a fool for walking away, but just remember you have a job to do. You are responsible for portraying your client in the best of ways. Not every opportunity will fit.

Posted by Lauren


Yes, It’s Earth Day. Yes, It’s Tempting to Be Cynical About It.

April 22, 2008

Earth Day is to the consumer electronics industry as Valentine’s Day is to the males.

 

Both are flagged on our desk calendars. We know we should “celebrate” them (if not for the sole purpose of painstakingly warding off the office tree-hugger or the clingy significant other), yet neither seem to inspire us enough to participate every day. These “made up” holidays are based upon the noblest of intentions to encourage awareness-the former founded by activists/politicians to appreciate our environment, the latter (as many of my exes have pointed out) “a Hallmark holiday” to appreciate our relationships. There’s a reason they are exes and, as a hopeless romantic, I am still challenging their assertion that they “celebrate Valentine’s Day EVERY day”, but the truth of the matter is that we all have the best of intentions, but all too often we fall short.

 

The U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that approximately one billion valentines are sent each year worldwide; okay, I’ll bend to admit to my cynical formers that Hallmark more than marginally benefits from this statistic. You don’t need me to tell you that national studies indicate that more and more consumers purchase “green”-labeled products and services which, likewise, have benefitted the bottom lines of participating CE manufacturers.

 

So, as with the old Valentine’s “scam,” is the “green” movement out of control? Is it a marketing scheme gone awry that has now spawned a new breed of naysayers who are challenging the “levels” of green, demanding ENERGY STAR ratings, percentages saved, recycled packaging?

 

I am not an extremist. I have never been nor will I ever be, so tree huggers, please hold your fire. But when it comes to electronics, I wonder: Why the inconsistency in our messaging, and what can we do about it? How can we be energy hogs and environmentalists at the same time? Don’t we tell preschoolers that his or her tiny hand assisting in replanting trees contributes to the greater well-being of our treasured planet? That’s what I was told, and I whole-heartedly pass it on to the next generation because I believe it to be true.

 

Is it a contradiction to ship super-luxe, energy-sucking consumer electronics in recyclable boxes? I believe not. Is the claim that ISF day/night settings save energy invalid? No. Every little bit helps, and I would challenge that all professionals with the means to share their voice embrace the green trend while communicating the truth. We should be idealistic AND realistic. It’s not like the only options are “toss your garbage into the nearest river” and “go live in a cave and leave no carbon footprint.” There’s a huge middle ground here, and we all just need to be living in it.

 

With that in mind, I am pleased to announce that Caster has “gone green.” Yes, that’s right, we are now recycling. A little behind our Oregonian friends, but thanks to our trusty office manager’s diligence (mixed with a mild case of OCD) we have finally received our blue bins.

 

Now if I could only receive a nice greeting card instead of a “Happy Hallmark holiday” text on Valentine’s Day.

 

Posted by Katie

 

 

Green Heart


Retail Therapy and Marketing

April 18, 2008

All the signs are here that we are in a recession. My daily visit to CNN.com reminds me, the voicemails from my ad reps with their “deals” remind me, the multitude of everlasting For Sale signs on my street remind me.

So I decided to do my part and go shopping. I bought some really sweet vintage Ts for the summer, a great dress for a wedding I have to go to, a cute pair of cropped pants and a chunky necklace. I did these things because the store I went to, a store I LOVE to shop at but don’t frequent, just had an ad in a local magazine. This ad inspired me to go shop.

My shopping spree made me think about marketing. Why is it when a recession hits or times get tight, companies immediately cut their marketing budgets? Out go the ad dollars, tighten the PR budget, cut out trade shows. Why does everyone think, “If we cut it, they will still come?” If I had not seen that ad, I wouldn’t have purchased those cute new Ts. The shop wouldn’t have had that sale.

So are sales down because budgets were cut or are budgets cut because sales were down? And what if your competitor didn’t cut their budget? Did they get your sale?

The way I see it is the economy doesn’t stop; consumers may not spend as much but they still spend. At least some of us do.

A recession is an opportunity to dig in and make a stance. It’s a chance to push your marketing messages, because those who are listening just might need some retail therapy.

posted by KDL