Category Archives: PR News

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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 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

death dore

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?

dukakis tank pic

mccain walk

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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 Power of Pain

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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.

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When Big Red Sees a PR Pickle

icon-42522_640China likes to look good. For real. (As opposed to my dimming the lights, squinting in the mirror, and finding the angle where I look the least like a PR professional.) The present predicament that the country has perceived for itself is that of the Chinese tourist. Specifically, a number of pictures and videos have gone viral that have shown Chinese tourists behaving in ways that are less than optimal. Now, being an American, my covering this story is such a case of “people living in glass houses”, that it’s hard to even continue. That being said, I will allow my American candor (i.e. obnoxiousness) to propel me forward.

Business Insider is reporting that the Chinese government has launched a series of videos aimed at instilling politeness in Chinese tourists. These will run on the government sponsored CCTV, and try to inculcate proper manners while travelling abroad. Apparently, rather than glossing over the problem, the government is actually trying to fix it. However, I would assume that most rational adults (as opposed to squinty eyed PR pros) will be dismissive of the problem to begin with. In which case, the maxim of “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” would certainly apply. Although, maybe my hackles are being raised just at the concept of trying to teach politeness and proper behavior. Having grown up as a Southern chil’ running free, the notion of restraint (and shoes) is somewhat anathema. In fact, if  you want to dip your feet in the water, y’all can come over my way. I won’t post any pictures to Facebook. (Today.)

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3 Branding Attempts That Are Not Working PR Magic

Beware the PR ides of August. Three major brands are striking out to redefine the prism through which their products are seen, but the success of these efforts seem to have struck a hollow nerve. Whether it’s scientific disbelief, social outrage, or just plain bewilderment, these attempts are notable for becoming anti-notable.

1. Diet Coke is Actually Healthy!
Soda has always been the liquid bane of the nutritional world. Within that inglorious schema, diet soda has always occupied a unique niche. It has effectively functioned as the poster boy for the “well it’s not sugar but it is chock full of chemicals” conundrum. Diet Coke is now looking to erase that image and rebrand diet soda as an uber healthy alternative. The company will be running open advertorials promoting the healthiness and safety of artificial sweeteners. Maybe they’re just trying to win back the water drinking crowd, but redefining public perception on health issues usually requires a longer campaign than most ads can endure. It’s hard to believe that Diet Coke is in it for the long run and will rely on sustained health branding to move product.
Read more about it here.

2. HTC (a famous maker of something) Rebrands as a Famous Maker of Something
HTC makes smart phones. However (as you’re unconsciously well aware) HTC is not really providing any serious competition to Apple and Samsung. In an effort to become a name that draws people back to its products, HTC has launched what is rumored to be a billion dollar PR campaign starring Robert Downey Jr. The thrust of the campaign is that since nobody knows what HTC really is anyway, you might well just come up with something crazy and catchy to fill in the blank. Well, at least the people at HTC got to meet Iron Man.
Watch the video here.

3. No, Really, We’re Cool, But Not Like Socially Cool Cool
JCPenney recently… (Before we continue, do you have any doubt that the brand in question has suffered yet another PR disaster? Really?) Anyways, JCPenney recently ran a fairly innocuous TV spot that targeted kids who want to dress cool when they come back to school. Doesn’t sound controversial, right? However, with the luck of the Penney, it sparked a massive outcry as parents and activists complained that it promoted bullying for lack of fashion consciousness. I don’t know. Watching the ad provides for a fairly underwhelming experience, both on a fashion level, as well as a social one. It sure makes you nostalgic for the hyper excitement that accompanied the mailbox arrival of the Penney’s catalog.
Check out the ad here.