SAE Makes the Right Move

 SAE Makes the Right Move

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for SAE.

A college fraternity is making headlines again, but it’s not all bad news. Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), the largest US fraternity, announced it will seek to combat an alarming number of injuries and even deaths in its ranks by banning pledging, the process by which potential new “brothers” compete to be accepted into the fraternity.

Pledging is a rite of passage deeply embedded in American fraternities and sororities. On many college campuses, however, pledging has involved hazing: a physically and emotionally stressful initiation frequently involving humiliation, excessive alcohol intake and generally poor judgment. Bloomberg News recently dubbed SAE “The Deadliest Frat”, crediting it with nine hazing-related deaths since 2005.  More than 60 similar deaths have occurred at fraternities during the same timeframe, Bloomberg said.

With media coverage like this, it’s safe to say SAE’s hand is being forced. But regardless of motivation, their decision to fundamentally alter the fraternity landscape is their best move – both for their “bros” and their image. Once, fraternities were seen as positive institutions that helped instill values in their members, shaping tomorrow’s leaders. Today, they’re more often associated with allegations of hazing, racism or sexual assault. While some smaller frats have already banned pledging, that the nation’s largest organization is now doing so sends a strong message, both to its own members and to others.   

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The bigger you are, the more you have to lose.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Lead by example. For U.S. fraternities, the story has gone from bad to worse over the past decade. Isolated incidents have become seen as an out-of-control systemic problem. In  situations like this, a dramatic gesture must be made to right the ship, lest everyone go down. At more than 300,000 members, Sigma Alpha Epsilon is a powerful force. Its bold decision will be seen now the right thing to do, and everyone from university presidents to insurance companies will approve. Fraternities that don’t follow suit do so at their own peril.

Absentee Senators Busted by Actor With a Cause

 Absentee Senators Busted by Actor With a Cause

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for actor Seth Rogen.

Actor Seth Rogen headed to Capitol Hill to take on a new role: that of advocate, urging elected officials to put more money toward research into Alzheimer’s disease. What happened after his testimony, however, was the real show stopper.

Rogen, known for playing goofy, bumbling characters in movies like The Hangover and Knocked Up, appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee. He and his wife, screenwriter and actress Lauren MIller, have been helping care for Miller’s mother since she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s dementia nearly nine years ago.

Rogen’s heartfelt statement probably would have been well-received, had there been anyone there to receive it. Sixteen of the 18 senators on the powerful committee, which allocates federal funding to government programs and which had invited to Rogen to appear, either didn’t show or actually walked out during the hearing.

The lack of attendance could have been a PR miss for Rogen. Instead, he turned it into a cause celebre. He called the absentee senators on the carpet, shaming them on Twitter by tweeting a photo of an empty hearing room and responding to one senator with “Why did you leave before my speech? Just curious,” before hitting the media circuit.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Rogen. In the end, Rogen got more attention for Alzheimer’s than if he’d played to a packed house.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Learn how to turn lemons into one mean lemonade. Washington  denizens are used to the tableaux of the empty committee room, but it clearly caught Rogen off guard. Perhaps his actor’s training allowed him to take a deep breath and figure out how to rescue the scene. Life in the public eye (and, for that matter, life in general) is full of surprises. Try to view a situation from all angles in order to figure out if a negative situation can be redirected. It’s a skill that can save, or even make, a PR opportunity.

Yes, There Is Such a Thing As Bad PR

burkman 150x150 Yes, There Is Such a Thing As Bad PR

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Jack Burkman.

If you don’t know who Jack Burkman is, he didn’t get as much attention as he wanted. For the uninitiated, Jack Burkman is a Republican lobbyist who was so bothered by college athlete Michael Sam coming out that he’s drafting legislation banning gay athletes from the National Football League. A sample line from his statement: ”We are losing our decency as a nation. Imagine your son being forced to shower with a gay man. That’s a horrifying prospect for every mom in the country.”

Burkman’s “bill” becoming law is about as likely as Elton John announcing he’s straight. Only members of Congress can introduce legislation, and Burkman’s premise would seem to violate federal law. He claims to have supporters in Congress but none have rushed forward with hands raised.

But getting a law on the books isn’t really Burkman’s goal. Indeed, he’s basically admitted he just wants headlines, telling The Daily Beast that, “Of all the discussions that we’ve had, the legal (route) has been the last.” Rather, he said, he’s focusing on “substance” and “PR” to call attention to himself and his position. Can publicity stunts make their subjects look worse than they did pre-stunt? Observing Jack Burkman, the answer would appear to be yes.

THE PR VERDICT: F (Full Fiasco) for Jack Burkman, who got what he wanted on one level: now, more people know he is a bigoted crackpot.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: All news is not good news. Publicity stunts have always been an unpredictable animal; clever ones are lauded as canny marketing, such as the lead-up to The Blair Witch Project, which had moviegoers thinking they were seeing a real documentary. The ones that fail are also memorable, and not in a good way: Remember Richard Heene, the attention-seeker who claimed his son had floated away in a homemade balloon when the 5-year-old was hiding in a garage? He got jail time and fines. It seems safe to say Burkman’s bid falls in the latter category.

 

NBC’s Cooper Medals in Insensitivity

 NBCs Cooper Medals in Insensitivity

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) to NBC for making Bode Miller cry.

It’s always a safe bet that American Olympic skier Bode Miller will make headlines. But an interview that went off the journalistic rails at this week’s Olympic Games in Sochi grabbed more attention than usual.

The drama unfolded following the men’s Super-G alpine skiing event, for which Miller had just won the bronze medal. NBC’s Christin Cooper asked Miller how the recent death of his younger brother was affecting the skier’s performance. And asked. And asked. And asked. To a point where Miller hung his head, dissolved into tears and walked away. The camera stayed on him well after he broke down.

Viewer backlash against Cooper was fierce. Criticism mounted after NBC made clear it didn’t mind capitalizing on the uncomfortable exchange. The taped segment could easily have been edited, but the network chose to show it in full.

As bad as the interview made NBC look, it may have been a PR plus for Miller. Skiing’s bad boy has been undergoing an image rehab since the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, when he blamed his mediocre performance on being “wasted” and said he used the games “to party and socialize at an Olympic level.” A custody battle for a child he sired during a fling also inspired ire. This interview humanized him more effectively than any PR campaign could.

THE PR VERDICT:  “D” (PR Problematic) for Christin Cooper’s Olympic-sized ambush.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Reporters shouldn’t become the story. Know basic tenets of PR, one of which is “There’s a time and place for everything.” Cooper obviously didn’t delve into NBC’s archives to watch Jim Gray’s 1999 interview of Pete Rose after he made the Baseball All-Century Team, which devolved as Gray relentlessly harped on Rose’s gambling past. Asking celebrities or athletes about personal issues isn’t off limits, but doing so at a celebration is bad form. Save the probing questions for the talk show couch.

Something is Rotten in Denmark Zoo

 

 Something is Rotten in Denmark Zoo

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to the Copenhagen Zoo.

When does a lion eating a giraffe become global headline news? When a zoo decides to execute a healthy giraffe named Marius with a shotgun blast to the head, dismember him front of a crowd, and  feed his remains to a neighboring lion. Sounds too macabre to be real, but it happened at the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark. Apparently, zoo space is at a premium, and this particular giraffe wasn’t rare enough to warrant taking up that space.

The zoo’s decision sparked outrage around the world, garnered more than 30,000 protest signatures on an online petition and prompted adoption offers from other zoos. Despite the outcry, the Copenhagen Zoo went ahead with the killing, opened the autopsy to the public as an “educational opportunity” and allowed photography of the giraffe’s remains being devoured.

The zoo’s tone-deaf response to the public uproar has been even more chilling. Bengt Holst, the zoo’s scientific director, called the protests “totally out of proportion” and noted, “A giraffe is not a pet; it’s not like a dog or cat that becomes part of the family.” Perhaps, but to see one executed by the staff, then fed to another animal, was more than many animal lovers could bear.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to the Copenhagen Zoo, which demonstrated the business side of zoos in one of the most unsavory ways possible.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Even the most altruistic companies have to worry about the bottom line, but there are right ways to cut costs and wrong ones. It may well be that keeping this animal didn’t attract many grants or visitors. But disposing of it in the face of public fury was simply wrong – no matter how much it could be justified in the board room. A decision might look good in the ledger, but a raft of negative headlines could wind up costing much, much more.

As Facebook Turns 10, Zuckerberg Comes of Age

 

 As Facebook Turns 10, Zuckerberg Comes of Age

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook turned 10 years old this week, and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO of the world’s most successful social networking platform, used that milestone to come of age.

Zuckerberg, the 29-year-old entrepreneur who started Facebook in 2004, has never been much of a media fan. For Facebook’s birthday, however, he participated in several interviews, including NBC’s Today Show and Bloomberg Businessweek. Though he briefly alluded to the early days, he spent the bulk of the interviews speaking about the network’s massive cultural impact and detailing current and future business plans (three-, five-, and ten-year plans, to be exact). The result? He came off as a successful and confident executive at the helm, adroitly steering Facebook into its next decade.

This evolution of his persona is significant both for Zuckerberg, and for Facebook. In the past, he’s been depicted as a brilliant but arrogant smart aleck whose tech prowess eclipsed his business acumen. In recent months, too, media coverage has focused on how Facebook may be losing traction with teenagers, the base on which it was built. These interviews gave Zuckerberg a broad platform to speak directly to multiple stakeholders at what may be a turning point in the company’s young history.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Maturity looks good on him.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: The media can offer redemption as well as criticism. Several things conspired to make this a PR success. Zuckerberg’s reluctance to do media has worked in his favor. When he does have something to say, the media listens. He pinned his interviews to Facebook’s 10th birthday, a built-in news hook. And he was clever about the venues he chose: the Today Show speaks to millions of (older) users and potential users, while Bloomberg Businessweek took care of the business side of the Facebook story. It’s a winning combination that artfully conveyed his message: Mark Zuckerberg is a big boy now.

Soda Endorsement Lands Johansson in Hot Water

 

ad 124673358 150x150 Soda Endorsement Lands Johansson in Hot Water

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Scarlett Johansson.


A seemingly routine product promo has put Scarlett Johansson in the middle of a geopolitical mess.

Johansson recently agreed to front SodaStream, the popular beverage maker. As part of the campaign, the 29-year-old actress will be featured in a commercial this weekend on Superbowl Sunday, one of the most widely viewed events in US television. The deal, however, is causing a furor. Oxfam, the UK-based international charity, has harshly criticized Johansson, saying SodaStream’s facilities in the hotly contested West Bank region of Jerusalem are an affront to the work Oxfam does on behalf of Palestinians.

It’s a particularly big “oops” for Johansson, who’s been an Oxfam ambassador since 2007. In a public war of words, Oxfam said businesses that operate in Israeli settlements “further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.” Johansson countered that SodaStream’s policy of providing equal pay and benefits to Israeli and Palestinian employees shows it wants peace between Israel and Palestine.

Johansson claims she “never intended on being the face of any social or political movement, distinction, separation or stance.” However, there’s no disputing she’s there now.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Scarlett Johansson, whose “belief” that SodaStream is helping build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians strains credulity. SodaStream makes soda – not peace agreements.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Due diligence applies to celebrities too. In 2009, a similar scene played out between Oxfam and Sex and the City actress Kristin Davis, who endorsed a cosmetics company with a West Bank factory. She cut ties with the company after negative media pressure. With Oxfam’s position well known, it seems unlikely Johansson’s camp didn’t expect their reaction. She also could have spoken privately with Oxfam before inking the SodaStream deal. Instead, she’s choosing to battle a charity in the public eye. The result? The unfortunate impression that she’s willing to imperil years of good works for a lucrative spokesperson gig.

Google, Walmart Internal Memos Go External

 Google, Walmart Internal Memos Go External

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google and Walmart.

A set of “talking points” is a basic element of the PR professional’s toolkit. But should talking points be broadly distributed to employees? The short answer: maybe.

Two incidents this week suggest talking points are best kept under lock and key. Both involve documents, intended for internal use only, that were leaked. At Google, talking points about the company’s private buses, which are irritating most of San Francisco, sounded imperious and gave the impression the company was putting words in Googlers’ mouths. The memo suggested employees say that eliminating the buses would increase city congestion because they’d have to drive to work, and a condescending “Feel free to add your own style or opinion” also rubbed people the wrong way. And Walmart‘s fictional scripts about unionization were leaked by Occupy, the protest group against economic inequality. The scripts  were goofy theoretical representations of how employees might discuss the prospect of unionization.

What was wrong with these documents wasn’t the content but the tone. Google comes off as superior (Valleywag.com described “a memo from the overlords”), while Wal-Mart’s fake conversations feel like they’re trying to put one over on employees. These companies might have escaped  some of the negative PR from these leaks if they’d just provided workers with straightforward facts that articulated their company’s position – nothing more.

THE PR VERDICT:  “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google and Walmart. Good ideas, clumsy execution.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: A company with employees is a company with spokespeople – lots of them. Trying to manage your workers’ public commentary is futile, not to mention potentially damaging from a PR perspective. Instead, be up front. Don’t tell employees what to say or think, just provide the company’s reasons for doing what it’s doing (and leave out the hyperbole and manipulation). Employees who agree with you are smart enough to adopt your eloquent words for their own. The ones who don’t? Well, a company memo won’t change their minds anyway.

PR Memo to A-Rod: It’s Not Too Late

 PR Memo to A Rod: Its Not Too Late

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Major League Baseball player Alex Rodriguez.

To sports fans, a losing season is interminably long. Baseball fans must be feeling that way about the drama involving Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees and the question of whether he took performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). With each passing day, A-Rod digs himself deeper into a PR hole he has increasingly little chance of climbing out of.

The issue exploded last week after an arbitration panel agreed Rodriguez should serve the longest-ever suspension of a Major League Baseball player for his alleged infractions. On Sunday, a 60 Minutes interview featured purported dope dealer Anthony Bosch, who suggested that A-Rod’s inner circle tried to buy his silence and, when Bosch refused, threatened his life.

Some say it’s too late in the game for a mea culpa from Rodriguez. But the sad truth is that other sports figures, most notably Lance Armstrong, have more than cleared the brush on that path. So many others have come before him – including a dozen other players who admitted they bought drugs from Bosch – that Alex Rodriguez would be just another name on a depressingly expanding list.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Alex Rodriguez. Admitting he used PEDs  won’t save his career or legacy, but it’s his only option to stop the onslaught of negative press and repair his image.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Know when to fold. With this scandal breaking in the twilight of his career, Alex Rodriguez’s dreams of holding homerun records and joining the Baseball Hall of Fame are dashed. An admission of guilt may give the public a figure they can eventually forgive. All that’s left of Rodriguez’s image is who he is as a person. Admitting he used and apologizing would at least give us someone who went out appearing accountable and contrite, rather than a deluded egomaniac who denied his complicity until the bitter, bitter end.

 

 

Old Spice’s “Oedipal Nightmare” Is PR Dream

 Old Spice’s Oedipal Nightmare Is PR Dream

The PR Verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) to Old Spice and it’s “Momsong” campaign.

Old Spice, that old seadog of an aftershave, has been around since before World War II.  Little surprise that, with “75 years of experience helping guys improve their mansmells” and a lot of awards for their clever adverts, the Old Spice marketing team has done it again.

As part of its new “Smellcome to Manhood” campaign, Old Spice began airing an attention-grabbing commercial called Momsong this week. In it, mothers prowl around their teenage sons who are out on dates, bemoaning the day “Old Spice sprayed them into men.” Moms hide behind curtains, hang onto car bumpers, and pop out of pull-out couches while their sons obliviously flirt with the fairer sex.

If it sounds odd, that’s because it is. Some of the adjectives used to describe it? “Freaky,” “creepy,” and “bizarre” – and, nearly universally, “hilarious.” Momsong is unquestionably strange, but it’s also the perfect mix of witty and weird. Most importantly, it’s gotten people talking. In just three days, the commercial garnered more than 1 million YouTube views.

Momsong isn’t the first commercial coup for Old Spice, a division of Proctor & Gamble. Although the brand name’s most iconic figure is probably the duffel-laden sailor returning from sea into the arms of a waiting woman, Old Spice has always excelled at marketing its line of body products. Add Momsong to the repertoire.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Old Spice, whose “Oedipal nightmare” is a PR dream come true.

THE PR TAKEAWAY:  Taking a chance on unusual ads is not for the faint of heart, but it’s something many companies consider under pressure to stand out. Old Spice gets away with wacky commercials because its name is embedded in American culture, and because it’s known for an unusual advertising approach. Lesser known companies should do careful market research and not skimp on the focus groups. A zany ad campaign can make – or break – a brand.