Category Archives: Media Relations

On Social Media (PR) Douchebags Who Don’t Actually Do PR

It’s terrible to come out of blog hibernation with a post about not just social media, but social media PR of all things.  Jeebus, as my friend Sue would say.

But there are still waves of hype crashing around us, and riding those waves apparently are some people who call themselves Social Media PR Douchebags — I mean, Specialists.

Nothing wrong with social media PR, as long as there’s, you know — strategy and thoughtfulness driving the program.  But lately I’ve had more calls that go something like this:

“I’m hoping you and your Agency can help me.  You see, we thought we needed PR, and ________________ told us s/he could help, and that we didn’t really need PR at all, what we needed was SOCIAL MEDIA PR, and it sounded smart and kinda cool so …”

(At which point I nod or murmur sympathetically; like a bobby on a BBC detective show, I know where this is headed.)

“But what _______ mostly did is introduce us at some parties; and you know, it wasn’t all bad.  We were a TC50 finalist!  But afterwards?  We realized s/he didn’t know anyone else — any writers or editors outside that particular crowd.  And then it turned out there was no follow-up strategy at all.”

How did your launch go?  I ask.

“S/he told us not to bother with news, that it’s all relationships so we didn’t  need to do releases or launches except for a party.  But here’s the thing:  we are dead in the water.  No one really knows who we are anymore.  We need other influencers, and funding, and like three other audiences that we’re not reaching.  Can you help?”

I resist the urge to say, “Tsk tsk tsk.”   Instead I say, “Sure.”

(Note to haters:  There’s nothing wrong with “social PR.”  There’s a lot wrong with “social” that doesn’t have really smart PR thinking behind it; or that occurs in a vacuum, as if all you ever needed was Yelp, FB and Twitter to educate the world).

Lest you think this is a new phenomenon fueled by Twitter or Facebook?   This has been going on for a while.

In 2006, one of my clients was lured by a Personality (who very much recalls Eminem’s “It feels so empty without me!”)  The Personality convinced my client to fork over a chunk of our budget — even though we’d been doing really well for them.  He promised to Move the Needle for them in the New Field of Social Media, Which A Traditional Agency Couldn’t Hope to Understand.  (Except that, up til that point, he had been marketing himself as a traditional agency…)

But actually, it worked the other way around.  They helped move the needle for him.  He hadn’t had many clients, and they had new media and cloud computing cred.  He leveraged their coolness to get invited to parties, share buzzwords, state casually that old media was dead (very endearing in some circles), and formulate a bunch of tips and aphorisms, sharable and linkable in 140 characters or less.  Not bad, really.

They got… well, I don’t know what they got, but after a bit they asked us to take them back and they reinstated all our budget.  We still landed them in RWW and TC; but also in those weird little pubs that they needed to reach IT buyers; and the Merc.  And the Times.  And the Journal.

The Personality is still Going Strong.   If I were him, I’d think I was on the right track:  He has a new book out.  He goes to parties and speak at panels, he makes pronouncements which are widely re-tweeted without question.  It’s working for him, why wouldn’t it work for everyone else?

But then there are the people that are calling me and my Agency; burned, if not by him, by someone who wants to be him.

So here’s the thing, people:

If you want to launch a company or a service, call me.    We will talk about who your audience really is, and which media  or tribes– old, new, pubescent — you should be talking with to get to them.  Maybe it’s AdAge.  Maybe it’s TechCrunch or Mashable or TIME, or BusyMom or GreebleMonkey.  Or Parents.   Or AARP (hey, don’t snicker; that is one powerful publication).

We will help you figure out what mediums to use to reach them.  Yes, you probably need short video.  Yes, a social media press release is a good idea.   Yes, we’ll figure out a viral plan, and help you put in place a community with a platform like GetSatisfaction.com if you don’t already have one, or something more sophisticated if that’s what you need.

And maybe you should go to a party.  Maybe you should launch at an Event — sometimes there’s a perfect critical mass of the people you need to talk with attending.   But sometimes events just generate noise, and we have to figure out realistically whether that’s your best chance to be heard.  We can do that.  Together.

But parties alone?  That’s just for Social Media (PR) douchebags.  And most likely, the only person who’ll make money is … well, you know.

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Filed under Media, Media Relations, Social Media, Social Media PR, Uncategorized, Web 2.0

Thoughtful Pwns Cluelessness (When You’re Not Ready, Stay Home – Part II)

You wouldn’t think that anyone would have to write a post telling companies or PR people — or just about any person, really — to be thoughtful.  Or put another way, to at least not be stupid.

Unfortunately stupid is just how some people roll.

And as it happens, the rules for “don’t be stupid” (with apologies to Google) apply as well to regular life as they do to PR.  They’re spectacularly easy to avoid.

Here’s a quick (true) example.

Years ago, a client with a Very Big Company was planning a multi-country launch of a Big Deal Product…in early Autumn.  By big deal, I mean that they were planning to fly in a bunch of journalists, customers and analysts from across the globe. My colleagues at the time were in a tizzy, coordinating with other agencies who handled the Very Big Company’s business in other parts of the world.

There was drama.  There was excitement.

There was …just one problem, I realized as I looked at the calendar.

The launch date was on Yom Kippur.

I knew that several of this company’s key beat reporters were Jewish.  The reporter at BusinessWeek, at Dow-Jones, at the AP, just for starters.  I told my colleagues: “if our VeryBigCompany client has any sense at all, they will move the launch by one day.  Because I am sure that they want coverage from these reporters.  And I am equally sure that these reporters a) will not come; and b) may even be offended that our client was so insensitive as to have a Big Launch on a High Holy Day.”

I mean, they’re not called the low holy days, right?

My colleagues basically told me to pipe down.  They didn’t want to be the ones telling the Very Big Company that it had made a mistake.  Plus, they reasoned, it was too much trouble to change all the reservations and arrangements.

My take was, the whole point of the reservations and arrangements was to get coverage — and if they weren’t going to get at least some key coverage, then why make said reservations and arrangements?

I didn’t exactly pipe down — I think there’s a slip in a personnel file somewhere that says something like, “M. really got on my nerves about the Yom Kippur thing.”

When the launch came, a whole host of reporters didn’t show.  The client — who is now my friend — told me it went something like this:

Client:  “Where is everyone?”

Us: “Well, it’s Yom Kippur.”

Client:  “Did we know this?”

Us:  “Er, um…”

Client:  “Why would we go to all this trouble to have an event on a day when our key reporters cannot attend?”

Various Agencies:  “Er, um…”

So here’s my point.  There are simple and obvious things you can do to avoid looking or being stupid — in life or in PR.  This goes with my “If you’re not ready — stay home” post below.  So here’s my list:

  1. Check the calendar.  Avoid holidays, days when the markets are closed — days of significance to any of your stakeholders in fact.  Some of this is about sensitivity and image; some of it is simply pragmatic.  Take your pick, but either way — do your homework and don’t be stupid.  Check Earnings calendars, too.
  • This is equally true for life.  A relative who did her graduate work at the University of Tennessee was planning her wedding, and was surprised and pleased to find a picturesque little chapel on campus open on short notice — for just one Sunday afternoon in October. You can guess what happened — I love her for not knowing that it was the football-crazy Vols’ HOMECOMING WEEKEND and PEYTON MANNING’S DEBUT, but it is also true that we almost lost the minister because many roads into campus were either blocked off or backed up.  On the bright side, we had conversations like this:  “I know, we’re an hour late and we have the flower girl, but we’re stuck in traffic. Hey, they’re putting some kid named Peyton Manning in for Todd Helton!”
  • 2.  Speaking of homework: do it.  PR peeps could have avoided that whole ridiculous Chris Anderson blacklist thing (and no, I’m not on it) if people would just take a few minutes to read.  How hard is it to go to WIRED — or wherever — search on the topic you’re wanting to pitch — and see who’s writing about it?
  • Real life parallel:  a friend recently sent invites to a big party to Mr. and Mrs. Roberts — not realizing that Mr. Roberts had died some time back. A few questions and a little research would have prevented a painful and awkward moment.
  • 3.  Sampling = not just for Costco.  If you’re going to suggest a press person stake his or her reputation on a product or service you’re suggesting, make sure it does what you’ve promised.  Try it.  Look for flaws, anticipate questions.  This isn’t rocket science.  And if it doesn’t perform as advertised?  Tell your client that it may not work for the person with the million subscribers, either.  (See:  If it’s not ready? Stay Home, part one).
  • 4.  Don’t pitch a story you don’t believe in.  I learned a while back that a at least half of my clients want to be in the Wall Street Journal, preferably above the fold.  In print, if possible. (Never mind that online would take a reader to the website — but, lo!  That is a post for another time).

I have three choices.  I could laugh:  mbwahahaha.

Or I could tell them what it will take to get in the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, or TechCrunch, or ReadWriteWeb.

And I could also work really, really, REALLY hard to find an angle — a story, an intersection — that *they* can tell — and that I can tell.  Something true, and (this is harder) something that people not at my client’s company would care about.

Usually, I do all three – not necessarily in order.

Things have gone badly the few times in my career when I have not followed my own advice on this last caveat.  I was once browbeat by a client into phone-stalking a particular reporter at the WSJ.  I really didn’t want to call him, but the client was threatening pretty much life, limb, and a huge account if I didn’t.

You know what happened next.  The reporter was annoyed, disappointed in me, and basically told me he’d lost faith in me, that I was selling out, I knew better, and I shouldn’t call him anymore.  I lost a great relationship; and that particular client is no longer with his company, either.

That’s what I get for being stupid.

Now it’s your turn: what other rules should be on this list?

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Diamonds, Tattoos and Bad Reviews Are Forever: or, When You’re Not Ready — Stay Home (Part I)

A few weeks back, I was perusing ReadWriteWebfor my daily dose of insight and Web 2.0 news.  And I came across this headline:

SocialU: One of the Most Obnoxious Apps We’ve Seen in Awhile

The piece is harsh.  I had to wonder, what was SocialU thinking in pushing for a review?

Oh yes, I’ve been there.  Not often, because I think we’ve established that I try to be honest with all concerned for everyone’s sake…but once would have been too many times.  (I was even there recently, after being assured that all bugs were fixed – more on that in the next post)

A note about PR:  We often can get you or your product in front of the media — maybe even in front of Big Media.  And here’s what we at Hoffman tell our clients: if you succeed, you succeed in front of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands.  In the case of someone like Walt Mossberg, possibly millions.

But, we add, if you, your product or service fail — well, you fail in front of that same number.   And it could look like this:

SocialU is a half-baked, condescending, poorly designed, ad-ridden lifestreaming app built in Adobe AIR. We’d refrain from writing about it, but the things we dislike about it seem worth mentioning and with all the frothy clone-like startups flying around on the web, who doesn’t like seeing one that deserves it get a good blog-lashing sometimes?

Half-baked?  Condescending?  Poorly-designed?  Ouch.

And that‘s from a reasonable, thoughtful, smart as heck writer like Marshall Kirkpatrick.  He doesn’t strike me as taking pride in being a “gotcha” writer.  Some venues could have been worse (in other words, good thing ValleyWag doesn’t do many reviews).

You’d think any good PR counsel would have stood in the figurative doorway, with the tactical equivalent of a Howitzer, barring SocialU from exposing its half-baked service to the scrutiny of the media until it was, um…baked. Right?

Right.  But even good PR counsel can be ignored.

So here’s the point of my little rant:  if the product or service isn’t ready?

Stay home.

Show Marshall’s review to the Board that’s breathing down your neck for coverage.  Better good coverage in a month, than “condescending, half-baked” tomorrow.  Or show your Director of Marketing a crappy review from TechCrunch, or Mossberg or NetworkWorld — wherever your product plays.  Then, in your mind, imagine your own product there.  Or imagine the Twitter-ites calling you out and posting your blog and reviews across the world on those cute TinyURLs.

Oh.  Need to throw up just a little?

I bring this up also because the economy’s sucking like a refurbished Hoover, and there will undoubtedly be more pressure to get results.

But let’s be clear: no Board pressure, no amount of denial of whether your “baby” has warts (or whether the silly media will overlook said warts)  will make up for someone calling your baby crap in front of hundreds of thousands of people, and telling said legions that it would be a waste of their time/money to try/subscribe/buy it.  And I as a PR person — even a damned good one — can’t change what the product delivers.

So.  Work on it, nurture it, start over if you have to.  This isn’t high school picture day, with re-takes in three weeks.  Because remember what your Mom told you about how you “don’t get a second chance to make a first impression?”

It’s almost impossible on the Internet, where a bad review lives forever.

More on this subject in my next post, but if you have a startup (or even a mature company) and disagree, please weigh in.

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Cancer, Social Media, and the Meaning of Small Things

On a crisp September day in 1995 — long before there was such a term as “Social Media” — I sat at my computer with my 28K modem, sobbing as quietly as I could, trying not to wake up my 3 month-old son. And I typed this question:

“I need to know how to help a young Mom with cancer. She’s only 30, she has three young daughters and not much time. Please, can anyone help me?”

In 1995 I had no MySpace, no TechCrunch, no Twitter; no Cluetrain Manifesto. @Scobleizer was probably just a mensch working at Microsoft. Bill Gates was a minor celebrity; people shook their heads about Apple’s tiny market share. AOL and Netscape were king, and when you loaded a website, you had to watch a blue bar while it loaded — long enough to grow a whole new hairstyle sometimes.

In short, I didn’t have the power tools we have today — the myriad complicated ways we celebrate of connecting to each other – our widgets, our followers, our networks.

What I had in 1995 was an amazing friend named Sabine with a buoyant smile, three young daughters… and terminal cancer.

What I also had in 1995 was access to AOL‘s chat rooms. Yep: chat rooms.

I had found the one that said, “AOLMoms.” I entered, waited for it to load, and typed my question.

I typed that question again and again as the chat scrolled down in front of me. And then suddenly:

“I can help. I am a Mom who has had cancer. I have survived it three times. What do you want to know?”

It felt like a miracle. Her screen name was MS_Tylee, and I’ve never forgotten her.

“Anything,” I typed back. “What would help?”

MS_Tylee asked me what stage cancer my friend had; told me about what kinds of foods would upset her stomach given the type of treatment she was getting; what kind of help would actually be helpful — laundry, little errands, child care and maybe meals on days around her chemo treatments.

I was so grateful. What she did was small for her — a few moments’ typing at her desk — but it was huge for me.

I printed off everything she said. Then I helped organize people who were glad to do anything they could. If you’ve ever dealt with cancer first- or second-hand, you know: you feel helpless. There’s this war going on at the cellular level, and you’re not really even allowed in the ring (even if you are the ring). So every day you figure out something you can do.

It turned out I’d need that knowledge: that same month, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. And then another friend — Dale, also a mother — a month later.

Sabine died the following June. She was one of the first people in my circle to have three kids; I learned so much from her about how to handle it. She was also one of the first people in my circle to have cancer, and I guess, to leave those children so young. As I grieved her, I just determined that I would take something from this loss; that I would help people the way that MS_Tylee had helped me.

I totally got it — long before there was Community Building software — about the Internet’s power to pluck just the right help, seemingly out of the air.

I also got that small gestures — things that don’t take much time or money — can make a humongous difference to a person who needs them. Offering to fold laundry or cook a meal. Or just taking a moment to call, even when you’re scared of what you might hear.

I learned to do what I could: sometimes it would be a lot, other times it would be small.

But it would be something. Because with cancer — or AIDS, or a sudden death, or a disaster — there are, often, no mulligans. No road back if you regret your inaction.

It’s what you can live with, you’ll pardon the expression. Or not.

A few years later, a friend and children’s author was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer – with no health insurance. She fought hard, and eventually lost — but not before she and her family saw tremendous love and support, quite a bit from people they’d never met.

I bring this up because I have read and heard lately, several clarion calls – some, like Jeremy Pepper’s, really eloquent — for Social Media to quit its navel-gazing, its fascination with hearing itself talk, and actually do something besides vid-cast itself on Qik for a change.

See, it is pointed out, what you could do in the service of good — you with your thousands of followers; or you, who has made millions talking about the Web’s ability to connect. Or you — take a break from your videocast to shill for someone who needs help.

So true. But I’m not waiting for the Social Media stars or anyone else to make huge gestures – though it would be nice.

Instead we could do what the Web has always done best: a bunch of small gestures that people can live with.

The Web makes it easy for us to be outward, to have those moments when we shine outside of ourselves and afford someone else the benefit of grace — whether it’s of not feeling alone, or sending the equivalent of an overpriced cup of coffee via PayPal –because we can. Because both literally and figuratively, it adds up to more than it could possibly mean to us to put that actual cup of coffee in a cupholder and drive somewhere.

It’s your call. Maybe you click away from this page, shudder and never come back. Or maybe you click through to a link — read a story, send a good wish or small contribution, or put someone’s story up on your blog.

Or maybe you do nothing to help the people here, but instead take a minute to call someone who would just appreciate being remembered.

That’s all I’m sayin’. Just find the courage. Or the compassion. But it doesn’t have to be huge.

For me, I do this for Sabine. For my mother. For MS_Tylee. For all the many people we have lost to cancer and other illnesses, and for those who are still fighting. For Marc Orchant. For my friend Steve Koloskus (and believe me, he is a whole ‘nother story, and merits his own post sometime). For anyone who’s ever shown me kindness when they didn’t have to, through the Internet or otherwise.

Everyone has someone whom they know, in whose memory they are their best selves — cancer or no cancer.

And I will create a separate page to link to people who are waging these battles. You can decide whether to help. I’m starting with Lisa and Tricia.  And, though it’s not about cancer — eMOM.

The Internet was about connection long before it was about Friends lists. Or maybe I should say it was about Friends before it was about lists.

But either way, it was always about 1s and 0s adding up to something much bigger.

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Filed under Media Relations, Tech and hype, Uncategorized, Web 2.0

Ethics: Where’s Your Line in the Sand?

Professionally… where’s the line you cannot cross?

I was either really lucky or really unfortunate — depending on how you look at it — to discover that line early in my PR career.

At the time I didn’t even think I was doing PR as a career. I was helping out a friend while she was off backpacking in Tibet.

I had been starting to do freelance writing, and I had also worked in marketing and PR. I figured I could help my friend and also make some money to supplement my freelance work.

So I skipped into her agency and dug in. I was 27. She had some great accounts. I was enjoying myself.

But then, there was a crisis. I can’t tell you what it was without revealing all the companies involved, and honestly, I have no idea of the ramifications of calling them out on a blog. So for the moment, let me just say that it would be filed under the insurance clause, “Acts of God:” many people had lost their lives, and crisis communications were called for. For the most part, it felt as though everyone came together — well, and thoughtfully — in a time of great need.

The worst of it passed. I felt good about my work and that of my colleagues. While that one account was serious, intense, and sometimes draining, the others were fun and usually pretty interesting. I was making friends with the beat reporters — men and women who worked at the same papers like the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, where my father had written for 40 years. I took some pride in assessing what a journalist would want to know, and trying to deliver that creatively.

Until the day my boss asked me to spy.

Now, at first, it sounded just like research — pose as a college student, ask some questions. I didn’t mind that.

But later, he asked me to do it again — this time, for a union connected with the crisis I mentioned.  As in, pretend to be a member of the union.

And I realized, he wanted me to spy. SPY-spy. Not research. As in: get admitted to a place under false pretenses and get people to trust you — and get information from them that they otherwise would never give you.

Mind you, my boss gave me this assignment with a warm, confident smile; sure that I’d accept this latest exciting little bone they’d tossed me. They weren’t trying to do anything bad, he assured me. He just wanted to keep his finger on that union’s pulse.

I thought about it. I’m a pretty good actress. Really good, or I was once. And suddenly, I felt like Peter frickin’ Parker — “use your powers for good? or evil?”

And y’know? I couldn’t do it.

I literally found myself staring in the mirror, in my then-studio apartment, with only my cat to keep me company. And for me — trained at Northwestern, daughter of a newspaper editor, pretty much a center-left person, and just a person-person amidst this whole mess… I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t lie — not to those people in the union, not to my parents; and certainly not to reporters whom, whatever they thought, I still considered my brethren. If it ever came out that I had impersonated someone in this union… I just couldn’t do it.

So I went in the next day and resigned.

I walked away.

This meant walking away from what was, for me, a fortune at the time. I hadn’t been doing my freelance work for a couple of months, so there was nothing else coming in.

I upset the Agency that had been taking very nice care of me. My boss was incredulous. Then angry.

I surprised the (big) company to whom my boss had apparently promised my spying abilities.

And it wasn’t like I had a bunch of savings in the bank.

But it was still with a huge shrug of relief that I walked away from that office.

I had found my line that I could not cross; and it was like opening a door in myself: this is who I am; it was what they tell you about boundaries: that, paradoxically, they can be very freeing.

And I figured that somehow karma would take care of me.

(It did. One of the accounts followed me: the local business for Anheuser-Busch — which I had for several years, and had a total blast. And other work. And marriage, and kids, and a couple of series on TLC and Discovery.)

Nothing that anyone’s going to give me a standing ovation for — but it was priceless to learn, so early on, that there were some things I wouldn’t do, lines I wouldn’t cross — places where no amount of money, no threats, were worth my integrity.

And knowing that — knowing that I absolutely can and will walk away if my integrity is threatened — is probably the most powerful weapon I have in my arsenal. People ask me what my “secret” to media relations is; it’s not really a secret. But knowing that I’m not for sale — even if it’s just me knowing that — allows me, I think, a degree of clarity that not everyone in my business shares.

Where’s your line in the sand?

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