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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

PR Fail: Drake University Scores D+ with Horrid Campaign

In the midst of one of the worst economies in history, universities are reassuring students and parents that they are the best at preparing junior for the job market. So it would seem bizarre and perhaps insane that a school would instead seek to position itself as hip and "ironic." It would look even crazier if that same college was marketing itself as barely above a complete failure. Enter Drake University and their woefully misguided "D+" marketing campaign. Drake is apparently a real school (we thought it was one of those things like "Chubb" or "ITT Institute" that advertise on the subway) with real ambitions.

We became aware of this PR trainwreck via one of our favorite sites, PR Newser, and we really couldn't have said it any better than they did:
Wow. Drake University has launched a new marketing campaign in which the school touts the value of its educational offering by promoting the "D+ Advantage." According to Yahoo! News, students and faculty have pointed out that a D+ really isn't the image a university might want to project. One would think the school or its outside PR help (!) would've thought of that. Nevertheless, the school is sticking with it. Good luck with that. 
The Gawker-esque snark is not misapplied in this case. It is pretty much incredibly shocking that ANYONE would think this was a good idea (the university "marketing" people or the PR agency that is helping them).

The Yahoo News story goes on to say:
However, Drake officials are standing by the D+ campaign -- which college officials crafted with outside PR contractors. Defenders of the ad blitz described it as "edgy and intriguing" in a letter to faculty and staff this week. The letter explained that the campaign "was designed to catch the attention of high school students who are bombarded with college and university materials to the point that they are often in information overload and unable to differentiate among the many institutions that have contacted them." The letter didn't explain just why an educational institution would want to attract a corps of students lacking the ability to distinguish among institutions of higher learning, but that presumably is the research domain of an equally edgy focus-group team.
The letter referred to is a desperate rationalization/damage control piece:

The Drake Advantage alone is not unusual, but the D+ graphic is distinctive because it's surprising and intriguing to prospective students. The D+ was not designed to stand alone or represent a grade. Instead, it was designed to be paired with prose and draw attention to the distinctive advantages of the Drake experience. 
Admission counselors using Drake Advantage materials in the field have reported that the campaign is generating extremely positive feedback from prospective students.  Our experience in the survey and in the field suggests that the kind of students whom we want to attract to Drake easily understand and appreciate the irony of the D+, and that it is having the intended effect of encouraging students to find out more about what makes Drake so special.
The school wants to stand out, we can understand that. BUT, to try and stand out by looking "edgy" (as defined by a university marketing committee and a PR firm, not the real world) is so far removed from sensible it's not even funny. In this economy, new world order and job market, shouldn't you maybe try to stand out by offering something reassuring from students about to dedicate 4 years of studies and countless piles of cash to your school? How about standing out by doing the best damned job preparing students to have successful adult lives? Or maybe that's just not cool and edgy enough for the geniuses at Drake.

Drake says they are looking for students who appreciate irony. All we can say is we hope current students/graduating into the job market students appreciate that the whole world is laughing at their school. Nice branding, indeed!

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

PR Fail: Let's Nuke the Moon!

From the annals of "great" (as in huge and fantastically crazy; not "great" as in a good idea) PR stunts that never happened, comes this gem: In the late 1950s, U.S. paranoia over the "imminent" weaponization of space and the Soviet Union's gains in nuclear weapons spawned the idea of detonating a nuclear weapon on (or slightly above the surface of) the moon as a publicity exercise.

I found this tidbit while reading the enjoyable Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest.

From a NY Times article a few years back:

"The foremost intent was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States," Dr. [Leonard] Reiffel said in an interview. "It was a P.R. device, without question, in the minds of the people from the Air Force."
The nuclear flash would have been widely visible from Earth, he said, and would have produced a lunar crater and dust cloud that, because of the moon's lack of atmosphere, would have flown out in all directions rather than in the usual mushroom shape.
Dr. Reiffel said the Air Force plan was seen as a way to bolster national confidence after the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in October 1957. 
We can agree this was a really bad idea from an environmental perspective. As well, at the time, while many Cold War hawks were stoking fears of the moon as the "high ground" in a future war, where one nation could use the body as a death-star type weapons platform, cooler heads like President Eisenhower wanted space to be a place for peaceful exploration, scientific research and of course a few spy satellites.

One has to wonder just what kind of impact (pun intended) would have been made by a nuclear blast on earth's nearest neighbor. On the PR stunt risk-o-meter this would rank at the top, but the shock waves would certainly have affected international relations, military affairs and the popular culture in ways one can only imagine.

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Role of PR in the New Media Conversation

Social media is changing how we use and interact with content. It is also of course having a profound effect on the role of PR in communications and message control.

While old media embracing social networks and user input is nothing new (e.g. The New York Times and CNN), WXYZ-TV, Detroit's ABC affiliate, has been embracing social networks in an innovative local experiment.

Stephen Clark, a news anchor at the channel, has embarked on an evolving program using twitter to build and tap his audience. He originally started with just getting feedback and encouraging viewers to create a social network community and now gets community involved in actually vetting and creating what appears on newscasts. Blogger Becky Johns provides a good summary of this initiative and the possible implications for the broader media. One thing she mentions with real relevance for the PR and communications industry: you can't simply PITCH this community. It will be interesting to see if and how marketers can find a way to infiltrate this kind of forum and in a natural, organic (free trade?) way become part of this kind of group, sell some COMPELLING stories/content, and not irritate the genuine, involved audience members.

Johns notes that if this kind of experiment takes off, it could have an impact on how PR folks do their jobs:
  1. Pitches will require compelling visual content. A press release just won’t be enough. PR staffs will need to expand storytelling abilities from just words to other creative means.
  2. PR pros will have to represent their company or client AND the community at large. The good ones will be active backchannel participants. They’ll have no know what’s happening locally, in their specific industry and the reporter’s beat and coverage history. Not two out of three. All of it.
While this is surely no magic bullet to save the fortunes of traditional media, it is certain that initiatives like this make it more relevant. If the world is interacting and learning in a certain way, you either need to lead, follow or get out of the way. PR firms can play their part by learning to play by the new rules: getting in and listening and not trying to dominate the conversation.

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

Monday, August 30, 2010

No One Wants to Work for Americans

Part II in our "reputation economy" (it's not real but if we keep saying it, maybe it will become real!) series: today there's the news that a whole bunch of state-owned companies in China are looking for top-level management. Unhappy with the companies' performance, the government wants to up its game and made the unprecedented move of taking out full-page newspaper ads. Per the New York Times story (here):
"While some of the positions were restricted to Chinese citizens, many of the posts were open to foreign applicants..."
Based on my experience, there won't be a single foreigner hired for any of these positions. And there will most likely by 10 zillion local Chinese applicants....because (according to Newsweek):
In August, China’s biggest job-search site released a survey of 200,000 Chinese college students, ranking their preferences for employment. Only three non-Chinese multinational corporations made the list of the top 50: Google, Microsoft, and Procter & Gamble, all in the top 10. That’s a steep decline from the 21 foreign firms that made the list last year.
So, no one in China wants to work for a non-Chinese (read: Western or Japanese) company. You see, U.S. corporations are facing a perception problem in today's troubled "reputation economy."
"...particularly since the financial crisis, big Chinese companies are seen as offering less-risky jobs with more growth potential."
In short, it's risky to work for a U.S. company that will just stagnate until it then shrivels and dies.

On the topic of job opportunities, you would think a company like Sands China would offer everything that a globe-trotting executive would desire: growth industry (gambling in China), U.S. parent company, seasoned international management. But before you send off your resume, you'd better determine if you meet the strict age and race requirements (in the Macau Daily Times):
"Local gaming operator Sands China wants to have a new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in place by the end of this year according to the company’s acting CEO Michael Leven, and the company would prefer the appointee to be Asian. “It doesn’t have to specifically be a hospitality or casino executive, but definitely someone with the right age and experience."
It IS very common for Asian companies to state in ads, etc. that they want someone of a certain age and they usually even request a photo. We don't know (or care to do the work to find out) if Sands China is allowed to have blatantly discriminatory hiring practices and operate completely outside of U.S. EEOC regulations (if it is a U.S. company, I would say no). Legality aside, this is an astoundingly non-PC attitude for the leader of a major company to be displaying in a public forum. And, they surely will be deluged with applicants as Leven says you don't need any relevant experience and just simply need to be the right age and race.

Thanks for reading
Jonathan Gardner

Lacking any Real Industries, US to Switch to 'Reputation' Economy

Today, we serve two and only two masters: revenue and reputation. The trick is to position your brand and build your reputation in the sweet spot between capitalism and humanism.
Forbes magazine has put out on the interwebs a short opinion piece about the importance of corporate reputation. This is mostly a big "what else is new?" for the 3 troglodytic companies out there that are still unaware that their image can drive success. But it is always good to preach the smart stuff, even to the converted. The writer, Anthony Johndrow, is with something called the Reputation Institute, and he does pretty nice work of restating why -- especially in this economy (the justification for basically every business article right now that would not normally be considered newsworthy) --
"Companies that are leading the reputation economy are not doing one or the other [serving 'two masters']. Rather, they are able to tie both their products and services and their corporate image together in the interest of both"

I think it's a bit silly to really start calling anything the "reputation economy"(what the what?!). Anyway,  we're basically in the "circling the drain" economy or maybe the "suffering-based economy." The piece is still worth a read. You can find it here.

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Foxconn's Rx for Suicide Prevention: Try PR!


Foxconn, maker of iPhones, iPads and Dell Computers is notorious for its ghastly treatment of its workers in China, to the extent that at least 12 laborers have killed themselves this year. So, what do you do if you want to save lives and prevent suicides? If you answered "treat workers humanely every day" or "show you care" or "end sweatshop conditions" you'd be wrong. The answer, according to Foxconn: hire a PR firm! That's right, instead of fixing a problem, you can just pretend it's been fixed, all through public relations.

Under pressure from Dell, HP, Apple and world opinion, Foxconn, a Taiwan-headquartered company with 900,000 employees in China, decided to clean up its act. It has provided modest wage increases to staff to try to end the spate of suicides. The company has installed suicide-prevention nets around buildings to try stop the preferred method of death. And, they hired Burson Marsteller, a US PR company.

The big PR firms are of course notorious for not being so choosy about who they wind up in bed with. Burson Marsteller has (not sure if they still do) worked with tobacco giant Phillip Morris/Altria for years in Asia. One of my former employers was doing PR to try to clean up the image of deposed Thai Prime Minister (and fugitive from justice) Thaksin Shinawatra. PR companies are constantly working for the wrong side (like Brunswick PR and Ogilvy, who work for BP), so this should come as no surprise. We explored their lack of ethics overseas in an earlier post.

Instead of working long-term to change their company culture, treat workers decently and show the world how they've changed, Foxconn is now resorting to PR stunts. As a colleague used to say "it's just pink paint" (as in, don't fix a problem, just paint over it in a pretty color).

So we get word that the company is forcing its staff to trot out for "motivational rallies" reminiscent of something in Pyongyang.  The Huffington Post has the story and shockingly Mao-esque photos (here). Forget that it looks absurdly stage managed and the workers mostly look bored or miserable, but who is this for? Is this for the "Terry" on the signs they are forced to carry ("Terry" Guo, the president of Foxconn)? Is it a big show to impress "dear leader" with the "spontaneity" and joy of his people?
One activist said Foxconn's Wednesday rally was unlikely to boost morale and does not replace the need for more thoroughgoing reforms."I don't think today's event is going to achieve anything except provide a bit of theater," said Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman of the China Labor Bulletin, a labor rights group based in Hong Kong. "Basically what Foxconn needs to do is treat its workers like decent human beings and pay them a decent wage. It's not rocket science. They're still tackling this from a top-down approach, they are organizing the workers. They're not allowing the workers to organize themselves."
 This story has been burning up the internets, and a commenter on Gizmodo had a good point:
It's sad how many companies think that a "Team Building" party alone can raise morale. It's actually an insult if the rest of their actions stink. If you beat your wife all week but buy her a dozen roses on Friday afternoon expecting sudden happiness you're likely to get a smack on the face. Treat your employees well every day, provide them with a decent work environment, encouragement, purpose, inspiration, and room to grow and THEN once you've proven to them that you actually care, THEN throw a party. And for the love of Justin, don't call it a "Team Building Party".
This kind of managed media event for the domestic China market (surely that's who this is aimed at, with the younger, make-up spackled young women front and center in photos) plays very well. While, we in the West tend to mostly be VERY skeptical of what we see in the press, in Asia, and especially China where most media is still state controlled or constricted, what you see in the media is taken as gospel by most everyone. The average newspaper reader (or factory worker) in China would have no idea that these "rallies" are fake PR events and the workers neither participated enthusiastically nor do they worship the cult of "Terry" Guo.

So, for PR effect, Burson Marsteller may have given its client some good service in the local China market. But Foxconn and their PR counselors should be aware: here in the US (you know, where Apple and Dell are) we are not buying this load of bunk. You should be REALLY cleaning up your act, not just going through some phony motions. You can't spin me, baby!

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

UPDATED: Wired has a great piece on this whole fiasco here (good comments too!)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

PR Guy Scared HP into Firing Hurd?


When HP needed justification in axing CEO Mark V. Hurd recently, they called in a consulting firm - one that is inexperienced in crisis communications or even tech - to give them grade-school PR 101 advice that amounted to "scandals are bad and scary."

When this story blew up last week, initial reports focused on allegations by an actress/marketing consultant (aren't they all multitasking these days) named Jodie Fisher that Hurd had sexually harrassed her. These charges proved untrue but an investigation showed that the CEO had submitted inaccurate expense reports to the tune of $20,000. All in all, the story had a little sizzle and no steak.

Then Hurd announces his "resignation" last Friday and we find out he'll get around a $37 million payout.

All the while, behind the scenes, the board at HP was being advised by something called APCO. We dug a little and learned this is a PR firm (that few have ever heard of). A PR rep had been counseling the company ahead of this scandal (just how much of a heads-up did they have?). The PR person used some classic fear tactics to get their client to act ("if you don't fire this guy in 24 hours, the world will end...and Fox News will say bad things about you!") But what they were told, really was of the "monsters are under your bed" variety.

Says The New York Times:
At a presentation to the directors of H.P., the public relations specialist from APCO cited recent sexual imbroglios like the one that diminished Tiger Woods. The specialist cautioned that only 20 percent of top executives survive these types of allegations and then they usually end up leaving because of the weight of negative publicity. He also warned that Gloria Allred, the celebrity lawyer representing Mr. Hurd’s accuser, would thrust H.P. and Mr. Hurd into a media nightmare...The representative from...APCO... even wrote a mock sensational newspaper article to demonstrate what would happen if news leaked.
Now, whether you agree or not about HP firing Hurd - who seemed a pretty effective leader - I'm more interested in this approach. The scare tactics the PR guy used would normally only work on/be employed with fairly unsophisticated clients (or on children afraid of the dark). One would think the HP board would be fairly with-it people who wouldn't need the PR 101 lecture. In short, this is all PRETTY OBVIOUS stuff that we would use when we were talking to client audiences holed up in some 4th-tier city in a 3rd-world country who had never even HEARD of PR. So, what he's saying is essentially true, but I can imagine the eye-rolling and smirking going on as he delivered his "presentation" (a crappy PowerPoint with his homemade newspaper stories?). It's all very grade-school.

He may have been appointed to this task solely to provide cover. I think we can all be sure some "account supervisor" from APCO didn't spur the board of HP, a mega-billion-dollar corporation, to make such a huge move. It is possible that a few members of a board - which had already decided to act - brought him in to add to the momentum on the decision-making and at least make a show of getting outside opinion. Though you would think they would bring in a brand-name, big PR company or management consultancy.

Surely, the PR rep is getting lots of slaps on the back at his cubicle today. We can be sure that whoever gets a new business pitch from APCO in the near future will be seeing a slide/hearing a shpiel about "providing critical crisis and issues management c-suite counsel to HP." Let's forget the fact that they actually "...[do] not have a particularly strong reputation for crisis management or technology expertise." If you happen to be subjected to this presentation, just remember: there are no monsters under the bed.

Thanks for reading,
Jonathan Gardner