BLOGS: Wag The Dog

Monday, September 14, 2009, 9:55 AM

Monday's quick reads: Wal Mart, Obama, and bad PR pitches

1.) "People of Walmart" blog can't, and shouldn't, be stopped by Walmart (Ad Age) -- People of Walmart is a new blog that lets people upload, rate and comment on photos of oddly dressed people seen shopping at Walmart. And it would seem there's not a thing Walmart can -- or should -- do about it.

2.) Media pitching cardinal sins to avoid (The Bulldog) -- "Great PR people turn themselves into sources, rather than gatekeepers," says Josef Adalian, television editor for TheWrap.com, a news site focused on the business of entertainment and media. "If a PR person is a possible source for a scoop, rather than someone who is there to confirm or deny information, then that PR person is suddenly a lot more important in our world."

3.) What Obama is learning from Facebook, Google, and Ideo (Wired) -- When Barack Obama hired John Berry to head his Office of Personnel Management earlier this year, the president did not mince words. “John, we’ve got to make it cool again,” Obama said to his new hire. Many of the nation’s brightest graduates are snapped up by tech startups claiming to offer not only high compensation but the feeling of being part of something exciting — not to mention such perks as meals by gourmet chefs, exercise and laundry facilities, haircuts, massages and other amenities designed to smooth the transition from college to adulthood while instilling a sense of loyalty.

4.) PR firm hired to amplify anger over rate hikes (The Columbus Dispatch) -- Officials from seven Franklin County townships are so burned by a private water company's plan to hike rates by 55 percent that they've hired a public-relations firm to shame the company. It worked in Tennessee. "If this increase goes through, it will devastate these communities," Prairie Township Trustee Steve Kennedy said. "Our best bet is to bring in professional help."

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Friday, September 11, 2009, 12:40 PM

How the Redskins failed the headline test

(Image credit: The Washington Post)
This column was first published in The Maryland Daily Record on Friday, September 11, 2009.

By Henry Fawell
Special to The Daily Record

Sports teams spend plenty of time in the headlines, but usually not for the reasons that landed the Washington Redskins in the press last week.

The Redskins’ decision to sue their fans – and the resulting media and public firestorm – should serve as a cautionary tale for the business community about the importance of public relations.

The lesson? Just because your company has license to do something, doesn’t mean it should. The Redskins learned this lesson the hard way. Here’s how:

Forty miles south of Baltimore, the world’s third-wealthiest sports franchise sued Pat Hill (pictured), a 72-year-old grandmother, for breach of contract last year because she couldn’t pay for her multi-year season ticket agreement.

The Redskins won easily in the court. Ms. Hill was required to pay the team $66,000 to cover the ticket prices, interest, and the team’s legal costs. The judgment pushed Ms. Hill to the brink of bankruptcy.

They won … or did they?

Despite winning in the court of law, the Redskins would pay dearly in the court of public opinion.

The Washington Post ran a front-page, top-fold exposé on the lawsuit last week, complete with a photo of a teary-eyed Ms. Hill in her home surrounded by memorabilia of her beloved team.

The article infuriated fans and opinion leaders alike. One sports columnist wrote that the team’s actions “[spoke] to a basic lack of civility that’s shocking, even now when shock value is difficult to achieve.”

Within 24 hours, the Redskins capitulated. Ms. Hill would no longer owe them $66,000. She would be relieved of her contractual obligations.

Here’s the PR lesson: Was Ms. Hill in violation of her contract? Yes. Did the Redskins have a legal case against her? Absolutely. Does that make for smart public relations? Of course not.

Front-page news can hurt

The Redskins failed what PR professionals call the Headline Test.

The test requires that you consider not just whether a particular company practice is legal or routine, but rather how your stakeholders would react if that policy were splashed across the front page of the newspaper.

Unfortunately, too many companies fail to consider public opinion when adopting polices that, in management’s view, seem just fine.

Sports teams aren’t the only ones failing the Headline Test. Longtime Baltimoreans will remember when Sony, the multibillion-dollar electronics corporation, slapped Sony Florendo, the owner of a modest Filipino restaurant, with a $3 million infringement lawsuit because she named her restaurant after herself.

Strong legal argument? Perhaps. Bad public relations? You bet.

Let’s also not forget U.S. automakers, who incited the wrath of Congress last year by flying corporate jets to Washington to beg for money. The plush jets were standard company practice until they were subjected to the Headline Test.

Consider Time-Warner. The media company was forced to shelve plans to charge customers tier-pricing for Internet service in North Carolina after a public uproar and congressional inquiry. Perfectly legal policy, but terrible public relations.

And of course, AIG sparked outrage for handing out $450 million in bonuses after taxpayers had forked over billions of dollars to keep the company afloat.

The common thread

What’s the common thread? Each company was following a routine business practice. They just didn’t account for how those practices would be received when subjected to the Headline Test.

So what’s the solution? Give your public relations team greater input on how company policies would be perceived by customers, investors, board members and reporters.

If you’re hiring a PR adviser simply to crank out press releases, you’re not really getting your money’s worth. Trust them to be forward-thinking and to steer your company clear of potentially disastrous public relations crises.

To paraphrase Ben Franklin, an ounce of PR prevention is worth a pound of cure.

If your company took the Headline Test today, would it pass or would it fail? What “routine” company policy would spark uproar among your stakeholders if it became public?

Now is the time for executives to sit down with their public relations team, think hard about their company’s version of lawsuits against Granny and corporate jets, and take the Headline Test. You may be surprised at what you find.

Henry Fawell is a communications consultant for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC in Baltimore and was press secretary for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His column appears monthly, and his e-mail address is henry.fawell@wcsr.com

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009, 3:08 PM

Tuesday's quick reads: Harvard, UBS, and Climate Change

1.) Harvard backs off media policy (The New York Times) -- Harvard Medical School is backing off a new student policy that would have restricted interaction with the news media after students complained it would chill their ability to talk about current issues in medicine, school officials said Tuesday.

2.) The close relationship between bloggers and marketers (Emarketer) -- Blogging has become a major social media marketing phenomenon over the years—so much so that even the US Federal Trade Commission is considering rules for bloggers to follow when working with marketers. Worldwide research from Text 100 shows just how close that relationship has become.

3.) UBS CEO to employees: Regaining trust will take time (The Wall Street Journal) -- UBS AG's organizational and operational restructuring is on track, but the Swiss bank's efforts to renew client trust will require long and hard work, Chief Executive Oswald Grübel warned. In a memo sent Tuesday to the bank's more than 70,000 staff, Mr. Grübel said that "returning the group to profitability will only be the beginning." He warned that "the recovery of our reputation will require hard work and relentless effort."

4.) Energy bill proponents prepare counter attack (Business Week) -- Even as the health-care fight dominates the headlines, another Washington battle is heating up over climate and energy. Opponents of cap and trade legislation like the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have mounted an expensive campaign of ads and rallies to try to win over key Senators.

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Friday, September 4, 2009, 3:40 PM

Pictures speak a thousand words

(Credit: Associated Press)
Legislators in Connecticut were reminded this week of an important lesson in communications: it's not just what you say, it's what people see and hear.

The Associated Press snapped this embarrassing photo of two legislators playing solitaire and another scanning the sports page online during high-stakes budget debates. The photo has sparked days of controversy in Connecticut and garnered national cable TV attention.

Fueling the taxpayers ire was the fact that legislators were debating substantial tax increases and budget cuts to key services at the time. Naturally, the perception that elected leaders are tuned out during such a debate is not a good one. The fact all three legislators are declining comment days later doesn't help either.

It's not the first time someone has let their guard down at the wrong time. Recall our previous post about Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. The lesson? Effective communication does not end with your prepared remarks. Smart communicators are always aware of their environment, particularly in an age where we are never quite alone in public. One inappropriate comment or action can be caught on a cell phone camera or "reported" on Twitter by a bystander. Like them or not, those are the new rules. If we want to avoid our own "solitaire" moment, we are best served to follow them.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009, 3:23 PM

Thursday's quick reads: Swine flu, clorox, and Intel

1.) Businesses that blog see 55% more visitors (Social Media Business Council) -- A recent study by HubSpot using data from their 1,531 customers (comprised of both small and medium-sized businesses) found that companies that blogged had far better marketing results.

2.) Clorox, Lysol marketing messages compounded by swine flu fears (Ad Age) -- A second wave of media coverage around outbreaks of the H1N1 virus is driving new opportunities for back-to-school marketing by brands not typically associated with the season.

3.) Recession prompts MARTA to spend on image (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) -- In the midst of long-running financial problems, fare hikes, service cuts and the worst economic downturn in a generation, MARTA is doing some high-level hiring to beef up its image. Money-starved MARTA may spend up to $592,000 on outside help in lobbying and public relations, according to agency documents and officials. The money would come from MARTA’s operating budget, which is particularly pinched.

4.) How Intel is making its press releases more social (Social Media Business Council) -- Intel’s “Press Room” has taken the traditional press page found on most corporate sites and overhauled it with lots of social media elements, including real-time Twitter feeds, external links to Facebook, and links to audio, video, and Intel’s blogs.

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