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Martha, Sammy, and Murphy

It doesn’t feel like summer yet in most of the U.S., but it’s definitely here. Know how I know why? Because the PR meltdowns are just beginning. On Tuesday alone we had media maven Martha Stewart going through the ringer and baseball star Sammy Sosa entering into baseball lore again, but this time it’s not for a good reason. And since suspected serial bomber Eric Rudolph was finally pinched, an entire region is having a PR problem. Let’s take a look at these three stories and see if we can learn anything.

Martha Stewart

Martha has been the subject of bad PR for years, but she’s always been able to shake it off. Whether it’s the media calling her “creepy” or the folks at Saturday Night Live turning her into some sort of freak, Martha has always come out shining. But with a criminal indictment possibly hours away, Martha is about to face her biggest PR challenge to date.

Martha’s image has been expertly crafted to the point of fantasy. Is anyone actually as gosh-golly-gee-willikers perfect as Martha? But that’s the point with Martha — you’re buying into an image. People don’t buy her towels, linens, cook books and such because they believe Martha is some insider trading witch. They buy her products because they believe they are quality products, the kind Martha Stewart would use. Heck, that’s why I have Martha Stewart sheets and towels — they’re good quality and they were inexpensive.

Martha’s lawyers, essentially acting as her PR people, came out swinging on Tuesday, declaring her innocence and intention to fight any charges against her. Executives at her company strongly backed her and even shareholders, who had their annual meeting today, publicly backed her. Of course, everyone involved has a financial stake in Martha being exonerated.

The biggest problem facing Martha is that her carefully crafted image is directly tied to her company, which bears her name. When people bought into the company (i.e., people bought the stock) it was not so much that the company had strong fundamentals, but because Martha Stewart provided them with an infallible brand. But that could all come crashing down now.

Regardless of whether or not Martha is guilty of what she will eventually be charged with, her story shows the pitfalls of individual branding and basing a company on the image of one person. This could apply to anything from a local restaurant to a television show. In good times, Martha couldn’t be stopped. If things get bad, a lot of people could be hurt because they believed in Martha and only Martha.
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Sammy Sosa

Say it ain’t So-Sa! Sammy Sosa, the loveable baseball slugger for the Chicago Cubs who has captured our imagination for the past five years, was caught using a corked bat on Tuesday. For you non-baseball fans, this is cheating, in a bad way. Sosa was immediately ejected from the game and will likely be suspended. The incident is not just a PR disaster for Sosa, but for baseball as well.

Sosa is one of the game’s most-likeable players and one of its biggest stars. He hit his 500th home run this season, attaining one of sport’s magical milestones and he is destined for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ever since Sosa went head-to-head with Mark McGwire in 1998 in the quest to break the single season home run mark, he has been a media darling. Sosa is active in his community both in Chicago and in his native Dominican Republic and is considered one of sports’ “good guys.” He is considered humble, grateful and giving. But now he’s also considered a cheater by some.

I spoke to a couple of veteran sportswriters on Tuesday night and they felt Sosa would weather the storm. Sosa said Tuesday night that the bat he was caught using was one he only uses for batting practice to put on a show for fans and he never intended to use it in a game (corked bats generally make the ball go further, adding a jolt when the ball is hit; Sosa says fans come to see him put on a show in pre-game batting practice). Sosa, whose English isn’t exactly perfect, apologized and took full responsibility immediately. But one wonders if the Cubs PR guy cornered Sosa in the clubhouse after his ejection and gave him some pointers.

Sosa seemed sheepish as soon as the incident was exposed, which happened because his bat broke on a play. If a player didn’t know he was using a corked bat, you’d think he would have been on the field pleading his case. But Sosa was in the dugout, quietly watching the proceedings and never spoke to the umpires. This has caused a lot of people to wonder if Sosa knew he was using an illegal bat.

The biggest problem for Sosa is that he has already been dogged by rumors of steroid use. There’s never been any evidence he has used steroids, but like McGwire, people wondered how he went from 40 home runs a year to 60 home runs a year so quickly. Already people are saying in the press that this corked bat incident throws into question all of Sosa’s accomplishments. There are plenty of Sosa supporters inside and outside of the game, but the more negativity thrown his way, the worse he’ll be. And because he plays professional sports, he’ll have to deal with opposing fans taunting him for years about the incident. Not a great work environment.

Sosa’s problem is also a big problem for baseball. If he is somehow exonerated by the league, it will be seen as the league coddling its stars, who are also its biggest asset. If he is found guilty of using a corked bat and it’s somehow proven it was an isolated incident, it could blow over. But the questions will linger.

Major League Baseball has had more PR disasters in the last year than they had in the previous twenty years and the timing for the Sosa incident couldn’t be worse. The league held its annual amateur draft on Tuesday and for the first time in memory people actually paid attention. Tuesday also marked the beginning of Inter-League Play, the league’s biggest PR success in decades where teams from the American League and National League square off (traditionally, the two league’s only played each other in the World Series and the All-Star Game).

Sosa will have some serious damage control. His image with fans and the media has been hurt badly. He may soon find that his business opportunities with advertisers and sponsors is also hurt. His team’s image has been damaged and so has baseball’s. I suspect that everyone involved — Sosa, the Cubs and the league, will have to sit down and figure out a way to spin this. The PR guys are working overtime right now thanks to a little cork in a wooden bat.
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Murphy, NC

Murphy, North Carolina is famous again thanks to Eric Rudolph.

Five years ago, the tiny mountain town of Murphy was swarming with law enforcement agents searching for suspecting serial bomber Eric Rudolph. The exposure the town received wasn’t exactly good. While the influx of law enforcement personnel, reporters and gawkers boosted local coffers, an ugly portrait of the town soon emerged in the press.

Murphy and surrounding towns, according to the national press was a hotbed of extremist activity. Western North Carolina was painted as a Klansman’s haven and the local population was portrayed as hicks. What’s even worse, the locals were said to be “sympathizers” of Rudolph, giving the impression that they supported his alleged bombing of an abortion clinic, gay bar and an Olympic venue. With Rudolph’s capture last week, Murphy is battling these same perceptions.

Perception is a basic premise of public relations. If a single product a company produces has a defect, people may begin to believe that all of the company’s products are defective. A bad act by a company executive can stain not just the company’s corporate image, but a workforce of thousands of individuals. And the action’s of one person, or a small group, can destroy the perception of a town, a country or a cultural group.

While Murphy is still being portrayed as it was five years ago, the media is also more forgiving this time. You see more people quoted as saying that what Rudolph is accused of doing is bad and that they’re happy he was caught. For everywhere “hick” who is quoted, there are two people saying that Murphy is a nice place to live.

One article that caught my eye quoted a local African-American resident who bluntly acknowledged that the Ku Klux Klan was active in the area, but also said that the Klan couldn’t and didn’t do anything. The person said a recent Klan rally in Murphy’s town center was generally ignored by people and that minorities felt comfortable in the area. You didn’t see this type of coverage last time.

And that could be the big difference — five years. In 1998, America was still reeling thanks to Rudolph and the Oklahoma City Bombing. Separatist groups were in the news and international terrorism was relegated to the back pages. But times change and now there appears to be a want in the media to understand what Rudolph did, why he did it and why some people may support his ideology.

Murphy has done its part to help shed its image. Local officials scoff at the notion that anyone helped him and say that there are people in every part of the country who agree with Rudolph in some way. Sadly, this is true, and it had to get out there.

I know Murphy well. My parents live about twenty miles away and I’ve spent enough time in Murphy to know the local flavor. I was there a few months ago, shopping at the Wal-Mart, eating at a local diner and strolling past the courthouse. The media’s portrayal of Murphy this time around — as both a place of awkward backwardness and openness — is accurate. The only reason I can figure there’s been a change in tone is that the media realized its one-sidedness the first time around and that locals, instead of hissing at the media, opened up and were honest.

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Mailbag

Q: (Paraphrased) There’s an actor who I think would be perfect for a project but I can’t seem to track down their contact information. Where can I get professional contact information for an actor?

A: Try the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) at http://www.imdb.com. The website has individual pages for most actors (and anyone involved in movies or television) that sometimes include professional contact information under the sidebar link for “agent”. I checked out the page for Diane Lane, one of my favorite actresses, and found a listing for her talent agent on the website: http://us.imdb.com/BAgent?Lane,%20Diane. Not every actor (director, writer, etc.) has their contact information listed, but many do.

You can also try going through the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) at http://www.sag.org. The Guild has an actor locator phone line you can call at (323) 549-6737, 9 am to 4:45 pm (PT), Monday through Friday. Normally, the representative will give you the contact information for the person’s publicist, talent agent or lawyer. If you use this method, don’t launch into a lengthy explanation about why you want the information. Simply say it’s “business related” and if they press, just say you need to speak to the person’s agent/lawyer/publicist about a media opportunity. Don’t forget, fans are always trying to track down celebrities and it’s hard for the people who do business for celebs to figure out who is legitimate and who is not.

If those two options fail, go to Google and search for the person’s name and a keyword such as “agent” or “publicist.” Then get creative. I did a search for “Robert De Niro” and “agent” and found out, through reading news articles and fan websites, that the actor is represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of Hollywood’s powerhouse talent firms. I then did a search for the CAA website and found it at http://www.caa.com. There’s nothing on the website except contact information, which is exactly what I was looking for.
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Q: A sometimes-client wants me to give them my press fax/email list so they can send their own press releases. How do you respond to something like that?

A: This question is a tough one, especially in a rough economic environment. But this is the response I sent the person who asked the question:

“I would suggest speaking to the person requesting the list to find out why they want it. It sounds like they’re trying to pull an end around and cut you out of future work by appropriating your list. Personally, I wouldn’t give it up unless I had a commitment for more paid work in the future. A press list is basically intellectual property; you did the work, have weeded out the people who don’t belong on it and the list has an obvious value. People pay for media lists, so why give it up for free? If the client wants the list they should pay for it as part of your service package.”

A few more thoughts on the issue… I’ve requested the media list as part of a PR service package in the past. One firm gave it to me, another didn’t. I still gave the firms my business and the media list wasn’t a big deal. As a client, I just wanted it for reference for future projects. I guess you could say that it was shrewd on my part. Nonetheless, I would have a hard time giving up a media list. I have my own media list for my projects and my website; I don’t let anyone look at that. It took me hours of research to produce the list and it is constantly evolving. I would sell it to someone, but I’m not a PR person and a media list is part of your advantage and I suspect, a selling point for many people.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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