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.