About Me

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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, October 18, 2011

Insert Round Peg Into Square Hole

If it doesn’t fit, you must quit.

I know I’ve said that I probably wouldn’t write about something that everyone else has written about, but this thing with Groupon and its now former head of PR, Bradford Williams, was just too juicy to ignore.

Just two months. That was all that it took before Mr. Williams resigned from his post as the top PR strategist for one of the hottest companies in the market at the time.

In all of my dozen or so years in this profession can I recall a similar incident where a highly touted communicator joined an organization and stepped down in such a rapid fashion, all the while the company that hired him was cresting in popularity and attempting to take their brand public. If there is another comparable case of this happening, by all means please do share. This type of thing has to be a rarity.

But what went so wrong that it prompted such a speedy public divorce? One can only speculate (so I think I will).

Before I get into the negatives, let me first give Groupon credit for understanding the important role of communications in its business strategy and making the investment to bring in a quality talent to oversee this effort. I saw Mr. Williams’ background and it was nothing to sneeze at. The brands he has worked for and with reads like a who’s who: VeriSign, Yahoo!, eBay, Levi Strauss & Co. and Gateway. In this industry, he would be what we refer to as a heavy hitter.

So with the supposedly right man in place the next logical step was to let him do the job he was hired to do. But that didn’t exactly happen, and my guess is that the barrier between those two events taking place had a lot to do with there being a lack of agreement in strategy and its plan for execution.

But how bad was the communication strategy gap between the experienced PR Pro and Groupon’s C-suite that it called for an immediate parting of the ways? I’m thinking canyon like.

Though an unfortunate but not unheard of situation, sometimes company leadership can be a little too hands on when it comes to communications strategy. This usually occurs when someone in leadership, typically the CEO, feels extremely confident about how to execute a company’s PR function, despite leading the charge or at least buying into the concept that someone with experience needed to be brought in to handle this important task.

If the decision is made to bring the necessary expertise in-house, then that company’s leadership has to not only create the space for that person to succeed, but it is imperative that they trust in that person’s experience. If you need surgery for a medical problem you’re experiencing, you’re not going to seek out a physician, solicit his consultation and then when time for surgery proceed to tell the surgeon how the operation should go because you’ve been in a hospital before or watched season one of “ER” on DVD.

So why do it when it comes to something as important as your external communications or protecting/projecting the image of your brand? The best advice is to trust your judgment in hiring the right person for the job, not using the opportunity to have somebody new simply rubber stamp your ideas.

If not, what happens when that person is brought into the company is that he/she is expected to validate what the company wants to do anyway. This is not a winning strategy and only marginalizes that individual’s expertise. In my eyes communications experience is just as valuable or important as say legal experience and it should be treated as such.

On the flipside, as a professional communicator what should you do when your years of experience and insights are at odds with the very people who hired you for those attributes in the first place?

Well the way I see it, you can do one of several things. You can tow the company line, put your professional knowledge aside and execute the communications strategy as dictated by leadership. You can come riding in on your abilities and past successes, confident in the understanding of your craft and ready to fight for what you feel is right. Or, you can think longer term about what you’ve gotten yourself into, see that this is not a good fit for your skill sets and cut your losses early.

Mr. Williams chose the latter. But I ask you, fellow PR professionals, if placed in the same situation what would you do?

As always, I welcome your feedback.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Are You Ready For Some Proactive Crisis Comm?

I give credit where and when credit is due. And my alpha dog PR nod of the day goes to the public relations team over at the Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN.

When aging country singer Hank Williams Jr. went off the reservation and onto the Fox morning news show to compare the currently sitting president to Hitler and declared Obama as “the enemy,” ESPN didn’t wait to react. Given the current climate of today’s 24 hour news cycle, it wasn’t going to be long before ESPN was a part of the story, so the sports giant went into a little of its own prevent defense (to borrow a sports analogy).

And while Hank Williams Jr. is not an on-the-payroll employee of the Mouse or its sports arm, he is strongly associated with the brand via Monday Night Football. For more than 20 years Williams has belted out the musical intro to the iconic football programming franchise. Whenever you heard the singer shout out, “Are you ready for some football?” it set the stage for the game about to be aired.

Williams’ inflammatory words were not only asinine and poorly chosen, they also were ill-timed. See, he chose to espouse his “political” opinions on a Monday morning and by that act alone, Williams threatened to take away the shine from one of ESPN’s premier products. As word of the Fox morning news show clip began to circulate, ESPN began to act and before it could become a part of the discussion, when everybody should’ve been talking football, the PR boys from Bristol tried to cut the story off at the knees.

First ESPN took no chances of people attempting to associate Hank the Tank’s political potty talk with the brand and cut his trademark intro from the program. Then it attempted to further distance itself from Williams’ remarks by issuing a very direct statement condemning the comments and making it clear that the singer does not speak for them. And finally, as an act of transparency, ESPN had its reporters cover the complete controversy (which included their response).

It should be noted that the situation with Williams is indicative of the problem with today’s celebrities and pseudo celebrities alike, and the brands that solicit their services. You can’t control what people say or do when they are “off the clock” and the celebrity/pseudo celebrity seems to forget that they, by way of their business arrangements and endorsements, also represent the people who pay them. If you have a controversial opinion that you want to share, maybe should think bigger picture before sharing it. I know that I have lots of opinions to share, but I don’t share them all and I water down some of the ones that I do.

But back to ESPN’s strategic move, by taking the bull by the horns sort of speak and not running or hiding from the potential problem, ESPN nullified the negative impact that the story would’ve had on their organization and showed their stakeholders/audiences what the brand does or doesn’t stand for. This was an excellent text book example of proactive crisis communications and how deal with a problem.

Right now, I give this PR response a grade of “A” but reserve the right to downgrade depending on how ESPN handles Williams for the rest of the season. Is the Hank Williams Monday Night Football intro a wrap or is it just on the shelf for a spell?

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Introducing Your Starters….

In our profession there’s been a lot written and said about what type of PR Pro we don’t want amongst our ranks. I’ve been guilty of this too, highlighting the types of things public relations professionals do incorrectly or fail to do all together. But what of the public relations practitioners and communicators we do want in our profession, and more importantly on our team?

Since I’m still basking in a hangover from the recent NBA season, I’ll use a basketball analogy to highlight this topic.

If you could play GM and put together a starting five of PR Pros to work on your communications team for any project who would they be? How should the team be constructed?

I’ve given this some thought and here’s my ‘Fab Five’ Comm Team:

The Manager – This person not only can do what the name suggests – manage people – but this captain of the team is a visionary who can see the big picture and “draws up the play.” He/she is a good judge of talent. The Manager is receptive to creative ideas or can inspire or generate them. The Manager’s experience comes from years in the business, so there are few, if any, situations they aren’t prepared to handle. This person also is great for putting together a comprehensive PR plan of action or acting as a buffer/conduit to executive level staff. This person also can competently fill in and do the tasks of the other four members on the team if the need arises.

The News Man – This is the one person you definitely want coordinating the media relations component of any project. Not only does this Pro have a good nose for what makes a compelling news story, but he/she can go “hard in the paint” and successfully pitch a story to the media with eyes closed. The News Man is like an artist when it comes to proactive media outreach, but even more importantly this person’s zone defense, when it comes to reactive media relations and crisis communications, is second to none. The News Man has an astute understanding of how media relations fits into the greater communications plan.

The Inside Guy (Gal) – Every good communications team needs someone on the squad who can “feed it inside” when it comes to internal communications/PR. Internal communications is the forgotten step child of public relations, usually because so many organizations have shipped it over to human resources. But if you want to effectively control the message externally, you have to do it internally first. The Inside Guy is the person who handles employee communications when it comes to delicate matters as well as when there is good news to share. This person also is involved with internal town hall meetings, intranet communications, the employee newsletter, internal crisis communications, and promoting the organization or individual employees/staff (i.e. awards, spotlights, community recognition, best places to work, etc.).

The Writer – This teammate loves to set-up the rest of the team or others within the organization with the assist. He/she is in love with the written language and can bring mundane words to life. The Writer has a hand in a lot of areas and you can find evidence of their craft in press releases, op-eds, white papers, articles, bios, backgrounders and speeches. Every highly functional communications team needs someone who can write their arse off and help create an organization’s voice. The writer can even pitch-in and help the folks in marketing by drafting promotional copy or assisting with copywriting.

The Event Guy (Gal) – It’s almost a given that a busy and fast paced PR team will have to periodically get involved with planning/executing events. When it comes time to do it, this is where Event Guy shines. He/she can handle an event from “conception to conclusion” and that includes: assigning roles/responsibilities, managing the event flow and budget, hiring and managing vendors, logistics, coordination of talent and VIP guests. This might seem like a glamour position, but this person is the most vulnerable if a shabbily run event leaves attendees with a less than stellar experience. A top exec might be more forgiving for a poor turn-out than a poor execution. Event guy can also help with the double team on handling internal organizational events and celebrations (i.e. ground breakings, meetings, award ceremonies, press conferences, check presentations, etc.).

On my bench would be Social Media Guy and The Designer. These two positions would complete the team.

I know many are looking at this team I assembled and thinking first that having all of these specialized positions filled would be a luxury, and secondly, as a result of the potential overlap it may make sense to bring on a “two-way” player who can do several of these things. Well that’s what most organizations actually do when they can’t play pretend GM.

So I ask the question, which one of these teammates do you see yourself as or, what type of team would you assemble?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Full Oscar Mayer

I seriously considered entitling this post “Weiner Roast.” But despite being fun to say, that title would be a little disingenuous because I won’t necessarily be talking directly about the now disgraced congressman from New York.

No, this post is about the other person who took enemy fire and sustained injury over this scandal. And I’m not talking about Mrs. Weiner or the co-ed from Seattle. I’m referring to Congressman Weiner’s press secretary, David Arnold.

At present, many of my public relations peers are dissecting this now sad tragedy of a story from a crisis communications perspective, not unlike what many did with the Tiger Woods situation. I agree, it is definitely a cautionary tale about what to do and what not to do in a crisis situation. Good PR counsel would’ve relieved much of the public disgrace now experienced by Weiner, or at a minimum lessened the blow when the media came after him.

While there is good material to dissect on that front, I’d rather turn attention on the guy who did or should’ve provided said good PR counsel, Weiner’s press secretary. I can’t say with certitude that David Arnold instructed Weiner as to what to do when the story began to take shape (for the purposes of this post, I assume he did). But I can say without hesitation or confirmation what he risked in the process.

A strange thing happens when you go on the record and speak on the behalf of an employer or client; not only are you vouching for them (or at least, the credibility of the message), but also you are staking your professional reputation to say, "I believe in this person/company and you should too." Now I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve invested a lot in my professional equity and I’m not willing to bankrupt it for any employer.

If an employer out right asks me to lie for them, that’s simply something I cannot and won’t do. I may go right up to the line of questionable practices and look at it briefly (as in the case of “spinning” the truth), but I won’t cross it. Our better PR angels should prevail.

In the case of David Arnold and Anthony Weiner, I’d like to imagine the conversation went something like this:

Weiner: David, I think “we” have a potential problem coming.

Press Sec: Congressman, what’s the problem?

Weiner: Twitter…the damn tweet…it had a picture attached. But I deleted it.

Press Sec: What tweet? What picture? Tell me what happened.

Weiner: A tweet went out to a Twitter follower, a young woman…but it had an inappropriate picture attached. I think I’ve been hacked!

Press Sec: Congressman, I’m going to need you to tell me everything about this…exactly as it occured. If I’m going to help you, I need to know all the details of what transpired. I need to know what “our” options are.

Weiner: My account was hacked David! There was a picture of a man’s bulging crotch tweeted to a young woman! My wife is going to kill me…why did this happen?

Press Sec: Twitter accounts get hacked all the time. We’ll just explain that to the media and let them know that we’re going to get to the bottom of this. We need to get out in front of this before the story gets out.

Weiner: Didn’t you hear me say that I deleted the tweet? What benefit is it for us to tell the media about the tweet or the picture? Doing it your way we’d have to deal with this publicly. Let’s just wait to see what happens.

Press Sec: Sir, I wouldn’t advise that. If we are transparent now, and tell the truth, it won’t be as big of a story and it won’t make you look as bad as if they found out on their own. You know, just because you delete it, it doesn’t mean it disappears.

Weiner: Really? This is just awful.

Press Sec: Congressman, we really need to get out there in front of this. You don’t want to come off looking like that “Tickle Party” guy Massa, or worse, a sexual deviant like Tiger Woods?

Weiner: You’re right. Massa looked horrible trying to explain what happened. And the media crucified him.

Press Sec: Congressman…Anthony…before I go out there and start talking to the media, I’m going to need you to tell me the absolute truth. All of it. If we’re going to do this, I have to know exactly what we’re dealing with.

Weiner: I told you the truth. I think my Twitter account was hacked. I did not send that tweet to that woman.

And with that make believe conversation, the events of “Weinergate” unfolded. The esteemed congressman from the state of New York got Brietbarted and then the press feasted on the chum. In an attempt to quell the media, Weiner then sent out his press secretary/communications director like a lamb to be slaughtered.

We all know how this incident ended; Congressman Weiner eventually gave his public mea culpa by way of press conference. But what happened in the days leading may be a different kind of victimization.

Having believed his boss’ story (or totally making it up himself, only time will tell), David Arnold went on the offensive boldly proclaiming the Congressman’s innocence, shifting the blame, touting private investigations and even calling the police to remove one reporter (Marcia Kramer) from the congressman’s office in the middle of reporting.

Arnold, feeling emboldened with the alleged truth, put a lot on the line professionally. He not only jeopardized his reputation/credibility with the media that covers his industry (for lack of a better word) but he will henceforth be associated with a political cover-up (much like G. Gordon Liddy, Scooter Libby and Tricky Dick Nixon).

But was it worth it? Only time will tell how much this incident will cost him.

As usual, I’d be happy to hear other thoughts on this topic.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Don’t Call Us. We’ll Call You.

Just because he’s the president of the organization, it doesn’t mean he’s a good interview.

As part of the job of being a good PR professional not only does it fall upon us to secure our organization and/or clients meaningful media coverage that supports a communications plan and business objectives, but we must also find a way to position our executives as thought leaders and/or excellent sources for commentary.

One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by offering a relevant executive as a person to interview when you’re pitching a particular media outlet about some new trend, noteworthy product/service launch, upcoming event, or announcement. The other way is by monitoring what a particular journalist is covering and then positioning your executive or expert as a person who can lend to the story by offering some balance or key insights.

Now this may be a shocker to some (especially to the executive or expert you’re positioning) but not everyone can deliver the goods.

When a PR pro pitches a good story, a lot of times we’ll have a person in mind who we want to put out in front for an interview. And to really sell it we’ll tell the person we are pitching that so and so is a “good interview.” For those not in public relations, you’re probably thinking to yourself, isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?

(Side note: If you’re anything like me, you’d have several people you want to offer for interviews: an exec to talk overall strategy and position in the market; manager directly hands on with the project/product; an end-user; and some analyst or industry type to provide perspective or talk trends – that’s how you package a story.)

But what does that mean when we tell a reporter/journo we’re pitching that so and so is a good interview?

What we are saying is that we know what you are looking for and we got a person in mind who can deliver the goods and the money shot. The person we lined up is knowledgeable, personable, engaging, sometimes funny, passionate, an excellent story teller and they give good sound bite. Sometimes they’ll have a great voice, sometimes they are camera friendly, or there’s something compellingly quirky about them. In essence they are a “good interview” – someone a reporter would WANT to talk to about that thing the PR person pitched.

Unfortunately, a lot of PR pros think in a very linear way about who to put in front of the reporter/journo. If the topic is something scientific, you go get the scientist; if it’s something legal you get the attorney; if it’s a big story or a big media outlet, you go get the CEO. I can’t say that this is wrong or that I haven’t done it myself.

But what if the person who lined up the most succinctly with the subject matter was a god awful interview? You know what I’m talking about, the person who speaks monotone using acronyms, industry terminology and only sees questions in black and white. Or the type of person that sees the media interview as more of a begrudged task and not an opportunity, or the person who over talks, does a verbal data dump and bores the interviewer to tears. You could end up doing more damage to the outcome of your coverage, just on the strength of a bad interview. Also, when there is a future story that your org/client wants to desperately be a part of, the reporter will remember the agonizing experience and opt to go with someone else.

I’ve painfully sat through interviews with bad interviewees myself. Either they viewed talking to the media as an annoyance, used too much “shop talk,” peppered their responses with jargon, talked too little giving only one word answers, not answering questions at all or went off onto tangents that helped to lose the message. All of these attributes, along with those previously mentioned, make for interview hell.

Back in my agency days, two clients I worked with were led by individuals that fit the description of being a good interview: Rick Hecker, Owner and CEO of Eifel, Inc. and the late auto journalist David E. Davis Jr. Both of these gentlemen had great back stories, were extremely knowledgeable about their industries, wielded a hard to hide passion and both were just rough enough around the edges to be interesting. The media used to enjoy talking to them so much they’d try to go around me (the gatekeeper) to interview them for various stories.

Right now you’re reading this and probably mentally identifying that person at your company (or your client’s) that fits the build of being a good interview. But how do you get them past the people who think that THEY should be doing the interview, and in front of a reporter? I don’t know, you are on your own there.

But I offer this, think about the medium you’re approaching and then match it to the right messenger. Print interviews are the easiest, but for broadcast think about the intangibles. For radio, get someone with a great speaking voice, can think quickly on their feet and knows how to banter or tell a story to someone listening. When it comes to TV, think about the optics (what the viewer will be seeing) as well as your exec/expert’s comfort level with being asked tough questions under a bright light. People tend to have a more positive impression when the people they are listening to or looking at are appealing in some way.

As far as depth of the issues (if it’s not the interviewee’s specific lane), most of your organization’s leaders know a little bit of something about most facets of the org’s operations and objectives, that’s what the executive management team meetings are all about. And if they don’t, they can be coached and briefed on the details. I think it’s extremely important to have the right messenger.

And if you don’t have the leeway to utilize someone who’s a good interview because a particular topic is not their area of expertise and you have to use the exec, who’s not as fruitful when it comes to doing interviews, then there’s always media training.

Friday, May 13, 2011

PR Guerillas In Our Midst

All the talk about U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6, clandestine missions and assassinations must have gotten PR firms feeling real frisky. How else would you explain what public relations power house Burson-Marsteller recently got caught doing (or trying to do) to Google.

By now, if you’re in the field of public relations you’ve heard or read that Facebook put out the proverbial hit on a potential social media rival. And how did they attempt this feat, by calling on one of the PR industry “Big Boys” to launch a secret reputation damage-ment campaign. I told you before, the Empire Strikes Back!

Now the news here is not that a major brand got involved in some competitive monkey business with another major brand that threatened a core product. That happens, rightfully or not, all the time in the business world. After all, only the strong survives.

No, what’s news is that Burson-Marsteller (BM), a seemingly reputable firm that recently received the North American Agency of the Year award, actually accepted such a smarmy, ethics challenging assignment. Especially knowing that if they got caught (which actually happened) they had so much to loose in terms of reputation currency.

I can’t imagine that this very public foul play sat well with the remainder of the agency’s client portfolio (which by the way reads like the who’s who in the recognizable brand community). Reputation management is bad enough when a company is dealing with its own issues, so being close enough to get some stink on your brand due to someone else’s bad judgment is problematic.

Where was the leadership or the voice of reason at BM to step up and say, “No, we won’t engage in such a practice because that’s not who we are as an agency.” But that didn’t happen.

I can recall an instance when an employer asked me to do something unethical as a PR professional and I refused. I don’t engage in dishonest or questionable public relations practices because that’s not who I am and by doing so, I run the risk of hurting my personal brand. So I found what BM engaged in even more troubling.

Not only did the agency take on this high stakes, daring mission to assassinate a potential future client, but they used two converted journalists as operatives. Beyond the decision to do the job in the first place, the usage of former news men is what puzzled many, because they should’ve known better.

When this Bay of Pigs styled mission was discovered, BM went all Ollie North and refused to out their benefactor and puppet master. However, that outing would happen with some journalistic investigation. If there is one thing the media loves to do, it’s to go after and nail unethical PR types. It’s like nectar to the scribe gods and then they hang the pelts out for all to see.

This is not the first time we’ve seen this type of thing in our profession. Dick Armey of Freedom Works fame successfully used a PR agency in an Astroturf campaign against the Obama Administration’s Healthcare Bill. Armey’s PR guerillas succeeded at making something as socially necessary and desired as healthcare, seem like something dark, menacing and anti-American. They were able to convince the media and unsure voters that this was somehow bad for them and fit to be destroyed.

While public relations can be broken down into many different disciplines, I don’t think character assignation should be one of them. PR should never want to play in this space.

We can overlook stuff like Armey’s Astroturfing because it’s political. But this sort of unethical behavior coming from a top five global PR agency was a little hard to stomach. Even the Chairman and CEO of the PRSA offered uneasy thoughts on the situation.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this action, especially given the fact that BM is head by Mark Penn, the same person who handled Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. He’s also the same guy who put the media hit job on current President Barrack Obama during the primaries. So maybe this is who they really are and it all stems from the top down.

Here’s the only thing BM has said about this issue so far: Statement

Now when we see a slew of unfavorable media coverage on a particular brand, we may have to ask ourselves the question, which public relations agency is behind this?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

Facebook’s PR Machine is a beast!

(I had to get that out of the way to prove that I’m not a hater despite some of the critical things I may write in the following paragraphs).

Never have I seen a media relations assault like the one I witnessed in the last 3-5 months, nor have I seen this kind of quality cumulative media coverage like that amassed by Facebook’s communication apparatus. The vast majority of the coverage could only be described as positive. One friend on Twitter even remarked that onslaught of coverage dedicated to the social media platform put you in the frame of mind of a new start-up just being introduced to the masses for the first time, not the behemoth that already dominates most people’s internet use.

Last night, before I settled in to watch President Obama do his Rat Rack, Dean Martin governing thing, I happened upon a new CNBC investigative report, “The Facebook Obsession.” I couldn’t help but wonder about the timeliness of this program as well as its central premise.

Surely, with 600 million worldwide subscribers this isn’t going to be news to anybody on this planet. We all pretty much know that it’s a popular site and lots of people can’t do without it, despite the trouble it may get them into. To borrow from an old cable program, it’s “Not Necessarily the News” right?

But then it hit me, that damn Facebook movie is probably driving this or at minimum has something to do with it.

Recently, the Hollywood adaptation of Facebook’s genesis story, “The Social Network” was in the news for owning the top spots at the Golden Globes. And now the likelihood is great that it will do the same at the Academy Awards.

Facebook’s CEO and Founder, Mark Zuckerberg, HATES this movie regardless of his nonchalant posturing and constant pretending that it’s no big deal. In reality, when it comes to this movie, “The Social Network” is like that splinter in the mighty lion’s paw. It won’t kill him, but it smarts like hell.

Originally when news about the making of this movie first began to surface, Facebook appeared to do as most large companies do when faced with something unfavorable, they ignored it, labeled it as a nothing and hoped it would go away. But a funny thing happens when you base your strategy on “hope” and don’t have a workable crisis communications plan in place, eventually you find yourself in a spot where all hope is lost.

Unfortunately, for Facebook, great screenplay + great director = Hollywood smash! “The Social Network” became such a big box office hit that Facebook could no longer ignore it. I’ve seen the movie and I thought it was excellent regardless of the subtle creative liberties the screen writer and director took. By all researchable accounts the vast majority of the film was based on court transcripts and firsthand accounts of people who were there and part of the story.

The real problem Facebook had with the film was that in addition to some of the creative liberties taken, the movie made Zuckerberg come across as some sort of socially inept, douchey dickwad genius. And that was unacceptable. The empire had to strike back.

Now before I get into the dynamics of how Facebook struck back, I’ll offer what my counsel would’ve been, had I been in the PR war room – Control the narrative and own the story! Being on the defensive when it comes to PR is operating from a position of weakness, but deflection…ah.

I wholeheartedly believe that Facebook could’ve mitigated the potential negative attention from the movie through deflection. What would’ve been wrong with Zucks and Facebook “bigging up” the film by indicating to the press that it’s kind of cool to have a movie made about your life and company? They could’ve even talked about all the things the movie got right and fondly reminisced about the good times of the early days during the many interview requests around the launch of the movie.

Team Zucks could’ve even hosted some sort of premiere event for the movie (besides the uneventful renting out of a theater for staff and then going out for Apple-tinis) and then doing a light presser afterwards to playfully point out some of the inaccuracies, all the while praising the writing and performances. Or at a minimum Mark Zuckerberg could’ve showed he was a good sport by attending the actual premiere for “The Social Network.” All of these tactics would’ve gone a long way in killing any negative coverage in its infancy.

Instead, Facebook took the “too cool for school” approach of trying to cast the movie off as being some lame fictional account not worthy of commenting on…that was until it took over the U.S. movie market and hundreds of thousands of Facebookers began to take the story depicted as the absolute gospel. Then Facebook wanted to do something about it.

The best defense is a good offense. - Vince Lombardi.

With every media outlet on God’s green earth writing glowing articles about “The Social Network” Facebook decided to come out swinging. It appeared that they tackled this issue from a two-pronged approach: dispute the accuracy of the movie on the one hand and push out as much news and company stories as humanly possible in a short period on the other. Their mission was crystal clear – dominate the news cycle and make people forget about….what’s the name of that movie again?

With “The Social Network” genie out of the bottle, Facebook and an army of third party evangelists took to the offense to challenge the movie’s characterization and push back on the inaccuracies. Of these third party evangelists none were more visible and vocal than resident fan boy and author of the book, The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick. His purpose was simple, tout Zuckerberg's coolness and denounce this movie at every available opportunity.

The strategy seemed to work as Facebook and others took to print and the airwaves countering Zuckerberg’s movie portrayal, by painting the picture of him as a cool confident ladies man that had a lot of friends and was extremely at ease in social settings. Zuckerberg even started doing a bunch of personal interviews (something he normally would’ve been reluctant to do) to show people the “real” him. All of this for some lame fictional movie.

I knew PR was at play when I began to see all this coverage and the same talking points were repeated over and over again:

  • Zuckerberg has lots of friends
  • Zuckerberg is not an introvert
  • Zuckerberg has a hot Asian girlfriend that he’s been with for years
  • Women in general like Zuckerberg and he’s never had a problem getting a girlfriend
  • People generally like Zuckerberg and they think he’s cool
  • Zuckerberg didn’t care about college clubs
  • Facebook wasn’t built to meet girls or make money
  • Facebook is a passion for Zuckerberg, something bigger than a revenue generator

I've never seen someone get so rankled by a "fictional characterization" before and combat it so vehemently (ah shucks Zucks). But it was working.

Additionally, Facebook began to announce a new feature or product almost weekly. And when they weren’t pushing Zuckerberg in front of the media and announcing a new feature or product, they were announcing donations. Facebook bombarded the media with about a year’s worth of positive news stories (for some companies) and squeezing it all into a half of year time frame. But it wasn't easy given all of the energy Facebook had to exert all in the name of reputation management.

Eventually, “The Social Network” was knocked right out of the news cycle and left the public consciousness all together (that was, until it came time for award recognitions). Everything said about Facebook in the media since then has been a positive reflection of the company, its mission and its leadership. From a PR standpoint I had no choice but acknowledge their skills and the combat job they did in the press. Most people, me included, now view Zucks as somebody you’d want to have a beer with.

But much like the villainous Empire in George Lucas’s hit trilogy, the Death Star has a weak point and Facebook’s is user privacy. Stay tuned to see how the vaunted Facebook PR Team handles this rebel challenge.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Just Who Owns The Message Anyway?

The leader of the ‘Pragmatism Movement,’ American psychologist, William James once eloquently stated, “The instinct of ownership is fundamental in man’s nature.”

So basically it’s in our DNA to want to own things. We instinctively look for opportunities to claim something and as we are well aware, our instincts can be inextricably tied to a need to survive.

With that said, right now in organizations across America, “Kramer vs. Kramer-esque” battles are waging over ownership of that all powerful function known as corporate communications, thus giving credence to Mr. James’ observation. And though it is not apparent to the outside observer, there are probably all kinds of behind the scenes departmental fights over not only what the message will be, but more importantly, who gets to disseminate that message internally and/or externally.

He that controls the message survives the day.

Given my background and profession I’m of the camp that says the communications department should control all messages/communications going outside of an organization and a large percentage of those that stay within. To put it in Web 2.0 terminology, I’m part of #TeamCommMessageControl. But there are others in-house that would lay claim to an organization’s communications, most notably: human resources, marketing, customer service and legal.

But which department is the right one to own and hone an organization’s message(s)? I say leave it to the wordsmiths.

Sometimes it’s a false assertion that in-house communicators can’t communicate…dare I say it…in-house. We unfortunately get shoved into this identity of only being the people who talk to the media, like our most tangible talent is the ability to speak “media-ese” (which we actually do by the way, except we call it pitching and writing in AP Style). But contrary to popular belief, our communication well runs a little deeper than that and our skill sets are a lot more diverse.

When I was just beginning in public relations, I was fortunate to have worked in several public relations offices that actually had a very firm hand on all external and internal communications (including but not limited to employee relations). It seemed such a natural fit to me that I thought it belonged there. I personally had been responsible for updating the internal intranet site; wrote for and edited the employee newsletter/magazine; positioned employees to earn awards and then promoted their recognitions; and I oversaw employee town hall meetings with executives.

Once when I found myself back in the job market, it came as a complete surprise to learn that the human resources department at other places covered some of these functions. I did not see how non-public relations people could craft the messages while keeping in line with organizational objectives and maintaining a consistent voice and style. The problem is, in many cases, they can not and the differences can be seen in how the messages are crafted, disseminated and received.

A good PR pro has a great grasp of language, words and audiences. So in addition to being excellent overall communicators, we are very competent writers at our core (for the record, I’m a PR purist, which means I think it’s a shame whenever someone claims to be proficient at public relations but their writing leaves a lot to be desired). A PR pro that can’t write is like a model who looks good in photographs but can’t master the catwalk; we’re talking about the basics (but that’s another topic for another blog post).

Back to the topic at hand, who should own the message creation within an organization? I strongly believe that the Office of Public Relations and/or Communications should serve as a messaging clearing house of sorts. And as the gatekeepers of organization communications in-house PR pros would assure quality control and consistency in message. Those other departments I mentioned (human resources, marketing, customer service and legal) simply cannot do what we do.

But that’s just my two cents. I’d be glad to hear yours.