Monday, January 26, 2009

Need a Perfect Example of a Bad PR Move? This Is It

New York City landlord Rockrose Development, which is a well-known manager and marketer of luxury rental apartments in Manhattan, can trace much of its success to efforts it has undertaken to attract a young, hip audience to its pricey downtown rentals. While they've definitely figured out a lot of things when it comes to marketing, they've got much to learn in terms of crisis communications.

A story in Monday's New York Times chronicles the story of a young couple who claim they were forced to move from a Rockrose-managed facility because they lodged repeated complaints on an in-house, online tenant forum hosted by Google Groups but monitored by Rockrose.

David and Katy Griffiths were told by Rockrose that their lease wouldn't renewed because they had posted critical comments on the online forum. For their part, the Griffiths say while they did engage in spirited conversations on a number of issues, ranging from gym hours to additional fees for grilling on terraces, that none of their comments should be considered abusive.

They also say the whole issue smacks of 1984, particularly since Rockrose officials admit they have employees whose responsibilities include monitoring online forums, such as the ones the Griffiths participated in.

From a PR standpoint, the most interesting part of this whole affair is that Rockrose officials remain completely unapologetic.

“In these times, I try to renew everybody — unless somebody’s a real hothead and a troublemaker," Sofia Estevez, the company’s senior vice president for marketing, told The Times. Yet, the story also says "On perusing his file, the only evidence Ms. Estevez could cite of 'troublemaking' was his refusal to pay fees for the gym and other amenities early in his tenancy, when the gym was not yet open. She said that she could not recall whether online postings were a factor, but that a Rockrose employee does monitor tenant complaints on the Web."

Needless to say, there are some big risks being taken here. For starters, admitting that you monitor postings on an in-house forum as much to determine who the gripers are as much as actually fixing their complaints would rile many people. Secondly, it appears the Griffiths did have some legitimate issues, including the fact that some building amenities that were supposed to be provided as part of a mandatory fee were not yet available.

Even in the crazy world that is New York City real estate, it seems an especially bold move to be taken in a city whose unemployment ranks are swelling with each passing day and likely won't eclipse until late 2009. Most companies would be well advised to avoid anything that remotely resembles this kind of approach to complaints because almost nobody has a monopoly on a product or service. Just as word of the complaints reached Rockrose executives thanks to an employee who carefully monitored forums, you can bet several hundred thousand people -- many of whom may have never even heard of Rockrose until now, much less rented from them -- not only know who they are, but have a negative connotation attached to that name.

Anybody in public relations or crisis communications who is worth their salt will always counsel a client not to get involved in a conflict, whether it's verbal or on a virtual forum, with any current or perspective customer or client. The fact of the matter is, once something goes public, you have very little control over perception, even if you respond in the right way, or the best way possible. Unfortunately for Rockrose, they didn't really pick what most will view as the right way to respond, which will likely mean the memories of their aggressive action will linger longer than they otherwise would.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Yet Another Illustration of Social Media's Perils

Practically since the Web's beginnings, many irate customers have often used it to criticize companies with whom they've done business. In an "updated" version of the tale that emerged last week, a similar event occurred on one of the hottest Web 2.0 platforms -- only this time, it was a PR agency that was left with some explaining to do.

A Ketchum Inc. vice president based in Atlanta was in Memphis last week for a meeting with FedEx executives. The next part of the story gets all the more interesting, given that part of his mission related to training on social media. James Andrews, a Ketchum VP, apparently issued the Tweet "True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say 'I would die if I had to live here!"

Obviously, FedEx wasn't too pleased with the Tweet, saying it exhibited poor judgement on the part of Andrews. However, the company said it was grateful for the apology and was moving past the incident.

For his part, Andrews said the moment followed an irate exchange with "an intolerant individual," and wasn't aimed at Memphis or its residents.

"Everyone knows that at 140 characters Twitter does not allow for context and therefore my comments were misunderstood," he wrote on his blog.

True enough. And, obviously these kinds of situations have snared many individuals and companies in the past. But it does seem amazing in 2009 that we still have to be reminded that online communications don't only give the poster a chance at instant expression, but they also pose the risk of instant feedback. Sometimes that's a good thing, but there are others where the situation could pose a big risk.

Bottom line: Don't assume anything you're writing online, whether it's a Tweet, a blog post, a Usenet posting or on any exploding number of private forums and social networks out there, will be either private or will shortly die. When I was a daily newspaper reporter, one of the solaces we took was that a mistake only lived in print for a single day and that you got a chance to instantly get up to bat the next day in an effort to start a new streak. Certainly these kinds of mistakes won't often have eternal consequences, but it's definitely not as easy for them to disappear from the public's view.

Monday, January 12, 2009

PR Students Worry About Reinvention of Industry

Perhaps no other economic downturn in the last 20 years is causing the same level of reverberations through the nation's economy as the recession we're now in the midst of. While everyone's concerned about their future in one degree or another, perhaps no group is as concerned as recent college graduates or those about to enter the work force.

Students about to enter the work force or recent graduates are most certainly encountering a challenging environment. While the current economic turmoil has a lot to do with it, the situation is complicated by the fact that the overall marketing and media landscape, with which PR will be forever linked, is literally in the profess of reinventing itself.

This reinvention is due chiefly to the emergence of blogs and other social media, as well as the decline of conventional media. Hardly a day goes by that a story predicting the newspaper industry's imminent death isn't published. In fact, several stories have made the rounds recently predicting that The New York Times may end the printed version of its flagship publication as early as May.

Certainly the business model around both publishing and advertising is going through a turmoil like never seen before. That said, anyone who claims to be able to chart exactly how any replacement vehicle(s) and their accompanying business model will be structured doesn't really know what they're talking about because the business model behind the replacements is still very much a work in progress.

I'm certainly not criticizing social media here; in fact, I'm in the midst of launching a social media practice at Astoria Communications. Yet, in contrast to many who have "pie in the sky" notions of what it will do, I believe we should have a much more concrete approach that focuses on knowing how to use social-media tools for business development. Even as new schools of thought are emerging that say expanding one's view of what a social circle is when it comes to social-networking platforms, it's still as important as ever to realize that these are communication platforms and capitalizing on them will require individuals to know how to do that successfully.

While I certainly won't slam a journalism or PR degree, I'd counsel current students and recent graduates to try and broaden their educational experience as much as possible. The classes you think are boring in school, such as economics or other business-oriented classes, will be what sets you apart from a hungry pack in the future.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Celebrity PR Doesn't Speak For Industry

I'll be the first one to admit that public relations has an image problem and have chronicled that fact in several posts since this blog's inception. However, the latest critique that's making the rounds has me baffled.

In the most recent "bookshelf" column appearing in The Wall Street Journal, Toby Young slams public relations as a "hype machine" and takes issue with the book's attempt to refute PR's imagine as the "unsavory business of exaggerating the value of their clients or their clients’ products."

The column, which is actually a review of the book Where's My Fifteen Minutes by Howard Bragman. After reading columns elsewhere about the review, I was expecting it to be a complete hatchet job, but if the book is characterized correctly, I actually agree with a good number of the criticisms.

One thing the column quickly shows is that there continues to be a widespread belief that "Hollywood style PR" is what most public relations pros are engaged in on a daily basis. I've written about this many times and have said this is why I personally hate when publicity and public relations are used interchangeably.

Many of the stories relate to personalities or celebrities and aren't really relevant for the majority of the industry that's involved in helping reputable companies of various types.

It's no surprise that someone with show-biz insights was able to sell someone on writing a PR-oriented book. What's unfortunate is that all these years after public relations became a mainstream professional service, most people don't know what the heck public relations is. Anybody who's actually out selling PR knows this all too well and is why I've continually called for industry practitioners and/or groups to ban together to try and stop this and actually illustrate the positive business impact of what is a widely-used professional service.

Here's To A Better 2009!

It seems 2008 was a year mostly filled of headlines chronicling one type of doom or another and, unfortunately, it won't go down as a banner year for public relations either. While the recovery may not take hold until mid-2009, there's still a lot we in the public relations profession can do to "raise the boat" for everyone.

Public relations has a unique opportunity, perhaps like never before, to articulate its value proposition. The changing media and entertainment landscape may be giving consumers more and more choice, but it's also posing many challenges on the advertising front. One of my professional colleagues is a long-time advertising executive who several years ago sold his company to one of the international conglomerates. If you were to ask him, he'd be the first to tell you that the ad industry has a lot of "discovery" to do, chiefly because there's a disconnect between the areas where opportunities are growing and viable business models.

In other words, the world may be moving online when it comes to news and content, but the online world is, at least for now, not nearly as profitable as the print and broadcast landscapes have traditionally been. Most consider PR and ad folks staunch competitors since they're generally trying to pull dollars from the same "marketing pie." However, this ad exec is refreshingly upfront and honest when it comes to speaking to business executives and owners in regard to what type of marketing works best for a given business. One of the things he says most often is that unless you're able to deal in relatively large budgets, advertising is generally not a good fit. That's chiefly because ad agencies are compensated based on a percentage of the overall advertising expenditure; thus, small budgets aren't really viable in the ad world. Conversely, public relations, which has very little outside costs other than staff time to create and execute a program, can offer options to a much broader range of business sizes and types.

Sadly, however, few people know of this distinction. That's not really surprising, however, given how few actually know what PR people actually do. While I'm not trying to appear as someone who is looking through rose-colored glasses, I do believe now is an opportunity like none before for PR firms and consultants to approach solid companies and tell them the current economic environment gives them a great opportunity to set themselves apart from their competition. Quite simply, success stories have gotten to the point that they're almost "contrarian indicators" in the current economic environment. Given that, there are many good reasons for successful companies to undertake and/or expand their public relations programs in an effort to gain market share.

Hopefully these thoughts will inspire others in the PR field to go out and educate business owners and managers about what we do and what PR offers. Happy 2009!