Monday, April 08, 2013

Outlandish Expectations:

You hired a PR agency based on a number of criteria that you carefully graphed on an Excel spreadsheet. They were brought in to pitch using a PowerPoint presentation with lots of bells and whistles telling you exactly what they expected you wanted to hear. They were good, they were savvy and they were boring. They were in the groove, up on the latest social media, able to call the top editors in your market, they may even have gone to one of your trade shows, the jargon was tight but liberally delivered, and they were fucking clueless about taking YOU out of your of the box.

 The broad outlines of a budget had been approved internally, you were safe on first and no one was coming to bat your company out of the park, why, because no one around the table was ready to handle outlandish expectations. You were headed towards either a divorce or a long and boring relationship.  

Personally, delivering the unexpected can send you into some very scary PR regions, but with the most creative PR agencies you should be ready to cope with the flash of brilliance that illuminates your path. For example, after convincing a client to go for a land speed record to highlight their biodiesel, they decided to drop the whole thing because it was too expensive instead or marketing the hell out of it. That was my fault because I had failed to recognize the lack of outrageousness the client was willing to foster in his market. The record breaking bike attracted thousands of visitors to their booth during the two years they consented to present it and the record run was shown all over the world.

If a PR plan does not have space to cater to the outlandish then it is incomplete. One client with both a sense of humor and a broad acceptance of the ridiculous sponsored a COMDEX award effort, which we brought home in 1992 for one of the first laptop computers. These things do not happen by accident, the product was outstanding, but in a highly competitive environment, I had to admit to the CEO that it was a long shot. It paid off beautifully with incredible PR opportunities as well as a serious sales uptick. The same applied to going after and garnering an EPA award for a process in 2006.

One day we proposed and set up a product launch of a new microprocessor in a vintage DC3 flying over the Bay Area. The theme was old technology upgraded to meet the future. That event is still part of a number of journalists fond memories since the company went first class all the way with limo rides to the airport, outstanding catering and leather bound press kits. If you gonna do it, do it with panache.
Try to maintain an objective approach to the special effort. By that I mean that there must be a bottom line advantage, and not just a fun venture. The EPA award was used in every presentation, the land speed record opened many a conference. The Inc, 500 award destroyed the company's credibility while highlighting profit margins that were way too high. 

As a 30 year PR practitioner I have worked with a large number of clients, some were able to understand taking a long shot, others were too bottom line oriented to look at these ideas. But I have always promised that whoever hires me for media coverage and business development, they should expect at least once a year to descend into some sort of external effort that may or may not be directly related to the financial bottom line, but will enhance the image of the company.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Da Fiscal Cliff!!

The power of self inflicted PR at its best.
There is no honor in conceding to an oppressor, and our President, probably under the dire influence of his financial backers, has done just that. In effect he has thrown his constituency under the wheels of the richest group of opponents that any President has had to face since the era of the megalo-millionaires and the corporations that feed them. Fuelled by billions of dollars in panicked money addicted individuals and corporations, who have mounted one of the most impressive fear mongering PR campaigns since Carl Rove and his ilk taught them how to build them, Obama has pieced together a compromise that is far worse for our country and the majority of the voters than just going over “the cliff”.

We, the People, spoke in November. Our message to our President and the oppressing minority was clear. If elected you must drive down the taxes on those who are carrying the responsibility of keeping our country afloat, you must start a radical effort to create jobs, you must stop superfluous spending by sacrificing non-essential services like defense, but most importantly you must procure money to save our financial future from those who flaunt their wealth, control our country and destroy our values.

In other words, Mr. President, emulate Willy Sutton and get the money you need from where it is.

He has failed because he took the shortest sight option that he could and confused his needs for those of the country. Our President opted to maintain his money where it was and cozied up to the Norquist mentality of no pledge, no cash.

By going over the cliff people below the $250,000 income level would see their taxes increase about $1,000 for the lower income families, not in itself a bad thing. But going over the cliff would have increased the taxes on the higher income brackets about the same percentage and that represents a significantly greater number of dollars put back into our deficit riddled government. Of course, by extending the tax cuts to those of us lucky enough to fall into the $400,000 tax bracket, welcome aboard the Bush era gravy train, you will now be even more useless than you were before.

So what happens now?

Going over the cliff would see the deficit would be reduced in half in 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office but with some very dire consequences for the country, a slow rise of the unemployment figure from today’s 7.7% to possibly 9% the rate we had in October of last year. It took us two months to get to where we are, a sobering thought because our economy has been heating up from lethargic to shambling.

Make no mistake, the Bush tax cuts were and are a disaster fueled by a grossly bloated cadre of multi billion dollar corporations riding roughshod over the economy, freed of all restraints through the Citizens United decision and their equally bloated multi billionaire executives, owners and shareholders with so much extra capital that on a whim they can elect to run for office, lose and shrug off the exercise.

The deal just signed is another disaster for most Americans. Yes, the filthy rich will have to pay more taxes, from 15% to 20%, an almost ridiculous amount of money considering the fact that they may have to invest less than 1% to re-jigger their tax forms. It is very hard for the average American to understand the games these people play to protect their gains, but if you really think that it is a fair game, just remember the trouble the loser in the last election took to protect us from understanding how he gamed the system. Just understand that where we, the people, pay income taxes, they the filthy rich, make their money from investments, offshore hideouts and other “no-new tax” shelters. So, no new money there!

They do appear to be less cynical than we thought since they prolonged the unemployment benefits for another year. Guilty conscious, probably? Complete faith in the fact that they know that their compromise means nothing?  Probably true on both counts. Because the new Bill hammered out in the wee hours of a new year does sweet bugger all for me and thee, maintains the rules and regulations that not only provided the trillions needed to maintain the rich, but also does not even begin to hammer away at their ability to continue to destroy the middle class while burying the poor even deeper.

In contemplating the venality of someone we, the people, voted into office on some clear and specific clauses, we can only assume that the President has sold out to that moneyed elite we wished to separate from our future. Clearly stated during the campaign, elimination of the privileges that corporations and people who can buy their own legislation was high on the list. The number $250,000 income, was indisputable, the raising of the elite taxes was high on our list, the elimination of corporate protection, and the elimination of a number of entitlements were also on that list. Untouched and only slightly abraded, corporate taxes, defense spending, income tax levels, and a host almost too numerous to mention are a clear indication that the GOP is not the problem, just a symptom of the disease that invades our country.

We may yet go over the cliff, if someone in government grows a set of balls and refuses to gainsay this shameful sham of a bill. Believe me, all things considered, it would be a far better thing to admit that the era of shameless money grubbing is over, and that fear mongering scare tactics, brilliant slogans and voodoo economics has to cease.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Myth of the Power of PR

We, the flacks, have achieved an almost mythical level of efficiency. In many ways it is merited in a negative manner. Most of the time it is overblown by the public.

We do not move mountains we shift them slowly and with great dignity. Our clients expect that from us and fear the sudden realization that our few words have suddenly changed their world. That love hate relationship we maintain with the press is also fearful of that power because they do not want to be that far out there.

A good journalist knows that his claim to fame lies in shifting the spotlight away from himself and onto the story. many have forgotten that and they become the pundits we all look for. They became that way for two reasons, the clarity of their analysis and the support of our clients. It is a precarious perch they inhabit, constantly shaken by the realities of a world gone nuts.

You may be right because the PR guy put you in the light, but you may just as easily be wrong and believe me, more often that not, the PR guy pointed out that you lack clothing.

And the Beat Goes on.

After some forty years in Public Relations I have developed a nose for PR. Actually I think most older PR people have the same nose because we rarely get too involved in discussions about the content, we do get incensed at the delivery!
Let me explain, during the last election there was so much BS flying around that the meters went off the scales and shut down, only an occasional incredulous reaction was generated from some of the more outrageous or absurd situations. We all have our favorites and mine are probably the same as yours. What we forgot as professionals is that a lot of the dung stuck.

What me and thee shook our heads and whispered incredulously about was taken as gospel truth by a large number of people in spite of Snopes and Fact check. There is a serious lesson to be learned here and that is that nothing is written, spoken or shown that does not continue to resonate in the minds of all of us. A lie once released has a life of its own and the genie cannot be entirely put back in the bottle.

For example, how many of us have heard that Al Gore claims to have invented the Internet, he never said that, but it is still out there in the mindosphere. How about the WMDs that Saddam Hussein posessed, that is still the truth according to 47% of the US population.

My point is simple, if your campaign requires that you venture into troubled waters, calculate the damage your lie will cause and release it as if it was anthrax. It will swirl around and poison not just the people it is aimed at, but sometimes it will come back and poison you too. Is your credibility worth that moment of glory on Fax News?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Levels of Expertise.

If you practice PR, to be credible and useful, you must be ready to approach your subject from a certain perspective and level of expertise. Defining that level is not an easy task in the more arcane technologies that we work with. Our clients and our audiences have the right to know from what lofty plane you are preaching, and therein lies the credibility gap.

As mere PR practitioners, we are not expected to understand what the product manager took several years of study to discover, and yet they will expect us to take in the data and sell it with the same aplomb to their customers. A good PR person can sit through a one hour presentation, grasp the major points and turn around and feed them back in perfect prose. The number of times we have heard compliments along the lines of "I could not have said it better myself".  Often we have the impression that it is a parlor trick based on years of experience on our part.

On the other hand, walking a river that is a mile wide and an inch deep in no big deal. The trick is to realize two things, when to get out of the water because you stand on the abyss of your vast ignorance and, have you identified that fearless river boat captain that will take over your leaky tub and steer it to its destination safely without considering us to be the dilettantes that we really are.

This where two very distinct skills very often come in conflict.  Our innate ability to attract, interest and deliver useful information is based on intangibles such as how well we know the audience (Editor, reporter, conference) and are able to deliver interesting and entertaining information. They listen because of who you are. When you hand over to the expert you elevate the discussion from entertainment to actionable items.

If your expert is as boring as a beetle, then the pass may fail and you will become the expert you never expected to be. There was a time in the early PC days when CPM roamed the earth and we were all expected to be programmers, when it was a necessity to be able to have internal knowledge of your product. That time is long gone and no one has to be a mechanic to drive a car.

But a word of serious advice, always remain curious about whatever you are promoting. The more you know the better you will be able to impress. In the world of PR, much of what we do is based on that slim aura of being "in the know" and being the gatekeeper to further information.

Final thought, it is amazing how quickly you can fall off the knowledge wagon simply by not paying attention. I missed the whole social media thing because I looked away for a year while a friend of mine has become one of the leaders in that movement.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Do I Do PR?

An answer to a family member who is starting college and is looking at possible careers.

I have been lucky enough to be in PR for more years than I care to discuss. During those years technologies, products, concepts, people and politics have waxed and waned with crushing regularity. Some cycles have been amazingly fast moving, others would put a glacier to shame, but all have moved with a sense of panic, impending doom and gut wrenching immediacy based on what could be lost to whoever could be the winner. The final analysis is that no matter what the product, what the question and who is on the griddle, the PR reaction remains the same. There is a basic, almost generic, quality that infuses all PR activities.

Remember the Japanese peril when they, the shifty Nippon businessmen of yore, were buying up Manhattan? In those days we were all urged to learn Japanese, transfer our allegiance to the Far East and sit back and wait for those ravening hordes to override Pearl Harbor and land in San Francisco. Books were written on Cracking the Japanese Market, well-heeled children were sent to Tokyo on weeklong field trips and memory chips were the symbolic equivalent to the rape of Nanking. Today it's China and India that have become the havens of rampant capitalism, and Japan is just another country with a big-haired Premier.

During Three Mile Island, I was privileged to be working for a Canadian nuclear power consortium. On my desk came the daily stream of requests for interviews, worried calls for debates and an unending succession of information and misinformation. Crisis control is media management at its finest; it's where reality looks bullshit in the eye and tells it to bug off! Because of the intense scrutiny generated by a truly dangerous situation, my advice was always to tell the truth and deny knowledge when knowledge is unavailable. That has never changed no matter what the crisis.

Basics are the hardest to implement today because we are a society obsessed with fine definitions in a meaningless charade of sameness. Case in point, the whole concept of adequate technology has never been addressed because we need to promote the latest technology in the face of mounting costs and increased dependencies. Working in Africa taught me that answers to problems can be jury rigged in a manner that OSHA would never approve, it also taught me that a 386 PC running Windows 98 powered by a car battery is just as efficient and useful as the latest Intel dual core on a laptop with a dead battery. The first is adequate technology, the second superfluous implementation.

So why am I still doing PR? Because by engaging in these areas I realized that somebody has to represent the technologies, the ideas, the products and the ideologies that do not resonate naturally with the great unwashed.  I know that the world is an arena full of rights and wrongs with no clear answers.  That nuclear power can provide enough energy to handle 60% of France’s electrical requirements and consume 60% or the trees needed to write idiotic statements about it.

Finally, I handle PR because it never ends. I started my career as a reporter photographer and gravitated to advertising. After winning a few awards, doing some artistic and soulful ad campaigns I realized that once the last cut is wrapped, the ads placed, the job is over and it is done. Not so PR, the battles we engage in rage on forever with more facts, better contacts and useful information.

I do PR because it will always be more fun than most anything else I can think of.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

When is free PR an imposition?

In our line of work we do things for our clients because they are paying us to do them, then there are those who do not recognize that what we do has value. Very often in our desire to impress, or because we vaguely heard that a potential client might want  to hire us or for whatever reason, we provide our services for free. And in PR that is the kiss of death because the experience we bring to making a few phone calls and placing an article or getting a reporter to visit is something that remains as invisible as body prep on a classic car.

What usually happens is that the client takes the placement and is very surprised when you send him a PR proposal, even more surprised if you send him an invoice! Here is where we can learn from that other very popular profession, attorneys. An attorney will never offer free services or advice because they are liable for whatever they say to start with, and it is just bad practice to boot. They have elaborate ways of saying that it is too dangerous to go out on a limb for a whim, but they do say it.

So how do you evade this trap, actually you don't, you get as close to the edge as you dare, then whip out your trusty contract for services. By the time the potential client recognizes that you are a serious business is just about the time that he should be ready to sign.  Oh, and remember that a contract is just a piece of paper, a wire transfer is a fact of life.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Conversations with an idiot (2)
Or how to kill an overseas deal quickly and efficiently.

The time is early 2009, the place, Milan Italy, the topic is the last stages of a long term PR and Marketing campaign to bring in one of the largest Italian industrial giants as a buyer for my client's line of green technology factories. But there was rot in the fabric and the trouble began many months before after the Italians had approached me following a speech I gave at the LaBaule World Investment conference.

The topic had been biodiesel, the subject worldwide cooperation for all producers.

The Italian wanted to know if my client would be interested in discussing areas of common interest, and of course I said yes because in the gray areas of business you must remain positive. That first contact would be followed by a number of other meetings, discussions over Skype and a mutually ascending respect and cooperation.

Fter about six months he told me that he would be in San Diego for four days and would be glad to fly up to San Francisco for a meeting with my client to start solidifying what up to then was loose talk and mutual interest. Yes, his company was interested in using my client's technology and yes they were a very large company, well known throughout Italy and the world.

A meeting was set up in my client's office with two weeks of advanced notice. I briefed my client with several emails about the Italian company, its products and technologies and urged all involved to go online and look over who was going to be arriving. I stressed the differences between San Francisco casual and Italian business attire.

I arrived at the client's offices about an hour ahead of time only to discover that casual Friday was in full effect! The company founder, the VP of Finance and the COO were making a statement about not being pushed around. The founder did change his underwear, that was obvious, and his socks were not mismatched because he had none!

My Italian counterpart arrives in an Armani suit, impeccable silk tie and beautiful Ferragano shoes. He takes one look around and raises an eyebrow at me. There is an art to eyebrow raising that the French have perfected and passed on to the Italians, the Belgians and the Germans. This was a master of the art wasting his time in a stable.

Since the conference room I had reserved two weeks before was being occupied by an admin meeting we assembled in the founder's office. Chairs were collected and discussions begun. Our founder kicked it off by inquiring politely what this Italian company did. After two weeks of prep work, what a time for amnesia from a brilliant guy wearing cut off blue jeans with rips and a fuck you T-shirt!

It went downhill from there, the highlight coming from the COO (twenty years in the international business world), wanting to know about the name Progetti in the Italian company's name. It appears that he had done a lot of business with companies ending in Progetti and wanted to know if that was a family name in Italian industry. My client replied that it meant Project, equivalent to the US having thousand of companies incorporating the family name Industries, and no, there are very few US families called Industries.

After the meeting, my Italian friend and I repaired to a nearby wine bar and drank very decent Merlot for an hour while reviewing the meeting. All was not lost because the Italian would only tell all of his nearest friends and relatives about the meeting and would see about setting up a follow up meeting, this time in Milan at the company's headquarters. He did ask, in a light but pleasant manner if it would be possible that the Chairman of the Board of my client's company please dress appropriately, suggesting that a meeting between his Chairman, representing a multimillion dollar conglomerate and an equipment supplier implied a certain amount of respect and deference on both sides.

In Milan, home of some of the top men's couturier's, where you can have a suit hand tailored in 24 hours, there appeared to be no need for sartorial elegance on my client’s side.  My boy did buy a new pair of Dockers for the occasion, pulled out his twenty year old blue blazer from Target and blithely arrived at corporate headquarters all dressed up and ready to roll.

It was clear from the start that the lunch with the Chairman was a non-starter since his secretary came down and after one look at my client, started whispering in my Italian's ear. It seems that our lunch would take place at a nearby restaurant, one of his favorite places for fish. All talk of technology exchanges and sales became very slow and to my client's complete amazement never came through. Needless to say the meeting was deemed a complete disaster and the Italians were obviously never ever serious about doing business with my client's company.

If that were the end of the story it would have been merciful and no one really got hurt, especially on my client's side since ignorance was bliss.  Unfortunately my Italian contact had become a good friend and, aware of what I had to work with, decided to give my client one last chance.

His company, the Italian Government and Peru had been seriously negotiating to implement a facility like the one's my client built. My friend asked if he could submit a bid from the client to the Peruvian government as long as they could claim that they had a technology agreement with the company. All agreed because the Italians built much bigger plants and the need was for a smaller version.  The number one condition was that all negotiations between parties remain confidential in order to pacify Italy's negative role in not providing the technology.

Part of the protocol for working with this client is that we had to fill in the Salesforce sheets on all of our contacts; otherwise the company had the habit of taking your independent work and assigning it to their in-house sales staff. Since there were a number of unclear issues with the Salesforce submission because of the extreme secrecy of the project, the VP of Sales immediately contacted the Peruvian engineer on the contact report and he immediately cried foul because he was advised that this was an Italo/Peruvian deal and what were the Americans doing in the middle of it?  The Italians were embarrassed and my friend shortly thereafter embraced another career in renewable energy.

My client, for some inexplicable reason never understood why the Italians never signed a deal with them. It was the opinion of the blue blazered Chairman that somehow I had offended them after he had gone all the way to Milan.