Monday, July 12, 2010


Is it a dance, a battle, a friendly joust?

As a former journalist, one the toughest decisions in my entire adult life was to switch careers to "the dark side."

Sometime early in the course my life as a reporter, I was given the adage of "don't trust PR people." They will try to spin you, keep you from the person you are trying to interview, and are generally not to be trusted. It's a credo, born from the inherent trait of all good reporters and editors to be skeptical, that spreads and morphs through newsrooms and many times ends up in the reporting of men and women who profess to be unbiased.

I many times have to explain that a public relations professional's job is to not tell lies or hide the truth, but to simply make sure the other side is well represented. Or, in the case of a crisis, make sure the client is protected and to prevent greater damage. Of course, it doesn't help when PR colleagues make a bad pitch. Tolerance levels are predictably low among many reporters.

Paul Holmes makes a great point about transparency in light of the Pentagon's recently issued guidelines.

When I switched careers nearly 20 years ago, my integrity remained very important. I carefully chose to work for a PR firm that epitomized my principles of openness and to represent only upstanding clients. My firm PR firm made it clear it would never represent tobacco companies, for example.

Despite my ethical commitments, I found a few former colleagues couldn't comprehend my move and suddenly cast me into that category of untrustworthy flak.

Skepticism is fine. It's needed in journalism. (A great lesson from a former editor: "When I look at the ingredients on a box of cereal, how do I know they list everything that is in there?")

Yet, permanent distrust with no ability to consider or evaluate the information that I, a PR person, am giving a reporter - is not healthy. Journalists need to uphold their credibility, and so do I. I'll tell a reporter why I can't give out certain information. They don't like it, but many times they understand. My hands are tied. I routinely give out background information "on background."

Good media relations begins with us, the PIO, or PR specialist or anyone charged with holding conversations with the news media.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fake Press Release copy cats

Well, it seem there are copy cats out there.

The latest fake press releases announced the deaths of CA Senators Boxer and Feinstein. Good thing we have enough veteran reporters left at newspapers to begin investigating and fact checking before "running with it."

See here for earlier posts about other, more elaborate fake releases, their potential to harm and how you should be preparing for them. And see here about one other recent fake press release.

Are you ready for an attack, even if it's a hoax? Probably not.

This sounds very familiar, especially for us in CA. We know we live in earthquake country, we hear constant reminders to be prepared and to have our emergency kits ready. Yet, most of us are not truly ready for The Big One. I don't think the oversized box of granola bars and the hiking boots in the trunk of my car get me even close to "prepared" for a major quake.

Like yesterday's little shaker in Southern California, the latest fake press release is another wake-up call for preparation. So, why don't we, as PR professionals, take action for this and other potential crisis scenarios?

Try these simple tips:

  1. It's like dieting. Losing weight requires discipline. Life is full of multiple deadlines and tasks always right in front of our faces. But, many experts tell us, losing weight can be tough because we lack control to take steps "every day" to reduce weight. Losing weight comes in small, but consistent doses. The same principle applies to crisis planning. A little bit of it each day will eventually show results. So, spend 15 minutes every day (or, at least once a week) on crisis planning.
  2. Dream. Now is the time to consider possible responses and the "what ifs." Today, it is fake press releases. Tomorrow, it could be a social media attack on your client's product. In the calm, it's much easier to visualize how you would respond. The best crisis communications pros do this all the time. That is why CEOs turn to them, because THEY HAVE THE ANSWERS at their fingertips. Because they played out a scene in their heads.
  3. Read. Every week, search for a crisis, either current or past. Track back any press releases. Examine the outcomes, including longevity of the crisis. Analyze what went right, what could be done better. Discover the nuances or factors that you never considered. Avoid the impulse to critique or play "Monday Morning Quarterback."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Rebuilding images and empires

Stories about Tiger Woods are fewer and far between.


Things should change in the coming days, however. If the divorce court hearing proceeds as planned in Florida, pundits will once again evaluate whether image rehab is on course.

At least one reporter got the ball rolling early with an excellent overview.

Expect it to be a tough time for sports writers - given the World Cup finals, the All Star Game and the Tour de France all occurring at the same time. That would leave radaroline, TMZ, the NY Post and others of similar ilk to provide coverage. Yuck. (And, then there is Mel Gibson).

So, what is - or will be - missing from the analysis? Again, this is a column about public relations, so the examination is focused on the impact of reputation, and the lessons we in PR can learn to counsel our clients.

No. 1: Total impact. The Woods empire crumbled. No one has really looked at how many people lost their jobs or the revenue lost by businesses as endorsement deals ended, tournaments saw lower turnouts, few Nike golf balls sold, etc.

No. 2: The kids. No, not Tiger's and Elin's. What lessons were learned by the thousands of youngsters who began playing golf because of Tiger? The ones who play golf through his foundation? The ones who bask in the gifts and events from his foundation? Yes, we know this was another example of why children should not idolize athletes. (One exception: You can go ahead and idolize recently deceased UCLA basketball coach John Wooden). But Tiger shows no sign of slowing down his foundation or his visibility with it, as evidenced by a recent gig with Bon Jovi. While most pundits will focus on whether Tiger can rebuild his image through his golf play and examine how other athletes-in-trouble have fared, they haven't examined how TW Foundation scholarship recipients are reconciling who is giving them money for college, or why Woods is even still connected to a foundation that presumably promotes and rewards ethics and good behavior. Who is showing up at fund-raisers to be part of Tiger?

For PR professionals, the Woods saga is a gold mine for education and experience. Some of the takeaways, so far:

  1. People still want to forgive. If you are representing someone who has a "hint" of goodness that's demonstrated in public, the masses will wait to see that person "come around." Contrite works. Apologies work. "I've changed" works. Give it some time. Just look at Elliott Spitzer. Yet, if someone appears to be a permanent bad boy or girl (i.e. Lindsay Lohan) with no hope for recovery, feel free to bail.

  2. Attention spans are growing shorter. Our world is so wired, and overflowing with information, that we constantly "move on" to the next saga or story. Our fascination with individuals and their tribulations are either compartmentalized ("I'm not one to dwell in this area") or there are plenty of celebs who just seem to get into trouble. For all we know about Tiger, the latest Mel Gibson saga seems worse - right now!

  3. History softens the image. Although anyone can research a sorted past on Google, the public doesn't lift a finger to "go back" on someone's life. As time passes, a person's past is reduced to fewer and fewer lines of definition. We define our Presidents in assigned adjectives. FDR was the "New Deal" president. Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson and so on. Tiger will be remembered as a sports figure, first. His personal travails will become less and less important as his wins amass.

  4. Losses can be calculated. Although every PR pro criticized Woods' actions (or, inaction) early in the scandal, the silence and hiding seemed to work. Refusing to issue statements or answering media questions quickly eliminated the major aspect of the scandal - the numerous women telling their side of their alleged relationship with Tiger. If Tiger acknowledged anything more than "transgressions," additional details would simply provide more fuel for the fire. Whether this tactic works for the next person in trouble should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

All of this now tells us that if you have a client in trouble or a crisis communications problem that doesn't involve a publicly traded company, the following rules of engagement may be in play:

  • The public and the media may not pursue all penetrating questions, or explore more in-depth "societal" questions. Of course, be prepared for them.

  • Unless you are representing someone like Octomom or Bernard Madoff, you stand a very good chance of counseling your client through any crisis or reputation nightmare. Preach patience and sticking to message.

So, now about BP........