Archive for July, 2010

PR—The Voice of Reason

Friday, July 30th, 2010

One of my first jobs in the tech sector was working at Regis McKenna Inc., a noted strategic business and communications consulting firm in Silicon Valley. The company is well-known for helping to launch many noted companies and was credited with helping to design the famous multi-colored Apple logo. But that was before my time.

One of my first clients to work with was Go Corporation. The company created one of the first, if not the first (but I can’t remember for sure), PenPoint computers. It seemed like a great idea, full of creativity and imagination, and it felt as though we were ushering in a new era of futuristic computers. I figured we’d finally be able to buy hovercraft cars and jet packs in the near future.

 

But a funny thing happened on the way to the party. The handwriting recognition wasn’t up to snuff. Around the same time Apple came out with the Newton and, low and behold, the handwriting software still couldn’t cut it. I knew that the technology had entered the mainstream when the cartoon strip, Bloom County, took a few shots at the Newton and mocked its inability to correctly recognize a user’s handwriting.

 

So why am I getting all nostalgic? Well, sitting in the PR chair allows us communications folks to play gatekeeper on the B.S. meter. While we may be one of the last groups to get involved with a product launch, we should be the voice of reason when it comes to public perception. We have to have a strong understanding of what the editorial community as well as the general public will say about the announcement and play a central role in message development. We have to be prepared to not only orchestrate the launch (everybody likes stuffing press kits into folders in the middle of the night before a press conference, right?), but get ready to react to what the editors and the public say if something backfires. You think Apple might have been caught off-guard recently when the problems with the iPhone 4 erupted? What a nightmare.

Good communicators think ahead and try to plan for a wide variety of reactions when new products are launched. We have to think through the tough questions and figure out what could go wrong. Back in 1993 we thought Go Corporation was going to hit a home run and lead a new market. If Go had adjusted expectations differently – and more appropriately given the limitations of the technology – would Go have found some profitable niches and still be around today? Overhyping immature technology is always a mistake, and more often than not, fatal.

So what experiences have you had with product announcements that have gone awry? What are some tips you’ve found helpful to make sure you’re truly prepared?

Oh How the Mighty Have Fallen

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Pardon me if I’m a week behind the times but I was out last week. But even being away from my desk for a few days didn’t shield me from the fiasco that Apple has been enduring. For the situation to be referred to as a “Toyota-style PR crisis for Apple sure says a mouthful. By now everyone has heard about the little glitch that the iPhone 4 is suffering from. Even Consumer Reports jumped on the bandwagon and said it couldn’t recommend the iPhone 4 after giving it a positive rating initially.

Now let’s take a step back for a minute. Apple has one of the strongest brands in the world. Known for quality and innovative products, the company has always been more user-friendly than just about another other tech company. Yet somehow this killer new product has fallen on hard times (from a PR perspective, sales seem to be holding up for now) due to a technical error with the antenna. In reading the coverage it seems that more people are interested in the PR fiasco than the actual error, probably because Apple has handled the situation so poorly. As my noted colleague discussed, is the hype around the problem bigger than the problem itself? So what does this Fortune 500 company, with one of the strongest brands in the world, do to manage this crisis?

They tell customers to hold the phone differently.

What do users say? Use duct tape Not exactly rocket science here but you get the picture.

What’s most amazing to me, a PR professional that worked at Apple in the 1990’s, is how badly Apple has handled this crisis. Most of the PR experts who have weighed in on this one agree that there are some very basic principles you follow in a crisis situation like this one—acknowledge the problem, ensure consumer trust by saying the issue is being examined and addressed, craft your story and stick to it.

Many PR pros who focus on crisis management have weighed in on how poorly Apple has handled this one:

Instead of addressing the problem and offering to find a solution like Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol tampering in the early 1980s, Apple has come off more like Toyota and BP during their recent reputation-annihilating incidents. “The biggest mistake (Apple) made is they keep changing their story,” said Ira Kalb, professor of marketing at USC Marshall School of Business. CNET

After users reported problems with signal strength and dropped calls when they touched the lower-left portion of the phone, however, Apple suggested that consumers hold the phone differently or use one of many bumpers to insulate the antenna. It also said that all phones suffered from similar problems when they were cradled a certain way. These comments were widely laughed at in gadget blogs. New York Times

To say it isn’t good to be mentioned in the same breath as BP and Toyota would be an understatement.

So my question is…how could Apple have made such a big mistake in how they’ve handled this? And what impact will this have on the Apple brand? Granted, sometimes you can’t control the story the way you’d like to but Apple really blew this one. Apple has had product issues in the past yet as philosopher Edmund Burke said “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Guess Apple didn’t study its own history. Or is Apple getting a little too big and too arrogant for its own good?

So what communication crisis have you had to manage? Any tips for readers out there?

The Power of Massive Hype

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

The Wall Street Journal today is reporting that the vast majority of Toyota accidents were the result of…driver error. Not sticky brake pedals:

The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that the throttles were wide open and the brakes weren’t engaged at the time of the crash, people familiar with the findings said.

The early results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyotas and Lexuses surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes.

What’s even more fascinating is how the grievance count suddenly shot up once people heard about the problem. Actually, we didn’t just hear about it, but were barraged by a non-stop, relentless news cycle involving electronic media, print and online media outlet and social media buzz.  Did the hype – not problems with Toyota – lead to the jump in complaints?  I’d say that looks like a pretty safe assumption.

toyota grievences

A similar case of hype leading to mass hysteria is the latest (albeit flawed) Apple iPhone.  While it’s a nice device, there is very little that’s truly new or groundbreaking. If you already have an iPhone or an Android device, there’s not much reason to run right out and buy one.  The rational response would be to hold off until your natural upgrade cycle comes around.

The irrational response, fueled by months of breathless expectation by media and bloggers, along with Steve Jobs’ showmanship at launch, resulted in the thousands upon thousands of people waiting in line to drop down their hard-earned money on a device virtually the same as what they already have. Say what? My take, is the hype created a form of temporary insanity on a mass level, perhaps akin to the way mobs work.

Another example is designer handbags among teenage girls. Although somewhat tempered of late by the recession, my daughter went through a phase where she simply had to have expensive purses.  Working a minimum wage job, she would save pennies to get the latest Dooney & Bourke offering. I would see her purses and just couldn’t understand why she along with many other teenage girls would pay so much for what amounted to a fancy label. Hype and peer pressure are the only explanations.

As a PR person, I’m aware of the influence of hype and therefore largely resistant to its influence.  I counseled friends to buy Toyotas when the sales crashed earlier this year, and tend to avoid overhyped, overpriced Apple products.

But I am fascinated by the incredible power of hype to shape people’s behavior.

To no small degree, this is what marketing, advertising and PR people dream about and strategize endlessly to achieve. Get enough hype, and you have just hit the lottery.  So what’s the magic formula?  Still working on that one, but I’ll let you know once I figure it out.

Is Social Media Helping or Hurting Relationship Building?

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Regardless of what type of business you’re in, it’s fair to say that the phrase “customer is king” is probably your #1 thought. Whatever you build, create, manufacture or whatever service you provide odds are you are selling something to someone else. Heck, in PR we “sell” our story ideas to editors who in many ways are our customers. But really, how many of us truly focus on making sure that we understand our customers and use that information to improve our performance?

Recently I ran across an interesting post on the Customer’s Rock blog by Becky Carroll titled “The Importance of Customer Listening.” Check out the examples of excellent customer service that she shared:

At Lands’ End, professionals had to help out in the warehouse, or on the phones, during the holiday season and during bad weather. You learn a lot about customers doing that. At Nordstrom, we had to physically work in stores, or take orders over the phone, during major sale events.At Lands’ End and Nordstrom, we learned a lot about customers, by actually spending some time being close to the customer. Both brands are well known for their appreciation of the customer, both brands require professionals to have some interaction with the customer.

I can vouch for Lands’ End personally and my wife can for Nordstrom. There are many other companies out there who not only take customer feedback, but they share it within different departments and make changes based on customer feedback.

In the PR world we have clients, editors and analysts who are our customers. We provide them with news, story ideas and references. In the past this was typically done in one of two ways: one-way pitching (e-mail), and two-way/dialogue (phone call). Both of these were one-to-one. But with the continued growth of social media, our world has become much more of a one-to-many environment thanks to social media tools like company blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

While the wide adoption of social media has in many ways made our work easier, what about the personal connection that is established through dialogue and phone calls? Has this technology improved the way PR pros deliver value to “customers” or has it taken the one-to-one, personal connection out of the equation?

What’s happened to class?

Friday, July 9th, 2010

As we all know, the only constant in the world is change.  During periods of change we all go through natural cycles of resistance, denial and ultimately everyone moves on and accepts the new reality.

Maybe it has something to do with the speed that news travels via the Web and social media, but class in the face of pressure and change seems to be something that has gone missing in action of late.

The latest example is the scathing letter from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert about LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat.  In a display of absolutely zero class, Gilbert called LeBron’s decision “a shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own.”

LeBron

What Gilbert fails to mention is that LeBron’s presence in Cleveland for the last several years has increased the value of his franchise by over $100 million and led to a sold out arena night in and night out. Gilbert should have been thanking LeBron for the contribution to his personal net worth and wished him the best in his new endeavor.

That would be the classy thing to do.  Sure Gilbert is in denial, but perhaps he should he should have just kept it to himself. While people in Cleveland might appreciate Gilbert’s diatribe, it’s unlikely this does much for the Cav’s brand around the country.

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Technology Tackles the World Cup

Friday, July 9th, 2010

I just finished watching the semi-final World Cup match between Spain and Germany. Yesterday’s match between The Netherlands and Uruguay was much more exciting, but compared to 10-20 years ago, it’s amazing that I’m even watching the event live.

Yes, worldwide the World Cup is the biggest sporting event and it regularly breaks broadcast numbers due to the fact that soccer is truly a global sport. But in looking at the event now compared to when I was growing up marks an unbelievable difference largely due to technology.

Up until this decade, if you wanted to follow the World Cup the best you could do in America was to catch the highlights on the local news for a few minutes, maybe, if you were lucky. Now, even such mainstream publications as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have live blogs about the tournament where ordinary people can share their thoughts and comments about the games.

You can Tweet about it, read or post blog entries. After The Netherlands upset favorite Brazil, loyal fans of Dutch Orange all over the globe celebrated together online which accidentally crashed Twitter. You can catch games being broadcast in 3D, and for those of you at work you can watch the games streaming on your desktop (my favorite) or smartphone.

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