What I Learned from My Biggest PR Flop

  Swimmer doing a belly flop

Recently a client asked me to describe my biggest professional failure. (Glad he didn’t ask about my biggest personal failure, as it would have taken me a while to sort through that list.)

I was tempted to borrow Hank Dye’s response when he was asked the same question in a new business presentation. At the time Hank was president of Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence, a leading PR firm in the Southeast and the agency that brought me to Nashville.

Without missing a beat he said, “There weren’t any that the clients knew about.”

Hank understood the importance of serving clients with excellence, and when mistakes happened – as they inevitably do – he was quick to get them corrected.

One of the things that impressed me when I interviewed at DV&L was the agency’s written commitment: “We will do what is right, even if it hurts us.”

Those weren’t just words, we lived by them. (Hank, but the way, was a great mentor to me in many ways, and I will be forever grateful for all that I leaned from him and the other partners.)

Unfortunately, some failures do get noticed by clients. At the top of my list is an event I was responsible for managing that involved the launch of a client’s new product.

At the time I headed up the public relations department for an advertising agency. Everything for the event was planned in great detail. We had several well-known national speakers lined up, along with the company’s CEO and other top executives. I had hired a videographer through a national paid news service to do a video news release (VNR) to help us extend our broadcast coverage, and my team and I had done a full-court press to turn out the news media. We had an excellent press kit and media advisory, and we felt very good about the launch.

In the early morning hours the day of the event, several tornadoes ripped through Middle Tennessee, including downtown Nashville where our event was being held. Guess where all the news media were the morning of our launch? Out covering the damage. We had one TV crew show up briefly for our event, but for the most part it was a publicity flop.

The client understood that there’s nothing much we could do under the circumstances, but it still was very disappointing. We put together a post-event news release with photos, and distributed them through a paid release distribution service as well as through our media list, along with the VNR. We picked up some good national coverage that way, but not as much as we could have gotten under normal conditions.

If we are wise, we learn more from our PR failures than from our successes. One of the lessons I learned from this failure was to always be prepared for the unexpected. Rather than assuming that everything is going to go as scheduled, I now assume something outside of my control will go wrong. I ask more “what if” questions and have a carefully thought through contingency plan.

Of course this event is not the only PR venture that didn’t go as well as I planned, but it’s the one that stands out most in mind my – and the event for which I’d most like to have a redo.

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The Most Important Part of Your Agency’s Pitch to Reporters


Man pitching a baseballWhile there are a number of things that go into an effective pitch letter to reporters, I believe the most important is your headline (or subject line if sending by e-mail). The reason is simple: If the headline doesn’t grab them, they’re not likely to read your pitch letter no matter how well it’s crafted.

During my days as an editor for a healthcare magazine, I got a lot of mail. Here’s a news release headline that a well-meaning hospital or agency public relations executive sent me one day:


One in a half-million or so people would have a clue what that headline was about.

And ask yourself: how much interest does it generate?  The release itself was fairly well written, and once I read the first few sentences I realized the hospital was hosting a seminar about advancements in hernia operations.

But most reporters – even those in healthcare –wouldn’t get past that headline. The release would end up in the recycle bin or deleted before the first paragraph was read.

The headline should describe, in simple terms, what the seminar is about and why it merits attention. For example, if this involves a new procedure, the headline should make that point up front.

A couple days ago a colleague forwarded an article to me titled “A World-Class News Release.” The writer, Denny Hatch, is a columnist for Target Marketing magazine and author of a new book called Write Everything Right!

Mr. Hatch gets a lot of news releases e-mailed to him, 90% of which he estimates are “unreadable.” Recently he received an e-mail with this subject line:

Infographic: Who is a fraud perpetrator?

Intrigued, he began reading an e-mail news release (with an introductory note) from Scott Patterson, senior public relations specialist with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Mr. Hatch described it as “perfect in every way.”

The copy started with a couple of attention-getting questions: What are some of the characteristics of a fraudster?That is, who are the people who commit occupational fraud, stealing from their employer or clients?

Mr. Hatch – not an easy man to please – liked the content so much that he listed the entire pitch, with key takeaways that included this:

  • If the reader does not get beyond the headline, the entire effort is a 100 percent failure—in terms of money spent and time wasted.

“Hey all you P.R. folks, learn from this guy!” Mr. Hatch advises.

Duly noted – and congratulations to Mr. Patterson for an excellent pitch that started with a stand-out subject line.

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Never Deny the Obvious

One of my all-time favorite apologies came from the CEO of a company who, after reading a long list of grievances recited by an offended customer, started his letter with, “Clearly, we screwed up.”

No excuses. No whining. No defensiveness. Just a clear acknowledgment that the company made a mistake, with the letter apologizing for it and taking corrective action.

The apology was made directly to the offended party who, as I recall, shared it with others and eventually the mea culpa made its way onto a list of excellent apology letters.

I have certainly made my share of mistakes, and when I make one I try to go directly to the offended individual(s) to apologize and ask forgiveness. I’ve had occasion to do this as recently as a few days ago.

  • We can’t control whether people will believe us or forgive us, but we can and should acknowledge our mistake with the offended party. It’s the right thing to do.

Organizations that make mistakes and are quick to apologize will find that most people are quick to forgive. Of course the apology must be sincere to really be effective. If you’ve made a mistake, though, you should want to do what you can to make things right with the offended individual(s) as soon as possible.

Digging in and refusing to acknowledge a mistake generally makes matters much worse, and an insincere apology is usually pretty easy to detect and counterproductive.

  • One of my early career mentors once gave me this sage advice: “Never deny the obvious.”

It’s amazing, though, how many companies and individuals do that very thing. If it’s obvious that you, your agency or client has made a mistake, acknowledge it, take responsibility, ask forgiveness and then move on.



Ad Agencies: Here’s a Way to Strengthen Relationships with Reporters Who Cover Your Clients

Media looking at car at Nissan facility

One of my most memorable experiences was the time I spent in Guatemala on a mission trip, where I was part of a team that helped build a school for kids living in extreme poverty. The school was going up next to the church that was spearheading its construction, and today there are about 700 students who attend. They are receiving an education that is much more than a competitive edge; it is a ticket that will help them escape poverty.

I had been to other parts of the world and seen some poor places, but nothing I experienced was quite like this. The church complex was built on a hill that overlooked a valley, and as far as I could see in any direction there were shacks built of cinder block, corrugated tin, pieces of plywood—and whatever else the residents could cobble together for a dwelling. The houses lacked running water and had dirt floors. No one knew for sure how many people lived in this valley, but the government estimated the population to be in the hundreds of thousands.

The majority of people who attended the church came from this valley. They were some of the warmest, most loving, friendly and joyful individuals I’d ever met. During the weekdays when we were engaged in construction, a number of mothers were working with us, using shovels, picks or even their bare hands to help out. They knew what this school would mean to their children, and they were determined to do their part to build it. I also got to spend some time in the valley visiting a child my family and I were sponsoring.

You can see pictures of poverty, but there’s no substitute for experiencing it in person and getting to know real people, by name, who are trapped in it. My time there certainly gave me a new perspective on the blessing we enjoy in America, and I look forward to returning to Guatemala someday, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

Vision trips for news media and major donors have been used very successful by some of the world’s largest nonprofit ministries and humanitarian relief organizations precisely because such visits help them see the work being done first hand. They enable those who go to experience a situation personally in a way that words and images simply cannot convey adequately. Such trips also are great for getting news media and donors acquainted with people in areas affected by disasters, extreme poverty, etc.

While onsite trips to less exciting places, such as manufacturing plants, have much less emotional impact, they still can be used very effectively by ad agencies to build or solidify relationships with reporters who cover a particular industry.

Bringing a small group of journalists to a client’s facility for a day or overnight trip gives them an opportunity to meet top management; get briefed on new developments, plans and trends; and see for themselves the client’s operations in action. They should also have plenty of opportunities to ask questions and engage in discussion with management.

Here are two examples of such media trips that I was involved with personally. The first was an agency client that was a global supplier of hot-metal machines and solutions. You might be surprised at how many trade journalists there were at the time covering the adhesives industry, so we had a good pool of prospects from which to draw. Bringing news media onsite was a first for this company, and it resulted in about half a dozen very positive industry-specific stories running in the months that followed the trip.

The second example is when Saturn introduced its cars in Japan. Saturn invited several top Japanese auto journalists to Spring Hill, Tennessee, to test out its vehicles in a day-long ride-and drive event. And believe me, they did a thorough job of testing them, including seeing how well they could handle fast-paced curves in the Middle Tennessee countryside. (It’s also where I saw a memorable sign in a small-town grocery store we passed through that proudly proclaimed: “We sell Kroger ice cream.”)

The Japanese journalists got to meet with Saturn senior management and engineers; tour the plant; attend a briefing with short presentations about what’s going on with the company; and participate in group Q&As and even one-on-one meetings, if desired.

Both of these events generated post-event coverage, but even if media trips don’t produce immediate results, they are still important because they strengthen relationships with reporters who cover your client’s industry, giving them in-person access to senior management and the opportunity to be onsite. The dividends from such trips will unfold over time.

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Norwegian Cruise Line Sinks Image in PR Fiasco

Image of lego ship

I’m not sure why this is the case, but it seems like cruise lines run aground more often than most industries when it comes to PR fiascos.

As I noted in a 2012 post titled Cruise Ship Flunks Crisis Management 101, the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia (owned by Carnival), didn’t appear to have much of a crisis plan when it got stuck off the coast of Italy. In 2013, a Carnival ship was stuck at sea for nearly a week. (This and other Carnival incidents are described in Business Insider.)

The latest PR challenge is Norwegian Cruise Line’s refusal to reschedule a family’s vacation after Nicolas, the 5-year-old son, was diagnosed with cancer. Because of surgery and chemo treatment, the family was unable to go on the trip as scheduled.

Norwegian, which partnered with Nickelodeon for this family-orientated cruise, would not re-book the cruise because the family cancelled the trip within 14 days or less of the departure date. And, because the family hadn’t purchased travel insurance, it was out $4,000 – a lot of money for most people – while also suffering through the trauma of battling their son’s cancer.

“It’s just unbelievable that a multimillion dollar company wouldn’t be more compassionate,” the mother told a Long Island TV station.

This is one of those common sense things that is really hard to process. Who at Norwegian made this decision, and what were they thinking?

If Norwegian’s management team was so cold and heartless that they didn’t care about this family’s extraordinary circumstances, were they also completely blind to the PR disaster that was sure to follow?

Predictably, social media began to spread the word. A Facebook page was set up imploring Norwegian Cruise Line to “Please Help Little Nicolas.”

Yesterday, feeling the heat of public outrage (and probably sensing a multi-million dollar problem unfolding before their eyes), Norwegian posted a Facebook message saying that the company had “offered to work with the family when Nicolas was ready to travel to ensure that they took their vacation and we provided a personal contact at Norwegian for the family. . . .”

Does that mean Norwegian will comp the trip or will the family have to come up with another $4,000? Or maybe they’ll discount the trip? It’s not clear what the company is offering.

The Facebook message went on to say, “We contacted the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that we work closely with to grant the wishes of hundreds of children each year who want to take a cruise. If the family chooses to participate in the Make-A-Wish program, we will make sure that they receive the cruise they were looking forward to.”

So now the family has to go through Make-A-Wish to get their trip. Hmmm.

I don’t know which advertising and/or PR agency Norwegian uses (or if all that work is done in-house), but surely some outside adviser must have said, “Hey wait, refusing to re-book this family’s trip due to your inflexible cancellation policy is not a good idea. Even if you don’t really care about them, you need to act like you care or you’ll face a huge PR backlash.”

Unfortunately, advertising and public relations agencies can only advise their clients; they can’t make them do anything, and there are times when management makes decisions that prove to be very costly to a company’s image in the long run for short-term gain.

In this case, sticking to a rigid cancellation policy and pocketing $4,000 from the family will likely cost Norwegian exponentially more in the months and years to come.

There is a happy ending to the story, though, at least for this family. After hearing about the family’s plight on “Fox & Friends,” the CEO of another cruise line contacted them and offered a free cruise.

Even more impressive, the CEO reportedly requested to remain anonymous.

photo credit: pasukaru76 via photopin cc

Framing the Right Message for the Right Audience

Picture of a brown wooden frame

Creating targeted messages that are relevant and persuasive enough to motivate recipients to take action is worth the effort, because the way a message is framed (how it is put into context or presented) can make all the difference in the world in how that message is received.

The theory is that how something is presented (“the frame”) influences choices people make. For example, “day care” may equate to babysitting in the minds of many people, but “early education” has a much more positive connotation, according to a case study cited in Strategic Communications for Nonprofits:

“…research found that the most powerful frames on this issue linked pre-K to school readiness and better performance in the early grades—a focus on the educational needs of children, not the babysitting needs of their parents.”

Assuming you’ve done your homework so that your messaging is based on solid research rather than a hunch – and that you understand where your target audience is in its thinking, values and beliefs – it’s time to begin carefully choosing words to craft a targeted, attention-getting message.

Using the right words to send the right message to the right audience, through the right communications vehicle at the right time, are all keys to successful messaging.

 photo credit: Filter Forge via photopin cc

Press Release Is a Key Tool for Ad Agency PR


How Social Are Your Press Releases Image medium_6330943490Is the traditional press release dead, and if so how will its demise affect ad agency PR?

Recently I posed the “Is-the-press-release-dead” question to students in my strategic communications class at Williamson College. I asked them to read an article titled “The end of the press release?” — which makes this claim — and let me know their thoughts about it.

The author, Gregory Galant, concludes his article with this interesting statement: “It’s time we accept that the days of the press release are over-let’s skip the anger, bargaining, and depression stages-and focus on more effective methods for releasing news.”

What exactly those “more effective methods” are Mr. Galant doesn’t spell out, though he notes that “The SEC has even announced that information can be released via social media, provided investors know where to look and it’s not restricted.”

So why does this have to be an either/or situation? Why not use social media to extend the reach of a press release rather than replace it?

I wasn’t convinced the press release is dead, and it turns out my students didn’t buy it, either. One of them commented:

“There are plenty of people in the general public who still do not have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr accounts…There are other who simply don’t get that interested in social media.  There will always be ‘that kind’ of public. They need other ways to find out what’s going on. Newspapers, TV news, etc., are great sources for people who either don’t use social media or who simply want to unplug from the hectic pace of pointless selfies that fill the Internet.  Sometimes I like hearing about important information through social media, but usually I treat that as entertainment…There have to be lots of folks out there like me.  Press releases are not dead.”

Good insights from someone who is smack dab in the middle of the generation that grew up with social media.

Mr. Galant cites four reasons the days of press releases are “long gone.” I’ll summarize and respond to each one.

1. Today, seconds after you post a press release on the Internet, it’s no longer new news.

True, but so what? How is using social media or other methods going to change that?

2. Google itself has said that it’s discounting content that you pay to distribute and has explicitly warned against putting unnatural links in press releases.

Who says everybody pays to distribute their press releases? Having updated media lists are vital for any PR person. Paid services should supplement, not totally replace, an in-house media list. And if you are going to be held hostage to Google’s constantly changing search algorithm, you’ll likely end up at the algorithm funny farm.

3. People must want to share your content with their friends and followers. A formal announcement typically isn’t well suited to these channels.

Companies make announcements through “formal” press releases all the time. If the topic is of interest, why wouldn’t people want to share it regardless of how the content is delivered?

4. The SEC has already provided the guidance that public companies can simply post announcements on their websites, rather than use a press release service.

Okay, so public companies have options – how does that prove the traditional press release is dead? As I noted earlier, why not use a press release and social media to extend your reach and let people choose how they prefer to receive information?

My student had it right. Press releases are not dead – and they’re not likely to die out anytime soon.

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