Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Famous for Being Famous

Somewhere along the way in our cynical universe the phrase, “Any publicity is good publicity” became the mantra in some quarters. In fact, it’s not true, and self-evidently so. Just ask BP, Goldman Sachs or Toyota if they’re pleased with the publicity they’ve received over the past year, and whether that publicity has made the company more profitable. Clearly, the answer is no.

But while “bad” publicity is rarely a good thing, there are a small handful of circus acts out there where Barnum’s old adage, "I don't care what you say about me, just spell my name right" still does apply. Primarily, this is reserved for those who are famous for being famous. Then, almost any publicity is a good thing.

For instance, Paris Hilton. Most of my clients (all, in fact – at least so far) would view getting busted for cocaine possession as a bad thing. But for Paris, it’s all in a day’s work. She gets coverage for the arrest; then she gets coverage for tweeting about the arrest; then she gets banned from a Las Vegas casino; then there’s the court appearance; then she gets publicity for the time honored Mick Jagger/Paul McCartney Denied Entry to Japan stratagem. It’s practically endless, but all feeds into her unending quest to be famous and talked-about (er, tweeted about).

For Paris, the “bad” publicity actually pays off, in a diversified, far-flung business empire which includes nightclubs, cosmetics, a clothing line, an energy drink (at least at one time), a best-selling autobiography published when she was 24 and, last, but certainly not least - herself! Paris reportedly gets hundreds of thousands of dollars just to show up at parties.

“If it's in Japan, I get more,” she once said. Great work.

So, yes, there are rare instances where any publicity is good publicity. But not many, and not if you take yourself seriously. Because unless you’re Paris Hilton, a rapper/gang-banger, Mike Tyson or PT Barnum, there are a lot of ways to get publicity that isn’t good, and is actually harmful. I wouldn’t recommend any of them.

Posted by David Preston

Friday, September 17, 2010

Lessons from Tuesday's Elections

Every election teaches lessons, and last Tuesday’s primary elections in Rhode Island were no exception. Here’s a brief summary of lessons learned:
  1. An absence of polling data introduces an element of old-school uncertainty to campaigns that is actually kind of exciting – at least for the voters and observers. Independent polls aren’t in the budget for media outlets anymore, so we’re pretty much flying blind. Polls are also difficult to conduct in an era with fewer land lines and people who have less time to answer 15-20 minute questionnaires. For instance, on Tuesday morning it was anyone’s guess who would win races for Mayor of Providence and Attorney General – something that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

  2. The fragmented nature of TV advertising has made it too expensive for “down-ballot” candidates (i.e., everyone in Rhode Island except candidates for Governor or federal offices) to afford making a meaningful impression. There are some exceptions, i.e., Gina Raimondo, the Democratic candidate for General Treasurer -- a fundraising powerhouse. But newcomers without personal resources and some name recognition are at marked disadvantage.

  3. With TV less of an option, radio, the web and an effective ground game that gets out the vote take on even more significance. David Segal, an underfunded candidate for Congress, got 20% of the vote in a four-way race with an impressive web presence, effective ground game, enthusiastic, committed supporters and an overall smart campaign.

  4. The U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision has cleared the way for “independent expenditures” - constitutional expressions of free speech by companies and organizations for and against candidates in campaigns which had previously been illegal. But no longer. Nationally, corporations and billionaires are pumping millions into Congressional races, but here in Rhode Island it was organized labor that made the most prominent use of independent expenditures. Watch for much, much more of this as time goes on, until legislatures act to regulate the practice.

  5. Because the participants can be mediocre, and the results are often mediocre – or less -- successful businesspeople sometimes think they can parachute into a campaign and win. They would be wrong. In this election cycle there have been a few examples in Rhode Island where success in business has not translated into success in politics. Here’s my advice for political newcomers: Get the most experienced, savviest help you can find with an up-to-date understanding of what it takes to win in 2010 (or whatever election year you happen to be in), be prepared to spend a great deal of your own money, and absolutely be ready for Prime Time when the curtain goes up. Why? Because politics is a whole different ball game (or plumbing job.)

Posted by David Preston

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Media Training for Generals

Last week I conducted media training with the board of my client, the R.I. Society of CPAs. Based on the events of the last 24 hours, I think it’s fair to say that the CPAs are probably better equipped to successfully manage their media relationships than (now retired) Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff.

Here are four points straight from New Harbor’s media training presentation that Gen. McChrystal might want to ponder in his retirement.
  • DON’T say anything you don’t want to see on TV or in print attributed to you.

This is Rule #1. If they quote you and you didn’t say it, you might be able to get it fixed (yes – even then, only “might.”) But if you said it, you own it. And as the years go by, it gets increasingly difficult to ensure that the pieces of your interview a reporter uses are even put in the right context.

When President Obama said the General exhibited “poor judgment,” he wasn’t kidding. This is basic stuff.

  • Set limits. Don’t let a reporter go on an indefinite fishing expedition.

Two weeks, practically uninterrupted access?! Big, big mistake. It’s hard enough not to say anything you regret in an hour, never mind two weeks.

  • DON’T say anything ironic or sarcastic. Think twice about trying to be funny – it usually doesn’t work, especially in print.

Gen. McChrystal and his team never claimed to be misquoted, or taken out of context – they just came out with their hands up. But if you get too comfortable, the temptation to try your new stand-up routine can become overwhelming. Don’t do it!

  • DON’T assume the microphone, camera or tape recorder is off immediately before or after an interview.

As long as the reporter is there, you should assume you are on the record and anything you say is “in play.” (I talked about the dangers of “Off the Record” here.) In fact, my rule is that if there’s an interview taking place or a reporter on the premises, I carefully consider everything I say until that’s no longer the case.

And finally, question the concept of “reporter as friend.” Clearly Gen. McChrystal and his team got awfully comfortable with Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone – way too comfortable. Perhaps after two weeks they saw Hastings as one of their group, or even a “friend”. Very dangerous. There are some reporters I consider to be my friends, and I’m always “friendly” with all of them. But when they’re working, they simply cannot be expected to do what your friends routinely do – overlook all the silly, unwise, injudicious or out-of-character things you may say.

When it comes to interacting with the media, it’s all on the record. Even between friends.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Notes on Central Falls, and Crisis Communications

A busy week in Central Falls, R.I. with the superintendent of schools, and later the court appointed receiver for the city, helped reconfirm some fundamentals of the PR business, and bring a new twist to some old lessons.

Who are you?
A thoughtful, self-aware answer to this question lays the foundation for everything else. It goes beyond the cliché of “What is your brand?” to a deeper question about you, your organization and its values. Without this core understanding, it is almost impossible to deliver your message consistently and effectively.

Know the Key Point you’re Trying to Convey…
In Central Falls, the schools superintendent Fran Gallo was able to identify the issue at hand: “I need the flexibility it takes to run the high school in a way that gives the students a chance to succeed.” Pretty simple. And the reporters got it. The next day, Gallo’s pull-out quote on the front page of the Providence Journal likewise summed up her main point, illustrating the other side of the same coin: “In the past, when we wanted to make changes, the contract was an immediate barrier.”

… And Don’t Get Tired of Saying It
Most human beings with good social skills learn early on that repetitive = boring. But when conducting multiple interviews -- particularly one after the other, as was the case in the Central Falls schools matter -- you have to say the same thing every time. If you don’t, every media outlet will have something different, and your message gets muddy.

Give the Communications Team as Much Time as Possible to Mount the Learning Curve

Your communications advisor should have the time not just to learn the facts, but to get to know the client. What are they comfortable saying? What’s their voice? What’s the back story? Is there any area that seems harmless, but is actually a trap in disguise? The sooner communications is brought into crisis planning, the better the result.

Summarize – and on one page, if possible
Reporters don’t have a lot of time these days (see below), and neither do citizens, so it’s important to answer the question “What’s this all about?” quickly and clearly. I like to do it on one page. This summary of the agreement between the school department and the teacher’s union in Central Falls is a good example of laying it all out one page.

There’s no Substitute for Preparation
I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I never, ever speak with a reporter without preparing ahead, even if the circumstances only allow for a few moments to collect my thoughts. There’s no such thing as doing an effective interview without preparation. Whenever someone says, “I’ll just wing it” or, “I know what to say,” what I hear is, “Just give me the keys so I can drive this interview into the ditch.” As much as anything, last week was about taking the time to prepare for the interview.

Be Responsive
A reporter’s existence these days is a lot harder than it used to be. Most newsrooms in 2010 are very thin, with reporters who cover several stories a day – so their existence can be daily scramble. In addition, there are very few reporters who actually cover a “beat.” This means that quite often a reporter is assigned to a story in an area where they have little, if any, background or expertise. In both instances for Central Falls, we made an extra effort to get news outlets the information they needed right away, to take the time to answer background questions and to make the principals available for interviews at a place and time that fit into their schedules. Reporters will tell you that they will always be fair, but my experience is that when you work to accommodate them in this way, they will be even more “fair.”

Pick Good Clients
In the end, it’s always great to get a note like this from a client: “I can't imagine where we would have been without your valuable help.” The best clients are those who know they need your advice, and appreciate your counsel in their time of need. If they value what you have to offer, your job will be that much easier, and their message that much clearer.

Posted by David Preston

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

“How Did Tiger Do?”

Many people have asked me, "How do you think Tiger Woods did?"

My initial response was that it depends on the answer to a central question I pose whenever considering a communications strategy: What were Tiger’s goals?

Was his goal to get the issue behind him so that it’s not a distraction when he returns to golf? This is the most readily achievable objective. For some, it is a goal that he may have already accomplished with his public apology.

Was his goal to make himself more marketable as a pitchman for potential sponsors? If so, he’s got a long way to go before winning back that kind of corporate trust.

Was his goal to redeem his reputation and stop being the nation’s favorite punch line? This may happen as the initial shock fades, but not any time soon. And like Bill Clinton, Tiger’s going to have to live with the fact that this unflattering episode is destined to appear near the top of his obituary.

Was his goal to save his marriage? Some of Tiger’s remarks seemed to be aimed at accomplishing that important goal more than any other, but we’ll have to see what happens there.

Overall, Tiger’s performance last Friday was a good one. He did all the right things. He did not try to pass the responsibility for his behavior onto anybody else. He did not make excuses, and he didn’t whine. Tiger accepted full responsibility for his behavior in a complete and unequivocal way something that is very unusual for these kinds of celebrity apologies, particularly for athletes.

One notable comment in Tiger’s speech, which struck me as a parent, was that he specifically expressed regret that children who held him up as a role model had been let down and disappointed. He made a point of apologizing to both children and their parents. That’s in marked contrast to most other athlete apologies, where the fallen star says, "It’s not my fault or responsibility that your kid looked up to me as a role model, and if your kid was let down, that’s your problem, not mine." This was not your standard apology of the Roger Clemens/Barry Bonds/Kobe Bryant variety: "If you were offended, I’m sorry that you were offended, but I’m not sorry for anything that I did because it’s somebody else’s fault." In his almost 14-minute apology, Tiger used no weasel words.

So Tiger’s performance was good, as far as it went. But in order to complete the process, and achieve at least some of his goals, Tiger will have to sit down sooner or later and answer questions in a formal interview. There’s simply no other way to put this thing behind him.

Here’s how that interview will probably play out: Tiger’s advisors will reach out to a friendly interviewer and set very strict parameters for what can and can’t be asked. Ten years ago this interview would have gone to Barbara Walters. Today, however, my money’s on Oprah Winfrey, since Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, as "hard" news anchors, won’t credibly be able to agree to the ground rules that Tiger’s people will require. Oprah will ask some tough – but not too tough – questions based on the parameters that will be established ahead of time. (If she’s really lucky, it will be in September, during the final week of her show – I know, I’m a cynic.)

And with that piece of business complete, Tiger will be able to approach the next step of the plan – starting to win golf tournaments again.

One final note: The biggest single element of Tiger’s attempt at redemption will be whether in fact he does save his marriage. If that were to happen, people would be in a position to say, "Well, if she can get by it, I guess I can, too." If the marriage is not saved, it will be a loose end that will make tying up the rest of it very difficult.

So the short answer is: Tiger did what he had to do last Friday, and he did it well. But there’s a long way to go before it’s over for him – if the exposure of multiple extra-marital affairs can ever really be over.

Posted by David Preston

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New York Comedian Proves Universal Desire to Lend a Hand

This video stirred my nostalgia for New York. I lived in the city for almost three years, working as a reporter for the Associated Press and enjoying some great adventures from my closet of an apartment in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s the free-spirited sense of spontaneity among its residents that I miss most, and that is demonstrated in this short, offbeat film. Spontaneity exists elsewhere, too, but nowhere else will you find quite the kind of unlikely interactions among strangers that you see in New York.

In the clip, comedian Mark Malkoff sets out to be transported from the southernmost end of Manhattan to the northernmost end, only by having people carry him. They can give him a piggy back, hold him like a baby, hoist him over their shoulders or share his weight with a group – whatever it takes to help Malkoff make his destination without having to move himself.

His success depends on the kindness and open-mindedness of complete strangers in a city often characterized as unfriendly. But those of us who have actually lived there know otherwise. Sure, folks might be too busy or focused to nod and smile to every passerby. They might be abrasive in a crowd or push past you on the subway. But when it comes to doing something outlandish for a complete stranger’s pet project? Many of them espouse a healthy “why not?” attitude – they’re up for it “just because.”

“I am proving to the world that New York is a nice place,” Malkoff says at the beginning of the video. He then proceeds to ask random people on the street to carry him a few feet, a few blocks, whatever they can manage.

During the course of his quest, not only do more than 150 people offer to assist him up the island, but many of them open up and tell him about their families, relationships or what they’re cooking for dinner. He receives cooperation from a diverse array of pedestrians – men, women, young, old, individuals, couples and large groups, and a cross-section of races and ethnicities. He even takes advantage of the virtual community, sending out Tweets when his luck runs thin on the street. People on Twitter see his cries for help and come to his aid.

All in all, it’s a good lesson in assuming the best of people and managing to rally them toward a common cause in which they have very little personal investment.

On a far more serious note, we have been seeing a lot of this public spirit during the last few weeks in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti. The amount of money that has poured into the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations since the devastation hit has been amazing.

How does this translate to good PR? Good PR depends on knowing your public. Good customer service, good marketing, good advertising, successful media campaigns all have one thing in common: They know their audience and treat them with respect.

Assume the best of people, and in many cases they’ll rise to the occasion. Just who is your audience? It could be the next person who shells out a generous donation for victims of a natural disaster in a foreign country, or the next person who offers to carry a complete stranger on his back for no good reason.

Malkoff dared to assume that New Yorkers – so often mislabeled as mean and uncaring – were actually nice and supportive. As a result, he got carried all the way to 140th Street. Imagine what might happen if you or your company did likewise, and assumed the best of people?

Posted by Hillary Rhodes