Saturday, August 11, 2007

Hey - I'M the King of Mediocrity, Not YOU!

Pondering the current scuffle between former Bush speechwriter Michael J. Gerson and his once-assistant Matthew Sculley, I have to wonder: What's the prize for winning this battle?

In case you've missed the headlines, Sculley accuses Gerson of taking credit for famous Bushisms that were actually written by lesser-known staff scribes. In the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, a place where a lot of former White House writers go to die, Sculley lets loose a scathing tirade of his former boss, calling Gerson a "self-publicizing glory hog" guilty of "foolish vanity," "sheer pettiness" and "credit hounding."

Egads, this sounds serious. In fact, the fight is so important that today's Washington Post features it on the front page, right next to some lesser story about the imminent collapse of global financial systems and stock markets.

Apparently there's value in being recognized as the creative genius behind what many pundits view as the worst Presidency in modern history. One may be excused for evilly wishing that whomever is responsible for the wit and wisdom of George W. Bush gets every ounce of credit he or she deserves.

Of course, it's also possible this episode merely illustrates why speechwriters should always remain anonymous. By fighting over who penned Bush's great lines, Gerson and Sculley are breaking the first Commandment of Speechwriting: Never discuss who you currently work for, what you do, or how much of the creative end product represents yours vs. the client's own brilliance.

The object of speechwriting is to make the speaker look great. If the writer stands in the wings taking bows, he's distracting attention from the client, and as importantly, from the issue the client is trying to present. If the writer is that eager for credit, he ought to give the damned speech himself, or maybe insist on a free plug. What if President Bush had phrased it like this:

"As my speechwriter says, Iraq, Iran and North Korea are the 'axis of evil.' "

That's ridiculous, of course.

Speechwriters, take heed from this fiasco. Wise up -- and keep your mouths shut.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Aiming Low. . .and Hitting Every Time

Of all the errors a PR person can commit there is one unforgivable sin: Laziness.

Laziness surfaces in all kinds of ways: lack of creativity; going to the same reliable news sources for a hit time after time; fear of taking a story up-stream into national media; writing in technical gibberish without bothering to explain the story in easily-comprehensible language, and so on and so forth.

Today I'll concentrate on what I consider Cardinal Sin #1: "going to the same sources" time and again.

An old friend of mine heads up the PR department for a large software company. Recently he circulated a trade press article of his "top" PR staffers had placed. It was an excellent piece, and he rightly took pride in the achievement, & thus was allowed to "crow" a little. All the same, as I read the story and her note, I had just one thought:

"And this is as far as it'll go."

A glance at the "In the News" section of this company's web site reveals a truth common to far too many companies in the tech and telecom space: They seem to be covered by only two or three reporters. List of "hits" written by the same reporters from the same low-circulation trade publications go on month-after-month, quarter-after-quarter, year-after-year. Perusing this kind of coverage, you get the impression that the PR person only knows three people in the media. The truth is the PR person is just doing the safe thing. He or she has to show results. What's the easiest way to do that? -- Go to the same reporters every time.

When you aim low, you're always going to hit the mark.

This is not to say that trade press are "low," but rather that they're just one media vehicle. PR people who rely on them solely are. . .lazy.

Getting back to my friend, I know that his company faces some tough policy challenges in the months ahead. It so happens they have a great story to tell. Hopefully someone high up in the organization will put his/her boot up that "top" PR staffer's arse, and soon. The jolt might make him aim higher. . .to places like the Wall Street Journal, USA Today or The New York Times.

PR is like sales. The worst thing that can happen is that the prospect will so say "No thanks." But if you never ask, you're missing out on the chance to hear that wonderful "Yes!" response.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Meet My Assistant, The Prince

"Your summer intern is Prince Michael of Greece - isn't that great?!"

Being the PR guy for a billionaire CEO in the tech biz, I was used to weird things happening. We'd asked for an intern. The CEO got back saying a friend's son would be taking the job. I should've known the "friend" would be somebody like HRH King Constantine.

"Yessir, it's wonderful," I mumbled.

I had reservations. Not that I was a foe of monarchies or looked down on royal siblings as lazy profligates who lived off the public coffer. In fact, I would come to like the Prince. He was a regular guy. Hungover on his first day in the office, The Prince slept through my tedious seminar on telecom networks. Afterward, on slow days, we'd lock the door to my office and play hoops with a tennis ball and a trash can or toss cigarettes in the air and try to catch them in our lips. It wasn't that I feared the prospect of hefting a yards-long silken train as I trailed humbly behind The Prince. What worried me was the impact on my "credibility" with the press, or as I put it to my boss:

"So, uh. . .when a reporter drops by I say "Hi, I'm Jim Crawford, PR Manager, and this is my assistant, the Prince of Greece?' "

Two points here. First, a PR person's legitimacy with the media is his/her most important asset. Second, some executives don't give a fig whether their actions damage your reputation. This lesson was driven home to me later in life.

Flash forward 10 years. 1995. I'm Director of PR for a large, multinational telecom firm. Word comes down that our Chairman, Bart Bungler, will in one hour tell the Board he plans to plunk $1 billion in a well-known media company owned by a magnate we shall here name Rugbert Mudcrop. I'm thinking, "Wow, we have a billion dollars to toss around like that?" when in pops my boss, whom we'll call Fran Ovary.

"We need to hold a press conference on this deal two hours from now," she squeaks.

"Sure. Anybody know why we're giving $1 billion to Mudrock?"

"It's 'Mudcrop,' and 'No!' Leave the details to me. You start calling the press!"

We'll condense the part where the Board tells the Chairman his idea is silly and Ms. Ovary scurries back with orders not to call any media yet. . .an hour after I've done so, and 30 minutes before the press conference is to commence. [At the last minute the Chairman bludgeoned the other Board members into line and the "investment" was okayed. Never mind that no one -- then or now -- could figure what we were getting for our billion bucks. We were "converging the worlds of telecom and media." Whee!]

Reporters and camera crews pile in to our studio. Lights flash. Chairmen shake hands and flash toothy grins. After an hour they all file out, and we PR folk take to the phones to answer the million questions other journalists have about this billion dollar deal in need of a reason. Around 5:30pm I was about to catch my breath and relax when the call came in from Newsweek.

"Is it true that convicted felon Michael ________ brokered this deal for Bungler and Mudcrop?"

Half a minute later I'm on the phone with Bart Bungler, who denies the allegation. That satisfies Newsweek, but not Business Week, which calls the next day and gets the same line from me. Nevertheless, within a month's time the true story emerges. Fresh from stamping license plates in the federal pen, the world's most infamous corporate raider had indeed hosted the Bungler-Mudcrop meeting on his private jet, violating a court injunction on involvement in deal-making.

Bungler was fired eventually, which was a lucky break. His successor's in jail for life now, for similar & worse transgressions.

Mudrock's richer than ever.

Nobody remembers the deal.

The billion dollars? Poof!

I survived, though I still blush whenever I bump into the guy from Business Week.

What I learned: There's a good reason why, every few decades or so, the masses assemble The Mighty and line them up against a wall.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Haiku of Press Releases

Given the blizzard of announcements that cross the wire each day, getting your story in the national business press is tough. But PR people actually raise the odds against coverage by writing in a style I call "the haiku of press releases."

Haiku is a highly structured form of Japanese poetry wherein each poem always contains exactly 17 syllables and conveys a concise message. The vast majority of press releases also follow fixed stylistic methods, but with the opposite effect. The "haiku of press releases" buries the story beneath verbal clutter, meaningless phrases, and quotes that say nothing. I sometimes picture reporters scratching their heads as they pore over this drivel wondering, "What the heck is this thing all about?"

Herein are the worst elements of this PR haiku:

  • "So and so, a leader in such and such. . .": Every company issuing a release claims to be the leader in its field. Just once it would be refreshing to hear from someone that honestly acknowleges they're only in second or third place.
  • The Mandatory Executive Quote: Companies feel compelled to immortalize the wisdom of their CEO in a press release quote. No reporter worth his/her salt will fall back on printing a canned quote.
  • Happy Happy Executives: Many quotes inanely begin, "I am very pleased. . ." Who the heck cares? One former client had the CEO start each quote this way, prompting me to comment, "Gee, he must be happiest exec in the world."
  • Inventive Industry Designations That Say Nothing: In the quest to be different, marketing departments embrace bizarre ways to describe what a company does. My all-time favorite: The comms company that called itself an "applications gateway provider" or "AGP." Going belly-up a few months later, they indeed proved they were "a gyp" for customers and investors.
  • Unnamed Customer Wins for Unspecified Dollar Amounts. The first time I saw such an announcement I thought it was a joke. . .until an article appeared. Boiled down to its essence, the story said: "Company wins new business with somebody, for something."
I could go on, but let's stop there. Wouldn't it make more sense if press releases emulated the style of reporters - tight and concise like a wire service piece? A half-page announcement that simply stated the news, without hype, verbal false limbs, needless quotes and inflated prose would be far more welcome in a journalist's in-box.

How the World Sees PR Professionals

I love a trade show. It's the one place I can go where beautiful women warmly take my hand and shower me with attention. The wonderful glow lasts about 30 seconds 'til the booth bunnies learn I'm just a PR guy. Then they look like they've stepped in something unpleasant.

To many, PR is a reviled profession. "Flaks" are seen as liars and con artists who will say whatever they're paid to, and avoid the truth at all costs if it compromises a client. Unfortunately, that characterization fits in some instances. Witness the ludicrous statements and flat-out lies that emanate from press officers representing the highest offices and biggest corporations in the land. But these folk don't represent the majority.

PR people perform a vital function. We are the "middle men" who represent the world's leaders to those who report on them. Part artist, part researcher and part salesperson, a good PR person has the skills to craft a good story from raw information, match it to the right journalist, and sell it into a public venue. The best have an innate ability to discern great stories that "sell themselves" on merit, and to shelve news that is second-tier. Some will go so far as to tell a journalist, "Honestly, this story is not that big a deal." When they come back later with a hot item, the reporter knows it's for real.

One of the nicest compliments I ever received came from Mike Mills, the former telecom beat reporter for The Washington Post. I'd just launched my agency and asked Mike to be a reference for a potential client. Asked about my credentials, Mike simply said:

"The thing about Jim is -- when he calls I know it's important."

I try to live up to that assessment every day. It helps me look clients, reporters and even booth bunnies straight in the eye.