Public Relations ‘Professionals’ : The Damage Done

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

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Some of the PR people out there may have noticed that I’m not returning their calls. If they want to know why, they need only look at the recent issues of their favourite magazines. They’ll notice that these publications are markedly thinner than they were two years ago, six months ago. This is what happens when magazines lose the support of those who need them. We can no longer blame 9/11; the Canadian economy is healthy. I place the blame squarely with the Public Relations industry.

There’s a company in Western Canada that provides firms with short-term marketing and advertising personnel. Blitz is the perfect advertising vehicle for this firm. Its president, an MBA and years of marketing experience, was about to sign a one-year contract with Blitz. Then he called to say that he had changed his mind, and had entrusted his entire marketing budget to a PR consultant. The PR consultant is sucking up a good portion of that budget in fees, is industriously spitting out news releases and has placed all of his client’s allocated advertising dollars into the sponsorship of golf tournaments. ‘Strange, and dumb, but true.

I start getting said releases. Aside from the fact that they’re replete with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re irrelevant. Do I care that this company is sponsoring golf tournaments? No—it doesn’t fit my editorial mandate. But the consultant doesn’t know that because he didn’t do his homework. He can’t write, he’s lazy and he’s sabotaging a firm that had great potential but which, I now believe, will not be around for long.

(My favourite is the Web marketing thing. People channel their marketing dollars into developing their websites. They pay PR firms to send out endless news releases announcing their new sites. Then, instead of advertising the sites, they sit and wait for Net surfers to stumble upon them.)

There’s much talk these days about ROI, which everyone wants. Lately, the word is that advertising isn’t bringing in ROI. But, despite what people say, ROI is very difficult to measure. Media buyers look at numbers of people reached, who those people are and the costs to reach those people—they don’t demand guarantees that the advertising will work, because they know better. What advertising does is keep a company’s name and services in people’s faces. It supports all other sales and marketing efforts. It’s not the magic bullet for increasing business—it’s the gun.

Last week, a certified PR professional said to me: “We provide tangible ROI—the evidence is in the write-ups our clients get in newspapers and magazines, or radio mentions, or whatever.”

Or whatever. It’s illogical, and foolish, to assume that mentions in the media will bring increased business. There’s no guarantee that an editor will do more than glance at a news release. If a release piques interest, there’s no guarantee that the release will culminate in a positive story—it could end up sparking a career-ending expose. And so what if your company gets a positive media mention? Is that going to send consumers scrambling for your product? Of course not.

PR people are great persuaders. But those who sell PR as a solution, rather than as a small part of an overall communications strategy, are doing huge damage. They’re not bringing their clients closer to ROI nirvana. They’re wasting tons of money, they’re hurting their clients’ long-term prospects and they’re damaging the media properties that cannot stay in business without advertising dollars—plus all the designers, writers, producers etc., that rely on those media properties.

If PR ‘professionals’ continue to divert dollars into their own pockets, and away from advertising vehicles, they’re not going to have any media properties to contact. They can send out all the news releases they like, but there will be no magazine editors left to read them.

 

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On the Bad Business of Selling Editorial

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

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We’re all familiar with the practice of selling editorial. It’s nauseatingly common. Blitz does not engage in this practice. Why? Because everyone can tell when editorial is paid for and, once they realize that, that piece of editorial has no credibility. Then everything else in the magazine has no credibility. No one wants to read a magazine that has no credibility. And, since advertisers want their ads read by the magazine’s audience, there’s no point in advertising in a magazine that no one believes and/or reads. Forget journalist ethics—selling editorial is bad business.

I speak of magazines because (call me naive) I tend to think that newspapers aren’t as easily swayed by outside interests. There are many instances of editors and columnists going ‘too far’ and consequently having to apologise (on the insistence of their publishers) to representatives of ethnic groups, trade groups. But I like to think that these PR moves do not keep serious reporters from continuing to do what they should do, which is find the facts and truthfully and objectively report them.

My philosophy is: if it’s true, print it. If someone’s insulted, they’ll get over it. If a journalist reports on shenanigans at ABC Widgets, and ABC Widgets pulls its advertising, fine—it can find another way of reaching your valuable audience and other advertisers will be smart enough to stay with you because yours are the publications that people will read. Because they have credibility. Objectivity and fearlessness, therefore, are not only good for journalism. They are essential for the success of your publications.

Oh look. I seem to have slipped into saying ‘your’ and ‘publications’. I’ve somehow begun speaking to the Aspers, whose CanWest/Global Communications now owns the majority of Canada’s daily newspapers. What with the mess being created by media convergence and the negative ink that CanWest is getting over its convergence efforts, I have mixed feelings. This is a positive move for media buyers and sales reps. I think it’s a great idea to use CanWest journalists for cross-promotion. But I feel absolutely sick about the fact that CanWest, as a corporation, appears to intend to dictate the content of its newspapers.

The slope couldn’t be more slippery. CanWest is a huge company. Its owners (duh) could have corporate and personal financial interests in all sorts of conflicting areas.

What if a CanWest bigwig owns a large share of a pharmaceutical company and it releases a Wonder Dug—let’s say a cure for baldness. A Vancouver Sun journalist finds incontrovertible evidence that the drug attacks the liver. He does the story, head office finds out, the story’s yanked. No competing journalists find out about the problem. People take the drug, their hair grows, sales soar, profits rise. A year later, those customers are waiting for liver transplants and the other investors in the pharmaceutical company have lost their money.

What if the Aspers have a particular religious position?  Political position? Could this policy lead to the end of any reportage that goes against their grain? Of course it could. Should we care? Well, yeah. Every day, millions of us make decisions based on information taken from newspapers. If that information is tainted by the influence of private interests, our lives can be so tainted.

Should those in business care? Sure they should. Businesses of all types rely on print advertising—in most cases, a marketing plan without print advertising is no marketing plan. Further, because PR is often as important as advertising, businesses want their activities (well, most of them) reported in publications which are deemed to be legitimate.

Newspapers are integral to the smooth functioning of a society. But if people think that the material in their papers is inaccurate, incomplete or biased, the trust is gone. No trust, no credibility. No credibility, no readers. No readers, no advertisers. No advertisers, no newspapers.

It ain’t brain surgery. If you own newspapers, you leave your journalists alone. Your only communication with them should be your signature on their cheques and the order to ‘Find the Facts, Then Tell the Truth’. The worst that could happen is that your papers develop stellar reputations and your profits go up.

Cross-Burning, Cross-Border Oil & Celebrating Cruelty: A Bad Week for PR

Blitz Magazine, May 2001

In the last week, not once but three times, I’ve been gob-smacked. Dumbstruck. By PR disasters that leave me wondering what, if anything, public relations professionals are being taught. And, if they have any brains at all, why they’re not using them.

The first time was when I heard/watched BC Member of Parliament Hedy Fry tell fellow MPs, and the nation, that the practice of cross-burning was prevalent in Prince George, BC. (We now know that Fry invented the story and has trashed her career. Only her psychiatrist knows why.)

bush2The baffled Prince George mayor speculated that Fry might be thinking of another city (there’s a Prince George in Virginia). The region’s bemused RCMP boss suggested that, if someone was burning crosses, he would probably have heard about it.

The next instance of gob-smacking was care of George Bush. We know the guy’s an idiot, but I think everyone was kind of hoping that he could maybe tiptoe through the next four years with minimal damage and embarrassment. Alas…

Just after the Fry outburst, Dubya declared that a) he’s not interested in environmental protection and b) to solve the problem arising from the fact that America’s population has overwhelmed its resources, he’ll tap into the Northwest Territories’ oil and gas reserves. Oh?

It would be career suicide for any Canadian politician to agree to such a thing. So the issue will drag out for many years. By then, cars will run on electricity or compressed air (if there’s any air left) and Dubya will be a  bad memory. Still, the oil companies could send him up to negotiate with environmental groups and Canada’s aboriginal peoples. That would keep him busy, in a nice cool climate, for, oh, ten years or so.

bush1Not one day after Dubya left me speechless, I was gob-smacked again, when a local announcement had me, once again, saying ‘What the…?’ to my television.

The Vancouver Aquarium is no longer allowed to take whales from the wild. It can, however, capture dolphins. While this issue is being debated, the facility evidently though it needed some light-hearted PR. It launched a campaign celebrating its ‘Golden Girls’. In particular, one whale that has been in captivity for 30 years. Yippee.

Picture a baby girl. Your daughter, niece, sister. Snatched from her cradle and family. Caged. Taught to perform ridiculous tricks to amuse paying tourists. She matures in public, mates in public. When she produces a child, the birth is televised, people cheer, ‘Baby dies, but never mind. On her 30th birthday, her captors call her a Golden Girl and urge everyone to celebrate—and people teach their children that all of this is a good thing.

 

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(And no, the practice of keeping wild animals in captivity is not important for education—it’s a cruel hold-over from the Victorian Era. National Geographic videos, which can be bought, rented or borrowed, are way more educational.)

Massive PR gaffs, yes. But it must be remembered that, behind these gaffs, are people who are paid rather a lot of money to make sure that PR gaffs don’t happen. Public relations professionals are supposed to ‘control the message’, guide their clients, tell them what to say and, especially, what not to say. If they can’t control their clients, they’re at least supposed to make an effort. They don’t appear to be making much of an effort, not lately anyway.

bush4Whoever handles Hedy Fry should change careers. Whoever handles Bush should tighten his grip. And the aquarium’s PR people should focus on repositioning it as a strictly heal-and-release facility.

PR and publicity advisors should stop assuming that audiences are stupid. Some people may be too stunned to response immediately. Words and actions, little blurbs read, may not be reacted to, but they are stored away, perhaps sub-consciously. Eventually—often at election time, those memories will surface.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Bad Websites by the People Who Should Know Best

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Blitz Magazine, November 2006

I admit to an obsession with the Blitz mailing list. It has to be perfect and up-to-date. To achieve this, though, I have to spend endless hours surfing the Net. I’ve now visited thousands of web sites and the fact is that most are just plain awful. The surprise is that some of the worst offenders are ad agencies.

Let’s say that I’m a French manufacturer. I have decided to launch my product in Canada, and I need a Canadian agency. So I start surfing.

Site #1: The first thing I see is that this agency has the gall to greet me with the words ‘Patience Please’. This is followed by animation. Lots of it. I’m thinking:  When I want an animation company, I’ll look for one. Do I want to work with an agency that thinks nothing of wasting my time? Non.

Site #2:  No introduction. I’m right in. But, huh? Its homepage has light blue type on a yellow background. The next page has red type on a dark green background. I’d need a new prescription before I could read this stuff. Ciao.

Site #3:  Ease of access, easy to read, well organized. I read about the company’s service offerings and awards. Bon. Now I want to find out who’s running the show. After some searching, I find the name of the president. But that’s it. I can’t find the name of the creative director. The agency says it has a media department, a production department and PR expertise. But there’s no listing of names. It seems to me that this is a one-guy agency. If it is, non merci. If it isn’t, do I want to do business with someone who won’t reveal the names of his staff? Adieu.

Site #4: This is a full-service ad agency in Alberta. The site is easy to use and well-designed. I want to find out who the president is and click on ‘Who’s the Boss?’ I find this: “Our Lord Jesus is the Boss!” Mon Dieu!

Site #5: This agency’s site has a staff listing. And look! Employee pictures! But the agency couldn’t afford a professional photographer—the images are low-res and grainy. One employee didn’t bother to wash her hair that day; another is wearing a dirty shirt, another looks like he slept in his suit. One has submitted a baby picture. Sorry, but I’m looking for grown-ups who bathe regularly. Nettoyer.

Site #6: This one looks OK. I think I’ll contact this agency. Oh—in order to do that, I have to fill out a Needs Assessment Form. Fill out this.

Site #7: Oh this is nice. Looks professional. Tres bien. I will write to this agency, and send it some information on my company. But what’s this? No address! Do I want to do business with an agency that doesn’t tell people where it’s located? Non.

Site #8: This one looks good. But look at all this copy. Pages and pages of copy, all written by a PR person, who says everything and nothing and who wants to fully enlighten me on the elements of successful marketing. What’s with all this ‘outside the box’ and ‘synergy’ stuff? Au revoir.

Get the picture? If a company is in the business of supplying perfection for clients, and if said company would never dream of producing promotional material for itself that is anything less than perfect, why would it mess up what is, in this day and age, its most important marketing tool?

The same applies to other companies who should know better. The sites for many PR firms don’t include client lists. Photographers either don’t put any work on their sites, or they include every shot they’ve ever taken. Graphic designers often use so much visual gunk that you forget why you went to the site in the first place. And a lot of sites for web designers painfully illustrate that they are not, in fact, designers.

The problem, it seems to me, is that many people still haven’t wrapped their heads around what websites are for. Websites (e-comm sites excluded) are meant to put out, to a worldwide audience, the facts about a company and its activities. They are marketing tools and should, therefore, be clear, concise and easily accessible. And as I head back for another round of surfing, I’m wishing that people would quit with the bells and whistles, think about what their visitors actually want, and just get to the point already.