App Pranksters Dupe Media, Mock Tech, Teach All

livr App Pranksters Dupe Media, Mock Tech, Teach All

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to LIVR’s “founders.”

There’s nothing like a good PR hoax to showcase the rewards and potential pitfalls involved in launching a new product. After all, if you can generate considerable buzz with a fake, imagine what you can do with the real thing. And last week’s prank, from a faux app start-up called LIVRwas pitch perfect.

Foisted on an overeager and unsuspecting SXSW media, LIVR purported to be a social network one could only join when drunk, accessed via a phone attachment – a “biometric bouncer” – that measured one’s blood alcohol content. The higher one’s BAC, the more features available. If sufficiently tanked, users could “Drunk Dial™” another user at random (trademark designation a nice touch) or play “Truth or Dare,” along with more conventional features like finding nearby hot bars or those with drink specials. A morning-after “Blackout” button promised to erase all incriminating evidence of judgment-impaired behavior, including photos and calls.

The elaborate ruse featured cold-calls to reporters and a website and video with actors posing convincingly as CEO and chief developer. A number of news outlets were duped, including this one.  Hoodwinking the media and holding up a mirror to the overhyped, self-involved world of tech start-ups was the point of the gag, the prankster-in-chief said later, coming clean after a few media outlets did some digging basic reporting. A resounding success.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to LIVR’s pranksters, for an object lesson in how to generate buzz – and screen fakes.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Know your advantage and when to exercise it. Exceedingly well planned and executed, the LIVR gag succeeded also on timing and placement. The perpetrators sprang their ruse at the start of  tech-heavy event thick with story-chasing media. Their premise was entirely plausible given the anything-goes world of start-ups. They knew exactly what to sell and how to sell it. If their comedy careers don’t pan out, they have bright futures in marketing.

Uber Overboard, Underhanded In Its Marketing?

ubersea Uber Overboard, Underhanded In Its Marketing?

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for ride-request app Uber in Seattle.

Uber has upended the car-for-hire and ridesharing business with its location-aware ride-requesting app and cashless transactions. Naturally, some people have a problem with this – among them, the owners of traditional taxi companies, and government officials seeking to regulate a brand new category of transportation business.

Bogged down by business and bureaucratic traffic, Uber has managed to keep the wheels rolling, sometimes by racing red lights. At a current crossroads in Seattle, the company has mounted an Astroturf campaign – that is, a fake grass-roots effort – to lobby the City Council against curtailing its business. A “Save Uber in Seattle” effort features a company-sponsored petition website (with a non-profit conjuring .org domain), robo-calls from the local general manager, roving billboard trucks and a citywide blanket of (apparently illegal) posters.

This being Seattle, not everyone is down with a guerilla marketing effort masquerading as a popular groundswell, no matter how hip the company is. Sure, Uber may have Macklemore on its side, but recorded calls offering to forward you directly to the mayor’s office are perhaps a tad too proactive for such a laid back city, and residents are tweeting their disdain. Uber might reach its destination, but how many ride-needy Seattleites will it turn off along the route?

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Uber’s slightly sneaky Seattle marketing strategy.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Handle trendiness with care. A marketing effort that is too clever by half can stir up bad PR, not to mention bad blood. In a place like Seattle, where residents have finely calibrated B.S. detectors, Uber’s effort might backfire for being impersonal, duplicitous and cynical, not to mention visually polluting and slightly illegal. A more solicitous and sincere overture to its local fans might have been a safer, more direct route.

Internet Mogul Is a Media Mess

seanparker Internet Mogul Is a Media Mess

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for internet mogul Sean Parker.

Sean Parker, co-founder of the groundbreaking music sharing service Napster and first president of Facebook, is by many accounts a nice guy who these days is famous mostly for being really rich – and for earning bad press that gets worse when he tries to fix it.

You might recall Parker’s over-the-top, fairy tale-themed wedding in Big Sur last year that turned into a nightmare for him, and then some. Parker dug a deeper hole for himself by talking too much, authoring a 10,000-word defense that was as unintentionally hilarious as it was out of all proportion to the story.

Jump to last week and across the country to New York, where Parker’s snowbound Greenwich Village neighbors complained that the internet billionaire had the street torn up to have high speed fiber-optic communications installed in his $20 million pied-a-terre. Parker responded personally to the report, conciliatorily at first. But then came another story , another response, and another story. In the run-up, Parker got angrier and angrier, finally raising the true white flag of public press feuds – he called his critics Nazis.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Sean Parker and his lack of restraint. His publicist must be both stressed and lonely.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Know when to fold. Parker’s overzealous pursuit of redemption through the press accomplishes just the opposite, sustaining the story and making him look guilty as well as petty. Back in the day, the popular caution was “Don’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Now, with worldwide bandwidth mere keystrokes away, it’s all the more critical that you learn to grin and bear it. If you’re famous, accept that you will sometimes get bad press. Respond if you must, but in a manner that ends the conversation. And leave the job to your publicist so you remain above the fray.

Comcast Sells Mega-merger, Though Few Buy It

ComcastRoberts Comcast Sells Mega merger, Though Few Buy It

THE PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Comcast and CEO Brian Roberts.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts had his work cut out for him last week trying to convince anyone that his company’s $45 billion purchase of cable rival Time Warner was a boon to anyone other than Comcast. Yet gamely he tried, and for that he and Comcast earn points for consistency.

The two parties spun the purchase as a “merger,” when in fact Comcast would be absorbing all of Time Warner – that is, if the transaction is approved by shareholders and regulators. Roberts called the deal “pro-consumer, pro-competitive, and strongly in the public interest.” Another Comcast exec took up the anti-monopoly argument by emphasizing that the two companies currently “do not compete in a single zip code in America.” Comcast also claimed the deal would benefit net neutrality, at least until current protections expire in 2018, and predicted regulatory approval.

Not surprisingly, few bought any of Comcast’s claims. A former FCC commissioner said the deal would “run roughshod over consumers.” One industry expert spelled out why the “pro-consumer” argument was “nonsense,” while another shot through the claim that cost-saving “synergies” Comcast predicted would ever make their way into consumers’ bills. And public advocacy groups called on the FCC and anti-trust authorities to block the purchase. Amid the pile-on, however, Comcast kept cool and did not stray from its script.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Comcast and CEO Brian Roberts, for keeping their emperor fully clothed – appearances to the contrary.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Stick to your story. The script Comcast used in announcing their deal stressed the same talking points over and over. Questions implying the contrary were deflected or ignored. With a controversial merger such as this, coming so soon after the apparent defeat of net neutrality, Comcast needs to win in the court of public opinion as much as that of the regulators. It’s hard to predict which will be the tougher fight, but the same arguments will carry in both theaters.

 

AOL CEO’s Remarks on Benefits a Detriment

tim armstrong aol AOL CEOs Remarks on Benefits a Detriment

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for AOL CEO Tim Armstrong.

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is back with another PR blunder that contributed to, if not prompted outright, an embarrassing corporate about-face. His latest gaffe came last week after AOL made a change to its 401(k) matching policy for employees, revealing that it would only match employee contributions at year’s end instead of throughout the year, and only for employees who are “active” through December 31.

Bad enough to adopt a miserly policy that robs employees of potential stock market gains in their retirement portfolio, but Armstrong added to the firestorm by blaming the change on Obamacare and on two “distressed” pregnancies that cost the company $1 million each in healthcare expenses. “We had to decide, do we pass the $7.1 million of Obamacare costs to our employees? Or do we try to eat as much of that as possible and cut other benefits?” Armstrong said, digging a deeper hole by going on to discuss the expensive pregnancies.

Too bad for Armstrong that AOL announced, at virtually the same time, a 13 percent increase in quarterly revenues, its best growth in a decade. The next day, he announced that AOL would reverse its 401k decision and apologized for singling out the two new mothers, but not before one observer recalculated his salary in terms of distressed babies per year.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Tim Armstrong and AOL for bad timing, bad policy, and bad employee relations.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Avoid scapegoating. Armstrong, like so many other CEOs, looked stingy in blaming Obamacare for forcing cuts elsewhere  – especially with AOL’s simultaneous rosy earnings announcement. (Is anyone managing communications flow at the company?) He doubled down by essentially blaming two specific employees for having the audacity to need expensive health care – pregnant women at that. Why not blame black rhinos for being hunted to near-extinction for their careless habit of having horns that poachers will kill for?

SF Mayor Revises Facts to Fit Friends

edlee SF Mayor Revises Facts to Fit Friends

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is trying to broker peace in his city between the haves and the have-mores – that is, between the middle class and the Next Notch Up. Many of the latter group hail from the tech industry, whose financial and political support helped Lee win office in 2011. Judging from recent published remarks, the mayor might need to recalibrate his socioeconomic bearings to keep his impartial referee’s cap.

Interviewed in Time on how tech wealth has fueled divisions and resentments among residents, Lee conceded that his city might have “missed some steps” in tending to its middle class – and then made a misstep of his own. “We might have a broader range of defining the middle class,” Lee told Time. “I’m talking maybe $80,000 to $150,000.”

That range, as it turns out, is wildly off. As local news outlets reported, census data list median salary in the city at $74,000 as recently as 2012. (It’s about $61,000 for California and $53,000 for the nation.) Upwardly revising the number also rebrands the middle class to embrace the tech block to whom Lee is beholden. Et voila! What middle-class exodus? What’s more, our six-figure friends need government help!

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, for floating a tone-deaf talking point seemingly crafted by a tech sector lobbyist.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Build a ring-fence around your credibility. This is especially true for would-be mediators. The middle ground is the hardest to defend and the slightest tip of the scales one way or the other compromises one’s impartiality and hence effectiveness at bridging gaps. Lee’s infraction of this rule is seemingly minor, but San Francisco is tightly bound, constrained geographically (by water) and politically (by tradition). Like the city’s endemic earthquakes, even small political ripples can do damage and escalate rapidly to major catastrophe. Keep your friends close, indeed – but your facts closer.

Venture Capitalist Enters PR Forbidden Zone

tom perkins 2.png Venture Capitalist Enters PR Forbidden Zone

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Tom Perkins.

Tom Perkins is on a roll – straight downhill. The venture capital icon who founded Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has cemented his reputation among the Obscenely Wealthy Behaving Badly for comments he made last week likening rich techies and other members of the vilified “1 percent” class to victims of the Holocaust.

Perkins, in a weekend letter published in the Wall Street Journal, compared recent protests by affordable housing advocates in San Francisco against Google buses to Nazi targeting of Jews. “I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent,” he wrote. Forget the unspoken rule of debate that whoever first invokes Nazis in an argument loses automatically. Perkins later apologized – sort of – for his gaffe, but really, one should expect nothing less from him. He has always been over the top, shockingly, even willfully flouting the concept of noblesse oblige at every turn. Hard to believe that the man Perkins partnered with to start his VC firm in 1972 had himself fled the Nazis.

Perkins cited that relationship in a next-day TV interview, in which he sported a $380,000 watch and lamented how his eponymous firm chose to “throw me under the bus” for his comments. All that privilege and still a victim.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Perkins, who is far too rich, and perhaps a bit too daft, to choose his words more carefully.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: To end a losing conversation, stop talking. Of course, this is not Tom Perkins’s way. In his post-comment comments, he sought to explain his choice of words and clarify his point, to little avail. A direct, unqualified apology would have been better, but big egos are rigid and only become more sclerotic with time, incapable of adapting and absorbing new lessons. One of those lessons: Before committing words to paper, and thence to print, have someone else run a soundcheck.

Obama’s Proposed NSA Reforms Fall Flat

 

 Obamas Proposed NSA Reforms Fall Flat

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for President Obama for his NSA speech.

Bold change seldom comes from modest action; just ask President Barack Obama. The proposed reforms he announced last week for how the National Security Agency goes about collecting data are hardly the stuff of decisive, game-changing leadership. But that was probably never the Administration’s intent.

Granted, fixing the White House’s PR mess over citizen eavesdropping is a tall order. The President’s speech in the Great Hall of the Justice Department follows months of the dripping faucet of leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, not to mention a particularly bad month for the intelligence community in general, with a critical judicial ruling and a tough review from a White House-appointed panel. In announcing the modest reforms, Obama spent a good portion of time defending the NSA’s most controversial programs as necessary measures in the ongoing battle against terrorists.

What irony, then, that Obama’s speech came on the same day another US President, Dwight Eisenhower, warned Americans about the “military-industrial complex” that threatened American democracy from within. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” Eisenhower said back in 1961. “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” Against that standard, the verdict for Obama’s effort suffers.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for President Obama, who tried to walk the middle road, to no one’s benefit.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Be mindful of history. Obama might not have channelled Eisenhower specifically, but he could have relied on more than modest reforms and a good speech to answer all the criticism over spying dropped on his doorstep. He surprised and satisfied no one with his tepid response to spying – not Congress, not tech companies who were obliging or grudging accomplices, not the American public. Pleasing no one with a middle-of the-road approach might be a somewhat effective strategy for governing, but not so much for PR.

Google’s Ferry Service Misses the Boat

ssgoog Googles Ferry Service Misses the Boat

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

First by land, now by sea? Google, trying to get its San Francisco employees to and from work through the car-choked Silicon Valley corridor without aggravating the local gentry in the process, now has a private ferry to go with the buses that piggyback on city bus routes, clog streets, and generally irritate residents who don’t happen to work at Google. So how was the seemingly civic- and green-minded move greeted locally? More catcalls.

The buses, among others used by tech firms including Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo, use city bus stops to take on and discharge passengers. Their “unlawful” use of city infrastructure, coupled with rising disdain for tech’s rampant hegemony over city life, drew a raucous protest last month when protesters blocked a Google bus and smashed a window. Last week, the city proposed a $1-per-stop tax on each bus, expected to cost each company about $100,000 annually – a fee that critics derided as, well, mere bus fare.

Enter the gleaming, Wi-Fi-equipped, hydrofoil-assisted catamaran Google has hired for a 30-day trial run. The company said it hoped the move would help spare residents inconvenience. Inconvenience perhaps, but not ire. Nothing like the sight of techies zipping by on a flashy boat that used to take kids out for whale-watching tours to bridge the cultural and socioeconomic divide. Think of the children!

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google, for a yeoman’s effort that slightly missed the boat.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Look past the problem. Sometimes the solution has nothing to do with it. The issue here for Google and others isn’t buses; it’s style and tone. If these firms put more effort, and money, into being good corporate citizens, there might be less of an uproar about whose bus stops where, and less of a sense that Googlers and their ilk seem to breathe better air than the rest of San Franciscans. All aboard now!

No Apology for Snapchat Security Breach

snapchatspeigel No Apology for Snapchat Security Breach

The PR Verdict: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel.

Does being CEO and founder of the Internet’s overvalued social fad of the moment mean never having to say you’re sorry? Looks like CEO Evan Spiegel of Snapchat, the self-deleting photo-messaging app, thinks so.

Hackers celebrated New Year’s Day by publishing the user names and private phone numbers associated with 4.6 million Snapchat profiles. The breach occurred after the start-up, whose very appeal derives from its promise of privacy, seemingly ignored an outside security firm’s warning about a security hole. Citing Snapchat’s months-long lack of action, the firm made the warning public on Christmas Eve.

It’s not the first time Snapchat and its founder have been called out for hubris, but this one could really cost. In the days after the breach, security experts lined up to predict class-action lawsuits and regulatory investigations. As for Spiegel,  he declined to offer any kind of apology or mea culpa, telling an interviewer that in a fast-moving business like his, “If you spend your time looking backwards, you’re just going to kill yourself.” An attitude like that could make Snapchat as short-lived as the photos its users share.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Evan Spiegel, for a tone-deaf response to a crisis that only a company lawyer could love.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Own your mistakes. A 22-year-old CEO of a $2 billion company, for all his genius and entrepreneurial skill, probably doesn’t possess the maturity to get beyond the “It’s not my fault” mentality. But Spiegel’s non-apology almost certainly came on advice from nervous lawyers that he avoid admitting culpability. It showcases the dynamic tension that typically exists between corporate legal and PR teams, whose overlapping missions occasionally chafe. We’ll see if Snapchat remains as blasé when users fight back.