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The Constantly Changing World of PR

As I sat down to write this week’s column, a number of ideas popped into my head. It was, however, three events in the news that I kept coming back to – three events that I feel are worthy of examination and that we can take some lessons from.

CEO Scores Bad Press

Robert McCormick has some extra time on his hands these days. The CEO of telecommunications carrier Savvis was placed on leave this week after American Express sued the company and McCormick, claiming he failed to pay $241,000 in charges related to a visit to Scores, a New York City adult entertainment venue popularized by shock-jock Howard Stern.

Not surprising, the media is having a field day with this story. New York tabloids – The New York Post and The Daily News – have been having a grand time digging into the details, with the latter even quoting McCormick’s wife as saying that she was told the credit card had been stolen. A Savvis spokesperson confirmed in the very same story that McCormick visited the club with business associates, but denied that he ran up such an excessive bill. Savvis’ hometown newspaper, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, noted that McCormick’s bill was equal to about one-third of his yearly salary, and that the company is “floundering.” In fact, with the money he purportedly spent at the strip club, McCormick could have bought more than 354,000 shares of his company’s own stock.

On the afternoon that the lawsuit story broke, Savvis issued a terse statement correcting two points that been widely reported by the media. (The company said that McCormick did not expense the strip club trip, and that it has not made any payments to AmEx.) Less than six hours later, Savvis announced that its “Audit Committee is conducting a full investigation into matters relating to a lawsuit brought by American Express,” and that “pending completion of the investigation, Mr. McCormick has been placed on an unpaid leave of absence.”

I’m not going to judge McCormick on the fact that he went to a strip club, but what I will do is say that he has brought an enormous amount of bad public relations to the company he heads by running away from a problem. American Express, according to its lawsuit, tried and tried to get the money from McCormick, and they offered him every opportunity to make his case for disputing the charge. McCormick apparently ignored American Express, and the credit card issuer filed a lawsuit, which intrepid court reporters found amusing and interesting enough to report. From there, it snowballed.

Another thing I’m going to take issue with is Savvis issuing two releases on the subject in one day. I’m sure the PR people at the company were getting plenty of phone calls on the matter and wanted to get some corrective measures in place. However, issuing a release to clarify the matter, and then issuing another release six hours later to announce an internal investigation in the matter, leads me to believe that the PR people panicked in putting out the first release. The story, while a great headline-maker, is really not a big deal. However, McCormick, and Savvis to an extent, turned it into one. Poor decision-making trickles down, and it usually comes back to bite the entire company.
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Wal-Mart Loves Its Employees, Sort of

Rarely a day goes by when Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, doesn’t drum up some kind of press. Last month, the company was being showered with praise for its relief work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Business Week reports that PR giant Edelman helped Wal-Mart drum up positive press from bloggers, which translated into mainstream media coverage.) With a positive glow surrounding the company for the first time in a long time, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott decided publicly to back a higher federal minimum wage (Wal-Mart often comes under fire for not paying its employees much) and a new health care scheme for employees. (Again, Wal-Mart often comes under fire for having a poor benefits package, unlike rival Costco.) For a moment, it seemed that Wal-Mart was going to get nothing but good press for two weeks in a row. And then it happened.

Yesterday, a story in The New York Times reported that in a memo to the company’s board, a Wal-Mart executive suggested that the company lower its health care costs by hiring more part-time employees (most of whom are not eligible for benefits) and “healthier, more productive employees.” The memo has been widely criticized, with Wal-Mart bashers saying Scott’s stance on the minimum wage is “laughable” in light of what others in the company are saying. While it’s often difficult to draw comparisons between Wal-Mart and any company, in this situation it’s not so hard.

First, the leaked memo proves that Wal-Mart has an internal security problem. More often than not, leaks come from disgruntled employees and are designed to embarrass a company. Believe me, I once made a living off of leaked internal documents. This is a problem that could plague any company or organization, and one that is increasingly difficult to battle due to electronic communications. PR people need to play a leading role in informing the workforce that leaks are destructive, lower morale and do little good. Remember, internal PR is just as important as external PR.

Second, Scott’s stance on minimum wage is certainly an about-face, and rightfully was greeted skeptically. Scott did not do a very good job of explaining his ideas, or talking about how Wal-Mart is helping to lift the standard of living of American workers. (The company can argue that it does so with its low prices, but employees would no doubt argue otherwise.) When it comes down to brass tacks, Scott’s comments on minimum wage are akin to a gun manufacturer pushing for gun controls. Said another way, no one is buying.

It’s important that people who speak publicly on behalf of a company maintain a consistent message, and Scott certainly went off message. While his intentions may have been honorable, there is too much evidence that suggests Wal-Mart cares little about minimum wage earners, and cares more about its bottom line. By going off message, Scott merely made himself look foolish.
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The Media Eats Its Own

If you’re anything like me, you’ve paid a certain amount of attention to the Judy Miller fiasco, but not too much. Miller is, of course, a New York Times reporter and a central figure in the probe regarding the leaked identity of a CIA agent. Recently, The Times has devoted an enormous amount of space in its paper to Miller-related coverage, including columns from colleagues who are critical of the reporter. Most major and mid-sized newspapers, news magazines and cable news shows have given the subject a decent amount of coverage as well.

The Miller fiasco once again shows that the media’s favorite pastime is attacking itself. (I lived through a tabloid war, so I know.) With newspaper circulation declining, a continuing ad slump, and online publications and resources (blogs, Craigslist, etc.) taking eyeballs away from it, the traditional media has lost its focus. This doesn’t make our jobs as PR people any easier.

Back in 1999, I was living in New Jersey for the summer, and the news was dominated by stories about the West Nile Virus, a mosquito-borne sickness that, according to the media, was preparing to lay waste to a decent amount of the tri-state (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) area. I remember commuting to my job in New York City and hearing people talk about West Nile, and I remember one of my roommates being absolutely scared of contracting the disease. (Considering she never left the house, I wasn’t quite sure how’d she get it.)

Fast-forward to the here and now and the Avian Bird Flu and the potential flu epidemic everyone loves talking about. I pay little attention to these issues because, after spending four years as a journalist, I realize that it’s the media’s job to constantly remind us of things that could kill us. Seriously, this has become the media’s main function, and they’re very good at it.

As I look out at the media landscape today – the self-love and self-bashing, the sensationalism, newsroom cost-cuts and shoddy journalism – I’ve come to believe that the mainstream media should no longer be the focus of most PR campaigns. Niche publications, trade magazines, blogs and newsletters are, combined, drawing a bigger audience than newspapers and general focus magazines. And with so much “media” out there, it’s hard for most consumers to even remember what they’ve read or seen, making the positive impact of the mainstream media on a brand more costly and less useful.

In my own job as head of PR for my company, I’m currently putting together a plan that entails working more closely with our sales and marketing team. I’ve come to the conclusion that all the pitching in the world won’t do as much to increase sales, which is ultimately our main PR goal, as will working together with the people who generate sales and finding ways to extend our brand recognition without the mainstream media’s help.

When my sixty-year old mother, who religiously read The Washington Post and watched the CBS Evening News for the first fifty-three years of her life, tells me she’s getting her news from blogs and newsletters these days, I know that the mainstream media’s influence is waning. If I’m to do my job, I need to take advantage of the change.

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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