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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?


  1. My White Rhino is still out there in the bushes. May have secured a local news spot on an upcoming event, which I feel is fantastic and everyone is thrilled about, so that would be about it. Someday, I will work on something bigger that deserves bigger attention.

  2. You still got time, so my advice is to keep on hunting. I've bagged some good game, but as of yet on White Rhino. ;o)