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Thumbs Up!

Some readers have complained recently I tend to skew to the negative side — too often playing the role of PR foe instead of friend. I agree with the reader’s sentiment, but also feel that my role is to play devil’s advocate. In business, I’ve learned more from failure than success and that goes for my career in journalism as well.

Nonetheless, success does have its obvious advantages and I’ll take this opportunity to point some of the more successful PR moves I’ve witnessed over the past few weeks. However, in keeping with my role as devil’s advocate, I’m also forcing myself to point out some bad PR moves (but just a few). Hopefully, we can all learn something from the good and few bad things that I’ll talk about.

Thumbs Up: Technology firm Roxio scores points for its Napster re-launch event, which takes place this morning in New York. A 10:00 AM start time ensures newspaper scribes will be able to give the event — which is being used to beta test the new Napster online music service — full coverage. The event looks like it will be a success with the right mix of tech and media journalists (I know at least two dozen other journalists attending). Plus, what journalist can turn down a chance to see the promised “major recording artist” that the company has lined-up to promote the new product? Roxio has scored big with a lot of advance press for the event and today should yield significant coverage as well. The start time is perfect — not too early and not too late — and there’s a coolness factor to the event that is getting otherwise bored writers out of their office. I suggest holding events in the morning because any excuse for a reporter to get to work late is a good excuse.

Thumbs Up: Analyst firm comScore Networks always does a good job of providing journalists with relevant business statistics and the company was on the ball this week. Internet giant Yahoo! released its latest earnings report on Wednesday and the media, Wall Street and investors were anxiously awaiting news of the company’s financial results. About twenty minutes before Yahoo issued its press release, comScore offered up its analysis by sending an email to journalists that contained Yahoo-related statistics. Investor’s Business Daily was one of many publications to use and cite comScore’s research. The email couldn’t have been more timely and it was short, to the point and clearly helpful. comScore never batters me with press releases and when they do send out a release, it’s only relevant. The company has positioned itself as a wonderful resource for journalists.

Thumbs Down: There’s not much VeriSign can do to convince the Internet community that it’s not evil. By controlling the central Internet domain registry and using it like a both a shield and a sword, the company has raised the ire of techies more than once. Their latest gambit — a little technological innovation that effectively hijacks a user’s browser when misspelling a domain name — has VeriSign in trouble. Making matters worse, a company executive penned an amazingly arrogant and misleading op-ed piece for CNET News.com, arguably the most important daily tech news publication out there, about the situation. Bloggers and traditional journalists alike have poured scorn on the company and many people have pointed out that the company’s PR effort in this case has not only misfired, but backfired. VeriSign is a company in dire need of an attitude adjustment and a new PR strategy.

Thumbs Up: Just a few weeks ago low-cost air carrier JetBlue was singing the blues. The company had given passenger data to a consulting firm contracted by the government to work on airline security and create what appears to be a profiling system for potential terrorists. JetBlue was slammed with bad press and privacy advocates threatened doomed. But JetBlue responded beautifully — informing its customers of the problem, apologizing profusely and recommitting themselves to earning their costumer’s trust again. CEO David Neeleman took personal responsibility for the mistake and the company did not shy away from the press — talking often and sticking to the company line that it made a mistake that there was no excuse for. It doesn’t look like there’s much fallout to the much publicized problem as JetBlue stock hit an all-time high this week after the company announced a stock-split and some rather amazing business statistics. As I said on the PR Fuel: “You don’t get [this] kind of respect after a PR bombshell unless you deserve it.” While JetBlue has only been around for a few years, the company has carefully cultivated an image through its marketing and PR that is making it almost bulletproof. Part of that image is the idea that the airline has a responsibility to its passengers and by taking responsibility for its mistake, JetBlue easily rode out a problem.

Thumbs Down: For all the positive press it receives and family-friendly vibe Disney puts out, the company is not immune to PR blunders. Last year, the company was the joke of the sports world when the baseball team it owns — the Anaheim Angels — won the World Series. The other Disney-owned sports team, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks of the National Hockey League, made it to the Stanley Cup finals. Why was this bad PR? Disney had both teams up for sale at the time, essentially telling the public that it had made bad investments. Fast forward to earlier this year and Disney-owned ESPN’s hiring of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. The always controversial Limbaugh was hired to provide a fan’s perspective for ESPN’s pre-game football show. Limbaugh provided a perspective recently, I’m just not sure if most fans agree with it. If you missed it, in a nutshell, Limbaugh said Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Donavan McNabb has been overrated by the media because he is African-American and the media wants an African-American quarterback to succeed. Limbaugh’s comments caused a firestorm and he quickly resigned, saying he was sparing his ESPN colleagues further problems. Wrong. Limbaugh, despite his ignorance, didn’t do anything wrong. He rendered the same type of opinion he does on his own show (he just didn’t understand the difference between being on radio and television). Disney, through its ESPN unit, dropped the ball by effectively forcing Limbaugh out. Why did the company hire him in the first place? Everyone knew this was coming, except Disney perhaps. The company looks stupid for hiring someone controversial and then basically firing him for what he’s always done. To make matters worse, the ESPN-produced football drama series “Playmakers” is basically an exploitation of the stereotypes that surround professional football and lead to comments made by the likes of Limbaugh. Disney needs to better leverage its financial responsibility with its conscious. This reminds me of an incident a few years ago that elicited this comment: “Disney has been merchandising childhood for decades, so this is no surprise. If I had children, I wouldn’t want them watching Disney programs or buying Disney products if I felt they were continually (trying to) drive home some bottom-line protection message and shroud it as entertainment.”

Thumbs Up: I was a bit perturbed when I attempted to get a press pass for the CMJ Music Marathon. The annual event is still a pretty big deal in the music biz and I shelled out $495 to attend it five years in a row. So when I applied online for a press pass and was sent a form to fill out, I wasn’t happy. CMJ wanted a letter from my editor saying I was on assignment, an actual clipping of one of my published works and if I recall, my first-born child. Now, I know this sounds uppity, but I shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get a press pass. I’ve been to events where there were dozens of high-profile elected officials present and all I had to do was show some ID. It’s worth pointing out that my editors don’t have much free time to talk to me, much less write an “assignment letter” for an event that I may or may not end up writing about. And I didn’t want to bug my editor’s assistant because, well, she controls my paycheck and I try not to send work her way. So I bagged the idea of attending the CMJ thing. To my surprise however, I received an email from CMJ’s PR people this week saying all I had to do was fill out a quick online form and I’d get press credentials. I was very happy and liked the fact that the company looked at who they sent out credential requests to and who actually responded. The PR firm is doing a good job of following-up on media credential requests and being pro-active about getting people to cover the event. I know part of the reason that CMJ wants a lot of information is that the press credentials include a pass that gets you into hundreds of concerts and dozens of parties over a three-day period. So I don’t blame them for being picky. At the same time, when someone from a legitimate media outlet requests credentials, there’s no reason to ask them for a blood test.

Thumbs Up: A PR person who shall remain nameless who coordinated a series of interviews for me this week. I’m writing an article about a very timely and interesting topic. To do so, I need to interview a number of government officials from another country. From a PR standpoint, the article is designed to promote an upcoming event on the topic I’m writing about. From my standpoint, I wanted some heavy hitters to weigh in on the issue to give the article some juice. The PR person lined-up all the interviews and sent me confirmation emails with contact information and times to call — making sure with me first that the times fit my schedule. What I really found useful was that the PR person included the name of the people’s assistants that I will be dealing with as well letting me know how these people’s names are pronounced (again, these are foreign government officials). This is important because it saves me from being embarrassed by mispronouncing someone’s name. This particular PR person did an excellent job of setting up the whole article. The pitch was dead on and timely — the PR person knows my newspaper is interested in what happens in this particular country. I was immediately offered big names for interviews and I was emailed a lot of solid background information. Because this is a topic I don’t normally write about, I had to in turn pitch my own editors and they gave me a big thumbs up for coming up with the story. I’m excited about the article and I love the fact that a great PR person put it all together. In the end, everyone looks good to their bosses, the client/my editors are served and I think my readers will find the end result informative.

Thumbs Down: SunnComm Technologies needs a lesson in PR. SunnComm produces copyright protection software that is somewhat controversial and is currently being tested by BMG Records. A rather savvy graduate student at Princeton however has found two easy ways around the copyright protection software, which is supposed to make it impossible for consumers to copy the CD and illegally distribute it. The grad student wrote a paper about the holes in the software — one way to disable it is by holding down the “shift” key for a few seconds — and posted it online. Within hours, the paper was the talk of the tech community. Witness now SunnComm President Peter Jacobs’ quote about the student’s work in this passage from a San Jose Mercury News story: “Jacobs said he had no intention of suing Halderman under the copyright act, and that the student should spend his time researching something more worthwhile. He said, ‘This just isn’t one of the weighty issues of the world.'” Now witness what Bill Whitmore, also described as SunnComm’s President, told The Boston Globe: “There’s nothing in his report that’s surprising. There’s nothing in the report that I’m concerned about.” Do these comments strike anyone else as funny? First, Jacobs blows apart the idea that his own company is relevant. And Whitmore admits that his company’s product is flawed and that he’s not concerned about it. These guys need to learn about messaging points — and how to make effective software.

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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