Archive for February, 2010

Agency rankings: O’Dwyer takes agency rankings from meaningless to unethical

One of my favorite blogs is Ann Subervi’s The Ethical Optimist.  She just posted a great entry about publications that offer listings of public relations agencies (http://tinyurl.com/yhs2pt7). These lists, she says, are useless because there’s nothing standardized about them, they’re not verified and agencies can send whatever information in that they want.

She also chastises Jack O’Dwyer, who publishes an industry newsletter and goes out of his way to antagonize members the Public Relations Society of America (of which I’m a member). Mr. O’Dwyer provides a listing of agencies, but now charges agencies to be on it.  If that doesn’t skew results that are already skewed by a lot of other factors, I can’t imagine what would.

By way of full disclosure, I have my own personal list of PR agencies and Utopia Communications is right at the top. Ann and her folks have supported my work at K. Hovnanian for many years, helping with media relations, events, crises and just keeping me cheered up when the weight of the real estate market got to be too heavy. We are talking about doing some social media work together.

But Utopia isn’t the only agency that I’ve used (sorry, Ann). And I do not use the listings from O’Dwyers, PRWeek or any other publication. It’s an interesting place to look and see where my friends’ agencies land (if they’re on there), but that’s not how I make a decision. Instead, I look at who’s writing articles or teaching seminars conducted by PRSA or International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) or other groups I respect. I talk with others and ask who they use or would recommend. I use my network to find names and check them out.

When you’re looking for an agency to work with, you’re looking for a business partner. Not only do they need the technical skills to do the job, they have to match you in size, ethical position and temperament.  You have to keep in mind that huge agencies usually require huge retainers. Is it worth burning your budget on a name? If your budget is as meager as mine (read: $0), you have to find someone who’s really good and better fits your budget (read: $0…ok, just read: reasonable).

Are they willing to adhere to your strict ethical standards? Any agency that works with me must adhere to the PRSA Code of Ethics and sign an agreement to do so.  Our company also has a code of ethics that it requires trade partners to agree to.

And because I’m a one-person department working at about a million miles per hour, anybody I hire better be able to follow my instructions and hit my high standards with a minimum of supervision. And the reality is that the most successful people with whom I’ve partnered learn to read my mind.  They understand what K. Hovnanian PR needs and don’t need me to sit in long conferences to get jobs done.

The last place to get that information is a list, especially one where one of the qualifying factors is ponying up an inclusion fee.

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February 28, 2010 at 2:00 pm 1 comment

Everybody’s Gotta Get the Message

One of my clients called me in the other day to help deal with a potential problem. It’s one of those every-day, but-just-in-case situations and the goal is to keep things under wraps while we fix the problem. One of the tactics he wants from me is a script so every single person on that job can handle questions about the issue that might come their way. My client is very wise.

In my experience, you can organize and execute the best plans for handling anything from a crisis response to simply keeping one’s reputation polished, but if the message doesn’t get from top to bottom, those plans will fall apart.

I was thinking about this as I visited the Manhattan Club in New York City. Here we are, being wooed by this organization so they can take a sizeable chunk of money from us. Yet from the time we were booked until we were well into the process, their polished plans were tarnished by workers who just didn’t understand the message and their role in protecting the company’s reputation.

We were told to arrive at a hotel for a morning meeting, followed by an overnight stay. Those who booked us told us when and where to arrive and park. We parked as directed, but we had been given the wrong directions. That almost cost us an extra $20. Then the registration clerk arrogantly told us that rooms wouldn’t be ready until much later in the afternoon. Yes, we could leave our bags…for tidy sum. Things were not going well.

Next, we stood in the lobby of this customer-service focused club while two bellmen argued over who was supposed to be inside and who was supposed to be outside and who was working harder. Finally one grabbed our bags, slapped a ticket in my wife’s hand, and continued with his argument, clearly annoyed at having been interrupted.

We arrived at the sales desk. Clerks greeted us with terse instructions, followed by what I took to be sarcasm. OK, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. They probably saw the steam coming out of my ears and the blood pressure alarm over my head. They were probably trying to calm me down. Listening to me might have helped. Empathizing and trying to do something about the issues  might have helped. Making jokes just made it worse.

A sales person arrived and introduced herself.  She continued trying to calm me down, first by making light of the situation, and then by trying to tell me not to worry about it. Wrong. She started into her sales presentation, perhaps a little more nervous than usual. Much of her presentation seemed to be pleading with us to “keep an open mind.”  On top of everything else, being told to keep an open mind certainly made me wonder what we had gotten into.

Eventually, our sales person settled into her well-rehearsed routine and things started going more as one would expect in a high-end hospitality organization. And a little while later, a polished sales manager came over. He listened. He repeated back the questions, concerns and problems to assure us that he understood them. And then he started apologizing about the problems and fixing things. He addressed concerns. And he had hard, cold numbers, facts and data to present to us as he took us through the sales presentation again and, yes, closed the deal.

Once he got involved, the people who we worked with clearly understood how the Manhattan Club wanted to be perceived by its guests. It was impressive, but these people were arriving late in the game.

It’s interesting to think how much more impressive the experience would have been — and how much easier the sale might have been — if the messages of customer service had been understood by the people who booked our trip, greeted us at the door and took our luggage. Those were the first people we saw, and they almost drove us away.  And no matter how well everyone else did, our first contacts are the ones I’m still thinking about.

My client is right to make sure that everyone,  starting with those handling basic maintenance or meeting people at the door,  has the messages we want people to get. Those are the people our homeowners and their guests see everyday. They’re the ones who will make the most lasting impressions. It’s a point to keep in mind in every communications plan.

February 23, 2010 at 1:26 am 1 comment

3:1 Post–Dead cats, ambulances and college students

You’re probably wondering what dead cats, ambulances and college students have in common. Well, nothing, except they’re on my mind and all have me thinking about different facets of public relations. I decided the only way to catch up was to talk about all three in one post.

Dead Cats

Ophelia, a pretty long-haired kitten, died Monday morning at three months or six months, depending on who you believe. She had lived with us for only a week, leaving us a little bewildered. And, yes, leaving me thinking about reputations.

Karen spotted Ophelia on Internet. When we were looking for a kitten a few years ago, Karen signed up for all sorts of alerts and feeds and some of them are still coming in. Recently, we decided it was time to become a two-cat household again. Ironically, a feed with Ophelia’s piOphelia, a rescued kitten, died Monday morning. We feel her loss even though we only had her a week, but her death also raises some issues about reputation of rescue agencies and pet stores.cture arrived at the right moment. It was a great example of using new media or social media to market.

Long story short, we met with a cat rescue person at the Petco in East Hanover. The next day we took Ophelia home. The rescue lady told us about how she came to have Ophelia, who she called Freya, and assured us she was active and healthy. She also warned us that she had not yet taken the kitten to the vet. We decided to take the kitten home and bring her to our vet instead. We knew and trusted him. He declared Ophelia healthy, although she was not an active kitten. The vet’s conclusions left us somewhat dubious about the rescuer’s story. 

Ophelia never really thrived and over her last 48 hours, she slid downhill. Despite our best efforts, she died Monday morning at home.

It, of course, is tragic and even though she’d only been with us a week, we’re upset and asking ourselves a million questions. We knew she wasn’t right and we also know she was warm, well fed and well taken care of in her last  hours. We’ll take comfort in that and move on.

So what’s the PR issue here? Well, first, I have to wonder where caveat emptor ends and rescue agency responsibility begins. Despite a 30-year history of having happy, healthy cats in our lives, this is the second time we’ve adopted a kitten from a Petco who died shortly after arriving home.  I have no doubt that the rescue person’s intentions were nothing but good, but just how do I, as a consumer, ever trust one of these amateur do-gooders again? Is there a standard? Is there some way that rescue agencies can differentiate themselves and establish credibility as organizations that do more than transfer a problem from a shelter to my vet?  We don’t need more laws and regulations, but if I was a rescue person, I’d endeavor to begin to work on my reputation as someone a cat lover can count on. Breeders have done it. Why can’t rescuers?

The other issue on my mind is what would I be thinking if I was Petco? It’s a nice little community relations gig to allow local rescue agencies to set up in the stores. Petco customers are self-qualified as animal lovers and who can resist a playful kitten? It’s quite clear that the rescuers don’t work for Petco and that Petco assumes no responsibility. Yet by welcoming these organizations, the rescuers and Petco are linked in the customer’s mind. And if the kittens are flea-invested or sick, what does that say about Petco?  PetSmart also offers adoptions, but the agencies in those stores somehow seem more stable and trustworthy. Perhaps its just image,but I’d be curious to know if PetSmart has the same issues.

Ambulances

Never accuse me of rushing into anything. Today I distributed a news release about the successful push to extend New Jersey’s Lemon Law to ambulances, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. You can see the release here. I hope it ges the word out about the new law. I also think it’s a great lesson in making our system work. You’ve just got to get involved. 

College Students

I wanted to thank the students attending the Fairleigh Dickenson Schering-Plough Executive Lectures for having me a couple of weeks ago. The dozen college students, who were at different points in their careers, were an enthusiastic and insightful group. We had a great discussion about community relations. I talked about it being an on-going, long-term strategy, not a check presentation. We talked about it as a way of conducting business and debated several scenarios. I had a lot of fun and I hope they did too. The PowerPoint presentation I used is here. It includes the scenarios which covered contributions, sponsorships, community meetings and special events and how they fit into a larger strategy of ethical conduct and community engagement.

February 16, 2010 at 2:56 am 3 comments

Study says blogging not as popular. Oh well.

First, we were told that if we don’t blog, the world will pass us by. So I learned to blog. Now, I’ve read an article that says that people between 12 and 29 years old don’t like long-form blogging because (a) they don’t like to read and (b) they prefer Facebook and Twitter.

Communications gets more and more interesting, but I kinda wonder what it says about our future leaders that they don’t like to read. Oh well: My parents figured I’d ruin the world because I listened to rock-and-roll, didn’t cut my hair and didn’t focus on my studies.

As a public relations counselor and a communicator, it presents a challenge, but nothing insurmountable and nothing to get alarmed about. It’s just another day on this rapid express we live in. Newspapers, we’re told,  are losing their purpose. Now blogging is losing its purpose. Twitter has purpose, but mostly because experts keep telling us it does. And Facebook is the king (queen?) of communicating. This week. 

Seems to me that all this comes back to the basics of communications: What do you want to say, who do you want to say it to and what’s the best way to say it?  If I primarily wanted to talk with very young people, I’d use all of the media that they might read, and focus on Facebook and, maybe, YouTube. I don’t. I want to talk to people who are a little older and want to buy a home and I want to talk with reporters and opinion leaders. Seems to me Facebook and Twitter have a role in that, but so does a blog. And, by the way, so does the local daily newspaper those people read and, antiquated though it  may seem, so do magazines and maybe even post cards.

There are so many ways to communicate these days, that it feels like every communications effort requires a multiple choice pick list.  Chatting now requires a drop-down menu. If I want to talk about the movie I saw Tuesday night (I did that on Twitter and got lots of responses), I can choose one group of media that friends (real friends) will see. If want to talk about some  aspect of business, like how impressed I was with the homes at Four Seasons at Harbor Bay, same pick-list, different choices.

The challenge is knowing your audience well enough to know what to pick and then how to communicate through those media. That hasn’t changed and it never will.

February 4, 2010 at 12:54 pm

So just how does the old dog learn new tricks?

Sandra Fathi, president and founder of Affect Strategies, wrote recentingly in Bulldog Reporter that the media landscape is evolving faster than some PR professionals and that some of us old folks should catch up. The whole story is here. This is one old dog that’s been trying to learn new tricks, but I keep coming to the same question: How?

First, understand that I’m a one-person department serving a lot of masters who all agree that they are the most important thing on my plate. No, that’s not poor writing: Each individiual internal client things he or she is the most important thing on my plate which means spending my days dealing with the squeakiest wheel. Strategy? Hah. I don’t even get to tactics! And more and more corporate practitioners are in the same boat. In my case, I also have no internal or external help.

So hours and hours to play on the Web are out.

I’ve been known to ask my friends, but the ones who are in corporate PR are in the same boat I am. The agency folks I know think a statement like, “I wish my tweets were retreated more often” is a prelude to a new business pitch.

What’s equally scary is the number of businesses that have grown up to teach this old dog…at a price, of course. Ususally a stiff price. But not to worry: Each one promises me the best, most knowledgable people. They all say that when I leave, I’ll be able to instantly improve my organic standings and rule the roost with my newfound knowledge.

What’s an old dog to do?

I go to PRSA workshops, which usually are good. But you still get the idea it’s a business pitch. Everyone talks new media but nobody’s showing me how to  do it! I tweet. I have a Facebook page and a Linkedin page. And you’re obviously one of the 12 or so readers who know first-hand that I blog. And I even optimize my news releases!

So I’m watching and experimenting. I look for the corporate stars of new media because they’re not out to sell me anything. And of course, I speak to  PR practitioners who come with great recommendatons…like Sandra. But the biggest frustration I have isn’t learning new tricks, it’s knowing which teachers are best and who to ask in hopes of an answer that will actually let me do something!

February 2, 2010 at 12:35 am 1 comment


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