One of our favorite PR blogs recently did a piece on flack vs. public relations. The author’s definition of flack was “to provide publicity or engage in press-agentry.” While this definition is technically correct, flack, like another popular F-word, can also be used as a noun. My definition of a flack is a PR person who is willing to represent any company, no matter how despicable or someone for whom the truth is an irrelevant inconvenience.
Unfortunately, flacks are the reason that public relations professionals are often considered to be bottom-feeding lowlifes. What’s worse is that it has somehow become accepted that people like PR professionals, lawyers, politicians and others of their ilk can, do and SHOULD lie in order to be successful.
You need look no further than the recent DNC and RNC fibfests to know what I mean. A quick stroll through www.factcheck.org will provide example after example after example.
Perhaps the fact that people are now looking to each other as one of the most trusted sources of ideas, information and opinions is a sign that the general public has had enough of being constantly barraged with lies and half-truths. This gives high-integrity companies willing to do the right thing, be transparent and engage in a direct and honest dialog with its customers a huge competitive advantage. That same advantage extends to PR and marketing people who work within this framework. It can mean a harder road to travel, but the long-term payoff makes it worthwhile.
KoiFish Communications was founded to help companies that choose to put the needs of their customers, industries and communities first gain the recognition they deserve. By working exclusively with companies we can believe in wholeheartedly, we become authentic champions and evangelists for our clients. We feel good about helping them engage in a two-way dialog with key audiences because we know that the discussion has meaning and value to everyone involved. In addition, we’ll never be asked to compromise our own integrity and we will never have to be flacks. This is important us.
Everything I really needed to know about PR I learned when I was a kid
In public relations, it is always important to make a client’s news timely and interesting. The fact that the environment is an issue that is currently front and center with the news media is a good thing for one KoiFish Communications client in particular – StalkMarket. StalkMarket makes Earth-friendly disposable tableware, utensils and food packaging out of sustainable, biodegradable and compostable plant materials. Not surprisingly, the company and its products are steadily gaining in popularity.
One of the first posts on StalkMarket’s new blog talks about the topic of greenwashing. The Greenwashing Index defines greenwashing as something that occurs when a company or an organization spends more time and money claiming to be green through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. The problem with greenwashing is that it quickly leads to green fatigue – a situation where the meaning of the word green becomes so eroded by marketing hype that it ceases to be meaningful.
While this is of little concern for marketeers who can just move on to the next topic de jour, it is an issue for those companies that are actually trying to provide meaningful solutions to serious problems. For the people who are really trying to help save the planet, concern for the environment is a lifestyle, not a fad.
If this isn’t enough of an incentive to seek out new angles, consider this – the backlash against companies that are misrepresenting themselves as green has already begun. This is happening with organizations such as the Greenwashing Index. It is even starting to get mainstream media attention.
The bottom line is that for companies only genuinely interested in the color green as it pertains to money, the time has come to rethink messaging strategies. If you need some assistance in developing a fresh new story, Koifish Communications is always here to help. Please don’t hesitate to give us a call.
Greenwashing is more than a deception, it is bad for the environmental movement
I finally did it. I, a confirmed “hobby slut” decided to make a lifetime commitment to a single activity – cycling. That’s like asking Hugh Hefner to agree to make a lifetime commitment to one woman (as in it is hard to do and probably won’t actually happen). Regardless, I decided to mark the occasion by springing for a bicycle frame made just for me.
Living in Portland, Oregon, the bicycle capitol of the United States, I knew it wouldn’t be too tough to find someone who could help provide an introduction to my two-wheeled soul mate. Like a flash, I was off to River City Bicycles. Even in a town littered with bike shops, River City stands out. The staff doesn’t just sell bikes – they share their lifestyle with their customers. For example, Brian, the salesman whom I just happened to ask about custom bikes turns out to be a well-regarded local frame builder himself. And, while River city actually represents three custom bike brands, once Brian had an idea of what I wanted, he only recommended one – Seven. Not only that, he explained why the a carbon frame – which I was what I thought I wanted – wouldn’t be as good as titanium for my specific needs.
Phase II of the project was research. The first thing I did was call Seven directly to get an understanding of the process and to get their opinion on frame design, materials, etc. Not surprisingly, they matched Brian’s recommendations. I then scoured the Internet for press coverage and any customer feedback. There was plenty of both and the overwhelming majority of it was really good. Seven and a few of its competitors had even been written up in the New York Times.
I quickly learned a few important things. First, that Seven has a somewhat unique business model – the founder of the company has developed a system that enabled them to calculate the perfect frame geometry based on a specific set of measurements and an understanding of how the bike was to be used. He has been able to convert something that is considered an art to more of a science that can be applied repeatedly with great precision. This allows them to automate the process to some degree and gives them the ability to produce a large number of 100% custom products quickly and efficiently. I also learned that this fit system had been tested by one bike expert who purposely sent a few bogus measurements to try and throw them off and found that he was unable to fool them. Finally, I learned how far the company is willing to go to make sure the customer is happy in the event that they didn’t get something exactly right. I was sold.
A functional work of art
A week later, I reported to River City, where Danni from the fit department got the process started. The perfect fit on a bicycle meant to be ridden for several hours and, perhaps, more than 100 miles in a day is really important. It is one of the primary reasons to get a custom bike in the first place. She took a bunch of measurements of me and my bike and asked me a series of questions and sent all the information off to Seven. She also arranged a time when someone from Seven could call me for a follow up interview to ask more questions. Technically, I’m not sure this step is necessary to get the bike built correctly.
The questions were pretty much the same as the ones Danni had asked. However, it gave me a sense that the company is obsessively detail-oriented and they wanted to make sure everything was right. It also showed that the company values a direct relationship with the customer. While branding might not have been the primary objective of that conversation, it certainly was an awesome by-product. It made me feel as if I was a vital part of a whole team whose sole purpose was to design me the perfect bike. And in some way, I actually was. Afterwards, I was given a Web address and password that let me track my frame through every state of the building process – very cool.
One of the greatest bike shops in Portland
Ten days after we signed off on the design for the bike, the frame arrived at the shop. Not surprisingly, the bike was perfect and I was one happy customer.
Thinking back, every step of the process did something to help to enhance my perception of the company. To start, Seven chose to partner with a top-notch bike shop. This is vital. Because I already had an established and personal relationship with the shop, I was much more willing to listen to the advice of the staff – many of whom ride Sevens of their own. In addition, bikes need regular maintenance, so the shop will really be an ambassador of the brand for years after the sale is complete – and River City’s service department has an unparalleled reputation.
Next, without ever cutting the bike shop out of the process, they established a direct and personal connection with the customer, and provided a mechanism for staying connected until the frame was ready. Many bicycle manufacturers actively avoid customer contact and rely on the bike shop to be the interface. The contrast in approach couldn’t be clearer. The end result? My affinity toward the Seven brand is probably close to Sonny Barger’s affinity with Harley.
The fact that Seven custom builds frames one-off for a specific customer means the chances are high that every customer will be highly satisfied with the product. This gives them a huge advantage over most typical consumer products. It is also not practical for many companies to have a telephone conversation with each and every customer. However, social media, online forums, blogs provide a whole array of tools that can be used to establish a meaningful and personal relationship with a large number of customers while continuously monitoring opinion. Businesses that take advantage of these technologies will have a significant leg up on their competitors.
This is my Seven. There is none other like it and this one is mine!
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen Republicans and Democrats give some beautifully written and expertly delivered speeches. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Mike Huckabee and John McCain all provided solid performances at their parties’ national conventions. And few can argue that Sarah Palin’s speech on Thursday night was anything short of spectacular. She had to knock it out of the park, and she came through with aplomb.
But today, many of her opponents are screaming in a full-throated howl that she didn’t write her own speech. Indeed, the author was Matthew Scully, who happens to be one of George Bush’s speech writers. And because Scully was the author, many people are coming to the conclusion that this makes Palin a Washington insider who is in lockstep with W. This is both naive and ridiculous.
The reality is that pretty much all politicians (and most anyone who makes a speech of any importance) uses speechwriters. In a situation like an election, where every word a politician utters is scrutinized, manipulated and taken out of context, not using a speech writer actually seems like a bad idea – the equivalent of representing yourself in a jury trial.
Writing a powerful speech is extremely challenging. It is an art form that requires a mastery of language and deep understanding of the subject matter. It also requires the ability to use words to create an image, call up emotions or drive home a point. Like learning to paint or play a musical instrument, speech writing requires dedication to master. It isn’t for everyone. This includes people who are extremely intelligent or gifted in other areas. Moreover, writing a truly great speech takes a lot of time, which is something that the kind of people who are normally called upon to deliver really important speeches don’t often have.
A speechwriter is to a great speech what a songwriter is to a great song. A stellar performer is still required to bring it to life and make it a hit. But while the the singer can get away with singing about anything, a speaker must truly own the content of a speech to be effective. Whether or not they came up with the words themselves is irrelevant. When a speaker does not own the content, it is exceptionally difficult for them to come off as genuine and believable as Palin did. Of course, many argue that Bill Clinton proved it is possible last week when he endorsed Obama.
Matthew Scully and Sarah Palin
The stark contrast between Bush’s inability to speak with skill or credibility and Palin’s exceptional ability to deliver her speech should clearly demonstrate that the speaker – not the speechwriter – is the person who makes the real difference.
Scully is one hell of a speechwriter – presumably, that is how he got the job of writing for the President of the United States. His talent as a writer is also how he got the gig writing Palin’s speech. It might be fun to fantasize that Scully is some sort of Republican puppet master able to possess politicians to do his evil bidding, but it just isn’t so. There should be no reason why Scully couldn’t or shouldn’t be asked by anyone to serve as a speechwriter regardless of whom he has written for in the past.
Speechwriting is a lot like PR in that there is only so much an agency can do if its clients or their products don’t cut the mustard. Conversely, when a client and its products have something great – even if they can’t yet fully articulate what – the sky is the limit on what PR can achieve.
In fact, KoiFish Communications believes that speechwriting and PR are so closely aligned that speechwriting is one of our core services.
A speech is only as strong as the person delivering it
There was a time, not so long ago, when the term “journalistic integrity” really meant something. It meant that journalists had a single mission – to seek the truth and relay it to readers, viewers or listeners. They did not allow their personal viewpoints and biases to shape their coverage nor did they bow to pressures from the sales department to afford big advertisers special treatment. They simply called it like they saw it. The thinking behind this is that high-integrity journalism means more credibility for the news outlet. More credibility means a bigger audience. And a bigger audience ultimately translated into more revenue. At least that’s the theory.
Of course, it isn’t the only theory. There are always compromises and gray areas. And one such compromise is “pay for play” coverage where a publication requires a company to pay if they want to be included (or even just be considered for inclusion) in a particular article or issue. While paying for placement does give a company a little more control over the outcome, it does so at the expense of credibility.
In my view, a pay for play piece is little more than advertorial in drag. The problem is that the dress and makeup can sometimes be a little too convincing. Frankly, I’d prefer not to have to wait until I get all the way to third base before I realize I’ve been had.
Pay for play journalism is advertising in drag
There are rare times when pay for play makes sense from a PR perspective, but normally it is something I advise my clients strongly against. Very recently Robin Goldstein, food critic and author of “The Wine Trials” let the world know in no uncertain terms what he thinks about the annual pay for play issue of Wine Spectator. Suffice it to say, he’s not a fan. His restaurant, Osteria L’Intrepido di Milano, was selected as a winner of Wine Spectator’s coveted “Award of Excellence” which was only given to a “select” group of 3,253 restaurants this year. The only problem is that Goldstein’s restaurant doesn’t actually exist. It was all part of a brilliantly executed hoax. He created a fake wine list and a fake menu and submitted it along with $250 to Wine Spectator. To add an air of authenticity, he took the time to establish a phone number and voice mail and posted a few reviews on http://chowhound.chow.com.
With one fell swoop, Goldstein effectively:
Goldstein proved just how valuable this award is
It is worthwhile to look at each one of these points in a little detail.
Commentary on Pay for Play
I spoke with Robin briefly about his prank and he told me that his only objective was to begin a dialog on how the food and food and wine industry markets itself and what a disservice this can be to the consumer. His theory is that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of money spent on advertising and marketing and the quality of the food and that things like price and marketing have more of an impact on how wine is rated than anything else.
Looking at the Portland market, his theory holds up. One of the newest restaurants, Lucier, has put a lot of marketing effort in to creating a perception that it aspires to be our city’s answer to The French Laundry or Charlie Trotter. The web site is beautiful and must have cost a fortune. According to one review, while the place is beautiful to behold, the quality of the food is sorely lacking and unworthy of the exorbitant prices they charge.
Another example is McCormick & Schmick’s who advertises all over the place and even passes out coupons on Alaska Airline flights. They have no qualms about charging fine dining prices. No matter that the food is hardly what could be considered haute cuisine.
And then you have Le Pigeon, which in my opinion, is one of the best restaurants EVER. It is certainly the best in Portland. While they have a modest Website, it is nothing fancy. I seriously doubt they put a lot of time and energy in to marketing. They don’t have to. The food speaks for itself. They do get a lot of media attention, but that’s because they are doing something truly extraordinary. The coverage is earned, not bought.
Robin’s theory on wine is similar and that is pretty much the point of The Wine Trials. The moral of that story is that, in blind tastings, the average Joe actually prefers the taste of cheap wine.
When it comes to Wine Spectator, he has a valid point and gets to the heart of why pay for play is totally weak.
Wine Spectator’s editorial staff often focuses on the food and wine of a particular city or region. When these reporters write about the restaurant scene in a particular place, they do so with authority. It is clear they have done their homework (if you can call getting paid to eat and drink at a bunch of awesome restaurants work). They find a great representation of the very best that city or region has to offer. They don’t waste space writing about the local Morton’s Steakhouse or Ruth’s Chris. This isn’t because those places are bad (they aren’t) it is because they understand that those places aren’t as interesting to the readers. They are showing journalistic integrity and, as a result, they have been able to earn some level of trust. I know that, if I’m going to travel to a new dining destination, I can rely on a Wine Spectator article to help me find a great place to chow down.
Then there are the Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards. These are the pay for play awards with which Robin takes issue. As far as anyone can tell, any restaurant that pays the $250 fee and submits a menu and wine list that meets a certain set of loosely specified requirements can “earn” a spot on the list. Looking at the Portland area winners, I see a few of the better restaurants in town mixed in among the usual suspects of higher-end chains. There are also quite a few downright crappy places where the wine lists and menu might cut the mustard, but are serving food I wouldn’t give to my dog.
If someone from out of town wanted to use this list to try and find a great food and wine experience, they might get lucky and, then again, they might not. And they would definitely miss out on places like LePigeon, Beast, Payley’s Place and some of Portland’s other must-try places because they aren’t in there.
Readers of Wine Spectator are the ones who suffer. They deserve a magazine that provides consistent quality information in every issue and shouldn’t have to rely on reading the fine print to find out which editorial is pure editorial and which is paid for.
Creative Approach to PR
Robin claims that his one and only objective in doing what he did was to start the dialog with the industry about the disservice it is doing to epicureans and oenophiles through the use of a rating system that is highly susceptible to marketing.
He says that the fact that it is also a great mechanism for publicity about him and his book is just a happy coincidence. Whether or not he actually intended this to be a PR stunt is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that it was one. And it was an awesome one. For $250 and a few hours of his time he was not only effectively able to make his point, he was able to generate a significant buzz, which continues to produce coverage in some very high profile publications. To attempt to generate that same amount of coverage using more traditional cookie cutter PR tactics would have cost a lot more and most likely would have failed. It would be very interesting to find out the impact this whole thing has on his www.Amazon.com book sales.
The funny thing is that Robin isn’t the first to take issue with Wine Spectator on this issue or the first to generate a response. Mark Fischer, author of Uncorked wrote about it in the Dayton Daily News in 2006. And while Fischer was able to get a detailed response from the Publisher of Spectator, he certainly didn’t do so with as much flair.
Example of Effective Viral Marketning
The Effective Use of Social Media to Help Diffuse a Crisis
Hats off to Wine Spectator for having the testicular fortitude to take proactive action to what might be perceived as a mini PR crisis. There is a great post from editor Thomas Matthews on the publication’s own Internet forum. By taking control of the situation and providing this online community with the magazine’s side of the story as soon as it was able to gather the facts, Matthews was able to garner a lot of support from forum members. The fact that the publication had taken the time and effort to establish the forum laid a great foundation for communication proved invaluable. On the other hand, it is also worth noting that Wine Spectator forum members were among the few who didn’t think Robin did a pretty awesome thing.
Of course, Wine Spectator didn’t handle it perfectly and it seems they may have committed a bit of a party foul in their follow up. Robin told me he actually posted a reply on the Wine Spectator forum. After going through the thread numerous times, I can’t find it. It is not uncommon for moderators of a particular forum to remove posts they deem inappropriate. When this happens, there is usually some record that the tread was removed – it doesn’t just disappear. If, in fact, this thread was silently killed in the night, that really seems to fly in the face of the whole point of having an open and honest discussion, which is totally lame.
Regardless, I’ll be drinking a toast to Robin Goldstein soon.
- Made it clear his views on pay for play journalism
- Provided a magnificent example of how a creative approach to PR can yield substantial results
- Provided yet another example of how effective viral marketing can be
- Gave one of the editors at Wine Spectator an opportunity to effectively use social media to help diffuse a mini-crisis (followed by a failure)
There is currently a lot of talk among the high-tech blog community about the relative uselessness of PR. Michael Arrington of TechCrunch advises startups not to bother engaging a PR agency until the flood of inbound media requests becomes too overwhelming to handle. Robert Scoble talks about the pleasures of discovering the next great innovation without the ham-fisted intrusion of PR tainting the process. It appears that both subscribe to the theory of “if you build it, they will come.”
Death of PR? Nope.
I’m not sure how many technology start ups would be happy with a marketing plan based on a strategy that favors sitting idly by and waiting to be discovered by a high-profile blogger over proactive media outreach.
Brian Fuller, a former editor himself, points out why that isn’t likely to happen any time soon while Jeremy Pepper weighs in ever so delicately with his own thoughts on this recurring issue. It is worth pointing out that I’ve had the pleasure of working with Brian in his role as an editor for EE Times. He and his colleagues never seemed to take issue with PR agencies bringing them stories that were of genuine interest to their readership. In fact, one EE Times editor – considered to be THE guru of the niche industry he covered – even took the time to e-mail the PR community about his upcoming deadlines, vacation schedules, etc. just to make sure he wouldn’t ever miss the ability to cover something important.
Of course, bloggers aren’t the first to complain about public relations. PR has been the subject of justified (as well as completely unjustified) rants from traditional journalists for decades. One of the most controversial came from the Editor-in-Chief of Wired when he actually published a list of e-mail addresses from PR folks he deemed as “lazy flacks.”
The funny thing is that what most of these journalists fail to understand is that media relations is just one tactical element of a much larger strategic PR campaign, albeit a very important tactical element. Most of the real work happens before the point where media contact begins.
The true art of public relations lies in coming up with creative ways to get the client’s message out – across a whole range of media or even directly. It lies in determining when and how to reach specific audiences and in defining positioning. A cool new technology is great, but it is nothing unless the implications of that technology can be clearly demonstrated and communicated. Only then can you create the perception of need that will motivate the customer to go out and buy it.
Moreover, as customers rely less on media and more on each other for information, the role of the media – both traditional and new media – can be greatly diminished. And more than a few PR practitioners are becoming aware of how best to facilitate a dialog between clients and the end user.
Does this mean I’m ready to declare death of journalism or say it is broken? Hell no. But like PR, it will have to change and adapt over time if it is to succeed and this is a good thing.