Time is a funny thing.
Five years ago this week, I embargoed a story to The Wall Street Journal about the merger of my website, DotcomScoop.com, “a wireless news group and Web site devoted to news and gossip about Internet companies,” and NetSlaves, “a six-person shop that focuses on discussions and feature stories about the perils of employment at Web companies,” according to the article.
The merger eventually fell apart, as did the launch of another service I so boldly announced in the story. There were no hard feelings – times were just tough and we were all strapped for resources. A few months later, 9/11 hit, and all of those involved had a lot more to be concerned about. I eventually lost touch with the men behind NetSlaves, and I had pretty much forgotten about our aborted merger two weeks ago when an old friend contacted me, saying he had recently spoken to Bill Lessard, one of NetSlaves’ co-founders.
“What’s he doing these days?” I asked.
“PR, lol,” my friend messaged me.
Thus, five years after we announced, and subsequently failed to complete a merger, I found myself talking with my almost business partner. I knew it was going to be a fun conversation once I saw the name of Bill’s firm: PR With Brains.
With a Master’s Degree in English and American Literature (he graduated with honors), Bill began his business career at Prodigy Services, the first national Internet service provider, and worked in marketing and communications at Time-Warner and UBS. In 1998, he co-founded NetSlaves, helping the site grow into one of the best-known destinations during the era of Web 1.0. He co-authored two books, “NetSlaves: True Tales of Working the Web” and “NetSlaves 2.0,” with his partners, and he’s been a contributor to media outlets such as Business 2.0, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle and National Public Radio.
With the demise of NetSlaves, Bill entered the PR arena full-time, a natural considering he racked up a ton of press for his old website and his books. After working for a boutique PR shop, Bill decided to go out on his own, launching PR With Brains (“PRwB”) a few years ago.
For a small firm, PRwB has an impressive list of past and current clients, including Activision, Dewar’s, Electronic Arts, Intel, LucasArts, Nickelodeon, Sony Digital and Yahoo! One of PRwB’s specialties is the video game industry, a growing business that gets more than its fair share of negative press. Thankfully, Bill is one of the PR people in the business trying to change the common perception of video games and gamers.
“When Hurricane Katrina happened, one of the big stories was that corporate America stepped in where the government failed,” Bill said. “Conspicuously absent was the video game industry.”
One of Bill’s clients, The Get-Well Gamers, is doing all it can to help. The foundation works with gamers and the industry to provide video game consoles and games to children in hospitals. The children served, Bill notes, are often in long-term or critical facilities, suffering from traumatic injuries or life-threatening diseases.
“This is something the industry desperately needs – they have a terrible public image,” Bill said. “Anything that shows positive social engagement on the part of the industry and its participants is a good thing.”
Bill attributes some of the PR problems plaguing the video game industry to its overall attitude.
“It’s analogous to the early days of the Internet. Before [the Internet] became a mainstream phenomenon, it was the dominion of young men who were not very socialized and very disrespectful of outsiders. The attitudes of companies are very entrenched because it costs so much to produce and market games that they keep to strict models – guns and scantily-clad women,” he said.
“The formula has worked well for the industry, so why mess with it?” Bill noted, with just a touch of sarcasm. “From a business prospective, the video game industry needs to broaden its scope to become a legitimate, cyclical business. They [need to do things like] reach out to women and generate corporate good will.”
One reason I always have liked Bill is that he doesn’t pull any punches, and his comments on the industry that he works with provide all the evidence you need. Instead of suggesting that there is not an image problem, or that “things will just work out,” Bill takes a proactive approach, preaching to industry insiders the need to change their ways for the better of, not just their PR scrapbooks, but their business as well. This is the type of PR person that is sorely lacking in so many industries.
“I don’t have the power to change video games from the top-down, but I can do it from my own sphere of control,” he says.
Bill speaks enthusiastically about his clients, and I get the feeling he means it. He talked about Brice Mellen, an 18-year-old blind video gamer who has been featured on “The Today Show” and by countless media outlets around the world. Mellen is a world-class gamer who amazes people by beating up on the competition in Mortal Kombat.
“The message is that he not some freak who has taught himself how to play games, rather that [Brice] views games as a normalizing peer activity,” Bill says. “The lesson is that we can face up to our own shortcomings and overcome them.”
Another of Bill’s clients is iGames.org, an organization that represents video game centers and provides support services to its members. Bill says that one common misperception about video games is that they stunt social growth, arguing instead that online multi-player games and, more importantly, game centers foster a social environment for people who are sometimes pushed to the fringe of their peer social groups.
One look at PRwB’s website and you can figure out pretty quickly that Bill has a good sense of humor, as well as a good sense of who he is. A list of PRwB’s 10 Commandments is available, and more than a few people I know could benefit from tacking them up on the wall.
“Trade reporters are people too. Just because someone writes for Industrial Packing Materials Weekly doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be afforded the same respect as Bill Carter. Plying trade reporters with drinks and expecting them to reprint the press release reflects badly on all concerned,” Commandment #4 reads.
Meanwhile, the front page of the PRwB website includes a montage of famous people and images, giving prospective clients some insight into Bill the man and Bill the PR person.
“The way I position my business is I try to make it an extension of my personality,” he says. “My website, for example, look at the images – these are my heroes, my role models, this is what’s in my head. There’s no standard stock graphic of a team of people sitting around brainstorming, or two guys walking through a courtyard talking on cell phones.”
After speaking with Bill Lessard for almost an hour, I figured something out. While our original merger never panned out, I can see myself doing PR full-time one day, and if I don’t do it on my own, Bill will be the first person I call looking for a job.
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/.