Crisis Corner: How Oprah Can Combat Kitty Kelley’s Tell-All Book

April 14th, 2010

This past week, famous (infamous?) unauthorized celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley released her latest tell-all book, this one about talk show host Oprah WinfreyKelley’s pen has struck many famous targets in the past, such as Frank Sinatra, the Bush family and even royal dynasties.

Oprah is more than just a celebrity, she is a bona-fide billion dollar brand – therefore the stakes are much higher in protecting and managing that image.  Crisis management 101 dictates that attacks on one’s brand and reputation must never go unanswered, and the two Oprahs – the person and the brand – are no exception.

So what crisis public relations steps should Oprah take as Kelley continues her book publicity tour, dishing seedy details and other awkward revelations?

Stay above the frayOprah’s handlers already maintain a tight perimeter around their boss, and no doubt that circle will hold strong during the book’s initial release.  Still, Oprah’s fans will seek reassurance about their idol, and that guidance is best administered from Oprah herself.  At the same time, Oprah shouldn’t indulge the book’s themes or specifics, so getting on the record with a diplomatic and confident statement is a smart move.  Something to the effect of “I don’t traffic in rumors and speculation … Ms. Kelley peddles in gossip, so I think that speaks for itself.”

Have third-parties criticize aggressively.  Oprah’s brand has empowered a legion of other stars in her orbit.  These loyal and trusted advocates can criticize the book openly without dragging Oprah into it.  Imagine having Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Rachael Ray all drop responses here and there: “well, regardless of what’s in the gossip pages, this isn’t the Oprah that I know.”

Lean on past success.  This isn’t the first time Oprah has faced a sharp attack, such as several years ago when Texas beef producers sued her for defamation, claiming that Oprah’s criticism of beef consumption was a direct attack on their business.  Instead of relying simply on scorched-earth litigation tactics, Oprah took complete command of the controversy by actually moving her television production to Texas for several days.  In doing so, she won over the locals, made the plaintiffs seem foolish and greedy, and looped the media theme back in her favor as a talk show host who cares about her fans.  Oh, and by the way, she won the lawsuit.

Advantage: Oprah.

Crisis Corner: Spirit Airlines’ New Baggage Fee Angers Customers, the Government – Who’s Next?

April 12th, 2010

Much has been said about Spirit Airlines’ proposal to charge passengers $45 for any regular carry-on baggage.  Instead of rehashing the pros/cons of this new policy, let’s analyze the company’s move from the public relations standpoint:

Think before inciting controversy.  Airlines lost a staggering amount of money last year, yet it’s amazing how tone-deaf they are in announcing remedial measures to capture lost income.  Just think back to Ryanair’s proposals to charge passengers to use the airplane bathroom, or to force passengers to stand during flights.  If the new policy will likely incite controversy, then huddle with your publicist and think 10 steps ahead to anticipate how your customers will react.  Don’t get caught flat-footed by an easily repeatable/re-tweetable meme.  Standing on flights, really…

Media training is exercise to prevent foot-in-mouth syndrome.  Now that we know why these policies generate radioactive criticism, we must understand how to avoid saying really, really stupid things.  Media training will help the spokesperson nuance the message to minimize blowback.  Customers cringe when they hear about new inflated fees, so don’t patronize them as CEO Ben Baldanza did by saying something this idiotic: “The beauty of [the $45 fee] is [passengers] will do what they think is best for them and will now have the choice.” Um, “choice”?  What about choosing not to anger and alienate your customers?

Different PR disciplines are needed to deal with different PR problems.  What started as Spirit Airlines’ need for crisis management has now morphed into a public affairs issue, as DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer both criticized the new fee.  Indeed, LaHood clearly is contemplating some regulatory response, given that he thinks Spirit Airlines doesn’t “care about their customers.”

Most companies understand the importance of PR, but what Spirit Airlines shows us is the importance of hiring publicists who can wear multiple hats.  Don’t roll out your controversial policy until you’re sure you’ve got all your PR bases covered.

Five Things Every Publicist Wants the Media to Understand

April 12th, 2010

A popular discussion platform showcases media pitches gone awry, with a stern eye on the PR industry.  A few quick clicks reveal blog headlines that call publicists arrogant, begging them to “suck less” and “stop being bad at stuff” amongst other things.  While our side gets thrown a bone here and there, for the most part we get ridiculed quite mercilessly.

Of course, when publicists do something monumentally clumsy or deceitful, we deserve criticism, it’s a good way for us to improve.  Still, publicists sometimes deal with reporters who don’t seem to get that we’re all in this beautiful mess together.

Dear reporters, before you think a publicist’s only goal is to raise your blood pressure, please know the following:

Reporters help us accomplish our goals, but please remember we help you with your jobs too.  You know who writes the online bios about your interview subject, who feeds you key facts and figures about the industry you cover, who gets you that sought-after intel no one else seems to know?  Publicists do.  We realize a key headline or fantastic placement depends on willing reporters, but we are a fundamental part of the process too – please, please, please don’t forget that.

We are not encyclopedias.  The press secretary can’t be expected to rattle off every single vote a Senator ever cast; the media relations VP can’t be expected to recall the location of all 73 global offices; the intern will never know when the client’s product will launch.  When we don’t have answers, we usually ask around or go online to find out – just like you.  If you want, we will dig around and get back to you.  Not everyone passes (or likes) pop quizzes.

We too deal with tyrannical, delusional bosses and soul-crushing demands on our time.  There are many kind, thoughtful and driven people in PR who mentor junior staff and challenge them to do their best.  And, there are many work environments that encourage respect, teamwork and creativity.  But for every caring boss, there are lowlifes who berate, demean and insult their workers.  For every awesome office, there are firms with exorbitant billing requirements, pointless expectations of face time and “colleagues” who sabotage and steal your work.  Buy us a beer, we’d be happy to trade war stories.

Our jobs are also in jeopardy.  As publicists, we sympathize with the fact that the media industry is in an distressing, ongoing state of upheaval.  But know that as newspapers shutter and reporters get pink-slipped, PR firms are hemorrhaging talent at a rapid clip.  You’re not the only one wondering if that next phone call or email is HR asking us to “stop by for a friendly chat about your future.”

It all comes full circle, baby.  Good for you if you aim to be the next Cronkite; the world needs smart, demanding, no-nonsense reporters who deliver balanced and thought-provoking feedback.  But, some of you may want to join our line of work eventually, to get a taste of the alleged dark other side.  If so, you may want to think twice the next time you’re tempted to sneer at a publicist if you’re not getting the answers you want.  Thanks to social networks, endless happy hours and meet-and-greets, the publicist community is more tight-knit than you may think.  Know that gossip about a reporter’s bullish treatment and imbalanced coverage gets around very quickly.

Five Myths About Public Relations

April 6th, 2010

With the heat in DC nearing 20 degrees above normal today, it’s time to vent!  Figuratively, at least… So, let’s get right to it.  Here are five myths about public relations – or misconceptions, mistakes and shaky assumptions business owners make at their own peril:

“PR is a waste of money.” Truth is, positive publicity is a fundamental growth element, and without it your customer base will never expand.  Business owners can easily forget that even customer word-of-mouth is actually good publicity by another name.  If your small business has a reservoir of goodwill, what steps are you taking to capitalize on that?  And it’s not just the obvious attention-getting opportunities that count.  Skilled publicists know how to identify and seize openings for publicity that the busy entrepreneur may not see, the way a smart accountant knows how to maximize deductions.

“Once I get a good spot of PR I can go back to laughing all the way to the bank.” Yeah, try telling that to Toyota.  After months of relentless negative publicity, Toyota’s PR efforts to rectify problems from the mass fleet recall seem to have worked, with recent sales rising significantly.  Then this happened yesterday, and now Toyota needs another round of smart, aggressive PR tactics to get back on track.  Good public relations means never taking your eye off the ball – or tweets, Facebook page, chattering class or whoever is talking about you.

“My product/service/awesomeness will generate press all on its own.” Possibly, if you are this guy and happen to sell this.  But if that’s not you, then you’ll need help.  Building positive publicity requires the same immense discipline, passion and resolve as creating a new product or service, since you are essentially generating something from nothing.  If you’re not on the radar of reporters and bloggers covering your industry, then you should consider professional advice on how to get there.

“I went to law school/I kick ass on Jeopardy/I always win arguments; therefore, I will control/intimidate/steamroll any reporter interviewing me.” Most journalists are fair, hard-working and want to deliver thoughtful perspective and comment on interesting issues.  While some may have cavalier morality when it comes to ethics, they don’t represent the high standard in their profession.  But never forget – just like your aim is to generate commerce, a media outlet’s aim is to generate attention.  If you haven’t been media trained before you do an interview, you run serious risk of your answers being twisted into a catchy headline, at your expense.  Once it’s printed, you can’t take it back.

“How hard can it be to write an op-ed/letter-to-the-editor/press release?” Like many things in life, a lot harder than you may think – at least if you want it done right.  Many business professionals are excellent writers, but may not know how to identify all relevant stakeholders and use a media platform to make messages resonate with each one.

With these principles in mind, and with the economy on the rebound, now is the best time for business owners to leap ahead of the complacent competition – let clever public relations help fight and win that battle for you.

RNC’s Perception Is Now Rudderless

April 4th, 2010

Like most things in life, a good rule of thumb to identify patterns is to look for three’s.  Politics and public relations are no exception, and in this regard embattled RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s organization has really, really stepped into it.

First, the crude slideshow.  Second, the lesbian bondage nightclub.  Lace that with the undercurrent of criticism aimed at Steele’s leadership (or lack thereof) when it comes to spending priorities.

Now, the RNC has hired a full-time fundraiser who previously ran afoul of D.C. authorities with regard to expenditures and reimbursements.

With this action, Steele has effectively cemented the narrative that the RNC has no qualm about its public perception, voter blowback or political fortunes.  It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next 24-48 hours.

Why App Makers Must Use PR to Win on the Ipad

April 2nd, 2010

For all you wanna-be iPhone/iPad app-making millionaires, we applaud your ambition in this tough economy, though take note of this sobering anecdote reported by the Washington Post: a game called Shot Bar was developed at a cost of $30,000 and released in November, but has a total return under $1,000 to date.

The need for public relations is real: as a tech small business, you must have room for a small business marketing budget.  Given that the Apple app marketplace is saturated with close to 150,000 different products, PR is an acute pressure point.  Once the iPad goes on sale, this number is going to explode.

App makers, your game/utility/whoopee cushion may be a big deal to you, but what good is your product if you can’t distinguish it from the competition?  Do you really think that consumers will take the time to browse the Apple app store the way they shop at Best Buy?  Are you leveraging every social media platform for potential sales and to recruit brand ambassadors?  Are you making nice with every key tech reporter who will cover the goldrush?  How about moving beyond the simple commercial aspects, perhaps maybe try to establish thought leadership and authority in your industry?

If your company isn’t keeping these considerations in mind, your killer app can easily become dead on arrival.

What the Publishing Industry Must Do in Advance of the iPad

March 31st, 2010

As fanboys, tech media and the chattering class anticipate the Apple iPad’s retail availability in four days, much discussion has focused on the device’s impact on book publishers, and what the publishing industry’s public relations plans are.  The iPad is anticipated to be more popular than rival gadgets, and will leverage e-books as a prime digital offering.  Seeing as how the iPod turned the music industry upside-down, the iPad could have similar impact on the book industry.

But, as the New York Times points out, the iPad’s adoption by consumers will also affect the book industry another way.  Authors and publishers enjoy the benefit of indirect marketing and endorsement when readers are seen enjoying a particular book in public.  The visual appeal of a book’s cover also helps other potential readers clue in to the book and make a note to purchase later.

Thus, the common marketing tactic of a book cover’s visual appeal will start to take a back seat when there’s no physical book in sight.  In turn, a random reader’s endorsement will now gravitate toward other platforms, such as a Facebook fan page (or “like” page, if the interface is tweaked).

This is where publishers must step up their game and make sure they have calibrated their marketing strategies to leverage social media.  Any public relations plan must account for the shifting dynamics of book sales and promotion, and capture new opportunities available for online marketing.  The publishing industry must recognize the weight of authority that brand ambassadors will carry online, win their hearts and minds with strong material and appreciate that the digital swipe truly is the best way to turn the page.

Crisis Corner: The Only Way out for the RNC

March 29th, 2010

Federal campaign disclosure documents revealed today show that the Republican National Committee had included an expense for $2,000 for “meals” at the Voyeur West Hollywood Club in Los Angeles last month.  The club’s theme, as described by the Los Angeles Times, leans toward “Eyes Wide Shut” with a touch of “impromptu bondage and S&M.”  In response to the public relations crisis, a RNC spokesman says that the activity is being investigated.

In solving a PR crisis, one of the most important steps is taking direct and concrete steps to remedy the problem.  Actions speak louder than words, and the RNC is no exception to this immutable axiom.

For the RNC to give its “investigation” theme clarity and substance, it must actually act like it is conducting an audit of some sort, and no matter how you look at it, someone’s gotta pay the price.  There’s no better way for the RNC to put this episode behind the Republican party than to fire Chairman Michael Steele.

• Steele’s sheer incompetence and disastrous leadership have been extensively documented.  Each time the man speaks, he manages to step in it even more and more.  The longer he stays at the helm, the harder it will be for anyone to take any claims of an “investigation” seriously.

• The RNC must act fast.  If not, the Republican brand will sustain heavy damage coming off the brutal health care debates.  That brand (or at least what it claims to promote) is totally at odds with what the club expense stands for: fast and loose spending; sexually-themed parties; gay rights; Hollywood free-wheeling and vice-ridden behavior.

• The $ signs all over this give the story a simple narrative to follow.  Therefore, the more the RNC tries to lap tap dance around the expense report, or somehow shift the blame to Democrats, the worse it will get.

Real leadership is often about tough choices.  The kingmakers at the RNC must appreciate this principle and act quickly before this scandal gets worse.

In PR for the Entrepreneur, Stick with What You Know Best

March 24th, 2010

For any entrepreneur, the rush from starting your new business empowers you in many good ways.  With each initial success, the new business starts to dream (and rightfully so!) about conquering their particular industry.

But, as with all things in life, never bite off more than you can chew – particularly with your small business marketing.  That’s where smart entrepreneur PR strategy plays a vital role, by making you focus on what your business does best.

With social media now as the most attractive and cheapest small business marketing platform available, the entrepreneur has more temptation to promote themselves as an expert on anything and everything, even if it’s a topic outside their industry.  In doing so, the entrepreneur risks muddying their message and ability to market their product or service in a targeted way.  They start to resemble this guy:

Instead, initial entrepreneur PR strategy shouldn’t expound on more than 2 or 3 core message topics at first.  Opened up a new coffee shop in your neighborhood?  Then blog about coffee, not local celebrity gossip (unless it’s about those celebs drinking your coffee).  Are you the new iPhone app maker in your city’s digital corridor?  Then tweet about emerging app trends for small businesses, and not trade battles between competing nations.

And, as a side benefit, by concentrating your messaging on a handful of discrete topics, you generate SEO on your particular business and help brand your new enterprise as a trend-setter.  Focus, focus, focus!

Crisis Corner: FCPA Outruns Benz

March 23rd, 2010

As explained earlier on this blog, FCPA prosecutions have increased priority in the Department of Justice, and companies are on notice to behave nicely.

Part and parcel of diligent FCPA compliance requires communicating positive steps, which is where crisis public relations becomes an important strategy.  This time around, the perpetrator is Daimler AG, the venerable German automaker that manufactures Mercedes Benz.  Daimler today agreed to pay $185 million in fines to the U.S. government for its alleged corrupt business practices.

While crisis management would recommend a media holding statement at a minimum, Daimler should also take active steps to explain any new transparency measures it plans to implement to avoid this type of scandal in the future.  (In this case, Daimler gave a very lame “no comment” response to the allegations … sigh.)

If a tree falls in a forest… ah, you get the picture.  Remember, in crisis public relations, the redemption narrative works only if people know you’re making that same effort — so publicize it!