Serving Mammon In His Communications Department

Yesterday I praised Lucas van Praag, Spinmeister-General at the Vampire Squid, for his audacious strategy of actually instigating an FSA investigation to shift the focus from the bank’s nausea-inducing profits and bonuses.

I was wrong – according to this piece by Jason Karpf (a four-time champion on the game show ‘Jeopardy!’) (which is, I can only presume, where the hapless contestants have to escape from a cage full of hungry jeopards? No?), this truly epoch-making piece of lateral communications thinking comes from Texas-based PR firm, Public Strategies.

So well done to them.

Mind, lest Mr van Praag be diminished in our eyes, here’s a piece from something called New York Magazine which compiled a list of the Praagster’s best rebuttals. I will leave the last word to @manic_impressive, who commented on the article:

“Dude, Goldman is just so much better than all of us.”

Public Relations – Owning The Media Agenda?

Here’s an interesting piece from O’Leary Analytics in Ireland, who’ve done some work on the media profile, and the coverage achieved by, Ryanair – purveyor of ostensibly cheap, yet somehow slightly threatening, airline travel to the masses.

Their conclusion is that the team at Ryanair, love ‘em or loathe ‘em, actually ‘own’ the media agenda – by which I understand that they manipulate it to their own ends.

Which is fair, and probably true – but what is genuinely interesting here and a real lesson for all communicators is not that Ryanair own the media agenda, but how they have achieved that ownership.

Until I saw O’Leary’s work on this, I presumed that it was the force of personality of (Wee Angry) Michael O’Leary, the airline’s head honcho, a man with a real flair for charm, diplomacy and stakeholder relations. (No, of course he hasn’t.)

But it’s not. What it is, is the company’s fearless willingness to court controversy and – most importantly – to isolate the stories (or make them up, if necessary) that are certain to create that controversy. There’s also no doubt that success and profitability are key imperatives that run throughout the business and occupy everyone’s mind. (Take the case of the Ryanair ‘we’ll make people pay for using the toilet’ story – started as a PR stunt, now seems set to become a reality, presumably because there’s a few euro to be had out of it.)

If you look at the peaks of Ryanair coverage, they’re mostly around stories that are completely calculated to grab media attention – and they’re not all positive. A set of bad results? Discount fares some more! Halve your order for new aircraft? Give some money back to shareholders! Even if it’s bad news, Ryanair do not seek to hide it – no! It’s just another opportunity to court controversy – to take control of the media agenda.

No – lest I be pilloried here – I’m not saying that this works for all companies in the same way it works for Ryanair. Ryanair is happy to have a devil-may-care, abrasive, unsympathetic, non-customer-centric image – O’Leary (Michael, not Analytics) would be the first to say it’s all about keeping prices down – that’s all that matters (in tandem with making some money for the shareholders, obviously). Not all companies – in fact very few companies – would wish to be seen in the same way.

But that’s not to say that we can’t all learn something from the Ryanair example – adapt their mindset and way of doing things to suit our own set-up, and our own corporate culture. And in so doing, maybe get a greater level of control over our media’s agenda.

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.

Spin – Not What You Say, But What You Appear to Have Said

Another weekend, another bag of political shenaniganning. The one-eyed Scottish idiot (that’s Gordon Brown, according to Jeremy Clarkson – he, Gordon should consider himself lucky, according to Jeremy Clarkson, Prince Philip is a c**t) was on Andrew Marr’s telly programme on Sunday morning, when Marr asked the question that we’ve all be dying to get an answer to. Is, in fact, Prudence Broon a stark raving lunatic, retaining a modicum of self-control only through the use of industrial-strength medecines? Here’s the transcript:

“Marr If you were an American president, we would know all about your medical history. You were asked in the States about your eyesight, and I think the reason you were asked is because people were wondering whether that would be a reason for standing down at some point. Let me ask you about something else everybody has been talking about – a lot of people … use prescription painkillers and pills to help them get through. Are you one of those?

Brown No. I think this is the sort of questioning that is …

Marr It’s a fair question, I think.

Brown … is all too often entering the lexicon of British politics. I have had very serious problems with my eye. I lost my eyesight playing rugby. I had three major operations and they could not save my sight. I then had exactly the same thing happen to my second eye … and every year, of course, I have to check, as I did only a few days ago, that my eyesight is good and there has been absolutely no deterioration in my eyesight, and I think people should be absolutely clear that although …

Marr What about my other question?

Brown I answered your other question. Although I have problems with my eyes and it has been very difficult over the years, I think people understand that you can do a job and you can work hard. And I think it would be a terrible indictment of our political system if you thought that because someone had this medical issue they couldn’t do the job. So, Andrew, I think these questions … of course you might be right to ask them, but … I feel that I have done everything to show people that I can do the job even with the handicap that I’ve had as a result of a rugby injury.”

This morning, the news channels are full of it. Complaints are being made to the Beeb for allowing Marr to ask the question and ‘right wing blogs’ are the new reds under our beds. In fact, there’s a real feeling that Gordon Brown really should not have been put in the situation where he had to dignify the rumours (about his use of anti-depressants) with such a denial.

But – hold up a moment. He didn’t deny it. Did he? All I read here is a sentence that, in its entirety, says “No. I think this is the sort of questioning that is all too often entering the lexicon of British politics. I have had very serious problems with my eye.” Which I understand to mean ‘no – don’t go there – this is the sort of question you shouldn’t be asking.’ I don’t see a denial there at all.

A little later, Marr asks again ‘about my other question’. And Brown simply says ‘I answered your other question’. Again, no denial – this time a simple refusal to revisit his previous answer.  Obviously – it’s not a massively important point – either he is taking horse-tranquillisers or he isn’t. And if he is, he’ll be stuffed, whether he denied it or not.

What really intrigues me is the way that apparently sensible people have seen his words as a denial. He said the word ‘no’ and therefore he’s denied whatever he was being accused of. Or is it that there’s some massive cover-up going on, for reasons of national security?

Either way, while Gord’s got muckers like the Other Prime Minister on his side, no amount of cover-up conspiracy his going to save his grey and jowly neck. Can’t help but noticing how quick Peter was to speak out ‘in defence’ of the PM, thereby ensuring that the issue wasn’t forgotten, or passed over by a less-than-vigilant media.

And this is the same Peter Mandelson who, at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, when the waggish Mr Bean called out ‘Mr Prime Minister!’ simply smiled a hooded and vulpine smile and replied ‘not yet’.

And speaking, as I have been, of Mandy, Gord and painkillers – I quite enjoyed this.