Friday, December 30, 2005

Do you think he will offer special train service to the casino?

With all news media eyeballs dazzled and blinded by the glam-celeb front people renting out their egos to casino developers eager to get licenses in Pennsylvania, (like Sylvester Stallone, Donald Trump, and Pat Croce -- Quincy Jones was also mentioned), no one seemed to notice that the Inquirer's first-day story on the last-minute license rush included an affluent but obscure player: David LeVan.

In its "Power players look to cash in on slots" story on December 28, the Inquirer described him thus:

"David LeVan: A member of Rendell's transition team as governor, he wants to build a casino in Gettysburg."

Geez, Dave. How quickly they forget that you were once the chairman of one of Philadelphia's largest employers, Consolidated Rail Corporation, a/k/a Conrail . Where's a good transportation reporter like Tom Belden when you need him?

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which still apparently has business reporters with some sense of history, at least realized there was a story here.

Yes, Dave was chairman of Conrail and thought he'd found a "white knight" in the CSX Corporation.

Unfortunately for Dave (and the thousands of Conrail employees whose jobs were ultimately vaporized), CSX got a better offer from Norfolk Southern, Conrail's old nemesis from the Reagan years when Liddy Dole wanted to sell the whole railroad to NS. So CSX and NS agreed to carve up Conrail, leaving nothing but a shell of the company. (Note to political wonks: Yes, the chairman of CSX who blindsided LeVan on that one was none other than our US Treasury Secretary, John Snow.)

LeVan and a few others pocketed huge severance payouts but many Conrail folks had to learn second languages ("would you like fries with that?") while he was growing his pony tail and opening his Harley Davidson dealership -- and donating generously to his alma mater, Gettysburg College.

Wonder if they will sell casino chips on the private rail cars hauling gamblers to Gettysburg from points east?

Attention must be paid to such a woman...

Many of my colleagues in the PR blogosphere have duly noted the important posting by Katie Paine regarding a new PR measurement paradigm she is proposing on her KDPaine's PR Measurement Blog, and let me join the parade.

Katie is adamantly opposed (thank you very much, KD!) to the use of Advertising Dollar Equivalents or Advertising Value Equivalents, whatever you want to call them. This is where you measure the column inches of the story and multiply it by the dollar-per-inch advertising rate of the publication to get the value of the article. Agencies have been able to get that metric past unsophisticated clients for a long time.

Katie's now suggesting PRV, or PR Value Ratio, a measurement of the COST of achieving article placements, rather than the VALUE of the placements, to demonstrate the efficiency of PR -- by at least one order of magnitude -- over advertising.

As Katie explains it, "... if research reveals that your earned media has reached a million pairs of eyeballs with your messages that would be a significant milestone. More importantly if it reached those million eyeballs at a fraction of the cost of buying the same eyeballs (i.e. advertising), that would show that PR was contributing in a big way to the organization's bottom line. So for example if the annual PR budget is $100K and the Ad budget is $1 million and both deliver the organizations key messages to 5 million eyeballs a year, PR delivers the same output for a tenth of the cost so the value ratio would be 10:1."

It is becoming increasingly essential for practitioners to demonstrate hard dollar value from corporate PR expenditures, because it has traditionally been seen as a "soft-dollar" cost center that doesn't add anything to revenue. We need to prove that what we do is cost-effective, or when the lean years arrive, we will simply get carved away like the wings on a Thanksgiving turkey. Kudos, Katie!

Trackback URL for Katie's blog posting:

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Why "Public Relations" and "Credibility" are becoming mutually exclusive

It's a fine line between public relations and publicity, but most people can understand the difference between arranging for a corporate executive to appear on a news interview show and making sure that the right starlets and the right rappers are invited to the lavish party with just the right color of red carpet.

Nevertheless, there is a worrisome trend among PR practitioners to go for the lowest common denominator to keep clients happy. What I mean is PR people who think creating a stunt generates excitement for a product or service. You may get 10 seconds on the evening news as a b-roll background to the weather statistics, but this isn't about communicating your client's message. This is a diminishing-sum game that will irreparably damage a PR industry already on the credibility ropes if it continues.

We wail and gnash our teeth about journalists not giving us respect and we wonder why we don't have credibility with them.

PR people: Look in the mirror for the answer to this dichotomy.

Tanya Barrientos' "Unconventional Wisdom" column in Saturday's Philadelphia Inquirer, "Story pitches we should just, well, pitch," gets to the heart of the "let's find a news hook, no matter how tenuous, ridiculous, or contrived it is" disease that afflicts many inexperienced -- and some surprisingly very experienced -- practitioners.

The sad part is that many clients of PR firms think this sort of pitch is a really clever way to get their clients in front of the media.

It may sound exciting but generally all it does is turn the media off to those clients as credible sources of expertise.

Barrientos spotlights such silly approaches as these (direct quotes from Barrientos' column):

  • "It's holiday party time," the release says. "You've sent out invitations, hired a caterer and trimmed the tree, and you're looking forward to celebrating with your guests on Christmas or New Year's. But have you also planned for potential legal issues you may face as the host?"

  • Gastro Expert Tips for Avoiding Xmas Indigestion. The pitch? "Those big family dinners we enjoy over the holiday season have an unspoken dark side, one that's among society's last taboos: the flatulence that results from gastrointestinal distress."
    The publicist goes on to suggest an interview with a nutritionist who authors the "first blog to tackle... serious, open discussions about why we fart... "

Now, these two examples are probably pitches for very small firms that are having trouble getting their expertise on the radar of the mainstream media.

However, stunt publicity is also being used by very large organizations that have reasonably seasoned practitioners and are paying their PR firms millions of dollars to do sophisticated studies, surveys, media clip analysis, and to throw so many people at a media campaign that you would think someone would tell them this emperor ain't wearing anything special.

One major financial institution is helping BusinessWire make its sales numbers for December by issuing a flurry of identical "media advisories" in markets all over the country.

The important news being "advised?" This company is alerting local media across the country that it is "depositing a large red couch" at major sporting events. Apparently, they are having sports fans dive into the couch casting around for loose change (not to be confused with a casting couch, one would hope).

This confection is served up to get people excited about a new "product" that rounds off your nickel and dime purchases and transfers money into a linked savings account. Wow, pardon my cynicism, but this is a big news event worth thousands of dollars in BusinessWire releases? This is the best thing that all these great PR minds could come up with?

What happened to having experts speaking plainly with people about personal finance issues and providing them with useful, actionable information? When the hoopla is all over and the fans go home and sleep off the beer buzz from the football game, are they really going to remember what that big red couch was for, let alone what firm paid to "deposit" it at the game? (Meanwhile, check with the financial reporters in the major media markets this company serves, and they say they can't even get a phone call returned promptly.)

My guess, the PR people all know this approach to the public is flawed, insulting to the intelligence of the most attractive (high-net-worth) potential customers, and is ultimately a bunch of hooey, but the PR people already have seen that the corporate poobahs don't want to hear how silly it is.

Even the agencies who help cook up this nonsense know that it is in fact nonsense, but they like the billable hours too much to put a stop to this madness by giving their clients the honest advice they are being paid handsomely to provide. So they get to do the silly tricks for a couple of years, they bill millions for it, and then they lose the account in a "review" a few years out, and someone else starts the miserable cycle all over again.

If we in the PR industry want more respect from journalists for our clients and ourselves, we need to cut out the "stunt" approach to communications, and start clearly articulating the competencies of our clients in a professional manner. We need to stop creating "events" and "opportunities" where no event or opportunity really exists. The public deserves better.

If we provide valuable resources to our friends in journalism, we will become credible.

But as long as we keep providing nothing more than bread and circuses, they will keep treating us like a bunch of clowns.

And we will deserve it.

Friday, December 09, 2005

New York Times Notices the result of the "Soylent Greening" of American corporations...

In today's New York Times, "New Surveys Show That Big Business Has a P.R. Problem," by Claudia Deutsch, underscores my feeling about the "Soylent Greening" of American corporations.

It's good news for those of us who are independent consultants, but large companies need to understand that cutting overall costs by getting rid of experienced professional communicators on their staffs has its risks -- and so does hiring outside communications consultants who lack the business experience of seasoned (read "older, more expensive") professional communications executives.

For those of you too young to remember, "Soylent Green" was a very counterculturish 1973 film in which young people in a future society were trying to figure out what mysterious things were going on in the company that produced a popular environmentally friendly (!) food biscuit called "Soylent Green."

At the end of the movie it turns out they were turning the senior citizens into processed food bars.

Sort of like what's happening in corporate America to the seasoned, experienced PR staffs -- with the result being articles like this one in the Times, about how the business leaders can't understand why they are doing such a bad job of communicating about the importance of their business.

When you outsource your communications to someone who wasn't even born when the Penn Central Railroad defaulted on its commercial paper (1970), or whose parents were in elementary school when John Lennon died (1980), you are going to be communicating with your constituencies through a lens that cannot provide any context for the overall evolution of your business over more than a single business cycle. Businesses generally do outlast a complete business cycle, but they often expect to tell their story by using people who've only been there a few months or years at the most.

If companies are going to downsize their communications teams and rely on outside counsel, they need to stop regarding their former communications leaders as raw input for the Soylent Green factory, and demand that their outside PR firms engage the services of some individuals with experience, communications skills, and an understanding of context -- how the business operates, and why it is important.

It's not just about how many clips you show to the C-Suite. As the movie says, "Soylent Green is...people."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

NJBankers Podcast #1: Outlook for 2006

NJBankers Podcast #1: Forecast 2006
Recorded Thursday, December 1, 2005 (163.3 mb mono MP3 file, 1:58:55)

Steve adjusts microphone for Sun National Bank president Tom Bracken during the podcast recording
NJBA Photo/Timothy Doherty
What direction will New Jersey's economy take in 2006?
What effect will our new governor have on the business climate?

Who better to answer these and other questions than the head of the NJ State Chamber of Commerce, the Chief Examiner for the New Jersey Deparment of Banking and Insurance and the Chairman of the NJ Council of Economic Advisors?

Now, listen to the entire program in this first of a series of podcast recordings, produced for NJBankers by Lubetkin & Co. Communications LLC of Cherry Hill, NJ.


Mr. Bracken began his banking career with New Jersey National Bank in 1969. He was named Executive Vice President and Head of Commercial Banking in 1975, and retained that position through CoreStates' acquisition of New Jersey National Bank. In 1993, Mr. Bracken was named President of CoreStates/New Jersey National Bank and in 1998, following the CoreStates merger with First Union Bank, he was appointed Executive Vice President and Head of Commercial and Government Banking for New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. In May of 2000, Mr. Bracken was named Executive Director of First Union's Public Sector Group. Tom currently is the Chairman of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.
Thomas A. Bracken
President & CEO, Sun Bancorp, Inc.

Dr. Seneca is Chairman of the New Jersey Council of Economic Advisors. The Council prepares semiannual economic outlooks and advises the Governor and Legislature on economic policy and economic development. He has taught at all levels of instruction throughout his career at Rutgers and has received numerous awards for exemplary teaching and contributions to public service. Dr. Seneca is the author of numerous articles, reports and books on economic policy, public finance, environmental economics and state economic development. He was named the 2002 Educator of the Year by the Research and Development Council of New Jersey.
Dr. Joseph J. Seneca
Rutgers University Professor, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy

Mrs. Akey has served as the Chief Examiner of the Division of Banking since October 1989. As Chief Examiner, Mrs. Akey is responsible for the examination and supervision program for all State chartered commercial banks, savings banks, savings and loan associations, trust companies and holding companies for the State chartered institutions. Mrs. Akey has also served as the Secretary to the Bank Advisory Board since 1994.
Janine J. Akey
Chief Examiner, NJ Department of Banking & Insurance

Direct download: NJBankers1-Outlook2006.mp3