Public Relations – Just A Bit Of Fun, Surely?

Another day, another story to make your mouth drop open in astonishment, partly for the right reasons, mostly for the wrong ones. My favourite free paper (that’s London’s super soaraway morning Metro, blog snorkellers mine) ran a smashing piece this morning about a New Year’s ad campaign dreamt up and executed by Cadbury House Hotel (Bristol) Health Club and Spa (yep, slow news day all round).

Simply put, the ad campaign is a picture of an green, bug-eyed alien, stretching out his (her?) long green forefinger, with the copy ‘Advanced Health Warning! When the aliens come, they will eat the fatties first!’ Followed by the usual gubbins about ‘join now get a discount yadayadayadayada’.

Well. It works for me. Bit near the knuckle perhaps, but suitably off the wall and much better than anything I’ve ever seen coming out of a health club (which, frankly, wouldn’t be hard, in fairness). But, of course, it’s fattist, isn’t it. The Metro article quotes an unexplained Vicky Palmer (45) – doesn’t say who she is or what she does, but I’d like to imagine she’s a doughnut taster for Greggs (who doesn’t spit them out) – who thinks the people who came up with the idea deserve a kick up the backside. There’s also a spokesperson for the Beat Eating Disorders association (that’s got to be made up, right – an association for people made ill by food, with the acronym BED).

The serious point, in amongst this silly season japery, is that this is actually quite fun. (Like the Heineken Christmas poster which showed a nativity scene and the caption ‘Congratulations – it’s a girl!’, followed by the payoff  ‘How refreshing, how Heineken’.) OK, if you really, really try, and squint a bit, it might be construed as possessing the tiniest possibility, just a whiff of one, of needling the most sensitive of the overweight. Those, perhaps who are overweight through no fault of their own. And believe that the aliens are on their way. And that they’re aliens with a taste for people.

Which, let’s face it, isn’t very many, is it. Sorry, fatties, most of you are fat because of the pies. Stop eating the pies and things will get less large and wobbly, trust me on this one. And if you’re a fatty and believe in people-eating aliens, I’d stop washing down the pies with Tennents Super, if I were you. (Here’s a topical article.)

That off my chest (it’s a weight off my chest, actually), the point is that just because there are some people who are overweight through no fault of their own, and are unhappy about it, and are trying to do something about it, does that mean that whole field of fat is out of bounds to the communications and marketing industries, when they’re attempting to have a bit of fun to spice up an otherwise deathly dull product proposition? I really don’t think it should be. No more should religion, sexuality, musical taste, hair colour or any other of the great taboos – as long as it’s tongue-in-cheek and quite clearly possessed of no intention to offend or alienate (if you’ll forgive me). (And I know the liberals will tell me that one man’s definition of offense and alienation is another man’s Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, but could we just be sensible here and agree that there are boundaries and definitions which are reasonably clear to everyone, if they can be bothered to look.)

The good bit, of course, is that the Cadbury House Hotel gets a splendid piece of publicity, and the Metro gets to publish a picture of the fragrant Ms Allyson Wicklen (20) who lost 5st to become the Slimmer Magazine Junior Slimmer of the Year. Well done to her.

Oh, and by the way – fatties? The aliens ARE coming and I can see no reason at all why they would waste such a great resource. They ARE going to eat you.

Corporate Communications – The Whale Penis Story

Here’s something you simply couldn’t make up if you tried. Some Russian automotive manufacturer decides to upholster the seats of their latest blingmobile in – yes, obviously – whale penis leather. For the hard of thinking, that’s the tanned skin of a whale’s penis. For the puerile, yes, it came in four skin colours.

 Pamela Anderson gets involved, because, obviously (again) she can’t bear to think of the plight of the whales’ penises. Sends email to Russians. Russians decide not to use whale penis leather any more. Issue a retraction. Everyone happy.

 Now, listen up. The serious message in this is…………………..no, you’re right. Who cares. Enjoy it for what it is.

Corporate Communications – The Boxing Metaphor

Following on from an earlier post about publicity and the rules of engagement. Taking it as read that publicity – in some form or other (publicity (n) – information that concerns a person, group, event, or product and that is disseminated through various media to attract public notice) – is the end goal of everything that we do as communicators, then – ergo – there must be rules that the professional communicator has at least an eye to when going about the task.

For my part, these include (but are not limited to) telling the truth (or at least a part of it), not misrepresenting, not insulting, not belittling and not demeaning – and, here’s a biggie, not saying anything that you cannot, if called upon to do so, back up.

Obviously, there’s a fine line here. Many moons ago, Tesco announced a new home delivery service – for those of its customers who lived in some splendour and didn’t wish to see a Tesco-branded van up their cul-de-sac (to coin a phrase). The new service involved delivery by dark green Range Rover, and the pictures of said Range Rover (along with the story) got square hectares of coverage.

I myself announced that a particular pub restaurant chain was to launch ‘Pincher’s Portions’ of chips – to solve the age old issue of wives, girlfriends and partners refusing to order their own chips and then pinching yours. (Ooooooh – it still irritates me.) Again, the story tapped into the zeitgeist and generated a decent footie pitch of coverage.

Of course, neither story was strictly based in complete fact. Tesco had one, perhaps two, Range Rovers, and the posh delivery service vanished as fast as the story did. My lovely pub restaurant chain put the Pincher’s Portion on the menu in a couple of its outlets, for a brief while. It didn’t matter at all, though – the ideas behind the stories were great and, if absolutely pushed (by some humourless killjoy) to prove they were true – well, we could.

Now the boxing metaphor. As you may know, dear blog snorkeller, on Saturday, one David Hayes is to step into the ring of pugilism and face Nikolai Valuev of Russia. Clearly, Mr Hayes’ fortune rests on the publicity he can generate around the fight, encouraging people to pay their subscriptions to watch it, and making himself more marketable. He has been most vociferous around how well he is going to do, and how is is going to knock his opponent out. There has been reams of coverage – the story has been wholly unavoidable, unless you’ve been living in an hermetically-sealed bunker somewhere for the past couple of weeks.

Unfortunately for Mr Hayes, he is going to be called upon to prove all the claims he has made. Also unfortunately, his opponent is seven foot two inches tall, and weighs 23 stone. He is – looking at it in a logical and balanced fashion – going to get spanked.

A company caught generating publicity on the back of a lie will lose the trust of its stakeholders and the impact on its corporate reputation may be mortal. If you squint a bit and look at Mr Hayes as a company, what’s going to happen to him on Saturday is exactly the same.

Public Relations – Products You Cannot Spin?

Following on from yesterday’s commentary on things you wouldn’t spin, I came across something to day that made me think about things that you cannot spin, not matter how hard you try, and that, eventually you simply have to give up on and view as a lesson learned.

There is, I believe, a temptation for every communications practitioner to believe that everything can be promoted – that there must be a defining something somewhere, that there is a story hidden behind the hopeless exterior and (because we are all horribly insecure) that if we can’t spin it, then someone else will.

This prevents us from taking the obvious path, the one that would save us time, effort and sometimes cash, the one that involves us telling the prospective client that their lovely whateveritis simply isn’t going to fly. That it is, in fact, a horrible turkey, and that they should pack up now and go home. As I’ve said before, I can’t help but thinking that our industry would be in a better state if we weren’t so eager to say yes to everything (I’m generalising, obviously) and if there weren’t quite so many snake-oil salesmen around (and there are, there are) who have little in the way of pride and will counsel anyone on anything if it means they can submit an invoice at the end of the month.

(And before anyone has a pop – I am not making this up – I have seen it happen. I have worked in places where it was obvious that the prospective client was a hopeless basket case, and that the day we achieved significant results for their product or service would be the day that Satan puts on his gloves and scarf and skates to work – there’s a photo opp – yet we still took the brief, still took the cash and accepted the horrible, embarrasing sacking when, inevitably, it was a disaster.)

Recently, on a social network, I came across a bloke looking for help in devising a PR strategy for a new wine product. Now the wine marketplace is a crowded one. It’s price sensitive. It’s difficult to get traction. It’s even more difficult if your wine is made from pomegranates.

Luckily, I think I got to bloke first – I explained to him what he could do to publicise his product and I also explained to him why he’d be wasting his time – that it was unlikely ever to be more than a niche product which might, if he was lucky, become a fashion accessory or a fad for a very, very brief period. I also warned him about the snake oil salesmen and – hey presto – no sooner had I posted the advice, than there were two further posts, offering to help him make his product the new Jacob’s Creek. (I’m exaggerating slightly.)

My second example comes from many moons ago, when I was but a stripling PR person. One of my clients was the generic food promotion agency of a particular European country – while working for them we were not supposed to give one particular brand prominence over any other, however we were entitled to approach the brands that came under this organisation’s umbrella about their specific needs. And they were free to approach us. To cut a long story short, one day I took a call which turned out to be a request for assistance in the promotion of lard.

I didn’t say ‘no’ immediately – mainly because my director was one of those who simply saw the fee opportunity and not the world of pain that would have to be endured to get to the fee, or the inevitable loss of the fee opportunity as we failed to satisfy the client’s expectations. Lard, you see, is lovely – it is – but unfortunately it’s got a bad image, it’s got lots of calories, it contributes to raised blood cholesterol levels and it doesn’t look very nice. OK, I knew my food then, and there’s not doubt that I could have leveraged some coverage for it. But achieving the brief to increase levels of lard consumption across the board? Sorry. I’m good – but no-one’s that good.

Finally I manage to prise my director’s twisted little fingers away from the prospect of the fee, and we said no. And, because I haven’t noticed lard becoming a staple feature of my, or anyone else’s, diet, I can only presume that no-one was able to do a better job of it than the one we didn’t, in the end, decide to do. 

And so to today – and well done, my blog snorkellers, if you are still with me. Today I was alerted to this fantastic and immensely disturbing product. Ladies and gents – if you haven’t had it already, I give you – Meatwater!

This has a genuinely repellent fascination about it, and I for one will not be trying it any time soon. And yet, and yet, I can still see why someone thought it would be a good idea. Anyway, in brief, here’s one that makes you think about the whole ‘would you, wouldn’t you’ deal. For what it’s worth, and on balance, I wouldn’t. I’ll go further and nail my colours to the mast and say it will, sooner, rather than later, disappear without a trace.

If they’re listening, however – the blog’s not been updated, the Twitter feed’s not updated and, as far as I can see, one of the most important things about Meatwater – what actually goes into it – isn’t featured on the site. This says to me that the actual manufacturers don’t really care that much about it, which makes me think that longevity is something this product hasn’t got.

Let’s face it – Innocent Drinks it ain’t. But thinking laterally – as Innocent have recently launched their veg pots (in a break from fruit-only tradition), maybe there’s something they might consider doing in this arena.

And as I’m not a snake-oil salesman, I’ll let Meatwater and Innocent have this counsel for free.

Public Relations – Worthy of the Term ‘Profession’?

Sorry. I’ve been reading PR Week again.

I know I shouldn’t, and there’s nothing to be gained, and that if I continue to do it, I’ll end up as a bearded, wild-eyed, string-shoelaced, shambling apparition, destined to ride on the Circle Line forever, muttering ‘buggrit, buggrem, I told ’em it weren’t right, ‘advertising value equivalent’, they says to me, buggrit, what, says I, I do, it means nothing, shrimp and spanners, buggrem’.

Probably.

Anyway, PR Week. It makes me cross. Sometimes it makes me REALLY cross. It is distinctly possible that I shouldn’t take it so seriously. It is even possible that the magazine is staffed by a bunch of post-modern ironists who are so clever, so sharp, that what, on the surface, can appear inane drivel is, in fact, the most telling commentary and satire, but so finely-honed that its real message is hidden from all but an enlightened few. Right.

This week, the thing that’s made me cross is one of the biggest issues facing our industry. I’m assuming I’m right in saying this because it’s certainly something that better minds that mine have been discussing since I first sat in a chair and made a weak attempt at trying to interest a journalist in the ‘news’ of a revolutionary hair removal system. (Don’t ask.)

It’s the issue of why isn’t PR taken seriously? Why doesn’t PR have (very often) a seat at the top table? Why, when PR is described as a ‘profession’ is there always an echoing of sniggering in the background? (Even when there’s no-one there.) Why is PR described as ‘lightweight’ and ‘fluffy’ – and why do people believe that it is? Why is PR not seen as a ‘proper job’? Why is it, at worst, ignored and at best, barely tolerated?

(And before anyone starts, you know this is, in the main, true. Yes, there are some organisations where PR is given the respect it should command – but they are few and far between.)

There are many possible answers – and maybe I’ll come back to them. Today, let’s concentrate on one of the biggest culprits – in fact a load of the biggest culprits – us – the industry itself. How is anyone going to take PR seriously if we persist in perpetuating the myths and prancing around like a bunch of knobs.

Yes, we don’t all do it. In fact, I’d imagine, very few of us do it. But. But. And this is why PR Week makes me cross this week. You see, according to the rules of communication, it only takes one incident to ruin the reputation of the industry. Especially if that incident is kindly emblazoned in the pages of what purports to be the voice of the industry. So, this week, step foward Deborah Clark Associates ‘celebrating the launch of the ‘Cornwall Twestival” – what were you thinking of?

I’m not going to link to the picture here. Suffice it say it smacks of ill-conceived sixth-form amateur dramatics. It was lightweight AND it was fluffy. But, ignoring for the moment the obvious question of what possessed these people to do this in the first place, the other obvious question is what in the name of all that’s holy were PR Week thinking of when they decided to print it?

It’s tough times for PR. We all know that. But with friends like PR Week, who needs enemies?

It’s Not What You Say – It’s The Way That You Say It

Bit of a rant, I’m afraid.

I think I’ve already stated on this blog that I’m something of a fan of what I would term PR stunts – bit fluffy, bit wheeey, bit whoooar – but, actually quite effective while they last. I think I mentioned Aleksandr the Meerkat from comparethemeerkat.com (a search engine dedicated to meerkat paraphernalia and accessories, as far as I can see) as a particular example of how something fairly silly and with low relevance to anything and with an undeniably ‘cheap’ feel to it can be extremely successful and tap into the zeitgeist. Simples! (And cross all sorts of media divides – digital, print, experiential, broadcast etc etc  etc.)

Anyway – peeping out from under my stone the other day I came across another one – you probably all know about this, but anyway – it was the absolutkindness.com campaign, ‘Give Kindness Not Cash!’, on behalf of Absolut Vodka. I only read a case history, but I quite liked the idea of giving smiles, hugs or high-fives in exchange for food, drink, whatever. I don’t know whether it was a success – but it deserved to be – it had legs, it had digital, it had experiential and it had the possibility of print as well. Hooray for whoever it was who came up with it. Silly, yes, foolish, perhaps, short-lived, most definitely – but attention-grabbing and thought-provoking.

So why did some clown let the Absolut head of marketing ruin it with this quotation: “We wanted to put a smile on people’s faces. Absolut is more than just a vodka, it’s a way of life, and this seemed like a good way to communicate that attitude to people.”

Aaaaaaaaaagh. It reminds me of something I might have written when I was young and stupid. No, Absolut marketing and PR bunnies, Absolut is not more than just a vodka. It is actually, quite plainly, just a vodka. Nothing wrong with that, and I’m sure it’s very nice, but it’s just a vodka. It most certainly is not a way of life – that would be a worry – but luckily, most of those who see spirits as a way of life cannot actually afford them, which is why they drink Special Brew.

(Also, and it’s a side issue – ‘a good way to communicate that attitude’ – well, is it an attitude, or a way of life? Make up your minds, guys.)

This is a plea – and an object lesson, perhaps – never give your spokespeople words, or allow them to use words, that will jar with, or patronise, or offput your audience. The quotation above runs the risk of achieving all of those things – I’m not stupid, and therefore I don’t presume that anyone else is.

‘We wanted to put a smile on people’s faces. – your choice of Absolut Vodka says something about you – and this was a great way of communicating that something to people.’

See where I’m coming from?