Archive for the ‘Public Relations’ Category

Service of Too Big and Too Powerful

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

In my line of work, I’m thrilled by the stories I bring to media that they embrace. I’m critical of some I read, see or hear when I think of a few appropriate leads I’ve proposed that were rejected by key players. The most glaring example of “how did this get past the editor/producer?” is the constant coverage by legitimate media that gave credibility to the shenanigans of the current chief of state when he started his campaign.

Photo: boldomatic.com

But PR, with its constraints, is the game I’m in and when I hit pay dirt I still get a thrill; when I don’t I try harder.

Richard Whitman’s commentary on Mediapost.com struck a nerve because he wrote about the advertising world that unlike PR pays for its communications and if what it sells is legitimate, gets in. The commentary dealt with an uncooperative gatekeeper setting up a roadblock for dissemination of essential information that could save young lives.

In “Cancer Awareness Campaign Supported by Google, But Apple Won’t Play Ball,” he wrote about an advertising campaign for the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation to “raise money and awareness to fight the disease via a set of testicle emojis that consumers can download for $3.99.”

Photo: emel.com

Whitman reports the foundation’s findings: There’s a 95 percent survival rate when the disease is detected early. Also, it is the leading cancer for boys/men 15 to 24.

The ad agency, Oberland, prepared the sticker packs to launch with April, Testicular Cancer Awareness Month. Oberland reported that Apple’s reason for declining was: “Your sticker pack is not in compliance with the App Store Review guidelines.” Whitman commented: “Whatever that means.”

Photo: emojiisland.com

He wrote: “Oberland appealed, even sharing a note from the founder of the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation — Kim Jones — which included a personal story of the passing of her son Jordan from the disease at the tragically early age of 22. But the appeal was denied.”

He concluded: “And Apple seems to be going out of its way to prevent that message from being heard by more people than it otherwise might. That’s a head scratcher.  What gives, Apple?”

Photo: psychmechanics.com

I once reported to an editor who would wrinkle her nose, hand copy back to me and say, “I don’t like it.” I’d ask what she didn’t like—the topic? the headline? the lead? It was my first magazine job and I was flummoxed when her only response was the look of disgust. Apple acted just the same. Someone could have said to Oberland, “this is what you must do for the app to be accepted.” Nobody did.

Advertising is a different game than PR. It’s more costly and those doing it have control of the message and where/when it plays. Or do they these days—when the gatekeeper to a crucial target audience is a giant corporation that carries a lot of weight? Is this a healthy precedent?

Photo: everydayinterviewtips.com

Service of Keeping to Your Last: Major Home Improvement Retailer Frightens Unproved Shoplifters & Makes Money Doing It

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Photo: history.org

Photo: history.org

There’s an old expression about keeping to your last, which originally referred to cobblers suggesting it best that they not alter the forms used to make or repair shoes. It might also suggest that to make money, a company should stick to what it’s in business to do, not generate income in unrelated, inappropriate ways.

HammerHardware Merchandising covered a story that involves a major home improvement retailer whose lawyers land hard on so-called shoplifters trying to frighten them into paying fraudulent fines. The result: a class action suit.

The subhead of the staff-written story summarizes the situation: “A law firm representing the retailer sent out letters asking alleged shoplifters to pay hefty civil penalties and threatened legal action if they didn’t.”

LumberIn the latest situation–though according to the article this has been going on for years– two men grabbed some work gloves [worth $3.99/pair] to help them load lumber on a cart to get to the checkout where one paid $1,445 using the store’s credit card. The cashier failed to charge them for the gloves that they’d placed on top of the cart.

Enter store security. “The guard allegedly put them in handcuffs, emptied their pockets and said he would release them only if they signed confessions and agreed to stay way from the store for 90 days.” One of the men “suffered an asthma attack during the ordeal and security refused to call him an ambulance. He and his friend eventually signed the documents in order to end their confinement, the court documents say.”

security guardNext the corporation’s law firm sent a summons for $350 and when they didn’t respond, a subsequent summons for $625.

According to the article, the class action suit reads: “The lawyers who operate these demand letter mills do not investigate the merits of the retailer’s claim, have neither the authority nor the intention to sue if the accused fails to pay, and do not initial actions to determine and recover statutory damages.”

Nevertheless each letter to the so-called shoplifter threatened that he would be sued if he didn’t pay up and over the years $millions have been collected by fearful customers unfamiliar with the law.

This occurred in California though it seems that its common for retailers to legally “take civil action to recover damages between US$50 and US$500” according to the article. The suit asks this retailer not only to stop doing this but also to reimburse those who had complied with demands for money.

I understand how frustrating it is for retailers to deal with shoplifting. Every customer does if only because we know that theft adds to the cost of what we buy. But how could a major retailer allow security and a law firm to run roughshod over its customers like this? Any gain from fees is lost in bad public relations. Isn’t it the responsibility of the company to better train its security force and to select a law firm that doesn’t potentially harm its image for relatively small reward?

Shoplifters will be prosecuted

 

Service of When it Works it’s a Beautiful Thing: Baruch P.R. Helps Turn a Lemon into Champagne

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Baruch Coillege 060913

Large organizations that listen to their P.R. counsel can often work magic when things go wrong, which, of course, they inevitably do. That is what just happened at Baruch College, where I’m involved in a mentoring program. Baruch is part of the massive and complex City University of New York system, one of the most extensive and decentralized educational institutions in the state.

Baruch in ManhattanBaruch, as do other city and state colleges, charges students who are New York residents a significantly lower tuition than it does those from out-of-state. For some reason it had been charging tuition for a recently admitted student, Matthew Levy, a lifelong New Yorker, at the “out-of-state” rate. When Baruch caught the error, it informed Levy that in future he would be billed at the lower “residents” rate.

Not unreasonably, however, he decided to seek reimbursement of the approximately $7,000 he had overpaid and approached a clerk in the school’s admissions department to help him. The clerk told him: “Normally, if you paid, you don’t get your money back,” but that he could file an appeal, including as evidence of his New York State residency, copies of his driver’s license and voter registration card.

Matthew, no fool, went one step further. He also wrote to David Segal “The Haggler” in the Sunday New York Times Business Section and asked for his help to expedite the refund. 

Christina Latouf, Baruch VP Communications

Christina Latouf, Baruch VP Communications

Segal wrote: “The Haggler contacted Christina Latouf, a spokeswoman for the college. She needed a day or two to figure out what had happened, and then she wrote something rather remarkable. In an e-mail, she said that the school not only took responsibility for stumbling blocks inserted between Mr. Levy and his refund, but also that changes would be made so that such errors don’t happen again. Those changes include working with the City University of New York — of which Baruch is part — to review out-of-state designations.

“‘Further, if a student’s initial documentation indicates they have always been a New York State resident, we will no longer request additional documentation,’ Ms. Latouf wrote.”

Baruch StudentsSegal praised Baruch for changing its system: “Do you hear that, dear readers? It is the sweet sound of modest reform, a noise as rare as the quack of the Scaly Sided Merganser.”

He continued: “‘At the heart of this case was an incorrect coding designation,’ Ms. Latouf wrote, in conclusion. ‘While we have put some measures in place (such as the one that triggered our initial outreach to Matthew), we will build and utilize new technologies to put more safeguards in place, and train staff to assure coding is accurate.’

Baruch students 2“True, soothing and conciliatory words are cheap. But Baruch is off to a good start. Two days after the Haggler called, the school contacted Mr. Levy, and that same afternoon he e-mailed the Haggler a photograph of a document waiting for him at the bursar’s office: a check for $7,245.”

I’ve met Latouf, who is Vice President for Communications, External Relations and Economic Development at Baruch, and dashed off a note to congratulate her. She responded: “It was a lot of work, but we’re all very pleased to have been able to turn a potentially negative story into a positive.” 

She did more than that: She showed the world what a well-oiled organization she works for. Who couldn’t admire the speed of the reform? Baruch includes 1,500 full time academic and administrative staff and more than 17,000 students. That someone in the administration listened to the communications VP and agreed to and implemented changes at warp speed shows trust. Like The Haggler, I think this is unusual and laudable.

Do you?

Baruch Logo

Service of Asking the Right Questions

Monday, June 24th, 2013

 

Ask Me questionsI’d like to share a few questions to ask in a range of circumstances that might save you from costly mistakes in time and money. Asking the right questions will serve you far better in evaluating a vendor and ensuring a positive outcome than depending on websites that direct readers to the best ones.

Agency

Marketing StrategyWhen hiring a marketing, PR or advertising agency, ask to speak with four or five former clients. There are countless legitimate reasons a company changes vendors. The test of the character and smarts of the principals can often be found with those with whom they are no longer associated professionally.

You’ll learn if the counsel was sound and the work top quality; if the account people fit the company’s culture and how responsive they were as marketing needs changed. The fact that an agency is still in touch with its former clients—or isn’t–also says a lot.

Contractor 

ContractorHiring a contractor? Ask for contact information for his/her last three to five jobs. You’ll likely have a more accurate picture of the good and the bad when you call these people for recommendations than if you let the contractor make the picks. My first encounter with a contractor was disappointing and shocking because we thought we’d done our due diligence. We’d spoken with the homeowners and visited nine jobs: Three for each contender. But all the choices of jobs were the contractors’.

Hotel

Booking a hotel with a lineup of ballrooms? Ask who is scheduled for the adjacent rooms and what their entertainment plans and schedules are. This became obvious one night when nobody could hear the speakers in our room because the relentlessly earsplitting band next door wouldn’t take a break even though hotel staff and event producers pleaded with this uncooperative neighbor-for-the-night.

hotel ballroomThe cocktail hour at another event took place in the generously proportioned hallway in front of the ballroom. The hotel had proposed this concept to all its clients. Trouble was the women at the event on the way to ours were dressed as southern belles, with huge hoop skirts that took up all the floor space. We had a difficult and uncomfortable time reaching our destination. The hotel should have put the belles at the end of the hallway, not near the elevator. Nobody asked.

Buying or Renting a House

Ask about weather anomalies. In North Dakota I lived on an Air Force base in the last house in a line of two family homes. Wind on our–and on all corners–was so fierce that far more snow piled up in our driveway than in anyone else’s.

I wonder how many of these questions are universal and if they would apply in any culture. Did any of them surprise you? Hope you’ll share your tips for questions to ask in these or other instances.

house in snow

Service of Bragging

Monday, August 27th, 2012

toothorn

Elizabeth Bernstein’s description of Facebook entries in “Are We All Braggarts Now?” and many of the updates I see remind me of December holiday letters. There’s news about the kids, all top of class at Harvard; an exhausting half million dollar remodeling project on a bungalow; brilliant new jobs; magical weeks in Paris and Hawaii and more.

spanishstepsIn Facebook, boasts are minute-to-minute: You and the gang at a four star restaurant, the view of the Spanish Steps in Rome from your hotel bedroom, the $1,000 bouquet of gratitude from a client or the name of your current [famous of course] significant other.

Friends tell me I’m a patsy for boasts. I take people literally. When someone says they are interviewing for a $300,000 job or they are pitching a multi-million $ account–and their agency is no bigger than mine–I believe them.

womaninermineA very successful PR woman I once knew collected fur coats. Her source: a prestigious NYC thrift shop. She had a magnificent ermine, fox and mink for starters and yet she never wore one when meeting clients.

Heavy handed braggarts are annoying. They make me squirm as much as a bad comedian. Their words fall flat on my ears but obviously impress others.

Bernstein wrote that this is how you should deal with a braggart: “‘Feel sorry for them, because they’re doing this impulsive, destructive thing that won’t help them in the long run,’ says Simine Vazire, a research psychologist and associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Research on self-enhancement shows that people who brag make a good first impression, but that it diminishes over time.”

That’s nice, but doesn’t this mean that the braggart gets the job and the client?

I refuse to promise what I can’t be sure to deliver, only that I will knock myself out trying. How many PR people are asked to get their client’s product or story in The New York Times, Vogue or on “Good Morning America?” How many of them say they’ve done this for countless other clients, forgetting to note that those clients had life-changing news, were major advertisers or that this happened 30 years ago. It’s safter and more accurate to suggest that to guarantee exposure in such venues, the client had best buy an ad.

I’m in a business where people are expected to brag and boast to their current and prospective clients about how they are the best in the world at what they do. I believe in third party endorsement. That’s what PR is based on. I’d rather my record and others tell the story than a bunch of blah blah on my part.

Are you good at bragging? What distinguishes a clumsy boast and brag from a legitimate sales pitch?

buyme

Service of Taking Advice

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

takemyadvice

I haven’t read George McGovern’s book “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism,” [Penguin Group (USA)], but the other day a talk show host mentioned one of the points made: That the McGovern’s should not have followed doctors’ advice. The doctors told them to leave their alcoholic daughter alone, which they did, and she was found frozen to death when she fell outside while drunk.

terrymydaughterI wonder if their poor daughter might have been found dead at a later time, or if she might have killed others if she drove a car while intoxicated, but that’s not the point of this post.

The art of taking advice involves your instinct/your gut. If someone proposes a course of action that doesn’t agree with your approach/personality it won’t work any better than will starting a speech with a joke when you can’t remember punch lines.

When you are at your wit’s end and a situation is dire, or if a salesperson keeps nagging you, you might let down your instinct wall and agree to something, usually with dire results.

powerpointI give advice for a living. I take the responsibility seriously. I drill down to the crux of a client’s marketing priorities and issues as I see them and develop a plan that addresses them. Because people are used to instant information and communications at warp speed, increasingly clients expect results in months, sometimes sooner. I say: Don’t expect too much too soon because unless you are promoting the cure to war or cancer, most PR efforts take time. With bloggers and online venues, some smokesignals are seen sooner than when print and electronic media were our only choices.

My advice has never changed: Beware of public relations types who promise quick fixes and immediate, significant results.

Have you ever felt that you followed bad advice?

 badgoodadvice

Service of Duh

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

duh2

I was surprised by the glitch in the planning of the President’s speech before the joint session of Congress tonight. When planning an event for a client, I check industry calendars and place a call to a trade editor or two to see if he/she knows of potential conflicts for a date in question. I can’t believe that the White House staff didn’t do such elementary research. Duh number one.

calendarOK, so they didn’t. I am equally surprised and disappointed that there is so little respect for the office of President that the Republican debate organizers didn’t defer and select another date. This isn’t a duh moment as much as a worrisome attitude for a country with huge problems to solve.  And everyone’s watching: Duh!

The cat’s out of the bag given our slip in a World Economic Forum listing. In 2008 we were first, Mathew Saltmarsh reported in “U.S. Slips to Fifth Place On Competitiveness List.” He wrote in The New York Times: “The weaker performance was attributed to economic vulnerabilities as well as ‘some aspects of the United States’ institutional environment,’ notably low public trust in politicians and concerns about government inefficiency.” Would you invest in a corporation with warring factions? Another duh: Why should people want to invest in this country if our leaders can’t even be cordial and cooperative about a date?

electricity1On another subject, some of the electric companies in the NY Metro area after Hurricane/tropical storm Irene–in Long Island and Connecticut especially–got a zero grade in both customer service and PR. Caroline Gatto commented about her friend and relatives’ frustrating experiences in these states in the “Service of Silver Linings” post. Some customers, sitting in houses without electricity for five and six days, couldn’t get through to their supplier on the phone. Others were unable to speak with a person. Routinely people in suburbs and exurbs lose electricity whether from weather or blackout. An effective crisis plan for an electric company to communicate with customers in such instances is elementary. Not having one is a duh.

In fact, all these examples illustrate disrespect: White House staff for anyone else, John Boehnor & Co. for the office of President and the electric companies for their customers.

Do you see a relationship between duh-like work and behavior and disrespect? Any duh situations you’ve noticed lately or that are memorable?

 disrespect

Service of PR vs. Acting Presidential

Monday, August 29th, 2011

hut

No question the economy is suffering but should the President of the United States vacation in a hut?

luxury-vacation-rentalThe PR side of me says this isn’t the time for any public figure to spend $50,000 a week on a vacation rental when so many are suffering financial constraints and worse. What’s so shabby about Camp David?

Simultaneously I think, “This is the President of the United States. He isn’t compensated for his time as men and women in corporate management are and yet he’s dealing with budgets and constituents far larger than any of them. There should be some benefits to the killing job. He can’t safely take day trips to Coney Island, Jones Beach or Tanglewood to hear a concert, for goodness sakes.”

Then the PR side of me thinks that the government owes so much money and many of its citizens are asked to tighten belts, stiff upper lip, be retrained as a scientist or grab a shovel to work on a construction project–not such fabulous options if you’re over 50.  At the same time there are earthquake size shudders when other citizens, making $1 million+, are asked to pay a fair share by deleting loopholes galore so when the collection plate passes by on April 15, they are counted.

tired-presidentShould the President vacation at all this summer? Apparently Mother Nature didn’t think so: Hurricane Irene cut it short. Should he collapse in a heap from unrelenting stress? Do you think a President really ever vacations? Did the President get bad advice on the vacation issue from his PR consultants? Would not incurring the de minimis cost of this vacation, in the scheme of government expenses, really make a whit of a difference? In the world stage would the symbolism of the President giving up a traditional vacation be construed as a sign of weakness?  Please help me sort out my contradictory thoughts.

 presidential-seal

Service of Need to Know

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

barcode

Recent incidents reminded me of when George H.W. Bush was pilloried for not knowing what barcodes on grocery store items were. The man never went food shopping because he was busy and furthermore could afford to have others do it for him. So what? Would knowing what it’s like to wait in line at a grocery store make anyone a better President? I don’t think so.

If that’s what you think, you’d probably also believe that to be any good, PR people, marketers and doctors who represent or prescribe cancer, heart and diabetes or depression drugs must have had these diseases.

This year, early on Easter week, some complained because President Obama hadn’t sent out Easter greetings when he religiously recognized the holidays of others, such as Passover and Ramadan. Does anybody really think that any President personally sends out such greetings? This President is dealing with war, unemployment, escalating gas prices and inflation all ’round. But even if things were going swimmingly, who thinks that a President should draft and distribute such messages?

Press secretary Jay Carney responded that the President went to church on Easter implying that this was enough recognition. Carney should have put the matter to rest and admitted that the press office messed up and forgot to send out a message. But it is I who forgot: Few take blame for anything anymore.

gmAlso last week, a well-meaning radio talk show host started his interview with Dan Akerson with a reference to an OnStar promotion, asking Akerson for the inside scoop so he might win the prize, a General Motors car. It was clear that the General Motors chairman didn’t have a clue about this promotion and he mumbled some response making it obvious. Does a chairman who is driving an American icon through treacherous economic waters need to know about every subsidiary’s sales ploy? I don’t think so, however in this case, my bet is that he will in future.

Do you think that British Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, forgot to read the dress guidelines that came with the Royal wedding invitation to William and Kate’s nuptials? Should her husband’s staff have let her know that she was expected to wear a hat or doesn’t it matter that she appears to be the only hatless woman in the church?

In these instances, we’re dealing with perception and the potential of creating a crack for a competitor to jump in or jump on. How much detail do you think big business bosses, politicians or Presidents need to know or be concerned about?

toomuchinfo1

Service of Nonchalance

Monday, March 7th, 2011

indifference1

Cool and calm under pressure is great. But indifference is off-putting. In addition to being unhelpful, the attitude is disrespectful verging on insulting. Nobody expects a sycophant with unctuous manner and nauseating phony smile to direct them, but indifference and lack of concern is equally inappropriate in business as it is in a hospital, library, restaurant, post office, retail establishment, school, airport–anywhere.

A client, I’ll call him Jake, a reasonable, patient, no-nonsense person, described a recent incident that perfectly illustrates nonchalance. I’m thrilled to say that he was not in New York City when this happened.

On signing in to a major show where he was an exhibitor, Jake asked the clerk where the press room was so he could drop off his press kits. The fellow looked totally blank and Jake asked if he’d please find out. He placed a call on his walky-talky. Nobody responded.

noproblemJake got the impression that the sign-in clerk was hoping he’d shrug, say, “No problem, I really don’t need the information,” and go away. Instead, Jake said, “So where can I go to find someone who will know where the press room is?”

Jake followed the complicated instructions to find a show office in this huge conference center–down vast tracts of show floor to a staircase, which he mounted–and eventually he saw signs for the office. He entered. There was a man sitting at a desk, behind a computer, with a walky-talky on a desk. Their eyes met for a second and the clerk’s eyes returned to the computer. Still no greeting or sign of recognition: Total silence. So my client said: “May I ask you a question?” and did.

duhThe fellow still didn’t say a word. He looked at his computer and fiddled with the walky-talky and eventually told Jake that the press room was “down one level to the right.” But these fuzzy instructions in this huge edifice were useless. Jake asked for clarification. In a condescending voice, the clerk repeated what he’d first said adding a tad more directive.

When he entered what seemed to be the right place Jake called out, “Is this where I leave off my press kits for the show?” and immediately, someone came out from behind a curtain and replied, “Oh, I’ll take them! I help with the press.”

Jake observed, “Clearly, this was a PR type,” [Yay!] “She knew how to speak to people.”

I blame the show manager for not telling the sign-in staff where the press room is. How is the press going to find it? It’s tough on staff when they aren’t given the information they need to succeed. I bet that the incommunicative creature in the upstairs show office was the one who didn’t answer the sign-in clerk’s query. Think of the time and energy he’d have saved. I wonder who his model is and how he keeps his job.

Where and when have you encountered such service-killing nonchalance?

so

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