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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, July 20, 2010

When Somebody Throws A Stone…Just Add Cement

Being the bully of the fourth estate and the self proclaimed satirical watch dog whose sole mission seems to be keeping the media honest, it’s almost a given that they’re going to come gunning for you when the opportunity presents itself. At the very minimum, certain media outlets might pile on when a negative story surfaces.

So it was no surprise that when a negative story about alleged sexist behavior at “The Daily Show” broke, media outlets across the spectrum seem to take glee in reporting the story about Jon Stewart and his alleged “all boys club.” Yup, he got the “business” from some of the very media outlets he comically skewered on a daily basis.

Before I get into some of the details of the Daily Show’s negative publicity or how the show responded, I want to touch on this thing called Reputation and/or Brand Management. Outside of being a buzz word for PR pros looking to carve out a niche for themselves or a jargony phrase to impress prospective clients, Reputation Management is actually a very useful proactive and defensive public relations practice. According to most formal definitions, it is described as a specialty that focuses on managing brand, product, or personal perceptions through an active, near real-time program of conscious engagement.

While many PR pros like to confine Reputation Management to the online world, I also like to extend it to the offline one. If someone says something damaging about you or your organization on air or someone repeats a false rumor during a broadcast, sometimes it’s best to address it head-on before fiction becomes fact or perception becomes reality.

A good example of proactive Reputation Management would be Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker taking on multiple late night talk show hosts by challenging their assertion that his city was a crime ridden cesspool. Booker did it in such a personable and intelligent way that the jokes subsided and people slowly began to buy into his narrative that Newark might just be a good place to live. Not addressing the chatter would have allowed Newark to be defined by others.

This brings me back to the Daily Show. For reasons unknown a very popular pro-woman blog (some would call it a feminist site) decided to do an exposé on The Daily Show’s hiring practices and treatment when it came to women. According to the blog, “The Daily Show's environment was such that many women felt marginalized.”

The blog post would go on to accuse Stewart himself of being dismissive of women colleagues. However thoughtful it was intended to be, the one thing missing from this dissection of the Daily Show was comment from the Daily Show. So I ask the question, “If a tree falls on the internet, will anybody hear it?” Yes!

Due to the blog’s popularity and its motivated following, the story took off and began to spread. You can read some of the coverage here, here and here. Whether or not the coverage of the story was fair, I’ll leave that up to the readers and viewers [editor's note: I’m a die-hard fan of the Daily Show, who secretly desires to write for the show]. Should the story have been covered in the first place – yes, because it’s newsworthy. But as a PR professional I became more interested in the show’s response to this form of crisis situation and how it faired in managing the reputation of the brand. Here’s the tale of the tape:

6/23/10 – Negative blog post is published

6/24/10 – Stories about negative blog post begin to break

6/29/10 – Stewart references the blog post on his show

7/6/10 – The Daily Show comes out with guns blazing in response

In the hood, there’s a saying that the response is never fast enough to “shots fired!” While I commend the Daily Show for addressing the accusation, I have to give them low marks on response time. While two weeks may not seem like an eternity, it was more than enough time for this story to take root and blossom to the point that it warranted some sort of formal response. And respond is exactly what the Daily Show did!

To dispel the rumors of sexism and the environment being an all boys club, the show gathered all of its female staffers, who account for 40 percent of all employees and had them provide a rebuttal to the story. You can read the full official response on the show’s website here. The response, which included a group photo of all the female staffers together smiling, was well thought out, biting, funny and painted a picture in complete contradiction to what the negative blog post alleged.

I thought it was genius! I’ve always believed the best way to dispel an untruth is by tearing it down at its very foundation. And this response did exactly that. It goes into great detail to provide the names, positions and years of service for all of the current female staff. It also lists a multitude of personal and professional areas the show has supported these women through. And best of all, this message was delivered by the very women who were allegedly being marginalized.

In the end, I give the Daily Show very high marks in the overall handling of this situation, despite the noticeable lag time before their official response. If companies want to have a say in how others perceive them, they’re going to have to not only monitor what’s being said about them but also engage those who are doing the talking. Mayor Booker and the Daily Show provide some examples of how to do this. However, I must admit I’m more partial to the Daily Show’s response. What’s not to love about an official company response that ends, Go f@#k yourself!"

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Gone Fishing: The Dark Side of RFPs & Job Interviews

Let me start by saying that competition is healthy. Dare I say it in my Gordon Geckko voice…competition is good. I believe that if you truly want something in life, you should have to work to get it and at some level compete to get it. In your personal and professional life, competition should be expected. But competition should never be bastardized to the point that people are unfairly used or pimped.

If you work at or have worked at a PR agency, the chances are great that you’ve participated in responding to an RFP or at least experienced your firm’s involvement in the RFP process in some capacity. For those unfamiliar, a RFP or “Request For Proposal” is the process an organization goes through when it wants to competitively bid out the contract for a work assignment or project. The RFP includes the specs for the project in addition to other pertinent details. It also includes a step-by-step outline for how those interested in “winning” the contract should go about doing so. Most RFPs included a formal opportunity for those who have made the cut to pitch their services first hand. And within those pitches sometimes would-be contract awardees are required to demonstrate in great detail how they would complete the project they are bidding on.

In regards to responding to an RFP on something say a little more nebulous, like providing PR/Communications services, bidders may be asked to provide their creative ideas up front. From the vantage point of the company putting out the RFP this seems perfectly reasonable as they don’t want to just “hear” that an agency is creative or has great ideas, they want you to demonstrate it.

But if you’re the agency in that bidding process, putting down your creative ideas in print and providing a blue print for the implementation of those creative ideas without the guarantee of being awarded the contract, is dicey and often amounts to freely giving away intellectual property. It’s just something very unsettling about it. But I’m sure some would say hey, this is part of the game and you’ve got to play, to win. Yes that is a true assessment, but it should happen at whose expense?

I think agencies should be able to demonstrate their PR prowess by providing actual case studies of previous work done on other projects similar in scope. I also believe that agencies should be able to rely more on actual testimonials from previous clients. Referrals and work samples speak volumes about one’s capabilities, along with the ability to intelligently talk through how the work was created. What I don’t think PR agencies should have to do is give away the only real products they create – their ideas.

Check out PRNewser's survey to see what other PR Pro's think about the topic.

The reason I’m so anti giving up PR intellectual property without compensation is because I’ve come to learn about the dark side of the RFP process. Not all RFPs are intended to be awarded. Some RFPs are meant as a tactic to produce/collect ideas…for free. Or even worse, the RFP process generates some great ideas that are then collected and given to a low bidding agency to implement. So the organization doing the awarding gets the great concept or campaign and gets to have it potentially done at a fraction of the cost.

Twice during my tenure with a PR agency I’ve seen what I like to refer to as “idea poaching” up close and personal. During the very first new business pitch I participated in, I saw this happen to our agency after we weren’t awarded the contract (side note: I was horrible during this pitch. I’d never done one before and wasn’t prepared to do any of the talking at that point in my career. However, I was very instrumental in putting together the presentation and contributing ideas). For the next couple of years following our failure to land that contract, I had to witness a less expensive agency carrying out many of the ideas we proposed and outlined during the RFP process. It was very disheartening to experience this practice in business.

But companies that put out RFPs don’t own the patent on idea poaching. Since I’ve been in the job market, I’ve come to painfully learn that this also happens during the job interview process. Twice during my current career search I’ve had prospective employers ask me to create a “detailed” communication plan. I really don’t have any sort of issue with demonstrating my knowledge, abilities or understanding of a particular industry, but the creation of a communications plan is not a simple task, say like taking a writing test or editing an article in a timed environment.

Drafting a legitimate communications plan requires the understanding of an organization and its industry; a working knowledge of its fiscal year objectives and bench marks; an audit of the previous communications plan and/or organizational communications capabilities; available budget; and a working knowledge of staff, stakeholders and influencers. Without knowing these things, you are flying blind as a PR pro. And most of these things you’d only know if you were a part of the organization already.

So when someone asks me to draft a comprehensive communications plan, like say it was the equivalent to drafting a press release (which I can do in my sleep by the way), I immediately come to the conclusion that either they don’t understand what it is that PR people do or worse they don’t respect it. If a hospital were looking to hire a surgeon, they wouldn’t ask the physician to execute a surgery in front of them to evaluate. No, they would go off of referrals from previous employers and a comprehensive evaluation of that candidates previous body of work.

But back to these two request for me to create a comprehensive communications plan as part of the hiring process. Both of the organizations were non-profits. One gave me a week and a half to create the plan and the other a mere three days. In both cases I had already made it through two rounds of interviews where I was grilled on my PR knowledge and my basic understanding of their respective industries. I passed all instances with flying colors. But that wasn’t enough on which to base their hiring decisions; they needed to have a communications plan in hand to review.

I wouldn’t have had a problem with showing them a previously created communications plan or doing a small sample one for their organizations or even a communications plan outline. But they wanted more and with a lot more detail, which immediately sent my internal alarms sounding. One of the organizations sent me the annual report for 2009 and asked me devise a plan for the entire FY 2010. The other directed me to their website and asked me to create a plan for the upcoming year. And in neither instance would there be an exchange of money for all of the time I would have to put into this endeavor.

Both wanted everything included in the plan, such as: creative ideas, time-line for implementation, designated spokes people, actual press releases or concepts for press releases, media lists (along with contacts and contact info) and measurables. I thought they were asking a whole lot for free. And what if they really liked the ideas and the plan but felt more comfortable with another candidate? Where would that leave me? And then it hit me…holding the bag and still in the market for a career home.

In the end, I declined to participate in the more complex of the two and for the other I did a scaled down version of the plan minus the contact info for the media list. If they had everything, what did they need me for? Momma didn’t raise a dummy. I likened it to a john trying to convince a prostitute to let him sample the product up front and if it was good or he liked it, he’d then pay for future services rendered.

When I apply for a position with an organization and ask them to invest in me by providing me with a salary, benefits and opportunity, the only things I have to offer in exchange are my experience, creativity, work ethic and dependability. I place a value on these things and giving away my creativity on the front end leaves me with less in which to barter.

Maybe I’m just naïve or too optimistic to think that life can be fair or that we can be judged based on our body of work.