Is Rachael Ray secretly cooking up a terrorist plot?
I love Dunkin’ Donuts, especially the jelly-filled Munchkins and their creamy coffee. But their crisis PR team may want to switch to decaf.
The jittery donut chain this week yanked an advertisement of cooking queen Rachael Ray because she wore a scarf that resembled a keffiyeh, a traditional headdress worn by Arabic men.
Huh? Talk about going off the deep end.
Do you really think the mastermind who whips up 30-minute meals could be secretly communicating her support for terrorism through her wardrobe?
As readers know by now, Fox News contributor and conservative blogger Michelle Malkin threw a fit over the scarf and ignited the blogosphere into a frenzy. Dunkin relented, telling reporters: “Given the possibility of misperception, we are no longer using the commercial.”
Would this have happened 10 years ago? Probably not. A blurb about the PR fiasco would be buried in yesterday's news briefs. But today, it only takes a gripe about a scarf to send the blogosphere into a tizzy.
Just because a conservative columnist gripes about an advertisement doesn’t mean a communications team should rush into crisis mode.
Does the chain really think that Ray was sympathizing with terrorists through a piece of black-and-white fabric in a coffee ad? And since when does a traditional headdress support terrorism?
Come on, get real.
Maybe Dunkin’ Donuts worried about offending its audience of right-wingers. If so, then job well done. Malkin can now eat her donut without worrying about a terrorist connection.
"It's refreshing to see an American company show sensitivity to the concerns of Americans opposed to Islamic jihad and its apologists,” Malkin said in her column.
I wonder what Rachael thinks about this PR fiasco. When the coffee and baked goods chain announced in March 2007 it was teaming up with Ray, she praised the company in the same press release, saying “everyone always asks me how I manage my schedule, and the answer is coffee.”
I look forward to the next ad to see what Rachael will be wearing. I doubt she'll have a scarf.
As PR pros, how often do you reconsider your statements on behalf of a client or employer? Think to yourself, “Well that’s not exactly true” or “Are we concealing the truth?”
Seems former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan considered those questions and more after he left the job. The result of this apparent soul-searching is the book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, detailing McClellan’s many years as part of Bush’s inner circle.
He joined then Gov. Bush’s press team in 1999 and served as press secretary from 2003 until 2006.
The title of his book and its pre-release media coverage makes it seem McClellan is offering his confession and in the process piling refuse onto PR’s already odoriferous reputation.
In What Happened he admits “Bush and his advisers knew that the American people would almost certainly not support a war launched primarily for the ambitious purpose of transforming the Middle East.” This, he contends, was the actual reason for the war in Iraq, not that country’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Bush, McClellan and others did something McClellan calls “shading the truth” to sell the war on false pretenses; he maintains the administration avoided “out-and-out deception.”
So as administration spokesman—its PR rep—McClellan’s job was to shade the truth. Here’s one instance from Feb. 10, 2002, while discussing the buildup to war with Iraq then Deputy Press Secretary McClellan told reporters that “what we're focused on—and, remember, it goes back to what the President said over the weekend. And this is about disarmament [of Iraq].”
Hold on. McClellan says in his book that he knew his boss wanted war to “transform the Middle East” and yet McClellan told reporters in 2002 the war “is about disarmament” of Iraq. That doesn’t sound like truth shading; it’s a bald faced lie.
Worse yet, McClellan was not simply complicit in this bamboozlement of the American public he was one of the lead conmen serving as the administration’s mouthpiece.
This PR pro’s ability and willingness to fool the American people bodes poorly for PR’s already shaky reputation among members of the public. McClellan, a spokesperson, admits (in so many words) that he lied to reporters and then fails to fully face the charges, instead pawning it off on his boss and even then calling it “shading the truth.”
Thing is he faced the press day after day and convinced them of a talking point he knew was disingenuous. There wasn’t a gun to his head.
My guess is this book might free McClellan of whatever guilt he’s feeling and perhaps ingratiate him to the public he helped deceive for so long (not to mention make him millions of dollars); unfortunately, the reputation of the public relations industry will once again suffer from bad PR.
Meanwhile, the White House responded with a disappointing shake of the head calling McClellan’s book “sad” and insisting it isn’t “the Scott we knew.”
“Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House,” said current Press Secretary Dana Perino.
Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan "shading the truth" to reporters.
Whether you love Jesus or not, this is the worst media relations ever!
When I was a reporter just out of college, I landed a newspaper job in a rural backwater of South Carolina. I had grown up in Chicago under the liberal hand of my father, Larry Ragan. Dad was a card-carrying member of the ACLU, a supporter of George McGovern and the Kennedys, and a believer in religious tolerance. He raised his kids the same way.
So I was not prepared for the religious mallet that so many southern politicians used back then to combat reporters investigating them --- and that a few still wield today.
My favorite memory was how one local politician, upon meeting me the first week I was on the beat, asked me whether I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.
"Huh?," I think was my reply.
Two months into the job, the question seemed, well, normal.
All of this came flooding back to me when I saw the clip below from a St. Louis, Missouri television station.
Watch how this county commissioner handles this reporter's relentless questioning about potential waste of taxpayer dollars.
At Ragan, we have dubbed this video, "the worst media relations ever."
I have three observations about this clip.
The first is obvious: What does Jesus have to do with spending on correctional institutions? I think we can all agree that this is an inappropriate way to respond to a serious journalist.
The second observation, however, is far more interesting: Note the reporter's response. Without missing a beat, he quickly makes it clear that, yes, he actually does love Jesus, thank you. The whole bizarre episode is taken completely in stride, as if to say, "I get this Jesus-loving question all the time around here. "
Finally, the video shows that despite the knitting together of our nation by television, the movies and all that is ubiquitous about popular culture, there are still huge differences in acceptable behavior between regions of the country, particularly the North and South.
Whenever I teach seminars south of the Mason-Dixon line, I watch every word I say, fearing that any language deemed inappropriate could unleash a torrent of criticism by seminar attendees.
During a workshop in Atlanta a few years ago, I referred repeatedly to the word "penis" during a presentation on headlines. The word had appeared twice on the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine, and I was making light of it with my Ragan colleagues Jim Ylisela and Steve Crescenzo. We thought nothing of it; after all, it's not the kind of word that will get you into trouble before Chicago audiences.
During the first break of the day, a woman approached me with a question I simply could not answer:
"Sir, why did you use the word penis so much?"
After blurting out something unsatisfactory --- "because it's so damn funny" --- the woman threatened to lead a walk-out of five people who had been offended by our morning session.
The moral of the story: Don't ever assume that regional differences have vanished in this country. If you do, you may be the one in the need of an instant crisis communication plan.
So what's new about reporters griping about PR people? Nothing, right? If there were reporters carving news into stone tablets 10,000 years ago, they were probably grumbling about some PR guy pitching them tidbits about a fish sale down the road in Mesopotamia.
The only difference now is that those reporters can publicly scream about PR people on their own web site. It's called AngryJournalist, and we recommend it as one of the best ways to learn about what is ailing the media, and not surprisingly, there's a lot of stuff pissing reporters and editors off.
But first, let's look at some gripes aimed at the PR profession:
“I can’t stand PR people. I no longer give them courtesy.”
“If his questions were that bad, then we know why he’s in PR now!”
“If your press release contains errant apostrophe’s, I will delete it immediately because you are an idiot.”
Do you get tired of hearing crap from reporters? I decided to ask our PR readers on Ragan's social network what they thought.
"Sure, they hate us ... until they need us. Like many of you, I've worked both sides now that I'm on this one, could just as well bitch about lazy reporters who want a story handed to them on a plate, complete with interview subjects' names and numbers for the human interest side. Geez!"
"You forgot to mention how journalists seem to think everyone's time and agendas focus around their needs!"
"I think many of the problems reporters have with PR people is due to the restrictions the top people in our company put on us. I was lucky to work for a company that allowed me to talk on the record and that helps build good relations. I have many reporters send me studies and quotations they got just so we could see if we wanted to comment on it."
Patrick Williams, a Ragan consultant, says there's got to be some bickering between the two groups. He summed it up with a great line from the late Larry Ragan, founder of Ragan Communications:
"Fighting is the way Americans solve their problems."
We agree, Patrick. But doesn't it seem like this battle is getting worse? Is it just me, or do reporters seem angrier than ever now?
Certainly they have good reason to be. Every week brings some new tale of economic disaster among traditional media, and while AngryJournalist.com certainly includes reporters working in the online world, one gets the sense that most of the howls are coming from traditional newsrooms.
Here is one quote from a journalist posting anonymously about his company's financial woes and the havoc they have wrought in the newsroom:
"I’m angry because the normally tight-lipped members of our upper management team have decided to start holding occasional “informational forums” in an effort to alleviate anxiety in the newsroom and stomp-out rumors surrounding the upcoming round of buyouts, layoffs and other cost-cutting measures recently announced for our paper."
So before you make that next call to your favorite reporter, consider what he or she has been going through.
Note to Countrywide: Shut your piehole and apologize
A few years ago an angry customer sent me an e-mail complaining about one of Ragan's workshops. The letter caught me at the exact wrong moment, and I exploded. Something about the letter seemed fake. Then I remembered: This was the person who left early on the first day and never returned. How could she hate a workshop she never attended?
Here's where everything went wrong. I wrote what I thought was a hilarious letter to my conference staff ridiculing the customer for playing hookey. It was one of those cathartic, get-it- out-of-your-system tirades. But then I hit "reply" instead of "forward."
If you've ever been in this situation, you know the feeling. You realize your mistake as soon as your finger lifts off the key and your entire body goes into super slow-mo as you scream,"nooooooooo!!!"
If ever I needed a crisis communication plan it was then.
I immediately chased my horrible letter with a plea for understanding. I began with a heartfelt apology. It was sincere, of course; I was indeed mortified. But guessing that everyone has had a similar experience in their lives, I took a chance. I asked if this had ever happened to her. Not only did she write back to say she understood -- and that yes, she had once made a similar blunder -- she thought the entire event was great fun.
I thought of this when I saw what happened to Countrywide Financial Corp's CEO Angelo Mozilo the other day.
Like every other mortgage lender today, Countrywide has been in a tailspin. It issued tens of thousands of bad loans to customers who everyone up the lending food chain knew could never pay back. Every day has been a pretty crappy day ever since. So you can imagine the kind of mood Mozilo may have been in.
Here's how this PR disaster unfolded. A customer sent an e-mail to Mozilo with a plea to save his home of 16 years. The letter struck Mozilo as fake, it actually sounded like the kind of canned letter offered up by Internet sites that purport to help customers get loan relief. "This is unbelievable," Mozilo wrote in an e-mail he thought was going to his staff. "Most of these letters now have the same wording. Obviously they are being counseled by some other person or by the Internet. Disgusting."
The letter ended up on an online forum, then it hit the blogosphere. As Paul Harvey likes to say, "now you know the rest of the story." Full PR panic ensued.
Mozilo's PR team issued a statement to reporters: "Countrywide and Mr. Mozilo regret any misunderstanding caused by his inadvertent response to an e-mail by Mr. Bailey."
The statement backpedals further: "Countrywide is actively working to help borrowers, like Mr. Bailey, keep their homes."
PR Goof #1: Calling the fiasco a "misunderstanding." What "misunderstanding?" This was the exact wrong word to use, the exact wrong tone to take. This was no "misunderstanding." It was a mistake -- an embarrassing, monumental, silly, humiliating whale of a mistake. So say it. Step out onto the public stage and take it in the testes. It's your only hope.
PR Goof #2: Claiming that Countrywide actually cares about all of the people it's foreclosing on. Look, maybe it's true. Maybe there is some collective sadness at Countrywide that is prompting it to help the people they screwed with sub-prime loans. It doesn't matter. The public is in no mood to hear how Countrywide cares. They already look at Mozilo and see Well-Fed, Cigar-Chomping Big Shot. So put a lid on the "we care" crap. No one believes it. Besides, care is what care does in these scenarios.
One final thought on this subject.
A recent article appeared in The New York Times that supports this "shut the F---up and apologize" crisis plan.
A study found that doctors who apologize to their patients immediately after they screw up are sued less, even when they make horrifying mistakes like removing the wrong rib. This is not some airy theory. There are real stats to back this up.
At the University of Illinois, for example, of 37 cases where the hospital acknowledged a preventable error and apologized, only one patient filed suit. At the University of Michigan Health System, existing claims and lawsuits dropped from 262 in August 2001 to 83 in August 2007, and legal costs fell by two-thirds.
Moral of the story: People want to forgive, but they don't want to forgive pompous jackasses who refuse to admit their mistakes.
My dream blog post: "Why our employees seem to hate you"
Why does customer service suck at most major airlines? Why do airline employees appear to detest their customers? I know it's a pipedream, but wouldn't it be cool if Delta or United Airlines explained why their workers seem so miserable?
The best corporate blogs succeed when they do the unexpected, when they take on bad news with jaw-dropping honesty and candor---and more importantly, when the post is deeply personal.
Is it really that hard to do? Let me take a stab at the lead:
"The customer satisfaction survey came out today, and once again we didn't do as well as we would have liked. It's been a tough time in our industry. Actually, it's been a dreadful time---ever since Sept. 11, 2001. Our employees are human: They do backbreaking work only to watch as financial pressures deny them a raise or force a cut in benefits."
But instead we get a blog post from Delta that tells us how to complain properly.
Nancy, a senior analyst with customer care, offered up the top ten tips for resolving a travel complaint.
Here are a few of my favorites:
No. 2 tip: Take good notes. “Rest assured, these complaints do get routed and read by managers.”
Oh yeah? Then why does nothing ever change? Besides, if I follow No. 2 tip I'd fill three legal pads before I reached "my final destination."
No. 6 tip: Keep it short and polite. “It is easy to get bogged down in the detail when you have to read a lengthy complaint, and we may miss an important point that could weigh in your favor.”
How's this for short and polite: Just flew your airline from Chicago to Delta. Your employees hate me. Can you do something about it?
Southwest Airlines comes the closest to offering a blog that is disarming in its candor.
When the FAA grounded its airplanes a few months ago, the airline spoke clearly and often about the allegations and even apologized at one point, something you rarely see in corporate PR.
Is it any wonder that Southwest Airlines has the highest customer satisfaction?
Is Burger King the new Wal-Mart? Let's count the ways
Have we heard this story before? Executive from very large multinational posts a blog under an assumed name to attack the company's enemies or defend some outrageous practice. Eventually the executive gets nailed and PR scrambles to clean up the mess.
This time the Stupid Use of the Web Award goes to Burger King Vice President Stephen Grover.
Using his middle daughter's screen name, Grover posted snarky comments to various public web sites about a farmworkers' group battling the fast-food giant over wages for tomato pickers.
His web posts included a description of the coalition as "an attack organization lining the leaders (sic) pockets ... They make up issues and collect money from dupes that believe their story. To (sic) bad the people protesting don't have a clue regarding the facts. A bunch of fools!"
Has no one learned that controversial anonymous blog postings will come back to haunt you?
A woman uses a puppet of the Burger King mascot during a protest against low wages in Miami last year.
Last week, Burger King fired two employees connected to the blogosphere debacle, The Associated Press reported.
The company has declined to name the executives who were dismissed, but Miami news reports indicate that one of them is Grover.
“Following an investigation, Burger King Corporation has terminated two employees who participated in unauthorized activity on public Web sites which did not reflect the company’s views and which were in violation of company policy,” Burger King said in a statement.
Last year, a similar snafu erupted when Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was outed for using a fake screen name to post on Yahoo Finance stock forums. A lawsuit later revealed the secret identity, which caused some embarrassing press coverage.
The Whole Foods controversy pales beside the soap opera unfolding at Burger King, a company determined to wrestle the Nastiest Company of the Year award from Wal-Mart.
The fast food giant also made the brilliant move of hiring a private investigative company with the warm and fuzzy name Diplomatic Tactical Services. The head of the company then posed as a student to infiltrate the tomato pickers group.
Of course Burger King has now fired the investigative agency, saying---get this!--that it violated the company's code of ethics.
So here's a great case study for PR junkies everywhere.
Some of the students targeted in the university’s ‘prouder than ever’ PR campaign react to news of the drug bust.
Let's say you work for the PR department at San Diego State University. You've just been handed the assignment of responding to the May 6 arrest of 75 students on drug charges. The arrests have been plastered on the front pages of every state newspaper.
So what do you do?
Well, here's how the university PR department responded. A week after the students were arrested, the department launched a newspaper, television and radio campaign entitled, "We're Prouder than Ever".
Hmmmm....something wrong with the juxtaposition here, wouldn't you say?
News headlines: 75 arrested in San Diego State drug bust
Press release headline: We're prouder than ever.
Is it only us? Does anyone else think this is a very, very stupid way to respond to a serious drug problem on campus?
Of course, no where in the press release is there even the slightest mention of the drug bust.
We're simply told that the campaign will feature celebrities, students and alumni saying how proud they are of the school.
Just when you thought PR pitches had reached lunatic heights, in comes the tale of the eight-foot Christmas tree.
Yes you guessed it. A PR agency looking for a quick media win sent a business reporter a Christmas tree.
"Like many journalists, I am not allowed to accept gifts, nor do I want that pen with the logo, T-shirt or package that spills confetti when you open it,” read a post on the networking site LinkedIn. The tale comes from Rachael King, a writer at BusinessWeek.com.
Is it any wonder that reporters are publishing blacklists of media relations and PR people who pull these stunts?
And speaking of blacklists, the latest one comes from Gina Trapani, editor of Lifehacker, who set the blogosphere atwitter (no pun intended) last week when she posted domain names of PR agencies to avoid.
Why do PR people continue doing this? How many times do bloggers and journalists have to tell us: Stop filling my in-box with unsolicited PR pitches! Maybe we should now amend that to unsolicited Christmas trees.
If you’re a PR agency, you might want to check the blacklist to make sure you’re not on it.
The lists have prompted an amen chorus from fed up bloggers. “Unless I reply back with a “yes” don’t add me to a list or pitch me again – it’s not a good match and is only going to build frustration on my end if you keep sending unsolicited pitches,” Matt Haughey wrote on his blog.
One PR agency – SHIFT Communications -- wrote an open letter to Trapani on its blog.
“I hope you’ll re-think your blanket condemnation of the thousands of employees who work at those firms listed in your wiki,” according to the post. “Thanks to outcries like yours, the PR profession is becoming ever-more cognizant of the need for change, and it truly is changing."
Please, puhleez....can someone follow me on Twitter? How desperate is that? I am a PR Junkie and I am begging for followers.
The truth is that I just joined. Embarrassing, I know. But hey, lots of Junkies are only discovering Twitter now. They need followers too.
So here is my first impression of the site. At first tweet, the microblogging powerhouse sounds a bit like a cult. Thousands of followers. Online compound. Secret vocabulary (tweet, tweetstream, tweetscan).
But now I realize it’s something you can’t ignore. The possibilities are endless... Companies respond to customers. News outlets issue alerts on breaking news. Communicators network. This is all good stuff.
But for every sensible use of Twitter there seem to be millions of mundane tweets about everyday life, i.e., "I'm putting on my first cup of coffee of the day," or "Looking for tofu in Crawford, Texas."
Tell us how you manage unrealistic expectations, meet reporter needs, churn out news when there is none, deal with a client you can't stand, and what you say to people that slam PR. Or anything else that's on your mind.