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PR and Reality v. Money in My Pocket

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Walmart has an image problem. Ask the proverbial passerby and he/she will tell you that Walmart underpays its employees, offers little in the way of job satisfaction and advancement, and functions prominently as a dead end for most retail workers.

The stock market has an image problem. Ask the proverbial passerby and he/she will tell you that the market is geared for the bigger funds and banks, offers little hope of profit for the common man, and functions prominently as a dead end for most people’s retirement funds.

Obamacare has an image problem. Ask the proverbial passerby and he/she will tell you that Obamacare is difficult to access, offers little hope in the way of customer concern, and functions prominently as a dead end for people who have had their insurance terminated.

But at the end of the day who cares? When there’s a killer deal to be had, our scruples and social compunctions suddenly feel a tickle in the throat and find a way to call in sick.

Walmart is obviously the poster boy for these problems. In addition to the negative perception mentioned above, the company is also facing a pending labor strike, a lawsuit for labor violations, and a viral face-plant for collecting holiday food donations for its underpaid workers. And yet, from a business perspective, life couldn’t be rosier. Forbes is reporting that even in the midst of the scandals and problems, this year’s Black Friday is shaping up to be one of the best yet. Offer us cheap goods, and we will beat a path to your door.

Similarly, when stocks trend up, there’s an ever-present sensation across America that we must jump on that bandwagon right now. And once healthcare.gov gets going (if ever), people will follow the states’ leads and jump on the cheap insurance bandwagon. Collectively we’re just suckers for the big deal.

The question is not can it change, but will it? Sadly not anytime soon, and that’s something you can take to the bank.

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The PR Coup of Friendly Rivals

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It’s a PR war out there, and like in any war, enemies will be enemies. Smear campaigns, openly aggressive tactics, a win-at-all-costs attitude: you do what you gotta do to gain the advantage. However, even in the most brutal of wars, sometimes the unexpected happens. In the midst of the horrific craziness that was WWI, the winter of 1914 saw a break in hostilities that was to never be repeated. During the week leading up to the holidays, British and German soldiers started venturing out into no-man’s land. Eventually they sang and drank together, exchanged gifts, and even played a few games of soccer. When the generals from both sides found about it, they took steps to insure that such peaceful gestures would not be repeated.

Obviously, the world of commercial PR does not bear any of the significance of armed conflict. To compare the two in any real way borders on the ridiculous. However, the notion that peace can have a value should not be overlooked. And that’s true even in the cutthroat “my-client-is-king” arena.

There’s no dearth of companies, institutions, and individuals putting out PR pieces that snipe and cut away at their opponents. In certain arenas (such as politics) this has already been accepted as standard, if not self-destructive, fare. Occasionally, though, there have been flashes of rivalries which took a decidedly friendly tone.

Coke and Pepsi have been at the forefront of this movement. Here’s the latest contribution to the cause:
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What’s surprising about this ad is the sheer lack of negativity. Cute, seasonal, just a tiny bit quirky, and apparently that’s all it took for the ad to appear everywhere on the internet.

Another great rivalry that went viral was that between Nandos and Santam. You can watch it here. They each spoofed the other’s commercials with the end result being a nice donation to charity. This exchange on Youtube garnered collectively close to a million views.

With these and others, the public relations takeaway is clear. You can go after your opponents, but do it in a positive way, and you can actually see better results.

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The Wonderful Commercial Potential of Negative PR

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There’s bad PR, worse PR, and horrid horrid PR (which can actually work out pretty well).

The PR reporters are foaming at the mouth regarding Red Bull’s recent legal troubles. An $85 million wrongful death lawsuit is being brought against the company claiming that one of their drinks caused a heart attack in a 33 year old Brooklyn man. Red Bull responded with a standard corporate statement that affirmed the safety of their product, as well as its widespread uneventful usage.

Should Red Bull be worried that the adverse publicity could affect sales? In a word: no. If anything, they might even see a boost in their sales. The reason for this is due to the nature of the Red Bull consuming public: generally younger people, often male, who are looking for a “special” boost. This is not a demographic that is concerned for extreme safety issues. Quite the opposite in fact. “You mean this actually dropped somebody?” (appropriately long pause) “Cool.”

This brings to mind Dennis Leary’s epic rant regarding cigarette warning labels.
It doesn’t matter how big the warnings on the cigarettes are; you could have a black pack, with a skull and crossbones on the front, called TUMORS, and smokers would be around the block going, “I can’t wait to get my hands on these f…ing things! I bet ya get a tumor as soon as you light up!”

This notion, attraction from a negative direction, actually has basis in scientific fact. Martin Lindstrom writes about his lab experiments in this area:

A brain-imaging experiment I conducted in 2006 explains why antismoking scare tactics have been so futile. I examined people’s brain activity as they reacted to cigarette warning labels by using functional magnetic resonance imaging, a scanning technique that can show how much oxygen and glucose a particular area of the brain uses while it works, allowing us to observe which specific regions are active at any given time. …the warning labels backfired: they stimulated the nucleus accumbens, sometimes called the craving spot, which lights up on f.M.R.I. whenever a person craves something, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, tobacco or gambling.

In my own experience, I remember once looking on Amazon for an extreme pogo stick to give as a gift. One of the top reviews for the product was clearly written by a marketing pro. It attempted to emulate a teenage boy’s writing style, and it was a laughingly lame attempt. However, the content of the review was actually quite interesting. It focused on how the “reviewer” let one of his “friends” use it and the friend seriously hurt himself. (Of course, this was relayed in a “ha-ha” tone.) The marketing pro who wrote this piece obviously understood that a pogo stick so good it was dangerous would attract a young male market.

For our current imbroglio, Red Bull will most probably be found safe. Millions of cans have been consumed with very little indication of any negative health effects. But hey – a little horrid publicity can’t hurt.

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Slow Death by Political PR

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With vacation break now officially over, PR Circus finds itself in a unique conundrum. Namely, the PR ether is currently over-saturated. And this is not because there has been a plethora of companies and institutions that have been pushing their products in a number of different ways. Quite the opposite, in fact. From a PR perspective there has only been one story as of late. Salutations government shutdown.

Here’s the real problem. As a PR professional, I’m always looking at media and events from a PR perspective. What’s happening, how is it being spun, and what the possible PR consequences may be. That perspective can be annoying but it’s normally not overwhelming as there’s life for real and then there’s the spin. The problem with the government shutdown is that every utterance by every politician, every report by every news outlet, and every comment by… well… everybody is spin. Politics and the media have converged in this event to become an inescapable PR hell. My PR sensors are totally overloaded and the only way to get away from it is to lock myself in a room and read old Peanuts comics.

With that in mind, I will not blog about the real PR circus taking place in DC. (You’re welcome.) Rather let us use this frenetic moment in time as a palate cleanser. As a small consolation prize here are pics of two other famous political PR fails. Do you remember these guys and the blunders portrayed?

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Wall Street Turns PR Into Dollars

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One of the key features of our stock market is one that is occasionally trumpeted by serious investors, but, as of yet, has not ingrained itself in the public consciousness. Namely, the price of a stock has nothing to do with the value of the company that it represents.  A company that has no profitability, and could even be losing money, can possess a huge stock price, while a company racking in insane profits can be flying under the radar with a relatively low stock price. The only thing that determines stock price is how many people are buying or selling the stock. If it’s a popular stock and investors are jumping in, then the price goes up. If the company becomes unpopular (irrelevant of profitability) and investors sell the stock, then the price goes down. In short, the stock market is translating PR into dollars.

Mark Cuban, one of those crazy rich guys who is way better off than you are, has blogged about this phenomena more than once. Helaine Olen, in her bestselling “Pound Foolish”, expounds on this idea forcibly and credibly. Even the super conservative government minders of the nation’s financial system frequently fret about certain news tidbits because of the effect that they’ll have on the market. The world generally considers PR pros to be at best an entertaining nuisance, but on a global scale it’s PR that can make or break fiscal health and government policy. Academics like to sugarcoat this concept by relabeling PR as the “power of ideas”, but whatever you call it, the crux of the matter remains the same. What people believe and feel is often the ultimate decision maker for real world events.

Here’s a few recent examples from big stages:

  • The world’s perception on Syria constantly changes based on the reporting and handling of the events happening. Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times is just the latest twist in the story.
  • Twiiter tweets its IPO announcement and the media world erupts driving even more Twitter frenzy.
  • President Obama recently hired Rick Stengel from Time magazine to be his undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
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The PR Conundrum of Race

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A recent news items show via a PR lens why race is still a practical topic in America, as well as one that is increasingly becoming interesting to marketers. (And, no, we’re not talking about Mayor Bloomberg’s racially inflammatory comments about Bill de Blasio.)

If you had to think of the most racially neutral places in America, what would come to mind? For many people the answer to this question would be the great outdoors. America has made a point of maintaining a number of beautiful national parks, and has justifiably taken pride in preserving some beautiful natural experiences. These dedicated areas possess remarkably little branding, are easily accessible to whoever wishes to visit, and have an intrinsic apathy to any cultural bias. And yet the question of race is at the forefront of items which keep park managers up at night.

Why?

In a recent article, the NY Times reports that if one breaks down the numbers of park visitors by race, the figure comes out incredibly skewed. Only one out of every five visitors is not white. An even more striking factoid is that less than one out of ten is Hispanic. These numbers certainly don’t jive with the population figures at large, and especially so for those who want all Americans to enjoy the scenery. So what is a national park supposed to do about it? Follow the money, of course.

In a move that comes as little surprise to PR pros, the national parks are looking to private industry to do some promotional cross branding. What does industry get out of it? A hot and rapidly expanding market for hiking, camping, and other outdoor equipment. From an outsiders view it looks like a game of hot potato. The PR race burden seems to merely be shifting from the public sector to the private one. But seriously! Who are we kidding? Pandering to specific demographics, be it race or otherwise, is what private industry does best. Score one for the national parks.

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PR, James Franco, and Behavioral Economics

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In the hot intellectual world of behavioral economics, one of the key terms bandied about is that of anchoring. This refers to a phenomenon where if one hears a certain number beforehand, any further thoughts, even if unrelated, will be related to that number as well. The common example is to tell one person the number 50 and tell a second person the number 75. Then ask them both for the average cost of a vacuum cleaner. The one who was told 75 will generally give a higher estimate than the one who was told 50. The initial number provides the anchor for all thoughts that occur in the near future.

Two recent examples show the PR relevance of this idea. Tumblr was a hot social media website for teenagers and those of an artistic bent, but if you were outside those demographics, then chances are you never heard of it. Of course that all changed when Yahoo bought it. Suddenly Tumblr became the biggest thing ever and Yahoo’s most important purchase. The truth is that Yahoo actually acquired a number of web companies, but only Tumblr received that kind of popular recognition. Why? Because Yahoo paid a billion dollars for it. Even though Tumblr was losing money, and was not any more profitable than Yahoo’s other acquisitions, the billion dollar price tag made it an item of worth in the public eye. Maybe not a billion dollars, but certainly something close. Certainly more than those companies (whatever they were) that Yahoo paid significantly less for. The public fell for the real time anchor, and in the process made both Tumblr and Yahoo forces to be reckoned with.

An even more egregious example of anchoring is currently taking place with the PR push for Oscar nominations. A24 Films are pushing the anchor envelope by using language promoting James Franco in a way that goes beyond even standard Hollywood hyperbole. Presumably, the thought is that by pushing Franco into the ethereal world of historically meaningful performances (if such things even exist), Academy judges will balk but not too much. If the anchor of historical significance is properly played, maybe that will be just enough to push Franco past the other “worthy” contenders.

In the PR world we often hear a lot about being truthful and sticking to simplicity. Anchoring disagrees and can definitely be employed occasionally to provide meaningful results.