Tag Archives: #brand damage

Should PRSA Sanction Public Relations Practitioners?

In his bi-weekly column on customer service, “The Haggler,” New York Times writer David Segal addressed a long-standing and well-founded gripe that many journalists have against public relations practitioners who send out press releases and other solicitations in wholesale fashion; regardless of the content’s relevance or likely interest to the journalists they’re pitching. According to Segal, hundreds of thousands of these unsolicited pitches – or “P.R. Spam,” as he calls it – “belly flop into the email systems of journalists every day.”

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been contentious. Reporters claim PR people block their access to sources, and sometimes to the truth. PR counters that journalists often don’t care about facts, or twist them to suit their editorial agenda. But because the press can deliver exposure and credibility that PR craves, journalists have always been in a more powerful position. As a result, effective public relations involves pushing a company’s or client’s agenda (or products and services) without being a pest, and ideally, by being helpful to reporters who are in a position to reciprocate with media coverage. It’s a dance that both sides understand.

Over the past decade, three developments have upset the already rocky relationship between PR and the press:

  • Email, and “blast email” in particular, has become PR’s most frequently used communication device. Standard PR procedure at most firms and agencies is based on “shotgun” tactics designed to reach as many media sources as possible, relevance or interest notwithstanding.
  • Database companies, notably Cision and Vocus, empower PR people to create enormous lists of journalists in a matter of minutes. What was once a painstaking research process now involves a few keystrokes.
  • The internet and a fundamental shift in how news is reported have greatly reduced the number of journalists. Conversely, more schools are pumping out graduates with PR degrees. So there are now significantly more PR people chasing a much smaller number of journalists. And many newly minted PR people have not been taught the unwritten rules of effective media relations.

Why should serious PR practitioners care about the behavior of the growing number of people within their profession who display no regard for fundamental media relations protocol?

In his column, New York Times’ David Segal reports that he has removed his contact information from the 5 leading media database companies. Calling on other reporters who also seek fewer unsolicited intrusions in their mailboxes, Segal provides detailed instructions on how they can delete their listings from those databases.

But it matters very little whether Segal is the canary in the coal mine for this issue, foreshadowing mass defections of journalists from online databases; thereby making those tools useless. In fact, PR may also be better served without them.

What does matter is that this sloppy, lazy, abusive practice of media harassment by so many PR people increasingly harms the stature of the profession, and makes it even more difficult for serious practitioners to work effectively with the press.

Public relations has fought for decades to be recognized as a bona fide profession, similar to medicine, law or accounting. But until the profession is in a position to self-regulate – to reprimand or sanction, in transparent fashion, individual practitioners or organizations that harm the reputation and effectiveness of the discipline – PR can never be considered a legitimate profession. It will remain a business function, nothing more.

If the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in its role as the industry’s trade association, has serious interest in protecting the reputation and collective interests of the nation’s public relations franchise, the issue highlighted by David Segal provides an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership by reversing a troubling trend. An online “complaint box” for journalists to identify abuse, combined with a “Wall of Shame” to call out repeat offenders – both featured on the PRSA website – might be an effective first step in changing industry behavior.

Any other ideas?

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4 ½ Reasons To Avoid Using Celebrity Endorsements

With those big guns, can we be sure that Tony's not using HGH?

With those big guns, can we be sure that Tony’s not using HGH?

Here are 4 ½ good reasons to avoid celebrity endorsements:

  1. OJ Simpson
  2. Tiger Woods
  3. Lance Armstrong
  4. Oscar Pistorius

4.5  Elmo the Muppet

The marketing world is littered with celebrity endorsements similar to these train wrecks. Yet companies will continue to dole out lucrative contracts to sports heroes, actors, politicians and other personalities du jour…in hopes of leveraging their popularity or notoriety.

Why do marketers continue to roll the dice with their company’s brand reputation?

One reason: celebrity endorsements require no creativity and very little effort. Nike’s ad agency simply shoots some footage of Tiger bouncing a golf ball 25 times off the face of a pitching wedge, and voila…there’s a 30-second commercial.

Companies rationalize this brand risk by assuming that the public will assign them some sympathy for having been duped by the murdering, philandering or drug abusing ways of their fallen celebrity. Marketers also may believe a celebrity’s fall from grace will provide their company with an opportunity to publicly cancel the contract, express sorrow or indignation, and gain additional time for their brand in the public spotlight.

But in terms of long-term brand management, association with a celebrity who’s fallen from grace is a losing proposition. For starters, it demonstrates poor judgement. So ignore the assurances from your ad agency, even if the celebrity they’re proposing is Mother Teresa.

But if you’re determined to use a celebrity, it may be a safer bet to hire an animal than a human. To my knowledge, RinTinTin never bit anyone, but Orca whales have a very poor track record.

Better yet…create your own celebrity. The Geico Gecko, Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, and StarKist’s Charlie the Tuna all have clean rap sheets. So far.

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PR / Media Pros Should Stand Firm on Requiring Quote Approvals

Quote Approvals Lower the Risk of Media Burn

The practice of requiring journalists to submit on-the-record quotes for approval by a source in advance of publication has long been a sore point between the media and the PR profession. A new spotlight has been cast on the issue, with writer Michael Lewis’ acknowledgment that he’d agreed to quote approval for his Vanity Fair profile on Barack Obama, and the new policy issued by the New York Times, which forbids their reporters from agreeing to “after-the-fact quote approval by sources and their press aides.”

Notwithstanding the New York Times’ effort to protect the integrity of the Fourth Estate, there are at least 3 reasons why it makes good sense for companies and organizations to stand firm on stipulating that reporters obtain quote approval as a pre-condition for granting an interview:

  1. Reporters Are Human. They often don’t bring the depth of knowledge that’s required to cover the assignments they’re handed…so they will make mistakes. They also bring their own points of view…so they will be selective in how they quote sources. And sometimes, they don’t always play by the rules. This blogger was told by a New York Times reporter that if I pressed for a correction to an error he had made regarding one of my clients, that he would never feature any of my clients in his column.
  2. The Spoken Word and Written Word are Very Different. A comment or offhand remark that’s expressed during an interview can cast a false or unfair impression when taken out of context, and when it is read rather than heard. Very few individuals have the ability to envision…as they are speaking…how their spoken words will look in print and to know what message those words will convey. Mark Twain recognized that “talk in print” results in “confusion to the reader, not instruction.”
  3. Journalism Is a Cat and Mouse Game. Reporters are frequently looking for a “gotcha” quote that can juice up their coverage, or support a point they’re seeking to make. Their questions can be contrived, or their approach designed to wear down a source. This blogger learned that lesson the hard way, when a Chicago Tribune reporter twisted a fact-based comment in a very long conversation that enabled him to write a story entitled, “Amex Official Admits CBOE Superiority.”

If you’re willing to participate in media interviews without the safety net of quote approval….here are some guidelines that will lower your risk of being burned:

  • You Can Never Be “Media Trained” – Regardless of whatever training, practice sessions or actual interviews you’ve had, believing that you are “media trained” provides a dangerous and false sense of security. Every reporter is different, every interview is a unique opportunity, and you need to be properly prepared every time.
  • Don’t Lead Lambs to Slaughter – For a host of reasons, and regardless of their org chart position or years of experience, some people are media disasters. If your senior manager or client has a track record of interviews that did not go well, avoid putting them in harm’s way. If a heart-to-heart conversation regarding their poor interviewing skills is not an option, at least ensure that they are equipped for interviews with tightly scripted talking points.
  • Tape Record all Interviews – When there’s a recorded version of an interview, a reporter is likely to be more careful in quoting a source, and you have something more credible than written notes, if there is any controversy. It’s good form to let the reporter know upfront that you will be tape recording an interview. If the reporter objects, and you still agree to conduct the interview, then your organization deserves whatever misquotes or misrepresentation may occur.

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The Harvard Cheating Scandal: Do Administrators Need “Public Relations 101″?

Harvard University announced last week that the school is investigating 125 students for possibly cheating on a take-home final exam for “Government 1310: Introduction to Congress.” After reviewing more than 250 take-home exams turned in last Spring, the Harvard College Administrative Board has opened cases involving nearly half the 279 students enrolled in the class. The school has contacted every student whose work is under review, who now face sanctions that include suspension for up to a year.

In considering whether Harvard may have caused significant long-term damage to its own reputation unnecessarily, let’s ignore some fuzzy facts and conjecture:

  • The course, as measured by the professor’s own words and behavior, did not reflect a level of academic rigor one might associate with a prestigious university.
  • Take home exams, by their very nature, are generally considered a joke by most students.
  • Apparent confusion over at least one of the exam’s questions was exacerbated by the unavailability of the professor during the exam period, causing students to seek clarification from fellow classmates.
  • It’s unlikely that such a large proportion of the class would purposely cheat on what appears to be a gut course.

In examining whether Harvard may have caused significant long-term damage to its own reputation by acting in a hasty and imprudent manner, let’s speculate on a few likely catalysts:

  • After discovering similarities in the exams, and in advance of sending out letters to the 125 students suspected of cheating, Harvard failed to consider the high likelihood that this issue would quickly become a news item. If the school had acknowledged that risk, Harvard would (or should) have announced the scandal in advance of sending out letters to students.
  • Harvard likely became aware of the possibility of negative media coverage either after a call from a reporter, or in reaction to a threat from a student (or their lawyer) to make this a public issue.
  • Regardless of when and how Harvard began to think about negative media exposure, the most significant catalyst that caused administrators to blow the whistle on the affair was a post-Penn State fear that Harvard might be accused of hiding or covering up an incident related to institutional integrity.

If this speculation is correct: that Harvard overlooked the potential media impact of its cheating inquiry, and then blew the whistle on itself mainly as a knee-jerk defensive strategy….here are two fundamental PR lessons from this brand debacle:

  1. Assume the press will always learn about a problem, and plan an offensive strategy (well ahead of time) to minimize the damage. Because Harvard has long enjoyed a pristine reputation, it’s likely that their PR professional was not involved in this issue from the outset, or they had little input.
  2. If the press is on your damaging story, or is likely to be very soon, sometimes it’s better to keep your powder dry if you haven’t planned ahead. Harvard would have been better served if the school had completed its inquiry of the 125 “cheaters” in advance of its public announcement. Even with the media pounding on its doors, Harvard would have provided those 125 students and the school’s reputation with greater justice by responding publicly that “the issue is under investigation and a public statement will be issued only after all the facts and opinions are considered.”

Ham-fisted, panic motivated PR – even when it’s disguised as a self-righteous effort to maintain academic integrity – is not behavior you’d expect from one of the nation’s smartest institutions.

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PR Lesson from the Lolo Jones / New York Times Controversy

Did Jere Kill Lolo’s Mojo?

On August 4th, New York Times sportswriter Jére Longman – who has been covering the Olympics under an “Inside the Rings” column – wrote an article on American hurdler Lolo Jones that was considered by many readers to be overly harsh and entirely unnecessary. In his piece, Longman characterized Jones as a self-promoter who is more flash than substance, and he appeared to go out of his way to discredit Jones’ athletic credentials; ignoring her long list of athletic achievements, as well as the fact that Jones had qualified for the Olympics in spite of spinal cord surgery a year ago.

Four days following Longman’s hatchet job, after a disappointing fourth-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles, in a tearful interview on the TODAY Show, Jones expressed her frustration, telling Savannah Guthrie: “They should be supporting our U.S. Olympic athletes and instead they just ripped me to shreds. I just thought that that was crazy because I worked six days a week, every day, for four years for a 12-second race and the fact that they just tore me apart, which is heartbreaking.”

The public appears to agree with Lolo regarding Longman’s attack. In a highly unusual column entitled, “Lolo Jones Article is Too Harsh,” the New York Times public editor Art Brisbane acknowledged the volume of reader pushback the Longman piece has created, and noted that, “In this particular case, I think the writer was particularly harsh, even unnecessarily so.”

Putting aside Longman’s opinion or Jones’ reaction, and discounting speculation that Jones’ spokesperson made a serious tactical error in declining to participate in the story, there is a simple but valuable PR lesson in the New York Times coverage of Lolo Jones, which is:

MEDIA RELATIONS 101

It is not a journalist’s job to make you look good. In fact, journalists are always more likely to make you look bad…because it suits their temperaments, pleases their editors and attracts more attention.

We’ll never know Longman’s motivation for trashing Jones. He might have eaten a bad hot dog that day. He might have placed a small wager against Lolo, and was hoping to kill her mojo. Or perhaps his rant was based on moral grounds, exposing the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed virgins who appear nude in sports magazines.

Several years ago I brought a Forbes magazine reporter to meet with the CEO of a major grocery chain. The interview went very well. Or so I thought…until the story was published, which turned out to be a devastating attack on my client. After being summarily fired by the CEO for arranging the public debacle, I called the reporter to ask why she had written such a damaging piece. Her response was simple: “I didn’t like the way he treated his secretary, and he needed to be taught a lesson.”

The CEO and I learned very different lessons that day. He is unlikely to have changed the way he treated his secretary. But I changed the way I treated journalists.

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Should Companies Manage Their Employees’ LinkedIn Profiles?

Everything Counts in Brand Management

LinkedIn has become an important business channel, not only for individuals to showcase their professional credentials, but also for companies seeking to promote their value proposition and to establish or manage brand awareness.

LinkedIn is no longer simply a social media tool that enables corporate executives to put themselves in play for a better job under the guise of “networking.” LinkedIn also is no longer just a digital marketplace for consultants, freelancers and agencies seeking new clients. For better or worse, LinkedIn has become part of the world’s due diligence process: a public resource that enables employers, customers, regulators, competitors, prospective employees, referral sources, vendors, creditors, shareholders, research analysts and journalists to look beneath the covers, and to establish an opinion (or decision) not only regarding individuals, but also the companies they work for.

Although LinkedIn provides companies with an opportunity to present a basic or enhanced (for a hefty fee) corporate profile, what most businesses either fail to recognize – or are reluctant to address – is that the content, quality and consistency of individual and collective descriptions of the company embodied within their employees’ LinkedIn profiles can have a significant impact on brand perceptions. (These brand implications are less significant on Facebook, which is not generally viewed as a business channel.)

To illustrate the point, simply in terms of brand clarity and consistency, here are 5 different ways (grammatical shortcomings and typos included) that High Street Partners – an 80-person Boston-based consulting firm – describes itself through various LinkedIn profiles of its employees:

“High Street Partners is an international business services firm. We simplify the management and control of international operations, empowering our customers to capitalize on their growth opportunities in foreign markets.”

“High Street Partners (HSP) is the leading professional advisory firm in the international expansion space. We offer a range of cross-border finance and administrative services to organizations with new or existing global operations, including entity set-up, payroll, accounting, tax compliance, advisory and HR services.”

“High Street Partners provides international business services to companies operating overseas. These services include international accounting, tax, global cash management, HR and compliance solutions that mitigates a Company’s risk when operating in foreign markets (www.hsp.com.)”

“Our cross-border solutions enable the HQ finance and HR teams to quickly and efficiently implement expansion plans, establish appropriate entities, get overseas employees paid, and navigate unfamiliar overseas tax codes and compliance regulations.”

“Providing financial, tax and compliance services to companies in their international explansion.” (sic)

There are (at least) two fundamental issues involving LinkedIn:

  • The employees’ right to describe themselves any way they see fit on social media sites, and
  • A company’s right to protect its brand reputation through accurate and consistent descriptions of the enterprise that are posted on social media sites by its employees.

Although the underlying issues related to freedom of expression and corporate intrusion frequently serve as catalysts for heated protests and endless debate, there is really no good reason why both employee and corporate interests cannot both be served, if the process is managed in a reasonable, respectful manner.

At the risk of over-simplifying an issue that can quickly escalate to union grievances, CEO town hall meetings, picket lines and national media coverage, perhaps the company’s Chief Marketing Officer can initiate the change process with an internal memo along these lines:

Dear Valued Employee:

We are encouraged to see that so many of our staff members are using LinkedIn to develop professional networks. Increasingly, social media tools like LinkedIn are playing an important role in personal and corporate life.

While we recognize and support your personal right to participate in social media sites, we would like to ensure that the descriptions used in your LinkedIn profile to describe our company are consistent with the guidelines we’ve established to enhance understanding and appreciation of our corporate brand.

Toward that end, we would greatly appreciate your cooperation in using only the approved description of our company for your LinkedIn profile. This company description is located on Page 3 of our Employee Handbook. In fact, we have recently added some additional suggestions regarding LinkedIn profiles, which you may find helpful.

Thanks for your support on this important issue. If you have any questions or concerns on this topic, please let me know.

Your Friendly CMO

An alternative approach regarding brand presentation in employee LinkedIn profiles is to do nothing. Maybe it’s an issue that’s too insignificant or considered not worth the time. But companies with enduring world-class brands understand that everything matters. That’s one reason why you never see a dirty UPS or FedEx delivery truck.

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Did The New York Times Purposely Fuel the Goldman Controversy?

A Compromised Value Proposition?

If the biggest loser in disgruntled employee Greg Smith’s recent OpEd piece was Goldman Sachs, then the apparent winner in this high-profile media sideshow was The New York Times. Rarely has an opinion piece on any topic, published in any major newspaper or periodical, attracted so much attention and controversy.

The veracity of Mr. Smith’s opinion and the timeliness of his topic notwithstanding, is it ever appropriate for a publication as widely read and long-respected as The New York Times to provide a platform for one disgruntled employee? In publishing Mr. Smith’s description of Goldman’s shortcomings, and his heartfelt reasons for quitting the firm, did The New York Times supply an inherent level of credibility and endorsement of Mr. Smith’s position?

If The New York Times was genuinely interested in presenting its readers with a balanced viewpoint – traditionally a fundamental responsibility of the Fourth Estate – would it not have given Goldman Sachs an equal editorial platform to present the firm’s response to Mr. Smith – ideally in the same issue and on the same page as Mr. Smith’s OpEd piece? Or was the element of surprise part of the publication’s marketing strategy?

In the Greg Smith / Goldman Sachs matter, The New York Times appears to have borrowed a page from the playbook of now defunct Jobvent.com, a website that pioneered a viral platform for anonymous employees to post their titillating rants on real and imagined injustices by their employers.

As the line separating bona fide news reporting from entertainment continues to erode, and as advertising revenues disappear, in its decision to print Mr. Smith’s largely unsubstantiated viewpoint, The New York Times may be complicit in trading in its legendary journalistic standards for a temporary spike in brand recognition and readership.

By delivering self-serving content of this caliber, the Gray Lady likely revealed more about its own integrity than that of Goldman Sachs.

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