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.
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.
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.
What is it about coming off a disaster that makes people so open to feelings of positivity? Is it a simple natural reaction to go in another direction, a rush to embrace a new underdog, or are we just suckers for emotional roller coasters? Whatever the reason, big time failure can set the stage for PR gold, even without any positive indicators. That’s right. You don’t need to provide the answers; merely stemming the tide is enough.
1. JC Penney – Love to Hate to Just Love (Sort Of)
JC Penney has, of course, been everybody’s favorite scapegoat recently. With a reviled managerial bully in the person of Bill Ackman, a series of overly slick and bland ads, and a general sense of corporate train wreck, this institution had it all. But suddenly Ackman resigned and the PR rainbow showed up in all of its glittery glory. This was reflected in the stock price spiking up 4%. Presumably, the love affair will continue until the inevitable corporate instincts reassert themselves and give us a new managerial bully, slick ad campaign, and another impending corporate wreck.
2. Microsoft – Retreat from Microsoftity
Microsoft is unique in that it has established a new base level for soft corporate ineptness. From the tech juggernaut who built the industry, it descended into the lovable fat uncle who was always present but never interesting. Some people were annoyed, some reactionary, but most just accepted and continued on with their lives. Now, with the resignation of Steve Ballmer, it’s as if the sleepy uncle was suddenly jolted with an industrial defibrillator. The stock, in response, performed a massive 9% uptick. It’s hard to imagine that Microsoft can regain its edge, but that’s a PR headache for the future. Now it’s time to party.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the contemporary PR scene is the fact that public relations has become inextricably linked with technology. The medium and its viewership is king, and as a result, PR must now keep step with every tech and platform change that rears its pointy head. If we want to take a snapshot in the present, though, this report is a pretty good summary of what PR pros should be focusing on. (Dangling prepositions be damned.)