Friday, December 30, 2011

Occupying our minds

One of the foundations of public relations is understanding and evaluating your audience. We conduct countless surveys, analyze news articles and polls, and spend tens of thousands of dollars on research to make sure our message, our efforts are going to be received by a receptive audience. We build complex communications strategies based on this important research.

It strikes me, therefore, that the Occupy folks have not opened one book on public relations. If they did, they would realize that a protest at the 2012 Rose Parade will likely do more to hurt their cause rather than help it.

The Rose Parade is sacred ground for the legions of loyal followers. Which, in this case, includes tens of millions of Americans who are both the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The parade is the annual time for millions to be enchanted by the color and pomp (and occasional technological wizardry) of the floats, the back stories about the bands that held cookie sales to finance their journey from some small town in Iowa, the history of a particular breed of horse and the innocent beauty of the Rose Queen and her court.

It's the exact annual moment of the year when the country is trying to escape - from a hangover, from the things that went bad the year before, from the dread of what's to come. We want to smile and be awed. We're willing to risk a cold sleepless night along Colorado Boulevard for a spot to see the parade in person, to hear the bands and see the flowers.

Naturally, when news surfaced that the Occupy folks were planning to protest at the Rose Parade, there was universal feelings of: "No. Not my Rose Parade." The common reaction was bordering on feeling violated. The average person felt like they owned the parade. One of the last remaining treasures untouched by scandal, a few hours of pure fun and joy with a warmth of nostalgia was about to be the stage for a political protest. The reaction has been negative on a universal level.

So, why would Occupy folks whose goal seemingly is to gain mindshare, approval and sympathy choose a path that will do the exact opposite?

In public relations, we often are in the business of telling a client "no." What may seem like a great idea will backfire. Even with research that tells us it's a bad idea, some clients will go ahead with an event or announcement - with the negative results we predicted.

In this case, we would have to tell the Occupy folks that in spite of the potential to reach an international TV audience, your message will not be heard or accepted. In fact, you are likely to do more harm to your campaign. Any hope of gaining sympathy for the cause will vanish.

The audience research tells us you picked the wrong time and place.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Be thankful

The tragic, senseless shooting last Friday (Dec. 9) in Hollywood is a reminder to cherish each day.

These were the words from one of the unsuspecting motorists whose car was hit by gunfire from a man standing in the middle of Hollywood and Vine. And it was a statement that a TV news team recognized was different enough to stay in the broadcast story.

Sadly, one of this gunman's victims died today - music industry producer John Atterberry. A chance encounter for this poor man, leaving a bank unaware of what was transpiring around him and getting shot by this crazed gunman.

On one hand, the prophetic advice from an almost victim is something we are all heeding - or should be soon. Live life like there is no tomorrow.

On the other side is our curiosity about the event itself.

Like many, I've been following this story since it first broke. First, the video clips from witnesses brought to life an incredible scene. Then we heard stories from individuals who either came to the aid of Mr. Atterberry, or from the drivers of cars that had their windows shot out.

Then we wanted to know: Who was this crazy gunman and why did he do this?

The answers trickled out in pieces, almost in a timed cadence.

TV news outlets have appeared to be out-hustling their counterparts in print to get the details. For instance, we learn the gunman actually reloaded - he fired 20 rounds, not 10 as we first heard. His former girlfriend told TV stations he was "stressed out" lately, upset by their recent break-up and allegedly met someone else who was giving him drugs that changed his mood and behavior.

This is a story that has captured the attention of most of Southern California, possibly beyond. Why? For many of the same reasons we professionals in public relations recognize are the elements of a compelling story.

  • It's local. Even if we never had driven through the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, we know a lot about this famous, iconic location. We know tourists from around the world venture to this place. We know it's busy. We can readily identify with it.
  • It shakes our sensibilities. This time, we were shaken in a bad way. Our sense of "peace" was shattered. It could have been one of us. When it's good news, we in the PR profession also try to awaken a person's senses, but in a favorable way. If we can capture a specific human reaction, if it's unusual enough and upsets the path or boundaries we walk with every day, then we have "reached" people.
  • It touches a nerve, a raw emotion. We all like to think we're immune to things the world throws at us, that we're built to handle the tough stuff. But for an event or announcement to really capture our attention, it needs to break through these immunity barriers.

There are a string of other factors that examine the human condition and its predictive nature when reacting to events and information, or in how we manage an emotional conflict that unwillingly takes us from our comfort zone. (I'd suggest reading the "Switch" and "Made to Stick"books by the Heath brothers.)

A senseless shooting is tragic. Very tragic. Life life to the fullest every day.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why speed kills

Southern California and other parts of the state were hit last week (Nov. 30-Dec. 1) by a weather system with all the resulting damage resembling a major tornado in the Midwest.

Take a moment to visualize this. Thousands of trees blown down, many onto power lines, cars, homes and streets. Roofs blown off homes. Large metal canopies toppled. Damage expected to be in the millions of dollars, but even officials are reluctant to come up with more exact estimates. Winds topping 150 mph over mountaintops, but probably higher because the machines could record faster speeds.

As a former journalist who has covered disasters across the country, this event had all the severe markings of an F1 or larger tornado. A disaster not as bad as the Northridge Earthquake or this past April’s tornado outbreak – there were no deaths, thankfully - but much greater as average natural disasters go. Certainly, worse than most floods or brushfires. A “tornado-like” scene is a phrase I would have chosen to use if I were still writing newspaper stories.

Currently, as a veteran public relations professional who prepares crisis preparedness and crisis communications plans for public agencies and private companies, the shoot-from-the-hip criticisms and questioning we recently heard from public officials and others are, sadly, to be expected and planned for in our modern era of unrealistic expecations.

Rather than learn from this experience, use this as an ideal opportunity to remind residents about preparing for a major disaster and draw comparisons to recovering from a tornado, one of the first major public statements we hear from elected officials is a loud chastisement of electric utilities for such silly things as not effectively communicating with its customers about the status of restoring power.

Does the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors really need to chew out a utility just days after a disaster and while they are still trying to make repairs on a 24-hour basis? Does the California Public Utilities Commission really need to investigate Southern California Edison for a “prolonged power outage?” This wasn’t a typical “power outage” where we find when a few transformers blown up. This was widespread destruction.

Where do such critical responses – a seemingly growing bash fest – come from? It is very likely because of what behavioral scientists have been telling us: Changing perceptions and expectations skewed to the here-and-now thanks in part to speed-of-light technology. We now live in an era where we expect instant results and rely on immediate communications. We can’t wait for answers so we make fast conclusions (Thank you, TMZ and Fox News). We want our opinions to be heard (Thank you, Facebook and blogs). Our expectations are now so maladjusted that acceptable behavior includes making broad, baseless accusations before we wait for more information and more facts (Thank you, Twitter and the “comment” section at the bottom of news stories on the web). A recent Newsweek article (“Money Brain”) discussed the impacts of the Twitter generation, that one-click shopping and instant messaging encourages a desire for instant gratification. Even comedians joke about impatience – the Lewis CK YouTube video “Everything’s Amazing, but Nobody’s Happy” has registered more than 5 million views because he skewers, among many targets, a spoiled, impatient airline passenger who lost Internet service.

And do impatience, instant gratification and skewered expectations affect memory? How soon did we forgot the early warnings from Southern California Edison and others that this “severe wind event” was significant enough that it would take “several days” to repair electrical lines? How soon did our own county officials forget that they regularly affix their names to emergency preparedness statements that, for example, advise residents that they may have to assume they will “be on their own” for several days in a major disaster? These warnings further advise resident not to expect contact with authorities or from utilities because they are placing all their efforts at restoring power, water and gas.

Expectations. We all know the images from the Midwest when a tornado cuts a path across a town. We don’t blink an eye when we hear, weeks later, that people are still recovering from the disaster. Yet, in a wind storm that remained severe for two days and wiped out power to nearly one-half million people (not a Midwest town of 30,000, mind you), the current state of expectation is: Why are you not moving faster? Why have you not catered to my need to get twice-a-day or more frequent updates on the situation? As a professional communicator, I must now advise companies that should they experience a crisis they will be forced to expend considerable resources to provide constant updates over multiple platforms, spend money on advertisements apologizing for not performing at super-hero speed and cater to “stakeholders” they never knew existed. And the statements they make must be short and lack any forward-thinking phrases so as to avoid a possible lawsuit.

Seventy years ago, it was hours before the mainland United States heard the news that Pearl Harbor was bombed. If the same happened today, millions would have known about it in seconds via Twitter. A former General Motors Chairman said he could take up to a week in the 1970s to make an important decision. Today, CEOs of major companies are under the pressure from a global market that never sleeps to act on major issues within hours, sometimes minutes.

It’s all about meeting expectations skewed by a faster moving and more demanding society. Somewhere along the way, patience was replaced by indignation.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Power of PR

The city of Long Beach recently announced a major milestone in one of its many water conservation efforts: removing turf from 500 residential landscapes.

The turf-replacement effort, which first received high visibility in Las Vegas a few years earlier, is one of many to make homes and business more efficient with water.

The story sort of buried the lead - that drought resistant landscapes use up to six times less water. This is a huge number, given that half or more of the water delivered to Southern California homes today is used for landscapes. Most earlier estimates said water-saving gardens and landscapes could mean a 30 percent reduction in water use. (Help me out here - "six times" vs. "30 percent"... different levels of savings, right?)

These sort of numbers, if you begin to add them up for every household in Southern California, could mean a much more reliable water future. I'm surprised someone has not jumped all over this.

Water agencies in California are busy implementing a range of water-efficiency efforts to get residents and businesses to use less. They must meet a 2020 deadline to reduce per-capita water use by 20 percent.

While rebate programs like turf replacement are helping to achieve improved water efficiencies, cities and water districts also are implementing at rapid pace a "tiered rate" structure. These rate structures are designed to make it costly for people when they waste water. It's the same structure that electric utilities began using after that last big energy scare in CA.

While some customers will grumble and many will contend that they are using water wisely, a price structure combined with an allocation formula quickly creates "opportunities" for the average homeowner to realize that, yes, they can indeed save more water.

Most water agencies have figured out that getting people to first save water now - through a more "gentle" approach of rebates and tiered rate structures - will be the more friendly approach with the easier consumer acceptance.

But, alas, nothing is ever easy with water.

While water agencies are getting people to save, they also are seeing declines in revenues from water sales. Yet, agencies have fixed expenses, such as maintaining their vast infrastructure of pipes, paying for water treatment chemicals, meeting salaries, and other costs that can't be eliminated or reduced without jeopardizing the system.

So, they must raise rates. So often, water agencies will thank their customers for saving water, then are forced to turn around and say "Now, we must charge you more for this service." Not exactly the kind of reward a typical customer was looking for.

Many water agencies that implement tiered rates are trying their best to keep the bill for its average, water-efficient customer at the same level. These agencies are counting on a percentage of their customers still wasting water and, thus, paying huge rates for water above their monthly allocations.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

More "news site" troubles

Update Nov. 12: Central Basin has instructed its communications consultant to stop using a website where their stories were appearing under apparently fake bylines. The Los Angeles Times reported today that the water district believed the reporters were real and only became aware recently that the authors may be fictional.

In a statement issued Nov. 9, Central Basin said, among other things:
"Central Basin was not aware of issues related to the backgrounds
of the individuals whose names appeared alongside the stories and had no knowledge of their
biographies until it was brought to our attention, at which point the News Hawks website lost its
Google Certification and Central Basin’s vendor discontinued using the website.

Credit the LA Times for not giving up on a story.

As much as I hate to see a water agency that does great work remain in the newspaper's cross hairs, and as much as I hate to see someone in public relations getting slammed in print....the public relations profession needs to take notice and learn from this one.

And, the water district may want to ask for help from PRSA.

The latest Times story about the Central Basin water district of Southern California is an update to their previous article about the water district's effort to secure positive coverage. The water district has been in bitter battles with another water district, which also is using deception on the web in attacking Central Basin.

As this blog wrote when the original story first broke, paying for positive coverage is full of danger.

The key issue remains disclosure...even more so with the latest Times article.

The latest Times story raises significant questions about the authors of "news" articles that appeared on a "news" website (that was subsequently removed by Google in its news streams).

These reporters may be phony.

The appearance from the story is that the public relations consultant hired by the district used various fake names, bios and photos for articles that he wrote for this "news" website on behalf of his client.

This certainly raises more damaging questions about the water district's effort to counter attacks by using some of the same misleading efforts they revile. Knowing the Times was about to do another article, the water district issued a statement about four days before the article was published. The water district challenged the Times to "see how" their response would be used in the article.

The problem with the statement is that it deals with the underlying issue of the battle between the two water districts, but fails to address the bigger, more damaging issue of credibility and disclosure.

While Central Basin may feel it has won some arguments with the Times about who exactly paid for what and how the website where positive news stories appeared was created, the latest story continues to raise damaging questions for the district.

Perhaps the best next step for Central Basin is to issue a statement that it has further reviewed its contract for public outreach services and conducted its own investigation to either (a) conclude its consultant has performed to the highest ethical standards or (b) it is ending its contract because the opposite was true.

Then the next step would be for Central Basin to develop and adopt a policy for public communications and code of conduct.

PRSA, Los Angeles would be glad to help. PRSA has done it before for other public agencies, including FEMA.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Let's the water games begin

While the rest of the country will have its political antenna aimed at the White House in 2012, California will - or should - hear a lot of rhetoric about water.

As LA Times columnist George Skelton writes, the state Legislature has a big mess on its hands with a ballot-ready $11 billion water bond that probably will fail in a year if left as-is.

Behind the scenes, all the usual groups are lining up for a post-holiday free-for-all. Everyone knows the bond must be trimmed and it will be up to the Legislature and Gov. Brown to re-craft this measure by next May or June to make the ballot in time.

Let the games begin.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mini crime spree - where is the reporting?

(A bit of a deviation from normal PR topics)

It's Wednesday and in just three days, Southern California already has seen a month's worth of sensational stories of murder and mayhem.

But does anyone care?

Not that I need more or have some dark desire for grisly stuff, but as a former crimes reporter, I'm dismayed by the lack of solid crime journalism. This would be the everyday, basic police-beat reporting that is designed to give the public a sense of the unusual. This is the kind of news that should be important to us because we should treat life with greater respect. Especially when innocent people are gunned down in our streets.

Yet, through lazy journalism, budget cuts and misdirected priorities, we're seeing the kind of news that should shock us - crime - being supplanted by another kind of sensational news - celebrities.

I partly blame careless journalism for this devolution of sensitivities. Case in point:

A "good Samaritan" was shot dead on Halloween in Santa Clarita trying to intervene in a midday robbery in a parking lot. Basic police reporting calls for going to the scene, tracking down family and acquaintances, getting cops to talk on background (which can be done by veteran copy reporters who had developed a relationship with the cops), and more. Reporters need to describe the scene so we get a clear picture of the horror that unfolded. Why do this? Because a two-paragraph release from authorities is very skimpy on details. The public deserves to know the details because murders are supposed to be unusual and shocking.

But was any of this kind of reporting done? The majority of news organizations failed. One exception was the Daily News (my former paper), but this good reporting is only available in the print edition. Sadly, most people only get their stories online via blog links, searches.

Meanwhile, top stories on local TV are about, what else, celebrity divorces, celebrity probation violations, promos for network shows...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sustainable influences and water risks

Part I: Pension fund influence on water issues

Count a major pension fund as the latest group to "influence" a corporation's sustainability program.

Perhaps more noteworthy is what appears to be the fast-growing sector in the environmental risk reporting arena: water.

CalSTRS is the California State Teachers' Retirement System and the lesser known of California's two major pension funds (Calpers being the other). Sysco announced this week it agreed to a set of new environmental strategies proposed by CalSTRS.

Influencing corporate policy and governance is a big part of large shareholder group actions, aside from picking the right stocks. Until recently, these demands usually focused on ensuring a company focused on making profits and, say, avoiding ventures in high-risk countries.

Perhaps more influenced by legal and financial exposures than noble intentions, companies are adding more and layers to their sustainability policies. And large shareholders like CalSTRS are demanding more environmentally-related risk disclosures from a range of market sectors, such as for insurance companies as highlighted here.

CalSTRS submitted five environmental proposals to Sysco, but only two were adopted. Besides the water one, the other approved policy involved sustainable agriculture, which makes sense since the company is a food service industry leader.

There is room for debate on whether these adoptions count as a major win for CalSTRS, especially given the number of global companies that have voluntarily adopted water-risk strategies and Sysco should have a sustainable agriculture policy anyway.

Growing sector
The water-risk disclosure is quickly gaining strength, thanks in large part to a global non-profit organization essentially forcing companies to report full disclosure of their climate change risks and exposures.

First proposed in 2009 as a pilot effort by the Climate Disclosure Project, water risk management is now a major new reporting segment for the CDP. The CDP is about to send out its second major water-risk questionnaire to global companies.

The 2010 CDP water report is somewhat predictable: Most responding companies said stable, clean water supplies and access to these supplies are critically important. Nearly 90 percent of the responding companies said they already had developed water strategies and plans, but 60 percent had specific targets. Again, this makes sense since the CDP issued its questionnaire primarily to companies with some level of water-related risk and exposure. (Note: water risks also include exposure to floods!)

This area of environmental disclosure is still in its infancy - in terms of its true "impact" on the environment. As the CDP report reveals, many companies are unaware of their true risk to such critical issues as water supply chain management. In places like California, this means they haven't looked thoroughly at long-term risks associated with potential water shortages.

As has happened in the sustainability "movement" among corporations, it will take a few more years before any true "meat" is placed on the bone for water-risk reporting and true change occurs. While companies like WalMart are considered visionaries with regard to forcing real change in "greening" their products and supplies, these changes evolved after several years of "forced" disclosures and heavy lobbying by environmental groups.

Next up will be how public relations professionals should prepare for this next "hot" topic of sustainability reporting - water-risk management.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Paying for positive coverage

10/3 Update: The Los Angeles Times has published a significant correction to its story and this changes some of the aspects of this column. Read the Times correction below in full:

"Central Basin: An article in the Sept. 14 LATExtra section about Google News delisting a website that had published stories "written in the image of real news" paid for by the Central Basin Municipal Water District incorrectly stated that the agency contracted with the website,, to create the promotional stories. The agency contracted with a public relations consultant, Coghlan Consulting Group, for the stories and other public relations efforts. Also, the article misstated that the agency paid the consultant nearly $200,000 under the contract. While the district approved paying that amount, it has paid only $70,000 so far, according to public records. The online and print headlines for the article also incorrectly said that the consultant created the website to tout the water agency and that it was financed by the agency. Although consultant Ed Coghlan stated that News Hawks Review was a part of his company and he was listed as a reporter on the website, he did not create the site for the agency and it was not directly financed by the agency. "

While this correction clears up the financial amounts involved and whether there was a direct financial or contractual connection between the water district and a "news" website, it doesn't change the basic ethical underpinnings called into question.

There still remains the issue of the News Hawks website appearing to be an independent news outlet, and how the water district - through its consultant - sought to obtain more balanced or favorable coverage through this "news" site. The major goal was to "build a base" of online stories favorable to the water district so that Google searches would bring these up first. This is a very admirable pursuit and one that public relations firms get hired to do all the time.

But, again, we do this through "earned" media under the presumption that we are getting stories published in "trusted" and independent institutions like the LA Times (of course, that trust is damaged when a reporter makes major mistakes). A story in the Times or other credible news organization is thought to have passed "the test" for accuracy and independence.

The Times' review of water district contracts combined with interviews of public officials who were quoted in the News Hawks articles clearly revealed an issue of the "independent" nature of these "news" articles. ("How about our own news outlet?")

Neither the consultant nor Central Basin have answered the question.

In its news release about the correction, the water district says it merely hired the consultant to provide news content for local news agencies. Google clearly did not see News Hawks as a "news agency" and delisted it.

Was it up to the water district to raise questions about whether this website was an independent news outlet? Yes. For other water agencies needing help in this area, ask this question: Is the "news" article I'm reading online or in print appear to be 80 percent or more verbatim to the news release or bylined article I had previously approved? If so, then it raises the question whether this was a "bought" story.

Was it up to the consultant to divulge the true independence of this website? Yes.

Is disclosure still the best policy when creating and managing a public relations program involving the news media? Yes

9/14 Update:
Ragan's PR daily covered the same and included the letter sent to the LA Times by PRSA Director Marisa Vallbona, APR, Fellow PRSA.
Update #2: LA Times reports that Google has removed the website financed by the water district.

Sooner or later, reporters will find out when you pay for positive news coverage.

Case in point today with the LA Times reporting about a local water district spending nearly $200,000 to place positive stories on a "news" site that gets indexed by Google news.

The water district has justified this as a legitimate expense and tactic because it is generating more traffic to its website and more interest in water conservation than sending out the typical news release.

So, here is a water district that I know very well, and which has battled a series of negative news articles and other attacks. I can certainly sympathize with this district: As these attacks grew over the Internet, it sought solutions to generate "balance" to the coverage.

But, as we see by the scathing news article, the solution ends up generating more negative coverage.

Worse? The tactic also creates issues for all other public relations professionals who are conducting their business within the ethical boundaries established by PRSA and from decades of experience acting with full disclosure.

PR veterans will tell you that shortcuts usually lead to a breach of ethics. An "easy solution" to generating positive news media coverage should send warning signals.

It is perfectly legitimate and ethical to hire a public relations pro to help an institution or company generate positive news coverage, to counter negative information, to go on the "offensive" to get "our" side of the story told, to promote the many other sides of a company that are doing positive things in the community, etc.

It can be hard work and the "wins" may not come as frequently as hoped. Yet, these wins and positive milestones are "earned" media - not paid. The news media is viewed as an independent group - so if we happen to get a positive story out of it - everyone will trust that story. It is credible reporting. That is why we PR pros work so hard at earning these stories. The credibility and trust associated with a truly "earned" story translates into incredible amounts of ROI for our clients.

Otherwise, any other effort that resembles a "news" story should be clearly marked as a "paid" effort.

Disclosure wins, every time.

Decades ago, Mobil spent considerable dollars in a paid advertising campaign to counter what it saw as unfair news coverage. These "columns" ran in newspapers and magazines, like Time and Newsweek. Although they were designed to look like news columns, they were clearly marked as "paid advertisement." The campaign was very effective for Mobil.

In the case of this water district, the goal was to build positive Internet traffic that counters the negative stuff on the web. Fine. Let it happen, but with a disclaimer. There are plenty of legitimate tactics to counter negative Internet traffic. Misleading the public into thinking they are reading "real" news stories is not one of them.

As for the PR industry and this latest episode, let's make sure we examine this lesson and not fall into "easy solutions." This simply would not have passed the sniff test for most of us.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Value of PRSA membership

Since starting The Wolcott Company in 2008, I've enjoyed at least one or two new clients annually as a result of my involvement in the Public Relations Society of America.
If you are in the greater Los Angeles area, Thursday night, Aug. 11, is a great chance to discover the value of PRSA membership. It's a free mixer for non-members to check us out, ask a bunch of questions and see why this professional organization is the largest of its kind in the world.
Many people have asked me: What do I get out of my PRSA membership? I usually turn around and tell them: "As much as you want to put INTO the membership."
It's not a one-way street. This is an organization built on providing many things, but is only as good as the amount of energy and volunteerism we put into it.
What has it offered me? I've remained current - no, make that: ahead of the game - through affordable professional development. Networking and becoming involved on the local board and national committees have enabled me to build a national network of fellow PR pros who I can count on for just about any thing (advice, partnering, finding a specialty expert, etc.).
If you are not a member, now is your chance to see why being a PRSA member delivers ROI on your investment. Attend the free mixer Thursday night in Los Angeles. Details at

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

When Social Media can't fix things

Companies are getting better at countering Internet-led attacks of products. But what about everything and everyone else?

Taco Bell is a great recent example for how a company has learned how to take swift, aggressive action to counter erroneous allegations about their product. The impact of social media and the speed by which rumors fly on the Internet have been widely felt. Companies are learning and realize they need to pull out the stops at the first sniff of problems.

Within hours and days of a lawsuit alleging Taco Bell's meat was more filler, the South of the Border crew hit hard and fast. Bold advertising proclaimed "Thank you for Suing Us." There were Facebook and YouTube postings. They bought keywords "taco," "bell" and "lawsuit" on search engines to ensure their official statement was the first link on Yahoo, Google and Bing.

The impact of all this won't really be known until April 20 when parent company, Yum, issues its next quarterly earnings. My guess: the episode will have little negative impact, and possibly positive financial impact. My prediction is that loyal Taco Bell customers decided to support the brand by eating more tacos.

But what about all the others who may not have the ability to respond?

And, what about the lingering impacts of items in cyberspace?

This week, two emailed videos many thought were long forgotten... resurfaced. The fact they "came back" means PR professionals can't relax.

In one, the video shows people putting their cell phones around a small clump of unpopped popcorn kernels. When people dial these cell phones, the kernels soon pop and popped corn falls around the phones. Within in this video are multiple clips of seemingly random groups of people - including what looks like a group of Japaneses-speaking young adults - all performing the same "test." The implication, of course, is that cell phones emit dangerous radio waves powerful enough to make popcorn pop.

The other video has two clips of cruise ships in rough waters. One is an interior shot of passengers and crew being pushed back and forth, chairs and tables sliding around and more havoc. The other is an exterior shot of a cruise ship being tossed around in a very stormy sea. Both videos are attached to an email that says, essentially, 'watch ships being tossed by the tsunami.' The implication being that the tsunami generated by the recent Japan quake caused these ships to run into trouble.

Trouble is: both emails are misleading. The popcorn-cell phone video was a marketing ploy by a company that sells wireless headsets. This was "uncovered" by CNN and others...back in 2008.

The cruise ship videos? One was from a cyclone off of New Zealand and the other from a serious storm off the coast of Majorca in the Mediterranean. Both incidents occurred in 2008.

A certain percentage of the population will believe emails like these because they are sent from friends. They will simply accept them on face value. Some may try to do a little digging, like through and But, really, who has the time for that? If they are seemingly "innocent" items, why bother digging?

But for cell phone manufacturers and cruise ship operators, these lingering videos can be troubling. Cell phone manufacturers seem to continually be forced to answer questions about the potential health impacts of their products.

Like a bad penny that keeps turning up, videos and emails simply don't go away. In spite of our best efforts, bad information can come back at anytime. They can inflame sensibilities, provide more "proof" to people who believe cell phones create health issues, cause people to rethink that next cruise and so on.

PR professionals know they can't relax. So, what are the strategies for "old" viral? Consider these options and questions:

  1. Do nothing, particularly if the time frame is more than four years from original to recent occurence. In this case, you are playing the percentages. The "new" audience to these videos and viral emails is much smaller than the one who saw it originally. Sure, this is a gamble. But it's also known as risk calculation. (Talk to the insurance folks in your company). How much time and money should your company/client devote to squashing old emails and videos? If you choose to combat these, what are the risks of creating more unwanted attention? How much time do you spend to figure out the demographics of the "new" audience? Are they mostly older than 45 or under 20? The older age group will tend to be more skeptical.
  2. Did it reach Facebook? If an old video is making the rounds just via email, it's not really a threat. But if it's being posted on FB, now it's a threat and requires some level of response. Don't overdo it. First see if ambassadors can act on your behalf with their FB friends - and tell them to "read this" for the truth. "This" being the link to your original official video or statement.
  3. Is it a weed? One definition of viral means how long this "weed" lives and bothers you. Weeds will die either because of a lack of water, you yank it or spray it with weed-killer. On the Internet, "yanking" usually means lobbying YouTube to pull a video. Typically, YouTube will yank a video in copyright infringement cases, but it can have an immediate impact. "Weed-killer" is your assertive, aggressive social media/media relations/advertising counter-attack. Or, you can simply go silent and hope this weed dies for lack of attention.
Just remember: Even weeds have seeds.

Monday, April 11, 2011

M, M&A, SC and G

Some initials for you: Maui. Mergers and Acquisitions. USC and Green.

Back from Maui and ready for some major PR work and news this week. Hawaii is still a great place, but its dependency on travel and tourism can create turmoil for some of my PR colleagues. Just as hotels and resort properties seemed to have withstood the global recession, now another global event will force another major change in strategy. Some hotels rely heavily on Japanese tourists while others focus on the U.S. market. The devastation in Japan is predicted to create a significant drop in tourists from that country to the islands. Now, resort properties dependent on Japan will begin to focus on other markets - which could lead to some fierce competition.

This was Spring Break time for Hawaii, and I was glad to see many friends taking their families there. Yet, there are signs of lingering trouble. When I last visited Maui in 2006, all the shops at Whaler's Village in Kaanapali were full. Last week, there were many empty ones. The fabulous Ritz Carlton at Kapalua, like many HI resorts, is in default. With higher fuel prices, the question is: When will Hawaii catch a break?

In case you missed it, Ruder Finn acquired The Rogers Group last week. Good news: They report no layoffs. Ruder Finn actually says it's hiring in SFO to bolster its West Coast operations.

The Rogers Group was probably ripe for a sale. The firm lost my friend and a great leader in Lynn Doll when she suddenly passed away last August. She was a driving force behind the firms' steady growth and success. CA budget woes didn't help, and the state was not renewing some contracts, including a large one for the firm.

Ruder Finn has long tried to be a strong presence on the West Coast, with many starts and stops. It had previously tried to build business organically. Now, it appears, RF has the ability to create growth through acquisition and bring in a well-known and very capable leader such as Ron Rogers. Aside from the normal M&A issues, it will be interesting to see if there will be new directions for Ruder Finn/West. Public affairs joins technology?

Don't miss a great, free program this Thursday at the University of Southern California. The annual "Kenneth Owler Smith" Symposium, named after one of our great PR leaders from Southern California, will feature a discussion about the changing relationships between PR and journalism. More information here.

Green PR
A great program is coming to LA on May 16 - Sustainability Communications. This still-growing practice area of Public Relations is now creating new posts, new challenges and changing faster than social media. A very affordable event. Click here for more details.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

When the CEO goes hunting

Will the GoDaddy brand suffer because their CEO shot an elephant?

Right now, the social media networks are alive with calls for anyone with a GoDaddy domain to yank them because of this. A competitor is jumping on the bandwagon to try to gain marketshare.

What's surprising is the lack of mainstream news coverage of this - (at this hour). It probably will perk up, soon.

So, it remains to be seen if this incident will hit GoDaddy in the pocketbook, immediately and in the long term.

So far, has not issued any statement about this. If history is any indication, this story will get bigger and force a response from GoDaddy.

April 1, 8 a.m PST UPDATE: The story has broken open. Parsons is defending his actions in interviews, such as here.


For those who are discovering Bob Parsons videos for the first time, this one may be shocking. But, this is who he is. His image - bravado, take life by the horns (sorry, had to use it), live life to its fullest - is already defined, particularly by the brand of his company and the videos he stars in for the company.

But what is more shocking is how seemingly out of touch Mr. Parsons is with regard to the impact of his conduct away from the office. There are plenty of CEOs who like to hunt. Ted Turner's image only improved when he went out on hunting trips, or in later years for building up a herd of bison on his sprawling ranches (bison raised for their meat, mind you). Dick Cheney's image faltered when he went hunting.

But, elephants? In 2011?

Regardless of the facts or claims about the impact of elephants in certain areas of the world (overpopulation, etc.) and regardless of the fact that Parsons' video points out that the killing was necessary to keep a village from starving, and regardless that the entire elephant ended up feeding more than the local was an elephant.

Does Parsons need to go on the offensive to explain all the "pros" for this, um - in his view - justified killing? Perhaps. He may have a slight opportunity here to crusade about the issue of problem elephants. (But I wouldn't use the word "problem.")

However, the real question is why a CEO of a leading brand like GoDaddy thought there would be NO consequences from killing an elephant. I'm sure there would be little or no repercussions had he killed a deer or elk. Killing an elephant begins to cross over into a different realm. Think: documentaries about killing dolphins.

True, this was the second year in a row for this kind of expedition for Mr. Parsons. There were no apparent repercussions the first time - but now the video is out for his second one. Lesson: Don't be fooled that a lack of reaction in the first instance doesn't mean there won't be screaming the second time.

The point here is this: At any level of rational thinking - killing an elephant and then boasting about it with a video is bound to prompt a significant percentage of customers to switch domain providers. That is a reasonable calculation to make before boarding the plane to Africa. This is bound to make some potential customers more carefully examine their choices. It may cause some employees to resign. There may be lasting impacts to the brand and the bottom line. What the CEO does in private life, as we all know, has direct impact on his or her company.

Update: In the NY Times interview, Parsons sees this act actually increasing sales for GoDaddy. He is perhaps bolstered by the nearly 300 "likes" on his video?

Were any of these possibilities considered before (a) the expedition was organized and (b) the video was posted? They should have been - especially for a brand that tries to appeal to a broad cross section of the world.

It could be that Mr. Parsons and GoDaddy felt that since they have "crossed the line" (i.e. using sex to sell their website) before, and only saw revenues go up, nothing will be different this time.

However, think about the core customer base for GoDaddy. I can only imagine the average customer is young, Internet-savvy, perhaps more males than females. (Which is why they can put sexy models on their website to sell domains). Yet, my hunch is that this audience probably favors humanitarian causes, save the planet stuff, etc. Elephants fall into these categories.

Is this an Internet crisis? Not now, but it could be soon. This story will likely continue to unfold and will be interesting to see how GoDaddy responds.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The pyschology of water

On Wednesday, March 30, California Governor Jerry Brown is expected to declare the state's drought over.

And with this declaration, so goes a piece of leverage effectively used by water districts and others with a stake in California's water future.

Is it political leverage? Or, should officials simply be commended for take advantage of the tools in front of them?

Indeed, it seems logical to end the drought declaration in California. We have record snow pack and rainfall. Our reservoirs are brimming. Yet, as any scientist will tell you, one good year doesn't mean a true drought is over.

Some environmental groups and others opposed to proposed massive water projects and the bonds needed to finance them have been critical of how a politician, like our former Governor, used the word "drought" to sway opinion.

Yes, a scary word like "drought" does have impact. It gets people's attention. So, why not use it to your advantage? As a public relations or communications professional, you must tap into the concerns of the public, know what's on their mind and figure how best to make them pay attention to your issue and your arguments.

That is why we conduct polls and other research. That is why certain water bonds and measures win voter approval and some do not. This is how campaigns are conducted to get people to make changes in their lifestyle to save water.

It's no different from a candidate or an elected official using polling to determine what matters most to the public, then "speaking" directly at them about it. President Reagan was a master of polling to get legislation passed.

If you are not from California, it would seem rational to assume that a majority of Californians would approve financial efforts to keep our state's plumbing working. California is an economic powerhouse because of our massive water delivery systems. The fixes now on the table are to correct environmental impacts, prepare for climate change and prepare ourselves for the population growth we know is coming. About every 30 years, the state builds massive water projects. The last one was completed in the 1960s, so we're overdue.

Logical, right?

Guess again. Right up there with immigration and labor unions, water is a topic of angst and emotion in California. The debate, therefore, gets as muddy as the Sacramento River after a rainstorm.

Hence, the need to use key words to wage a campaign. Like the word, "drought."

Drought is simple to understand. It's also scary. And, it comes with pain (water rationing) and stark visual images (dry, cracked lake beds).

When I was managing a communications team at the Metropolitan Water District, we were about to launch a new water conservation campaign. I told my bosses that we had an advantage, a "leg up" on this effort because of all the recent stories about water shortages (the previous "dry" period before our latest drought).

The public, I said, was ready for our campaign because water was "top of mind." Our research showed this. So, I said, now that we had the public's attention, our chance for success was vastly improved. The public was already "primed" for our messages.

It would be much harder had we launched a water conservation campaign when it was raining, or water was not in the news. The public would be concerned with other pressing issues. It would take a strong "preliminary" effort to get water back in the news and, thus, "top of mind" for our audience to have them pay attention and listen to the "ask" we were about to make.

One California water bond many years ago was successful because they tapped into people's heightened concern - at the time - for the environment and, in particular, our famous coastlines. Part of the bond money would go for restoring wetlands, protecting coastlines, and such, while also providing millions for state and local water projects. Adding beneficiaries other than water projects was important because research showed overwhelming concern for the coastline, wetlands and parks.

Taking advantage of the public's current concerns, or to utilize existing conditions - like a drought - to help your campaign or issue is common practice.

So, now that the drought is over, what will water districts and water bond proponents use to win the hearts and minds? The public is probably "over" the drought. One less thing to worry about, right?. Today, they (we) remain concerned with, what, higher gas prices and food prices? Taxes? Personal safety? Education?

Yes, it will remain: "about the money." A bad economy postponed the last big water this year. So, what is the "leverage" to be used?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Social media rules keep evolving

There was genuine surprise recently when UCLA Chancellor Gene Block issued a written and YouTube statement regarding a now-famous student video by a student who mocked and complained about Asian students at UCLA.

As any person in charge of student affairs at a campus will confirm, students can and will behave badly. So, when Chancellor Block issued a statement, there were questions.

"What promoted the Chancellor to respond to this? Really, he needed to issue statement....for this video?"

As the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, the rules of the game have changed. A "local" incident can quickly become an international one when a video or other item gets reposted and multiplies faster than the spread of a cold at grade school.

UCLA did the right thing to respond quickly in the manner it did. UCLA recruits globally. Silence or a "standard response" on this incident could have been perceived in many negatives ways by current and future students, alumni, donors and other stakeholders.

Those who wondered aloud why the Chancellor issued a statement probably felt that in doing so, it gave greater attention to an isolated incident involving a bone-head move by a student. However, UCLA's media team was monitoring the student video and soon realized it was taking on a life of its own.

Fortunately, UCLA's chancellor was available for the video shoot. Media and public relations departments must have back-up plans and pre-authorization in place to videotape the "next-in-line" in cases like these, should the chief be unavailable.

As this incident points out, the rules of responding to social media crises keep changing, keep evolving.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Best laid plans

This date in 1997 will always remain with me.

Back in the days when Video New Releases were an accepted practice between public relations firms and television news departments, my agency had spent a good deal of a client's money preparing a VNR, contacting health reporters across the country, and getting "Dateline" halfway there for a story about a new, breakthrough medical device.

Dozens of local TV stations were ready to receive the VNR via satellite. It was cut to look like a TV newscast. All they had to do was put their own reporter or anchor in the lead-in, place their station logo on the bottom and, bam, instant health news sgement. News stations vetted our material, so all was on the up-and-up.

This was an "issue" campaign. Our client made a new device that doctors could wear during surgeries to alert them when their latex gloves began leaking, and they were now at risk of infection. The problem we highlighted were cases of doctors unknowingly passing Hepatitis C to patients during surgeries. We emphasized "today" in our piece, as to create a sense of urgency for the TV stations to run it.

So, as I woke on this day in 1997, I was ready to celebrate a major effort and call the Dateline producer one more time to finalize this story. We had also done an Audio News Release, so I had turned on my radio on the way to work to wait for our story.

Instead, all I heard was this "developing story." The bodies of 39 cult members were found in a home north of San Diego. The Heaven's Gate group had committed a mass suicide.

My heart sank.

This was our one shot. Instead of our VNR airing on more than 60 stations across the country, it was broadcast in about a dozen. Dateline disappeared. All because of a cult. As a health story, this was a piece that could easily be dismissed in favor of breaking news.

We laid low for a few days, then tried to convince stations our "infection issue" story was still important. But our "opportunity" had passed. The medical device never really took off with doctors or hospitals. We soon lost this client.

Today, packaged news is not allowed (due to a 2004 scandal involving VNRs and the federal government).

Today, I always warn clients that breaking news could get in the way of our story.

Friday, March 25, 2011

YouTube most powerful medium?

With all the hoopla over Twitter turning 5, let's not forget the most powerful medium still in play.

YouTube's force is only growing with no end in sight. YouTube has forced major changes for movie studios and TV networks, created a new life for music videos, prompted the development of new software and forced PR pros to develop entirely new strategies and action plans.

YouTube views continue to climb in monumental proportions. YouTube's own statistics, are mind-blowing.

  • 35 hours of video are uploaded every minute.
  • 70 percent of YouTube traffic is from outside of the U.S
  • More than 700 BILLION playbacks in 2010.
Who is taking advantage of this? Just about everyone.

Who are reaping the rewards? The savvy.

Two recent examples of the power - and consequences - of YouTube are Lady Gaga and Rebecca Black.

If you can sit through it, the one-hour Google interview of Lady Gaga is fascinating. She reveals a lot about her savvy use of video and Google, and just about any medium to keep her brand in play.

Then, we have poor little Rebecca. Yeah, poor little, 47-million-view Rebecca whose "Friday" music video has earned her cash, fame and, as we have seen countless times in similar circumstances - scorn.

PR pros have focused much of their YouTube attention on protecting their clients and companies, bracing for an online "hit" (read: Dominoes), or figuring out how to market a product via YouTube.

Seriously, all you need are these two examples.

PR pros hate it, I mean really HATE it, when a client says either: "How do we make this viral?" or "Can we get on Oprah?"

Here is my comeback: Unless you are willing to do something extreme - aka, "get noticed" for doing something totally unexpected - you won't get 47 million views of your video. And, what do you see on YouTube? People. Creative people. Like this guy.

But, you tell your clients or company, you can maintain and enhance your brands with a range of other YouTube videos and online efforts.

And, yes, this effort costs money. More than what Rebecca paid, but probably less than what Lady Gaga is spending on hauling her stage around.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Chester Berger, RIP

Sad to hear that Chester Berger passed away. A PR legend and pioneer in both public relations and television news. He certainly was well known on the East Coast, but his reach was international and lasting.

The PRSA release offers some great insights into his achievements, but as you can imagine only scratches the surface. Chester's career and engagements in a variety of important endeavors goes much, much further. Check here for some additional insights.

Some of his most amazing achievements?

  • Chester, in some circles, is credited with being the first television news reporter. His pioneering experience in television made him a leader in how public relations determined specific strategies in how to work with television news. What seems routine to many of us now was uncharted territory then.
  • He was a pioneer in promoting the advancement of minorities in public relations.
  • His effective and trusted public relations counsel to AT&T is credited with raising the profile of public relations in the c-suite across the United States. See below.

My father, Robert B. Wolcott Jr., had the pleasure of working with Chester during my father's leadership at PRSA and in the early days of PRSA's Counselors Academy, which my father helped create. It is because of the efforts by these (and other) early pioneers that the senior executives of public relations agencies are now trusted advisors to the CEOs of major worldwide companies.

I had the chance to meet Chester several years ago when I traveled to New York City for PRSA leadership training. Somehow, PRSA had arranged for Chester to provide a "bonus" session for us - but it wasn't about public relations. In addition to everything Chester did and loved, he had a passion about history. As it turned out, he took several of us on an eye-opening "behind-the-scenes" history tour of lower Manhattan. Chester delivered on his promise that we would see and hear things no one gets from a local tour company. We heard a book of little known facts, like how the "crowns" on the top of fence posts around Battery Park had been knocked off by colonialists during the Revolutionary War. Millions of people pass by this fence and never realize this piece of history. But, Chester did.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Definition of SPIN

As my colleague Gini Dietrich does so well in her SPINsucks blog, the "fight against destructive spin" becomes a constant battle for PR pros.

More and more PR pros are challenging blanket accusations by journalists and others.

We had to do it again this week during our PRSA/Los Angeles chapter event featuring three of Los Angeles' top television new anchors. (Check back in a few days for the video!).

Carlos Amezcua, who I count as a very credible and ethical TV journalist now at the local Fox affiliate, casually threw out a statement during the program along the lines of: "And, spin is what you do. I get that...."

Mike Furtney, a PR veteran, top crisis communicator and one of the most respected corporate comm guys I know, challenged Carlos' statement by plainly stating: "I don't spin." Which brought a retort from Carlos: "You do. See, you were spinning just then."

Of course, you always think of the better reply on the drive home, such as: "No, I'm just giving you additional facts and another side of the story that you can use in how you want to report.."

Now, it seems, we PR pros need to have in our wallets a little "briefing card" that defines spin and offers bullet points that we can use at a moment's notice.

I'll get this started. Feel free to add to this in the comments and I'll come up with a card we can all live with:

  • SPIN is destructive and, therefore, not something Public Relations professionals want to be associated with.
  • SPIN suggests manipulating the truth, hiding facts or presenting false information. My professional ethics prohibit me from doing any of that.
  • Do not confuse SPIN with the simple act of providing the other side of a story with facts and important points of view.
  • PR professionals are hired for a variety of needs, including the establishment of beneficial relationships between key audiences and a company, person or initiative. In the course of this effort, we are obligated to provide accurate information as well as important points of view to be considered. It's our job. Don't demean it by saying we "spin."
  • Journalist who believe all we do is "spin" - are not listening. We hope journalists listen and gather all the facts and information BEFORE they broadcast or publish their stories. Whether it's a PR pro or someone else in a credible, important position offering information doesn't change the fact that facts and important points of view are coming out of our mouths. Please, listen....carefully.
  • Journalists regularly count on PR pros to tip them off to a good story, to bring experts and officials to their microphones, telephones and tape recorders, and to present them with reports, documentation and other details they need to offer a balanced story.
  • PR pros recognize the best way they can perform their job is to earn a reporter's trust. PR pros around the world earn this trust every day, every hour. How? By being credible, through honesty and with clarity.
  • Are PR pros frustratingly quiet sometimes? Yes, when there are issues of the law, personal safety and similar serious consequences involved.
  • Do all those practicing public relations honest and credible? No. Just as their are "bad" doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc., there are "bad" PR pros.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan quake and LA news

When news breaks, broadcast still rules the day. But do newspapers have to give up completely?

Watched the 10 p.m. news Thursday, March 10, when the initial news came in live about a major quake in Japan. About 30 minutes later, the first images came in. By 11:15 p.m., it was clear a major disaster had occurred.

In the old days of newspapers, when I entered my first career choice about 30 years ago, newspapers would not "go to press" until late at night. If major news occurred, it wasn't that difficult to make the pressroom grumble by telling them: "We're redoing Page One."

Before the 24/7 era of news, newspapers HAD to wait or scramble in the wee hours to make sure they had the latest news in the papers hitting the front doors of their subscribers. The average citizen was conditioned to rely on their newspaper in the morning for the "latest."

Obviously, much has changed in 30 years. But, do newspapers have to give up?

The Long Beach Press Telegram that arrived at my house this morning (March 11) did not have the quake story. Nothing. Nada. The Los Angeles Times carried the quake on the front page of its second, or "Extra" section.

Like I said, in the old days (yeah, I'm old), both of these fine newspapers would make sure I had that story in my morning newspaper. Front page. They would have held the presses to make sure they had respectable coverage in print.

Have newspapers figured that everyone will simply go to their websites? Is the assumption that the printed edition is simply not capable anymore of being timely?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Changing news media landscape

Excellent piece by LA Times media columnist James Rainey about how investigative reporting has morphed. It remains alive and, for the moment, well.

PR pros whose responsibilities include media relations, protecting reputations of agencies or individuals, etc. - you should take notice of this shift. There are new considerations to evaluate in how you do your jobs. (see below).

As a former journalist who did his share of investigative reporting, it's been sad to watch newsrooms thin and newspapers become a shell of their former selves. Newspapers play an important role in this country. For example, if it wasn't for two very good reporters, a gusty team of editors and a supporting publisher, the Washington Post would never had published a series of stories that led to the resignation of a president. For example, a city manager, staff and council members in the Southern California city of Bell would still be reaping outlandish salaries and benefits had it not been for the persistence of the LA Times to seek public documents.

Good journalism is good for the country.

As Rainey highlights, it takes money to run a newspaper. When newspapers lost revenue to other "news" sources like Google, staffs were cut sending some great investigative journalists scrambling for work. Some in the PR world breathed a little easier - because the odds of getting a dreaded phone call for comment on a controversial story were starting to go down.

Yet, veteran journalists don't leave this planet too easily.

Sure, a few were picked up by PR firms. Thankfully, many have joined forces in the non-profit arena, collaborate with mainstream newspapers and universities and, it seems, remain the same, if not better, force they once were.

What can we, as PR professionals, learn from the "new" landscape?

  1. Facts, figures and analysts. The new era of journalism has created an additional class of journalist - the analyst. No fact or detail is too small or mundane to analyze. Wikileaks get the attention, but the non-profit news orgs are working harder with the information they uncover by analyzing trends that otherwise wouldn't have been noticed. While you are working with clients to figure out if you have a "Wikileaks" situation on your hands, keep the broader landscape in mind. Are interactions with others, such as customers and subcontractors, searchable?
  2. How easy is it to misinterpret the information that is publicly available? Although this scenario has kept crisis communication experts in business and we PR pros have had to issue plenty of responses to offer clarity and balance to a published story, the new era of investigative journalism - perhaps pushed along by citizen journalism - is prompting a new wave of crusades. This new rush into scouring records has already led to some stories being published with fanfare that, frankly, did not deserve the front-page treatment. (I know my journalist friends will disagree. But consider that even the Wikileaks founder is starting to back away from his earlier "blockbuster" statements about what the yet-undisclosed Bank of America records will reveal). So, at the first hint of an investigation, don't relax. Assume it's a five-alarm fire and pull out the stops to develop a strategy and assemble the troops. The odds are greater now that a "Pro-Publica"-styled investigation will see ink - and a lot of it.
  3. It's no longer regional. With greater collaboration among news organizations (Is the word "scoop" gone forever?), an investigative piece won't just be published by the lead newspaper and stay in one town. As Rainey's piece highlights, one news organization will take the lead and the others will add their local angle to it. Be prepared for calls from multiple news organizations about the same topic. Be prepared to launch community relations/government relations action plans in multiple locations. Be prepared to post responses and conduct social media campaigns across multiple geographies.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Publicists vs. public relations

Of all things.

Charlie Sheen's situation actually provides another great case study to help public relations professionals explain how our job is different from the duties of a publicist.

Today, Sheen's long-term publicist, Stan Rosenfield, quit. The story on ABC's website carries some pretty handy terminology that should help the mainstream media and the general public understand the differences.

It is clear that Stan, a very well respected publicist, has had his share of offering up "unique" defenses of his clients. You know, the kind of explanations that instantly draw a "yeah, right" response by the masses, yet remain effective because the "official word" helps deflect more attention or helps quiet the story.

Stan's efforts worked well for Charlie, because up to the last few weeks, the public was mostly sympathetic to Charlie. Even after Charlie nearly killed himself, allegedly strangled his wife, destroyed a hotel room, did enough drugs to wipe out a million lab mice and more. Even after all that, Charlie was not hated. So, Stan must have been doing something right.

So, before I give more props to his former publicist, the point is this: While public relations professionals are routinely called upon to defend reputations, the PR pros who follow codes of ethics do so without trying to "spin" the story. They advise clients on how to get out of a jam - and that usually means being apologetic and remorseful, to right the wrong, to admit guilt and to ask for the public's indulgence while we try to get past this difficult moment.

But it's tough to get our "difference" pointed out. We both - publicist and PR pro - are in daily contact with the same crowd: journalists. All they see is someone trying to "sell" them a story or "spin" a story.

It is difficult for PR pros to point across the field and say "See those people? They are publicists." As if we should also add the word "evil" before that job description, followed by: "We're not like them. We're better."

We can't do that. For one, our professional counsel and strategy usually tells clients not to deflect the attention and certainly not respond to a negative with a negative. Second, there are many good publicists who have the respect of journalists. The late Ronnie Chasen was noted for that.

So, how do we distinguish ourselves?

I know many good PR pros who would never accept a problem client. It's important to note that we certainly are great at crisis communication - because something "out of character" happened to a company. Yet, there are plenty of PR pros who drop clients with questionable backgrounds and character. Why? Because PR pros don't like to lie or hide truths and if a client's day-to-day operation and DNA gets into the red zone of deceit, we'll walk away.

PR pros continually advise clients that it's better to offer up the truth - sooner rather than later. A client will earn greater respect with the media, and the public, if they are upfront and honest. Problems go away sooner this way. If you try to hide something, it will be found out eventually and blow up to a worse problem.

We don't spin. (Keep reading a great blog on this call SPINSUCKS) Spin is a "daily" event. PR pros are more concerned with long-term reputations - and that's done by building trust and credibility, by reading and understanding the audience and making sure we communicate in terms they will understand and accept. Proven, proven, proven.

Like publicists, we also tell stories. There are a thousand stories to be told with a lot of competition within a very narrow space to get our story heard, and heard correctly. So, PR pros must know how to effectively navigate this landscape. To make sure our story "breaks out" from all the other noise and clutter.