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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

Friday, August 6, 2010

Haagen-Dazs Lies to Consumers in Taiwan

We all know brands often try to "reposition" themselves when they move to a new market - Mary Kay and Buick marketed as "luxury" brands in Asia, etc. - but sometimes this re-imagining can take the form of BLATANT lying. Take the case of Haagen-Dazs Taiwan for example.

We wrote at length (HERE) about Western brands "fauxscaling" (you heard the word here first!) when they move to Asia, trying through PR, marketing, etc. to become something they so truly are not back home. In Taiwan, Haagen-Dazs (a former joint venture now wholly owned by parent company General Mills), has for years positioned itself as an upscale luxury brand. They've done fairly well at it. The couple dozen retail outlets are nicely appointed, with a "European cafe style" vibe, attracting date-nighters and families. They push elaborate sundaes and confections, the likes of which we would A. never order and B. never find in U.S. Haagen-Dazs scoop shops. On encountering the brand in a supermarket or convenience store, you can expect to pay US$10 or MORE a pint. I know, it's hard to believe that they are able to get away with positioning the brand like this, especially when the other week CVS (a FAR from upmarket retailer) had Haagen-Dazs on special, two pints for $3.

But that's not even the worst of it. When I visited Taiwan Haagen-Dazs outlets, I was often confused by the language on the menus, brochures and other POS items that featured convoluted origin myths, placing the companies birthplace somewhere on the European continent. "That's absurd," I would cry, "Everyone knows that the company was started by Polish (yes, I realize Poland is in Europe) Jewish immigrants who lived in the Bronx and opened their first retail outlet in Brooklyn." But most people just chose to ignore me, or couldn't understand my broken Chinese anyway.

We find our fauxscaling Haagen-Dazs friends are up to no good once again in Taiwan. On their website is an EVEN MORE outlandish bit of lying marketing garbage: "Haagen-Dazs is originally imported from France." That's right, I'm not making it up. In the screen grab below, the full paragraph of Chinese text begins with a line that says that.

The rest of the paragraph talks about how their strawberries come from Poland (um, is that supposed to impress me? I like my Driscoll's from Cali), their green tea from Kyoto and their milk from France. Yes, maybe their milk comes from France but NOT THEIR ICE CREAM. Nor did it ever come from there. It has always come from factories in the U.S. (the mix comes from there and is blended in ASIA, not Europe, not France or anywhere near there). They also have a factory in Taiwan. Even if you don't agree that this is terrible, terrible lying, at the least it is very disingenuous and misleading.

I will tell you one thing though, the lying FOR SURE doesn't end with their website. Based on my experience in the Taiwan market, I can nearly guarantee the local management has trained waitstaff to talk up the "European heritage" and that they "import" their products from Europe. You see, they have been doing this all along. The many, many people I know in Taiwan are all convinced that Haagen-Dazs is a European brand/company. Maybe someday they'll believe me when I shout otherwise.

As we discussed about fauxscaling, there are tremendous risks involved. There could be a local backlash against the brand, and this kind of brand mythologizing could negatively affect their global brand. It's a good bet the U.S. folks at General Mills didn't know their local Haagen-Dazs unit was up to these shenanigans and probably don't really care what they do as long as they deliver results. Of course, that's all good UNTIL they do something that would embarrass the home office. You know, something like lying to local consumers.

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

Thursday, July 29, 2010

President Obama on 'The View,' Next Stop 'Celebrity Rehab'

To the annals of "great" moments in political/statesman communications -- FDR's Fireside chats, Nixon's Checkers comments, the Nixon/JFK debates, "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall" -- we can now add President Obama on "The View." Next stop is sure to be "Celebrity Rehab" or "Intervention" as his communications team needs an intervention and his presidency and his image need a complete rehabilitation.

When we talk about "great" we can mean significance, as in I think this may significant and be remembered as one of the lowest points in the Obama administration, which has seemed to be flailing about more than ever recently.

This "tea summit" I viewed only because I was in my doctor's waiting room. I don't regularly watch "The View" (nor do I know anyone who does).

I sat there with my mouth agape and just laughed and laughed. I chuckled at the awkwardness of the situation (OK ladies, we just sit here and try to stay awake while he recites talking points) and the incongruousness of these hosts "interviewing" someone not famous for making bad movies or reality TV. They seemed as surprised as me that he was sitting there with him.

Of course they had to read questions their staff researchers prepared, to be vetted by White House communications, off of index cards. Of course I could barely understand what Barbara Walters was saying (something about why can't we just get out of Afghanistan?) Can anyone?

Our friends at HuffPo give a pretty good recap of the appearance.

So, now for our thoughts:

1. It's an embarrassment that this is the level of public discourse in our country.
2. It's quite possible this PR stunt by Obama's team is only setting the president up for ridicule (I'll be watching the Daily Show tonight fo sho).
3. From a comms perspective, it's sometimes good strategy to put the spokesperson (in this case, the President) in a friendly, non-threatening environment. Surely they made deals about what questions were going to ask and what topics would be covered. "The View" is certainly not a serious news organization with "journalistic" standards. Therefore, they would seem to be a flexible partner in getting your message out.
4. Not a bad play to try to appeal to women.
5. The Sherrod mess is a distraction from what has been a troubled agenda that needs the White House's focus more than ever. But, the story was going away on its own. He could have done this last week if the goal was really to get past that story. But of course, that isn't why he went on "The View."
6. Obama went on The View because:

A. His presidency is in serious trouble (as the mid-terms are all but certain to show): and

B. His strategists have simply run out of ideas: First it was "you're the hopey/wonky president" who's going to save the economy and end all wars. Then it was "more stimulus more stimulus and 'peace with honor' (or some variation of the Nixon trope)." We've heard about green energy economics and healthcare. None of these themes and their messages have had any permanent sticking power to help define this presidency. One can only imagine what the communications staff's message calendar must look like (if they even have one!).

I've worked in communications for a long time (including for senior elected officials) and we rarely see an administration that is SO ALL OVER THE PLACE. 

It is time for this president to define himself but I'm very afraid he's done it already: the Talk Show President.

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

Monday, July 26, 2010

Weber Shandwick Says PR is Worthless

One of those big PR companies, Weber-Shandwick (no, not "Sandwich," but their name is making me hungry) has surprised absolutely no one by announcing that there is still no way to determine the value of PR. Measuring PR is hard, so it must be worthless, right? Or, maybe it's priceless? Who the f--k knows!

For years, the agencies have sent out these retardtastic reports, usually accompanied by a stack of clips or whatnot, that struggle to determine an "ad equivalency value" for all the media placements. Of course, everyone and their mother on both sides of the client wall has ALWAYS known that these claims were garbage ("This two-line mention in USA Today would be worth $450,000 if it were an ad. But it is EVEN MORE valuable because it is not paid media, so it has CREDIBILITY." Please disregard the fact that only the homeless, people waiting for their test results in VD clinics and dead-end mid-level business travelers read USA Today. Surely this placement is spot-on target for your desired stakeholder audience. [Sorry, I digress]).

We've all known FOREVER that there is no good way to measure PR "value." They even alluded to this on last night's season 4 premiere of "Mad Men" (Pete Campbell says, “It’s a PR stunt. We don’t do that?” When asked why not, he replies,”Because we can’t charge for it.”)

Media Bistro's PR Newser, a site that covers some PR stuff, had this report of people saying what the rest of us already know about these "ad equivalency" reports:

Today, Weber Shandwick endorsed the "Barcelona Principles" for PR measurement, which include a rejection of the reports.
The seven fundamental principles were published last week after being adopted in mid-June by 200 delegates from 33 countries at the 2nd annual European Summit on Measurement. We've listed all seven principles after the jump.

Some are vague, but the rejection of ad equivalency reports is included:
1. Importance of Goal Setting and Measurement
2. Measuring the Effect on Outcomes is Preferred to Measuring Outputs
3. The Effect on Business Results Can and Should Be Measured Where Possible
4. Media Measurement Requires Quantity and Quality
5. Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE) is not the Value of Public Relations
6. Social Media Can and Should be Measured
7. Transparency and Replicability are Paramount to Sound Measurement.

And THAT, sum total, is it. There is ZERO mention of any suggestions for something to replace these meaningless exercises in lying to the client. So, brilliant job, WeberSandwich, you've just repeated the same complaint we've all been making for years: the reports are worthless, we need something better. So, WHERE IS IT? 200 FRICKING "delegates" (VPs and "account supervisors" in "social media and measurement" or some wankworthy title, I would guess) from 33 FLIPPING countries couldn't come up with ANY ideas? And we go round and round. Don't even get me started on this "Barcelona Principles" b.s. REALLY? You're gonna be so grandiose to give this a title that sounds like a disarmament treaty or something?

So, you wanna know the true value of PR, kiddies? I think maybe you're having so much trouble measuring it because it truly is WORTHLESS. Or maybe just all those delegates are, I'm not sure.

Thanks for reading!
Jonathan Gardner

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

LG Admits Defeat with New Branding Campaign

Hiya sports fans! We're back after a long hiatus. Sorry for being gone, I'm sure we were missed.

Today comes news that LG, Korean maker of just about everything (a chaebol that has department stores, mini-marts, chemical companies and of course a consumer electronics division) has finally acknowledged that it can't compete with the likes of Sony or Samsung. At the same time, they've given up on trying to market their products as being technologically sound, decent or even remotely non-crappy. That's right, LG has decided to don the velvet sweatpants ("You know the message you're sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You're telling the world 'I give up.'") and launch a $100 million "emotional" branding campaign.

Said an LG spokesman:
“Although we don’t spend as much as Samsung or have the brand heritage that Sony has, there is a good opportunity for the LG brand,” he said. “We are addressing the market with a different strategy with an emotional approach, instead of focusing on picture quality or this function or that function.”
So there you have it, global business as an exercise in low self-esteem. Based on my experience back in the day at LG's Seoul HQ, this isn't surprising. This type of thinking is inherent in the business culture of  a Korean chaebol. Remember also, this is a country where Samsung is spoken of in reverent tones usually reserved for the almighty and they can basically do no wrong. The mid-level suits at the other companies such as LG go through their lives with a serious "second-class citizen" mentality due to never having made it into the ranks of the Samsung elite.

In the new "campaign," LG will talk about "‘Life’s Good’, freedom and infinite possibilities, all those kind of emotional attributes, for a broad range of products.”

This "emotional" approach may work for an established company that already has a brand image and solid profile (in the rest of the world, not just Korea), like a Coke or a BMW. Will it work in the outside world (read: the intended real market for such a campaign) where we don't have much of an idea, image or brand consciousness of LG at all?

Perhaps the bulk of the $100 million will be spent at home in Korea where the company leadership will see the branding everywhere and assume the campaign is working and LG's image has changed (the Westmoreland-in-Saigon form of blinkered leadership). Anyway, that really is not much money for a company that sells its products in 90 countries. How much impact will the velvet sweatpants campaign really have anywhere?

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Angry Samsung Slings Poo in PR War

The New York Times has an interesting story (here) about an insider's book that "reveals" the massive corruption that has plagued Samsung for years. Those of us who have worked in Asia and with Korean companies (I consulted inside LG for years) find this "news" completely unsurprising. Huge Asian companies generally got that way by cheating (as did the US's own Goldman Sachs), and in the insular, feudal, confucian and patriarchial "family" business model, corruption and outright thievery is endemic.

As expected, Samsung's PR "strategy" has been to bully the media to pay no attention to Kim Yong-chul's book and is circlingthe wagons. The company is responsible for 20% of Korea's exports, so their tactics have been pretty effective at keeping things quiet. Also, Koreans have this bizarre, worshipful slavish regard for Samsung. This is something you need to go there and see to believe (it reminds me of the mindless Khmer Rouge minions and their devotion to the ruling organization "Angka" in the "Killing Fields")

Of course, we are in the connected age, so Twitter, blogs and the like have led to runaway success for this book. Leading to the Times writing about it.

The deafening silence coming from Samsung HQ has been broken by the one and only quote the reporter gets from the company. And boy, oh boy, it's a doozy!

I ask all my fellow crisis communications, PR and branding brethren what they think about this PR approach. If your company was going to issue one and only one official on the record statement to rebut the HUGE allegations made in a book that blows your company's kimono open, would this be what you would say?

“We are seething with anger, but we are not going to sue him and make him a star again,” said Kim Jun-shik, Samsung’s senior vice president for corporate communications. “When you see a pile of excrement, you avoid it not because you fear it but because it’s dirty.”  

Sometimes we have to hit back when we are attacked. But isn't this a bit over the top? I'm guessing from the title that this is perhaps the TOP PR person at Samsung. Doesn't this strike you as a really juvenile, unprofessional and defensive way to comment? This is the spokesperson for the most "respected" company in Korea. Is this the best person the TOP electronics company in  the world could hire?

Based on my experience, this kind of company has NO clue how to do PR/communications and they mostly hire idiots. Also, I don't get this "make him a star again" bit. This would make one assume that the author has been a "star" before. A star of what? Isn't saying that only serving to elevate the opponent?

Also, I agree poo is dirty and I do not fear it.

Anyway, I really have to spend some time thinking about this one. This is really extreme PR.

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

Monday, January 25, 2010

This is What the Apple Tablet Will Be

It's one day 'till the piece of plastic that changes the world: Apple Tablet (or iPad or Slate or Slut or whatever). What will it be? What will it do?

Best Guesses from THOSE WHO KNOW about what the Apple Tablet will be and do:

-A "light" netbook, meant to compete (and blow away, 'natch) the Asus eee, etc. of the subnotebook world.

-A hotspot hopping device, with WiFi but also 3G mobile service (if you want to pay for it).

-For the main uses of portable "computing" (should we even use that word anymore?): Web-surfing/comms (Facebook/Twitter/Email) and video.

-Meant as an entry into the eReader space. But UNLIKE the eReaders, it is not simply a 1-function device. The Apple Tablet will take care of most of your mobile entertainment and communications needs.

-Not meant to replace an iPod Touch/iPhone (won't fit in your pocket or make calls, except on Skype)

-Not meant to replace your desktop or laptop pc. You wouldn't use the Apple Tablet to do hardcore word processing, gaming, or design.

Before I was thinking: I have a big-ass screen iMac, a MacBook, 3 iPods. I resisted the temptation to buy an iPhone (I'm not a big fan of purported "all in one" devices).

Now I am thinking: If this thing is (as rumored) to be SIGNIFICANTLY less than $1000, such as anything approaching $500 bucks, I may just have to get one.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

McDonald's Steamy New Ads

Every once in a while, a BIG traditional marketer likes to step out of their comfort zone and do something "edgy." It is unfortunately often just a one-off: maybe there were a few bucks left in the marketing budget, maybe some "youngster" at an ad agency said "hey man, this will be really cool. Let's get some street cred!"

So the latest of the big guys to "think different" is McDonald's, not a marketer that does much to think outside the bun (zing!). What we see here is an execution by Cossette, a Vancouver, Canada shop. They've re-thought the traditional bus shelter/outdoor placement, by doing something interesting and dynamic. To tout McDonald's coffee-sector awakening (they are pulling out ALL the stops to challenge Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts), we are given a bus shelter ad for coffee with "steam" at intervals showing how nice and steamy a cup of their Joe could be. It works great contextually. In the winter, at a bus stop, who ISN'T thinking they'd like something hot to drink?

Personally I think this is pretty cool. It would be AWESOME if they could somehow do a version that emits a freshly brewed coffee aroma. Who doesn't love that?

Of course, this isn't the first time someone's tried to shake up the tired outdoor space with something new. A couple years ago, a jeans brand put real pairs of their jeans in shelter ads. Another time, a local lottery stacked cash inside a shelter ad. Famously, I remember the FANTASTIC "smoking" billboard in Times Square. It advertised some brand of cigarettes and it always delighted me as a kid (I'm sure I wasn't the only one) to walk past and gaze up at the "smoke" coming from the sign.

So, does this steamy signage signal the vanguard of an edgy new approach for McDonald's or is it just a glitch and will it be business as usual for the burger giant? We know that some other fast-food players have been upping the game recently. There has been the weirdness of the Burger King "King" campaigns and now we have all the buzz Domino's has gotten for the "We suck" approach. Watching to see what happens.

Thanks for reading.
-Jonathan Gardner

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Communications Lessons from Mark McGwire and Richard Nixon

We've all seen TV "confessionals" as part of a media strategy: Bill Clinton's, A-Rod's, Mark Sanford, Jim Bakker, et al. Now comes Mark McGwire's all-out media blitz Monday in which he admitted using steroids to enhance his game.

Since the dawn of the TV age (and probably earlier, but I'm lazy to do the proper research), the idiot box has been viewed as a useful platform for addressing concerns, silencing critics, apologizing for wrongdoing, etc.

Richard M. Nixon famously used the then new medium (the "Checkers" story) to dispel corruption rumors and build public support that would force Eisenhower to keep him on the ticket.

Recently we saw South Carolina governor Mark Sanford attempt to use TV to very publicly get a handle on a messy personal life. First, he held a press conference to talk about how he lied about going hiking, but was with his mistress in Argentina, then he (mistakenly) KEPT going on TV to ramble on about his misdoings and have a meltdown.

The difference here, now, with a case like Mark McGwire, is that it's all being VERY carefully stage-managed (WHO or what was in control of Sanford?). As the New York Times notes in a great, behind-the-curtain story (a piece that was surely managed by the McGwire PR team) about the PR strategy:

The one-day plan — coordinated over the past month by Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who runs a crisis-communications company, and the St. Louis Cardinals, who recently hired McGwire as their batting coach — contrasts with last year’s roll-out of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid admission.

In this case, it looks like maybe the strategy will work. Why? EVERYONE has known forever that McGwire used steroids. So the "news" that he is admitting it is NOT a big deal. There is no "wow" factor here. He was properly coached to be very contrite and emotional about the admission.

But the pitfalls lie along the road of contrition: He COVERED up wrongdoing. It's not the crime that gets you but the obfuscation.
Nixon stands as a interesting example of a communications strategist and what he did/or could have done. There is a great quote from the Oliver Stone film "Nixon" that sheds light on crisis communications and the art of public confessionals:

H. R. Haldeman: Eight words back in '72. 'I covered up. I was wrong. I'm sorry'. The American public would have forgiven him. But we never opened our mouths, John. We failed him.

Since we all knew McGwire did steroids, that aspect doesn't much matter. Note the A-Rod example. We don't really care. Regardless of the Times saying that A-Rod's confessional was rolled-out differently, there are different factors here. A-Rod is a beloved Yankee. We can all get past it. He has built up (and continues to increase) his personal capital with the public over the years and we can forgive him.

Communications, marketing, branding, all things at work here -- all revolve around TRUST. Trust with the consumer, which in the case of sports is a BIG group: basically the entire audience who watches or cares about what Mark McGwire (and in some sense, baseball in general) is doing. Do we trust McGwire? Has he built up the trust capital with the public over the years? Is he a "beloved" figure?

The crisis communications approach at work here is about restoring and enhancing trust with stakeholders. The messages: Trust me, I fouled up, I'm sorry, I know it was wrong, I will never do this kind of bad thing again.

The trick has always been to say "I'm sorry" and do it quickly and earnestly. Mark McGwire has done it a little late in the game, but we'll see how this affects his own legacy.

Thanks for reading.
-Jonathan Gardner

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Apple Pwns a Category it Hasn't Yet Entered

Poor little old Microsoft. Do you remember them? They're a company that - wayyyy back - was considered "innovative," basically for stealing GUI ideas, etc. from Apple. They had a product called Windows 7 that they REALLY tried to make people care about. NOW, we know our Apple friends are probably going to announce a tablet/slate computing device (iSlate) or whatever. So, what do the ham-fisted over at Microsoft do? They announce today (at CES, a show that's beyond irrelevant at this point) a TABLET pc with partner HP (remember them? before they were known for only making generic printers and pcs?). It's basically a weak attempt to get their "me too's" and make some marketing noise before Apple steals everyone's thunder. On another point, isn't it interesting how a company like Microsoft is being seen as a "me too-er" for announcing a product BEFORE Apple (even allegedly) is going to market their own? This is a whole area worth delving into. The fact that Apple has now positioned itself to be the leader in categories it hasn't even yet entered. Or, at least pwns the "mind-space" (Apple pwns our mind grapes?) That's some brand!

There's a story on this at the Huffington Post (it's pretty amusing). The best part:

Tablet-style computers that run Windows have been available for a decade [ED: and NO ONE has cared. You had 10 years to do something!], but HP's new machine is bound to draw extra attention thanks to expectations that Apple Inc. will launch a similar device later this month.

Apple, notoriously secretive about upcoming products, has not commented on the matter. But given the iPhone's success, which propelled competitors to come out with copycat touch-screen phones and centralized "app" stores to sell add-on software, all eyes are on Apple to define what a slate or tablet-style computer should look like and how it will be used.
Anyway, go give it a read. Spend 5 minutes contemplating the great, bloated companies involved in this. Pretty soon they will be completely forgotten.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Great Chinese Social Media Challenge

An interesting post on the "year ahead" (yes, like me you are probably getting sick of year-end wrap up/year-ahead prediction pieces) in social media on Marketing Profs. One of the predictions posits the possibility that one of China's top social networking sites, such as QZone, will make a play for U.S. audiences.

5. The year of the Chinese social network
We talk about Facebook’s China strategy, but what about QZone’s American strategy? The Chinese social network QZone is by some counts (though the data is a mess) larger than Facebook. They are more innovative about monetizing traffic. It is not far-fetched to imagine QZone launching a play in the U.S. And you can bet you’d be reading a flood of articles and blog posts imploring you to open your QZone accounts. There are 112 million Chinese who manage an active social profile, vs. under 60 million Americans. At some point, we may well be taking our social networking cues from Shanghai, not Silicon Valley.

While this is a nice idea, I really don't see this happening for a very long time (if ever). Here are some reasons:

1. The user experience and expectations of a Chinese audience is VASTLY different from what we expect in the U.S. For a test, try for yourself. Play with Yahoo China and Yahoo Taiwan for a little while. Then go back home and look at Yahoo U.S. Notice the differences? The Chinese sites are rambunctious, and let's say "noisy" to say the least. Chinese consumers are used to being stalked by advertisers and inundated with commercial noise. This doesn't play with a U.S. audience.

2. Do you have any friends on Facebook based in Greater China? Take a look at their status updates, what they are "fans" of, the pics they post and the games they are playing. There's a lot of astrology, fortune-telling, love story and posing with food. Chinese users (especially those in Taiwan) have taken to Facebook in HUGE numbers very recently. Why? Chinese developers created apps and games that appeal STRICTLY to the local audience. Spend enough time exploring this and you'll see that these users have created basically a parallel world or ghetto within Facebook proper. There's not a lot of Mafia Wars and joining causes in this universe, it's more "tending to your aquarium."

3. Has there EVER been a non-product-related Chinese brand success in the U.S.? There have been few Chinese brands that have even "made it" on these shores, perhaps Haier (Chinese white goods),  HTC (Taiwan mobile phone OEM), and Acer/Asus (Taiwan netbooks). Content or "soft" products and services? OK, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was a success. How about a China-created user experience/online company? Can you name any? Why would this be? It will most likely be a LONG time before Chinese content/service companies are in an economy that is mature enough to support the development of leading global brands. And, as the MANY missteps by Google, Myspace, Yahoo, et al, in Asia show, it is VERY HARD to build a global platform that can catch on like wildfire regardless of cultural roadblocks/preferences.

We live in an open society and have created some unique online/social experiences that with a lot of work can make some waves overseas. The restrictions on content/access, etc. in China are a huge burden for companies doing business there; conversely, a Chinese company doing business in the U.S. will come from that mindset, presenting challenges.

If a Chinese company, such as QZone, want to make headway in the U.S., they will be smart to take a few lessons from the pages of Facebook and A. Open their platform to U.S. developers; B. Open local development/sales offices; C. Encourage the "foreigners" here in the U.S. to create organic "societies" much like the Chinese ghettos on Facebook, and; D. Don't even think of trying to restrict content.

Thanks for reading.

The Nexus of Nexus One Wrap-Ups

The folks over at PR Newser have a really good summation of the major PR push that was the Google Nexus One Android phone launch.

The recap has one curious bit, it says: "Google's PR peeps didn't go through the trouble of web-streaming their own news conference, while arranging for on-site attendees to record wirelessly, to ensure optimal site lines and audio."

This is a bit odd. I watched some of the streaming news conference on Ustream which has become a powerful tool in communications. The Ustream feed was streamed by someone else. So the question is, why didn't Google stream it themselves?

Perhaps, the thinking was that there is nothing to HIDE so why not let someone else take charge of getting the message out and "owning" it on Ustream? I'm a big fan of companies taking ownership of their message and controlling their own media. Ustream is a great way to do this. But with all the platforms that Google already owns (such as Youtube), it IS interesting that they let someone else do this.

Anyway, the PR Newser piece is a great layman's case study of one event in our consciousness and the communications strategy behind it. Looks like the battle with Apple and the iPhone mafia is ON.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Wherefore art thou, Weber Shandwick Korea?

A few months ago, Weber Shandwick (not sandwich, SHANDWICK) made a "pledge" to open an office in Korea before they end of the year (2009). You can read about their promise (now broken) here. For whatever reason, they have never had a presence in one of Asia's biggest markets. Realizing their misguided strategy, they poached a guy named Tyler Kim from Edelman Korea. Tyler's a good PR guy but maybe this assignment was too much for him? Or was it too difficult for Weber Shandwick to handle? They have NOT been doing too well in Asia recently, that's for sure.

Anyway, they made this pledge more four months ago and yet, they still have no Korea office listed on their website, only an "affiliate" (In marketing-speak this is a local office that you farm work out to because you are too cheap or poorly managed to have an office there. You tell your clients, "sure, we have a great local team" when you've probably never even met them and have no idea of their competency or lack thereof). Based on experience, it is REALLY not that hard to get at least a small presence up and running within a few months. Perhaps this doesn't bode well for them.

In the marketing game we believe in something (maybe there are other things, but this one I'm sure of): under-promise, over-deliver. It means, for example, you say "we'll have our Korea office open within 6 months or so" and then you have it open in 5 months and everyone is like "wow, they did better than expected." This is why (et al) tells you the stuff you ordered will arrive in 7 days and they get it to you in 3 days. They know it will impress you, it will make you happy. There is only backlash if you do the opposite: over-promise, under-deliver. If had said you'll get it in 3 days but it takes 7 days, you'll be pissed off. If a PR company says they'll be open by the end of they year, and they're not, people start to question their integrity and their ability to deliver.

HOW is a prospective client of Weber Shandwick Korea to believe ANYTHING they say? Looks like they need some lessons in the basics. Remember guys, UNDER-promise, OK?

Thanks for reading.

PR Firms Gone Wild: Ethical Lapses Oveseas

This may be an incongruous-sounding topic: PR firms and ethics. Before you say "wait a minute, that's like military intelligence, fer chrissakess," hear me out. The large PR firms (Edelman, Hill & Knowlton, Burson Marsteller, Weber Shandwick, et al.) spend MUCH time these days talking about how ethical and transparent they are. They all throw lots of info up on their websites about how ethical they are. They make lots of sounds about "building trust" and all that hoo ha. AND THIS IS what they tell their clients to do. CSR, transparency, all that hoo ha!

The PR guys REALLY dedicate lots of effort to this after they get caught in a MAJOR ethical lapse, such as Edelman with the Wal Mart fake blog thing.

ANYWAY, they SAY they believe in the "highest standards" and ethical b.s. HOWEVER, based on my experience, they fall very short on this front OVERSEAS. It's as if once outside the confines and borders of the U.S., these firms and their minions go wild.

The big firms, and many others (in PR, marketing, advertising, etc.) have EXTENSIVE operations in Asia. It was there that I had experience working in a senior-level capacity with them. It was SHOCKING how little attention was paid to acting ethically (or simply appropriately) in Asia, while the HQ and leadership back home would pay lip-service to acting responsibly, transparently or (insert meaningless "value" here). While I'm not sure if these firms are violating the letter of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, they may be acting without regard to the SPIRIT of the law governing the behavior of American firms overseas.

The following are some examples witnessed of bad behavior by PR firms overseas. I'll leave it up to you to judge whether the situation described was unethical, immoral, distasteful, or simply just inept:

1. Making an under-the-table cash payment to officials of a state-owned internet service provider in China. This was to keep service "running" on behalf of a major U.S. beverage manufacturer doing an event there.

2. Making payments to a "middleman" to arrange meetings with the top officials of a state-owned company. It was understood that some of these funds would go in the pockets of the officials.

3. A manager at an Asian office of a U.S. PR company created a hostile work environment, akin to something out of the Tailhook scandal. The regional leadership was made aware of the situation through written communications and did nothing about it, save promoting the individual. In this case at least,  the inept regional head was eventually replaced.

4. A supervisor at the overseas office of a U.S. PR firm channeled a contract to build a website for a client (a tourism bureau) to a family member.

5. The CEO of one of the largest U.S. PR firms was asked about a recent article about corrupt media practices in China. The CEO avoided the question. Leadership of the company (heads of Asia offices for the firm) strongly criticized the questioner for bringing this up. Much like the Wizard of Oz, they didn't want the curtain pulled back.

6. U.S. PR firms routinely provide "taxi money" to journalists in China and other countries, in exchange for attendance at press conferences, briefings and other events. These envelopes of up to US$200 are ostensibly for covering "transportation."

These are but a few examples. It is interesting to try and understand WHY this happens.

There is to some degree an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude among the HQ leadership at these companies. As long as the overseas regions continue to deliver results, they are pretty much left on their own. While for most firms, Asia-Pacific only delivers 8%-12% of global revenues, their operating margins are high (due to lower labor costs, etc.). MANY firms, not just PR firms, function this way. "Just deliver, don't cause a major scandal, and carry on."

Some of these Asia offices are run by long-term expats. Many of these folks are Brits/Aussies who have been in Asia FOREVER and have gone "tropo" (as the Aussies like to say) or have "gone local." The local markets often have few or any ethical standards for PR firm/corporate behavior, let alone ANYTHING resembling U.S.-style workplace harassment rules. It can be very tempting for a foreign boss, given a fiefdom in a far-off land, to act like an emperor. Just think of the line from Apocalypse Now: "Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be god."

At the same time, there is also a lot of pressure among the local office leaders to JUST DELIVER. Get revenue, build the pipeline. If you are a foreign manager or a local who is running a country or city office, this is your NUMBER ONE concern. How much are you really going to be thinking about ethics when your regional president is screaming at you to increase your revenue?

We'll continue to explore this issue further. Feel free to share your examples of PR firms gone wild.
Thanks for reading.