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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bagging A White Rhino

Ask any PR pro what he or she considers a public relations success and they will begin to rattle off politically correct responses such as: measurable ROI, lasting mutually beneficial partnerships, managed expectations and meeting company objectives, perfectly implemented strategic communications….comprehensive inertia…20 points of light…blah, blah, blah. And with the exception of comprehensive inertia and the 20 points of light, they wouldn’t be wrong. These things are very important ingredients when creating a successful PR campaign.

But if you got these same PR pros together amongst peers and you asked them to answer the same question off the record, many may tell you candidly that a public relations success is getting the “Big Hit,” or at least a part of it. It’s what gets some of us energized and motivated when we’re conducting proactive media relations on behalf of our employer or clients. How can I make the biggest splash and have the greatest impact that will positively influence the bottom line?

In the world of public relations the “Big Hit” could be many different things, but the one thing it definitely is not – is common. It could be getting your client on Oprah’s couch for an in-depth one-on-one; landing your organization on the front page of the New York Times in a glowing editorial; having a famous celeb name drop your product as he is being interviewed following a championship win; or throwing the event to end all events and it attracts coverage from the crème de la crème of national TV outlets. The Big Hit.

I see the Big Hit as the equivalent of being in South Africa and netting a White Rhino in a trophy hunt (apologies to PETA). It’s the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction that ensues when you’ve finally bagged your quarry. It’s a career highlight that earns you long-time professional props. And don’t get me wrong, clients (if you work for an agency) and organizational leadership (if you’re in-house comm) both like the Big Hit too. For clients it gives them the warm fuzzies about paying the retainer and actually getting something out of the deal that they couldn’t do for themselves. It also buys agencies a lot of good will when the Big Hit is gone and the phones stop ringing as much. For the in-house comm team the Big Hit makes execs and the board happy.

This brings me to CBS’s hit reality TV show, “Undercover Boss.” Without a shadow of doubt “Undercover Boss” is the whitest of rhinos and the biggest of the PR hits. For those unfamiliar with this program, the show follows high-level chief executives as they slip anonymously into the rank and file of their companies. Each week a different executive leaves the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their own company. While working alongside their employees, they see first-hand the effects their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organization and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their company run.

This is the best PR - money didn’t buy! Not only is it a 43 minute advertisement for the company (complete with branding, messaging and product highlights) but also it shows an organization in a more humanizing light and it’s done in a compelling narrative. Participating CEOs move from being anonymous, uncaring decision makers, to compassionate family men that love their companies. I only wish that I could’ve bagged this one for a client I represented.

And if you think the Big Hit doesn’t pay dividends, according to Brandweek, 7-Eleven and White Castle (both appeared on the show) saw bumps in brand awareness following their CEOs going undercover on the show and have settled at levels slightly higher than before their episodes aired. Hooters, whose episode was the closest thing to critical that the otherwise corporate-friendly show has aired, had a surge then dropped back to previous levels.

Back when I was working at an agency, I hunted my own White Rhino. One of the clients whose account I oversaw had launched a unique product in the US. If you Google the product name you’ll see my handy work (circa 2006). The coverage our account team secured during the launch was admirable, but I wanted the Big Hit. After learning that one of the product uses was for crime scene investigations I thought, wouldn’t it be something if we could get this product used/featured on the hit drama CSI?

And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted it to happen. I had an account executive track down a phone number to the production company. From there, we tracked down the show’s technical advisor/producer. I actually reached him and talked up the product. After exchanging several emails worth of product info and pictures, plans were made to ship a sample to the advisor. Our team and the client were ecstatic at the possibility. I informed my account team that when this opportunity was a done deal and finally in the books, I would be quitting the agency. My work would be complete and I was going out on a high note. I meant it too. But unfortunately, while I was working out the details of my soon to be PR coup, the client decided to discontinue the retainer due to budgetary constraints. In the end, I didn’t get to bag my White Rhino…but a guy can dream.

Alright PR pros, what’s your White Rhino?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gladiator School

One day I was participating in a very informal job interview at a Royal Oak, Michigan coffee shop. The person sitting across from me evaluating my credentials had a copy of my resume in hand. She began to read off the places I had previously worked, but a couple of employer entries caught her attention. “Oh, I see you have agency experience. More specifically, I see that you worked at the ‘Puppy Mill’ for XX year(s). Impressive,” she said.

I thought to myself, Puppy Mill? How so? Later that day I looked up the definition of the term:

A puppy mill, sometimes known as a puppy farm, is a commercial dog breeding facility that is operated with an emphasis upon profits above animal welfare and is often in substandard conditions regarding the well-being of dogs in their care. Hmmmm.

It wasn’t the first time that I had heard the expression puppy mill used in describing working at an agency. It was the third time in five years of working in Michigan that I had heard the reference. In fact, because of the oddity in the usage of the term, I was originally going to name this post “Puppy Mill” but after giving it consideration, I believe the title I chose to be more appropriate. Besides, I didn’t really care for the characterization of being a dog, despite me considering myself an Alpha Male often leading a pack of one.

Also puppy mill is somewhat of a derogatory term when you think of it. Its right up there with “sweatshop” and “shark infested waters,” both of which I’ve heard used when describing working at an agency. But “Gladiator School”…yes, that would be more appropriate. And when I say “Gladiator School” I’m not talking about the type typically associated with the height of the Roman Empire or the story of Spartacus, but rather the one related to America’s penal system. I’m talking kill or be killed…Gladiator School.

Now for those, who have not experienced the correctional industry up close and personal, or seen one episode of HBO’s “OZ” or MSNBC’s “Lock Up” series, a Gladiator School is a less-than maximum security prison (Levels two, three and four in the Federal System) where prisoners are said to get their first real taste of prison life. Within a Gladiator School, guards sometimes use violence to control prisoner behavior, forcing inmates to "snitch" on other inmates under the threat of moving them to the most violent sections of the prison. A gladiator school also may refer to a facility that engages in the practice of setting up prison fights for the benefit of others. In a nut shell it’s an environment that thrives on a survivalist mentality: only the ‘strong’ shall survive.

It’s a grim association I’ve placed upon agency life, but I happen to believe it. And though some may disagree, I also believe that only the best of the best in the public relations industry have faced and survived the Gladiator School. If you take a look at the credentials of the top tier PR pros more than likely you’ll see that they’ve all done a stint at a public relations firm at one time or another.

Additionally, PR agency experience is highly coveted by hiring managers in the world of in-house corporate communications. Why? Because agencies are typically a very fast paced, hardcore grind environment. If you can survive and “make it” at an agency, you can make it anywhere. I’ve been on countless job interviews where the hiring manager made some variation of the following statement, “oh, I see you have agency experience. That’s good because things operate very fast here.”

In translation, what they were really saying is, “Survived Gladiator School huh!? I’m sure you had to shank a few people and spend some time in the hole to make it to Account Supervisor.” And they wouldn’t be that far off from the truth (lol).

Agency experience is also attractive to recruiters from other agencies. Knowing that you didn’t melt from the heat of a busy agency environment can be very seductive. I’ve had multiple agency recruiters engage in competition poaching, trying to lure me into their fold. It happened twice in Michigan and once in Chicago.

When it comes to agency life, there are two things I’m certain of: It’s not an easy environment and it ain’t for everybody. During a total of five years at two different agencies, I’ve seen a lot of things take place. Some people don’t make it past the probation period, while others stayed too long to the point of burn out. I’ve seen people crumble under the weight of the workload and others reduced to tears by overbearing supervisors. You definitely have to be built a certain kind of way to survive and advance. And I’m not specifically talking about kill or be killed or shanking people in the back but definitely incorporating an element of prison survival (life on the yard) to your routine.

It’s funny, I recently read a New York Times Magazine article describing the work offices of the publication, Politico as a fast paced, tough and challenging environment that only the “fearless, fast and ruthlessly competitive” survived. That’s pretty much what agency life is all about.

In saying all that, if I had to do it all over again, I would. I went into the Gladiator School, took on the baddest on the yard, didn’t break and I never had to use my shank. I like to think of myself as the Val Kilmer character in the movie “Felon.” He was tested every now and then, but mostly he kept to himself and nobody bothered him. For up and coming PR professional hopefuls and recent graduates, I think working at an agency is imperative. Not only is a good test of your mettle but also is a good way to test whether or not this profession is right for you. Watching Samantha Jones do PR on “Sex and the City” is a not an accurate litmus of what the profession is like. You have to get your hands dirty and if you can’t join an agency as an Account Assistant, you definitely need to do an internship at one.

There came a time when I left the smaller Michigan PR agency to test my resolve at a much larger agency in Chicago. On my start date, I had just gotten off of a plane and caught a cab downtown with suitcase in tow. I didn’t even have a place to live yet. As I entered the front door of this impressive new agency, the front desk receptionist took my suitcase, which was filled with a week’s worth of clothes, and placed it into a hall closet. She indicated that I needed to be in a morning meeting/call with one of my new clients, the insurance giant, Allstate. To be fair, I was late starting my first day of work, so I had to skip the early morning orientation (due to snow I missed my flight from Detroit and had to catch a later flight). When I walked into that Allstate meeting, it seemed that all eyes were on me and there was an anticipation of what I’d be bringing to the account team as Associate Director of Engagement Marketing.

Normally, in these types of situations, I like to listen and take notes before I comment. But almost immediately a question was thrown to me and I was asked for my take on the approach being taken on a major project. The group around the table and the client on the phone awaited my response. I smiled internally to myself.

Once again, it was time to start sharpening my toothbrush on the floor…welcome to day one of Gladiator School.

The Introduction

If you want to be among the communications elite, today’s public relations professional has to understand all of the tactics associated with the craft and be well versed in using all of the communications tools at our disposal. That means in addition to understanding traditional media and knowing the tactics affiliated with traditional media outreach, PR pros also must understand new media and the world that exists around it. Social media outreach, search engine optimization (SEO) and electronic communications should be a new tools within our “PR toolbox.”

It’s due to this fact that I’ve decided to get back to my blogging roots. As a self proclaimed freestyle writer, blogging is a natural fit for me and my sometimes non-linear thought process. Now, I’m not new to blogging in any capacity, I’ve actually been blogging since the late 90s. I’ve blogged about hip hop music. I’ve blogged about relationships. And I’ve ghost blogged for the leadership of one particular organization. However, this will be the first blog I will be doing under my government identity and related to my current profession, public relations.

Without the anonymity that I’m used to when blogging, I just hope that I can continue to be interesting and interject what has become a cornerstone of my personality – my own personal brand of humor and introspection. In addition to the aforementioned, in this blog you can come to expect pop culture and hip hop references, highbrow snarkiness and the opinion of this writer (which has been shaped after receiving 39 years of information).

I hope you like it. I hope that you comment. I hope that you tell a friend. And most important of all, I hope that you keep coming back. In return, I’ll continue to provide content centered on the good, the bad and the ugly of PR.


Larry Jones
The Practitioner