Of all my teachers at Christopher Columbus Junior High School in Canoga Park, California, one of the two I remember most vividly is Miss Chernowsky. She taught art. A tall, stern-looking woman who reminded me of Margaret Hamilton (who played the wicked witch of the west in "The Wizard of Oz"), Miss Chernowsky told me on the first day of class that she expected me to be trouble. I don't remember why, but I must have mouthed off or been disruptive or fallen asleep or something. In any case, I was terrified of Miss Chernowsky for a few days, until her instruction inspired me and I began turning in work that she liked. By the end of the semester, we were getting along fine.
The recollection of this tale is a long way of getting around to the idea that sometimes people get off on the wrong foot. In some cases, that leads to a lifetime of acrimony. Other times, these people have an opportunity to put the right foot forward and the acrimony becomes a distant memory.
Amanda Chapel and I got off on the wrong foot. Lately, though, we've had the opportunity to exchange several emails that have been congenial, friendly, and constructive. We've had a couple encounters in Second Life -- or, at least, our avatars have -- and that also has helped us find common ground. Now, Amanda has asked to lead an effort among PR professionals to author a "week in review" of Strumpette.
To be perfectly frank, I'm a bit worried about this. Not because Amanda, mind you, but because of my schedule. I've barely contributed to my own blog in the last few weeks. But I want to keep moving the best foot forward. So I'll do the best I can. I'll employ the guideline of brevity as a virtue and reach out to some of my colleagues who may want to contribute to the effort.
In any case, thanks, Amanda, for the opportunity.
Marketing Isn't PR
Two themes arose from my reading of the last week's worth of Strumpette posts, including those by Amanda and by guest columnists/bloggers. One is that the concept of public relations isn't very well understood. The other is that we in the profession usually have nobody but ourselves to blame for the perceptions ascribed to us.
Phil Hall was the first to cause my eyebrow to lift when I read his piece about the next level beyond product placement: Producing your own movie or TV show. Phil's right; this is old news. I remember long before I went to work for Mattel in the mid-1980s, my son was watching a half-hour animated TV series called "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe." I also knew Mattel produced toys of the same name. I assumed the TV series had spawned the toys until I read about the objections of an activist group that labeled the show a 30-minute commercial. It turns out Mattel was behind the series. At that point, I didn't care. My wife and I had already watched a couple episodes to make sure it was okay for our son. It was inoffensive and always made a valuable point for kids to learn. Whether the chicken came first or the egg didn't matter.
After joining Mattel, I found out this was a common practice in the toy industry. Remember Thundercats? Transformers? (That one's back as a big-budget special effects movie.)
So I'm right on board with just about everything Phil said, although I'm growing skeptical about the value of product placement. People are already getting inured to it. The problem I had with Phil's piece was right at the top, where he wrote, "It’s one thing to gain PR points via product placement..."
See, that's not PR. That's marketing. They're two different animals. You pay for product placement, just as you pay to have a 30-second spot aired or a double-truck advertising spread to be printed in a high-gloss magazine. You earn PR. In fact, my favorite definition of public relations comes from the Institute for Public Relations: "A deliberate, planned, and sustained effort to institute and maintain mutual understanding between an organization and its publics."
The Blurring of the Lines
Here's the problem: Most of the firms that are considered public relations agencies are actually communications agencies. They have PR practices but they also have marketing practices along with a host of others, ranging from branding to promotions. As if that's not confusing enough, the line is blurring thanks to the advent of social media. The principles behind solid public relations aren't changing, but the methods used to achieve PR goals most certainly are. It's confusing as hell, and we, as a profession, aren't doing much to clear it up. That's why the recent idiocy in Boston with promotional light boards that looked like improvised explosive devices leading to traffic snarls and public panic was dubbed a "PR stunt."
It also doesn't help our reputation when we behave in ethically challenged ways. It doesn't matter whether that behavior is born of timidity or the quest for a buck. It all leads down the same path.
Ethics Above All
Amanda wrote about 5WPR winning the "Girls Gone Wild" account. I congratulate Ronn Torrosian for the win -- winning any account takes hard work and perseverance, and I'm sure he earned it. On the other hand, there are certain accounts I wouldn't touch with (as my British colleague Neville Hobson would say) with a barge pole. This is one of them. Tobacco companies are another. In a profession that knows better than any other that perception is reality, the perception is that we're happy to sell cancer and pornography as long as it helps us meet our billable hourly targets.
And in a profession that is so damned visible, it doesn't matter that plenty of agencies and practitioners honor codes that preclude their accepting such accounts. We're all painted with the same brush.
And Eric Dezenhall points out another PR behavior that doesn't help our image. We're too timid to suggest companies do the right thing, particularly when the right thing means simply apologizing. We use weasel words like "We regret any inconvenience your experience with our company may have caused you" instead of what we should say, which is, "What happened to you sucks and we're really, really sorry."
(Of course, the lawyers usually have a hand in this, noting that an apology can be construed as an admission of guilt which can lead to liability. Well, um, yeah. The question, though, is whether a human admission that we fucked up can produce goodwill and reputation worth far more than a payment costs. Well, thank God there's a profession with a reputation worse than ours.)
The Real Deal
None of which means that everybody views PR as something lower than a crack-dealing pedophile. I am sick and weary of hearing everybody parrot the complaint that management won't give PR a seat at the management table. It just ain't true. Plenty of senior PR practitioners have seats at plenty of management tables. Of course, they're not the ones doing the whining. They got to the management table by providing measurable value to their organizations and clients, by helping their clients and bosses sleep better at night, by genuinely (as the definition suggests) maintaining mutual understanding between an organization and its publics. Let's face it. If your idea of PR is cranking out a crappy press release with made-up executive quotes and no news just so your client can get a little ink, then you don't deserve a seat at the management table.
Okay, so that wasn't brief and I rambled. But I covered most of last week's Strumpette posts and I can summarize the whole mess this way:
The line between PR and other communication disciplines is blurring. It's up to public relations practitioners to know where to draw the line, to behave ethically, to counsel companies to do the right thing, and to use our skills and the tools available to us -- including the new ones in the social media space that aren't going anywhere -- to establish solid relationships with our publics, to contribute to bottom-line business goals, and to help our clients and bosses sleep better at night.
Until next week...
Shel Holtz, vice president of new marketing for crayon and co-host of the For Immediate Release. Shel has nearly 30 years of experience in organizational communications. He is the author of four communications-related books, including "Blogging for Business;” and is a regular on the communication speaking circuit. He is accredited by the International Association of Business Communicators, and is the recipient of five IABC international Gold Quill awards for communication excellence. In 2005, IABC named Shel a Fellow — the association's highest honor.
It’s one thing to gain PR points via product placement in motion pictures or TV shows. But it’s quite another feat to create a movie or television show.
This is not a very common strategy, but thanks to the development of low-cost digital video equipment and the surplus of academic outlets teaching video production, PR professionals with a flair for the theatrical are able to pick up a camera and start shooting their own productions.
There is a noble history to this. Consider the 1948 feature “Louisiana Story.” Most people know this is the last movie directed by Robert Flaherty, the father of documentary filmmaking. It is also common knowledge that “Louisiana Story” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Story, was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music (Virgil Thomson’s composition is the only film score to receive that honor).
What most people don’t know, however, was that “Louisiana Story” was produced by Standard Oil. Yes, that’s a company that rarely enjoyed positive PR. But with “Louisiana Story,” Standard Oil commissioned a feature film that played up the pro-development aspects of oil exploration in the Louisiana Bayou.
Johnson Wax took this challenge one better with its 1964 documentary “To Be Alive!” Designed to be a celebration of the world’s many cultures and the common bonds shared among peoples in all corners of the globe, “To Be Alive!” premiered at the Johnson Wax Pavilion at the New York’s World Fair (it was presented on three 18-foot screens) and won a special award from the New York Film Critics Circle, the first time a non-theatrical presentation was so honored by that celebrated organization. The next year, the film played in Hollywood and it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.
“To Be Alive!” is still playing – at SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. The SC Johnson Golden Rondelle Theater presents the film in its original three-screen version. It reportedly still brings in visitors (no mean feat, considering the lack of tourist attractions in Racine, Wisconsin!).
Today, lower-cost video camera equipment is enabling PR professionals to make their own films. One of the most notable examples is Novo Nordisk’s documentary “Peaks and Poles: The Will Cross Story.” The film focuses on the Pittsburgh mountaineer who became the first person with diabetes to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents and trek to the North and South Poles.
Novo Nordisk, a healthcare company that sponsored Cross, did not release the film theatrically. Instead, it used it for promotional and marketing purposes (it is available in DVD format as a 20-minute and 47-minute production). Copies of the DVD have been distributed to diabetes organizations, healthcare professionals, individuals living with diabetes, and members of the company’s international sales force.
Equally impressive is the four-part serial “Phished” created by the Night Agency in New York for webcast on Symantec’s Safetytown microsite. “Phished” follows the misadventures of an average Joe who discovers that his financial data has been stolen via the Net (or, in cybertalk, phished). Rather than sitting around waiting for outsiders to help solve his problems, this crime victim turns crime fighter in trying to hunt down and bring to justice the miscreants who hooked his information.
Although it is sponsored by Symantec, the anti-virus software company, “Phished” is not a commercial for the company or its product line. If anything, it is a stylish and entertaining production that approaches the serious subject of identity theft with uncommon originality. Scott Cohn, a creative director at the Night Agency, wrote and directed “Phished” (the agency also built the Safetytown web site and coordinated an online PR campaign, thus scoring a triple play with this project).
And that’s where the power and viability of D.I.Y. film and video production works: when the production transcends the inevitable PR hunger to sell-sell-sell.
In the fall of 2006, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (better known as Freddie Mac) wanted to increase the level of homeownership among Hispanics. So Freddie Mac’s creative team created a Spanish language TV novela exploring issues of homeownership. Promising a production where “hot storylines meet meaningful messages” (that’s Freddie Mac’s language, not mine!), the 13-episode “Nuestro Barrio” follows the married nightclub owners Manuel and Marisol in their pursuit of the American dream house. Several independently-owned TV stations in markets with large Hispanic communities broadcast “Nuestro Barrio” as a mini-series.
The ability of Freddie Mac to get this program on the air as a regular series and not as an infomercial is commendable. It is still currently being broadcast via local stations, and it is also being made available to mortgage lenders on DVD as a promotional product.
Plus, the notion of marketing something as serious as homeownership within the oversexed, campy melodrama of a novela is fun – and how often do the words “mortgage” and “fun” wind up in the same sentence?
The D.I.Y. nature of online video is also being tapped into. Another financial services, giant, ING Direct, tapped into this realm in the fall of 2006. The company launched the web site www.MoveOutMoveUp.com with a series of comic video clips showing sitcom-worthy hassles involved in renting while playing up the nirvana of homeownership – via the company’s subsidiary Orange Mortgage.
From a PR standpoint, ING Direct’s use of low comedy is refreshing – particularly the episode “Tea with Grandma,” where the visit of a visiting grandmother is disrupted by the excessively passionate acrobatics of the neighbors on the other side of the thin apartment walls. The company also discovered the joys of viral video distribution, as its clips have turned up on YouTube, Yahoo! Video and other online venues.
Of course, not every in-house production is going to win an Oscar or wind up on the National Film Registry. But the truly creative PR person cannot rely on old-fashioned press releases to get the word out and connect with audiences. At a time when it is too easy to make films and videos, it should be incumbent upon all PR professionals to channel their inner Orson Welles and grab a camera.
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book "The New PR" will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)
On Thursday, March 8, 2007 at 7:41 AM, Ronn Torossian, President and CEO of 5WPR, emphatically promised that he was going to sue us. No real reason, he was just irritated by our teasing him about getting in bed with pornographer Joe Francis. Anyway, Ronn gave his obscenity-laced word that we'd see the complaint in 72 hours. It's now late by
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