Friday, September 28, 2012

"Publicity Surveys" Gaining in Popularity

One long-standing PR tactic usually used by advocacy organizations is the use of what has been called the “publicity survey.”  The concept is pretty simple.

You want to draw attention to an organization, an issue, or an organization’s position on an issue.  So, you conduct a survey, compile the results and release them to the media. The goal is to use the results of the survey to generate visibility and possibly persuade the public towards your organization’s point of view. 

We see the results of such surveys in media stories that use terms like, “most Americans think,” or “more Americans are starting to…”

Did you ever wonder where those news stories originate when you read such headlines as, “Most Americans prefer organic foods,” or “More Americans would rather pay more for groceries than use plastic bags.”

To be sure, these are hypothetical examples, and not based on real stories, but I’ve learned that in the case of the example on organic foods, there’s a good chance the sponsor of the survey is somehow in the business of selling organic foods.  And in the example of plastic bags, it wouldn’t surprise me of the sponsor of that survey had some ties to plastic bags' competitors.  Of course, in both cases, the sponsor of the survey could simply be an activist organization with its own media relations objectives.

This tactic of creating publicity surveys has been on my mind quite a bit lately as election season heats up.  It seems that every week, we see stories about the presidential polls, or polls on the economy, or polls on foreign policy.  Many of these polls are from respected, independent media or research organizations which do this kind of thing all the time.

But wedged into this flurry of research-based news coverage are quite a few surveys and polls that are bought and paid for by foundations, political organizations and activist groups.  Not surprisingly, the findings of each survey somehow advance their agendas, yet who is behind the survey receives little to no notice as the sensational value of the survey results garner most of the attention.

As you follow the news over the next month, to be an armed news consumer, I’d recommend a couple of things as you are exposed to stories of polls and surveys.  Find out who is behind the survey or the poll and ask yourself what they have to gain through certain types of headlines.  What you’ll then have is the context you need to determine the credibility of the data.

Bonus Material

To give you an idea of how some publicity survey questions are structured, here are some very common approaches:
  1. Of the following issues, which is most/least important to you? (ranking)
  2. As you understand it, which claims are true? (can select more than one)
  3. Please rank the level at which you agree or disagree with following claims? (ranking)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Ping Pong Tables and Leather Couches

Having been in what is considered one of the creative professions for quite a while now, the idea of having a large ping pong or billiards table in the workplace is not really new to me.  Long before “business casual” and “summer hours,” design firms, commercial printers, audio visual-production houses, and some ad agencies had decided to introduce game room-style creature comforts to their offices. 

The early rationale was that given the long hours typically put in at such places, they wanted to make it as comfortable and relaxed as possible.  Tied to this, the nature of the work done in these businesses often required long waits.  If a client like me was on site to do a press check, for instance, we learned to expect full jars of M&Ms, protein bars and caffeine in just about any form it comes.  We also knew we would wait in between quality checks of print runs on comfortable leather furniture, and perhaps, take part in a game of eight-ball.

Taking a break from the office grind for long days off site at creative shops is always a nice diversion, but not one that I’d want every day. The truth is, I really haven’t seen those ping pong tables get used that much.  If given a choice, most people would rather get the job done and get out of there, I believe. 

Over the past 15 years or so, however, the emergence of the tech sector and its iconoclastic challenge to the traditional corporate culture brought with it an almost uniform informality.  Jeans and hoodies, ala Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.  Loft-style, open offices with collaborators toting their laptops and iPads from workstation to workstation.  And the ever-present ping pong tables and leather couches.

In the years I’ve visited firms with such amenities, I have noticed that managers love to give visitors a tour of the offices and brag about the loose and relaxed atmosphere, then point to a dart board or Nerf basketball hoop.

But as you would expect during these tours, most people were working and not playing.  I’ve made it a habit to ask people in these kinds of workplaces if they ever used the recreational items.  Almost always, the response is something akin to, “Yeah, if I’m working late, or if I’m waiting for a coworker or a ride.”

But usually when I asked the bosses the same question, the response was most often that they would prefer to see their people working rather than “goofing off.”  The unsaid rule seems to have been that these things are more for after-hours than the regular work day.

So why work in an office around such procrastination temptations?  I don’t know.  Maybe it helps in the hiring process.  Maybe it’s a corporate culture message the firm wants to send to visitors.  Maybe at the time the items were purchased, it was just wishful thinking, best of intentions, centered on morale-building. 

What I do know is that at some point, lots of people will get a great deal on a “hardly used, like new” ping pong table on eBay.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The “Walk-back” is a New PR Trend: Don’t try this at home

The term is relatively new to the PR business but it’s ‘gaining traction’ to the extent it’s almost as cliché as “gaining traction.”  I’m talking about “walking back.” 

Here’s how it’s used.  Some public figure, usually a politician sticks his foot in his own mouth and wishes he could delete it from the public domain, but it’s too late.  The Tweets are out.  The articles are all over the Internet or in newspapers.  The nightly news readers are already quoting the misstep on the evening news or shows like Entertainment Tonight.

That’s when the PR counselor tells said public figure that there’s a new tool in the PR toolbox.  It’s called the “walk-back.”  All you have to do is “walk back” the comment by telling the public you really didn’t say what you said, or at least you didn’t mean what you said, or what you said wasn't really what you meant to say, though you really mean what you’re saying now.  Unless, of course, you have to walk this back later.

In golf they call it a Mulligan.  You can elect to erase a bad shot from your score card, but it’s not cheating because you’re openly telling your golf partners you’re doing it.  By the way, the PGA doesn’t allow Tiger Woods to resort to Mulligans.

I did a quick Google search of the term, “walked back his comments,” and found 977,000 mentions.  Here are a few:

·         This headline from the Huffington Post on May 6, 2012 – “Joe Biden Gay Marriage Reaction: Frustration As Officials Walk Back VP's Same-Sex Marriage Comments .”

·         This line from the online site MediaITE on August 6, 2012 – “In an exclusive interview on Sean Hannity’s show tonight, former vice president Dick Cheney partially walked back his comments referring to the choice of Sarah Palin for John McCain‘s vice presidential pick in 2008.”

·         This one from Spokesman-Review on July 29, 2012 regarding the Chick-fil-A story – “(Chicago Mayor) Emanuel eventually walked back his comments, saying he never intended to prohibit the chain from doing business.”

·         This from earlier this year – “Hours later, (Newark Mayor) Booker walked back his comments on Twitter and in a Web video and said he agreed with the Obama campaign that Bain was fair game.”


According to the Google stats, apparently female public figures have to do a lot less walking back.  There are “66,800” Google references to “walked back her comments.”  But in the interest of fairness, here are a couple of examples of female public figures taking a PR Mulligan:


·         From The Daily Caller on July 24, 2012 – “(Senator) Feinstein walks back claim that White House is behind national security leaks.”

·         And on June 7, 2012, The Daily Kos featured Debbie Wasserman Schultz – “The Congresswoman from Florida walked back her comments a tad, calling Jim Crow "the wrong analogy to use".  

 One thing to take from all of this is it’s never a good idea to assume you will be allowed by the media to “walk back” anything you say.  They may not always be so generous.  But for politicians, who oftentimes simply ignore proper media etiquette, it looks like the “walk-back” is here to stay.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The NFL has Two Brands of Football

There is an NFL most Pittsburghers don’t recognize.  Yes, we see it in passing when visiting teams come to Pittsburgh.  And yes, we see it on television if we watch any of the national telecasts and sports coverage of the NFL, but even there, it’s not the same because Pittsburghers watch such coverage through the prism of being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

What does that mean?

It means when we think of NFL football, we think of the Steelers and the team’s rivalries.  We think of defense and power offense.  We harken back to a blue collar fan base that has since evolved and expanded, covering an entire country under the “Steeler Nation” banner.  The iconic Terrible Towel and those black and gold uniforms are a unifier.  We think of sold out stadiums and a waiting list for season tickets that is so long, many fans are more likely to inherit their tickets rather than simply purchase them outright. 

In Pittsburgh, the NFL means no cheerleaders or excessive glitz on game day.  No need for giveaways or fireworks displays to get fans to come to games.  No need for good weather as well.  In fact, as the temperatures drop and the weather starts to make life otherwise miserable, Steelers fans flock to the stadium in their own black and gold attire. 

When Pittsburghers think of the NFL, they remember seeing some of the league’s most dominant stars and Hall of Fame players as kids, playing in high school or college right here.  It seems rare these days to see a pro game without some Pittsburgh connection. 

What all of this adds up to is that collectively, Pittsburghers aren’t your typical casual football fan.  They know the game in ways most other NFL cities can’t relate.

This is why the NFL has done much to market itself as a sort of real-life comic book, complete with “superheroes” in spandex-style costumes thanks this year to Nike. Other NFL teams fill their stadiums with sights and sounds designed to capture and hold the most disinterested fans, from cheerleaders and pounding music, to super-sized inflatable football helmets to serve as “tunnels” for the players to emerge from before the game starts.  Of course, entrance wouldn’t be the same without the fog machine, and players customizing their entrances for full entertainment effect.

In Baltimore, aging linebacker Ray Lewis is known for his signature entrance dance.   Just yesterday, Antonio Smith of the Houston Texans made a statement of his own wearing a Spiderman-like red mask as he entered the stadium following a Ninja theme.  And then there are the wide receivers, each with his own way of celebrating a touchdown with moves and spikes and not uncommonly, violations of the league’s sportsmanship rules.

That is the NFL most Pittsburghers don’t know.  Yes, they see it on TV and on the Internet, but it’s not what attracts them to the game. Those are side shows, not the main attraction.  The main attraction is James Harrison sacking a quarterback five yards deep in the backfield.  Or nose tackle Casey Hampton playing the role of brick wall on third and short.  Or tight end Heath Miller making a name for himself as both a blocker and a pass receiver.

In short, the brand of football Pittsburghers like is a traditional one.  A more pure one, one that’s all about physicality and domination at the line of scrimmage.  One of incredible strategy that’s not beyond striking from the air as well as the ground, but always moving forward.

This is in contrast to the other brand of football NFL fans around the country seem to want.  The glitz.  The show.  The passing and the speed, and the occasional helmet-to-helmet collision that’s banned by the league but not from highlights reels.  They like the high impact and the high energy even if they don’t understand the actual purpose of playing tough within the confines of the game.  These kinds of fans tend to come and go, which is why stadiums in places like Tampa, Jacksonville, Atlanta and Phoenix don’t always sell out, and why when the Steelers play in those venues it can look like a Steelers home game.

To be sure there are a few other cities that see football the same way Pittsburgh does.  There’s Baltimore, of course.  Green Bay, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and Dallas.  These are towns that show up win or lose, regardless of the weather.  The fans are often smarter about the game than some of the TV network personalities on the sidelines.  And while Dallas is famous for the iconic Cowboys cheerleaders, something tells me if they weren’t at the game, the stands would still be full.

There are two brands of football, one that is real, and one that is rooted in marketing to hold the attention of large media markets with only a superficial interest in the game.  Pittsburghers are fortunate enough to live in one of the few towns that when it comes to football, gets it.

It’s September.  Football season has started.  Have a great one.