Archive for the ‘Marketing’ Category

The Bra Color Meme: So What?

January 8, 2010 19 comments

So this was me at 5:32 PM last night on Facebook.



If you’re a chick, I bet you had your own “what up with all the colors on Facebook statuses?” moment yesterday.  And, like me, you probably had your little moment of epiphany: 




As I think many of us now know, someone somewhere invited women to share their bra color on Facebook yesterday without public explanation, all by way of spreading breast cancer awareness (Mashable speculates on the origins of the meme here.)


I actually adore this idea – it does everything a viral campaign should. We saw, we questioned, we buzzed, we laughed, we passed it on. And it was a uniquely chick-ish “social object” to be passing, wasn’t it? Our bra color, for god’s sake. Intimate but not embarrassing, a way to express individuality (I’m talking to you, animal-print ladies) and sisterly solidarity at the same time. And kind of keep the boys out, except when the boys themselves started playing along. Which is hilarious and alarming in equal parts.


BUT. As a cause-related effort? Not as successful. Feels like there was a big missed opportunity here. I’ve done a bit of cause marketing in my time and subscribe to a cardinal rule: tell people what they can do to make a tangible difference.  The bra meme got the hard part out of the way – it got us buzzing. It just needed to connect the dots and give us the tools to make a difference.


Is it because this was a grassroots effort started by a woman without ties to one breast cancer organization? Possibly, and fair enough. Was it just intended to “create awareness” without any other call-to-action? Again – possibly (though breast cancer is hardly a disease which needs to be put on the map.) For me, if you gave me a shortened link to share along with my color on Facebook and Twitter which let people click through to make a donation or sign a petition or something else concrete – done and done. I would’ve shared it gladly and hopefully made a measurable contribution to the fight against a disease which has touched every single one of us.


So did you participate in the bra meme? If you’re a marketer or PR person, how would you have handled it as part of a cause campaign? 

Thanks to my Twitter pal @karinatweedell for sending the Mashable post and holding my hand as I struggled to understand what all those damned colors meant.

Posted via email from Stephanie Smirnov’s Posterous

Should PR People be Part of the Story?

December 7, 2009 7 comments
Back in the days when publicists plotted from behind the scenes: Uber-flack Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) with columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in “The Sweet Smell of Success.” 
My first exposure to public relations came not in an agency but on the client side. I wasn’t in an official PR role but was working as an executive assistant to designer Donna Karan right at the time when her company was exploding in size and visibility. Donna was besieged with press requests from all corners of the globe 24/7. As keepers of her calendar, it was our job to coordinate all interviews with her communications team, a task of insane complexity and relentless pace.
I learned a lot during that time, namely that I did not want to pursue a career in fashion PR. I’m no stranger to crazy, but fashion PR is crazy crazy. At the helm of this insanity was Donna’s head of corporate communications, Patti Cohen. Patti was — and still is, I’m sure — a whirlwind of frenetic energy with bright red hair and swags of black cashmere wrapped around her tiny frame regardless of the season. I’d sit in her office discussing calendar details while she juggled a phone on one shoulder, whipped through the master calendar (paper!) looking for 15-minute increments of Donna’s day to dole out to WWD and Vogue like a mama bird feeding her babies…all the while chomping on raw sunflower seeds she kept in a big glass bowl on her desk, right next to the towering arrangement of Casablanca lilies and a mason jar full of impeccably sharpened black pencils.


The wall behind Patti’s desk was covered floor-to-ceiling with Donna’s press hits. For all I know Patti started tacking them up there when Donna first started the company and never stopped — by the early 90s, when I was there, several layers of magazine articles and photos and newspaper clippings had already accumulated. It was a gorgeous pastiche, and I’d pore over it whenever Patti got wrapped up in a call and forgot I was sitting in front of her.  One day I asked Patti why she wasn’t in any of the photos to which she replied, “A good publicist is never in the picture.”


That stayed with me for years. Not only did I put it into practice, sidestepping photos with clients at public events whenever I could, I also passed it along to the many young publicists I went on the manage at other companies. Somewhere along the line, Patti’s advice morphed into this:

“A good publicist is never part of the story.”

Except now…we are. Or at least, we can be. Sarah Evans talked about this during a panel discussion I moderated recently on how Twitter has changed journalism and PR, and one of the points she made was how boundaries have blurred among PR,  journalist and blogger roles. There are journalists who blog, bloggers who do PR consulting, PR people who blog… It is in fact quite possible for PR people to participate in on-line conversations about their client through blogging, micro-blogging, status updates, photo sharing, and so on.

So all due respect to Patti, I believe it’s okay for the publicist to be part of the story, or at least the conversation. I do it, but only with disclosure. I’ll tell you if I’m blogging or tweeting about a client, and it’ll be an honest reflection of my feelings.   For example:

I started taking pictures recently at the client events I attend. I’ve got the Droid megapixels, why not? There was a time when those pictures would only have been shared internally at the agency but now, why not share publicly? Especially when apps like Whrrl make it so easy.  Here’s how I captured the action at a client’s launch event last week:

So what do you think? I’d love to hear from other communications professionals on how they’re handling the transition from being behind the conversation to participating in the conversation about their clients and brands.

Fantastic Mr Fox, Foodie Edition

November 23, 2009 1 comment

I am dying to see “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”  Can you blame me? Any cartoon that includes George Clooney and Meryl Streep on its voice talent roster is okay in my book, PLUS you’ve got the awesomeness of stop-motion animation AND Wes Anderson at the helm. Oh, and a 91% on the Tomatometer at Done, done and done.

But wait, there’s more. Did you know chef extraordinaire Mario Batali voices one of the characters? Neither did I, at least not until the movie’s PR team at 42West brought it to my attention. Batali provides the voice for the Rabbit character and from the looks of things, footwear inspiration as well. 

Mario in signature crocs.

Now check out Rabbit. Look verrry closely.







Here’s the most adorable thing of all. The 42West PR gang have provided me with lovely Thanksgiving Day recipe cards created by none other than Rabbit…er…Mario Batali. Although I’m off the hook for kitchen duty this Thanksgiving, I know for sure I’ll be road-testing Rabbit’s pumpkin-sage-butter pasta dish sometime in the very near future (in which there is, by the way, an entire stick of butter. The pasta, not the near future.) 

Check out the Pumpkin Lune with Butter and Sage and the rest of the recipes here: Thanksgiving Recipes from Mario “Rabbit” Batali


Love letter to the FTC: I received nothing in exchange for this post, not even a pair of orange crocs. Or a stick of butter.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” opens nationwide on Thanksgiving Day.

Batali croc image via.

Rabbit image via 42West. 

True Hollywood Story: DeVries PR at the 140 Characters Conference/LA

November 4, 2009 8 comments


Image via Jon Cronin and Whrrl)

Our agency sponsored the “140 Characters” Conference in Los Angeles last week, supporting a two-day exploration of what conference organizer Jeff Pulver calls “The State of Now” and the effect of the real-time internet on culture. We created a DeVries PR Buzz Lounge in the lobby of the Kodak Theater, a place for everyone at the conference to recharge and connect. We kept them stoked with free caffeine, cupcakes and ethernet connections. We also thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if we could capture video sound bites from conference speakers and in something close to real time, send those sound bite packages out across the interwebz to give people at home a taste of what was happening at the conference. You can view and share these segments at our DeVries YouTube channel; meanwhile, this is a bit of what went on behind the scenes as we worked to bring our Buzz Lounge concept to life.

Sunday, October 26th

8 PM: Heading for LA tomorrow. I have convinced my boss that it is a good idea for DeVries to sponsor the LA edition of the “140 Characters” conference. I tell him it will demonstrate our commitment to and understanding of the cutting edge of social media. I also tell him it will enable me to stalk Jeffrey Hayzlett of Kodak, my current CMO crush. Hayzlett doesn’t know it yet, but he really wants to work with DeVries.

9:55 PM: Packing on hold. Time for me to live-tweet this week’s episode of “Mad Men.” Evidence of how cutting edge and Twitter-savvy I am.

11:00 PM: Back to packing. Based on the NYC 140conf dress code, I am going casual. I tell my team to wear jeans and heavy black-rimmed eyeglasses so they fit in with all the geeks digital influencers. I also suggest they don’t shave but am shot down since most of them are women.

Monday, October 27th

7 AM: Airport. Never have I seen a security line this long. I ask airport worker lady where the Elite Access line is. She points to a queue of people that snakes around itself and out of sight like a coiled serpent of unhappiness and misery.

7:40 AM: My line has moved forward three inches. I feel very Elite.

12:00 PM: West coast time! Hollywood here we come! Meet driver at baggage claim. Tell him I’m waiting to meet my colleague Danielle who’s flying in on a different airline. Realize that airline is two terminals away. It seems driving two terminals away to fetch Danielle will inconvenience him. I’m confused because I’m pretty sure I’m paying him.

12:02 PM: Try to reach Danielle on her cell to get her to take a tram to our terminal. I worry driver will do me bodily harm if I can’t make this happen STAT. Try to explain why it’s important we find Danielle because she’s my awesome video blogger correspondent but driver doesn’t seem to care.

1:00 PM: Danielle located and secured in SUV. Relief. I have my video blogger, without whom our whole sponsorship concept falls apart.

1:30 PM: Check in at Roosevelt. Rooms not ready.

2:00 PM: Rooms still not ready.

3:00 PM: Rooms still not ready. Resolve for the 800th time never to stay in a boutique hotel again.

4:00 PM: Head over to Kodak Theater to meet Thom, our brilliant event designer. Jeff Pulver himself lets us in so we can check out our space in the main Lobby.  I’m pretty sure Pulver can tell by looking at me how cutting-edge and Twitter-savvy I am. Meanwhile, Thom has outdone himself and other than the fact that in-house caterers are not allowing us to bring in our special cupcakes, things are looking great for tomorrow.

5:00 PM: Cupcake-gate resolved. We pay extra money so that we may offer red velvet goodness to conference attendees. This turns out to be a very good investment.













(The photo is blurry because we had to refill the cupcake trays at warp speed to keep up with consumption. I’m not kidding. Image via Heather Meeker and Whrrl)

8:00 PM: Pre-conference-party sponsored by RealPlayer. Connect with beloved Twitter friends Jessica Gottlieb, Heather Meeker and Shelly Kramer, meet many amazing new people with whom I exchange cards, and watch in amazement as Owen JJ Stone aka “Oh Doctah” downs five Long Island Iced Teas without breaking a sweat.  


me and owen









Me and the man they call “Oh Doctah” (image via askohdoctah)

10:00 PM: Realize I’ve offered four people jobs and proposed marriage to three others.  Time to call it a night.


VIP party








(That’s the DeVries crew in foreground, slightly out of focus at the end of a long day. Back of my head and Kathy’s reveal impeccable highlighting upkeep. Danielle is making shadow puppets while Jon mimes the use of a handheld electronic device. Image via RealPlayer)

Tuesday, October 27th

8:00 AM: Showtime!

pulver and danielle









(Danielle and cameraman extraordinaire A.J. making it happen in the DeVries Buzz Lounge, interviewing Jeff Pulver on the State of Now. Image via Jon Cronin and Whrrl)

The next two days pass in a blur. Because one of our Twitter Critters falls ill, we end up short-handed which means less time for all of us in the auditorium watching speakers, more time hustling in the Buzz Lounge. But that’s fine, since much of the conference action is taking place right here on and around our white lounging sofas and lucite bar stools. We are packed from the time the conference doors open till they close at night. I go home at the end of Day One covered in cupcake icing. Danielle and our crew from Pack Media Online  are tireless, wrangling speakers for interviews (including my CMO soulmate Jeff Hayzlett) and turning around beautifully edited packages on impossibly fast timing. Jon and Kathy are working the keyboards, tweeting and retweeting our video content along with all the other amazing insight coming from the Kodak Theater stage.

It is a glorious experience. Oh Doctah recaps it beautifully (as only he can) here. And this is our final highlight reel in which Jeff Pulver offers  what may be my all-time favorite quote about Twitter: “At the end of every tweet, there is a person.”

Update: While we were grabbing footage in the Buzz Lounge, fellow sponsors RealPlayer were doing a great job documenting what was going on inside the theater. Check out their videos here.  Oh, and here’s footage of my CMO boyfriend Hayzlett doing a striptease and definitely not pitching his brand *at all.* 

Posted via email from Stephanie Smirnov’s Posterous

How Sharpie Does It

August 4, 2009 4 comments

Sharpie___Converse_by_GlowynDdarkAs many of you know, I am obsessed with Sharpies. They are much more than pens to me. They are self-expression accessories, if you will. They bring color, boldness and clarity to my life — both my lives, actually. Professional Life and Private (Mom) Life.  I think with Sharpie, I create with Sharpie, I edit with Sharpie, I doodle with Sharpie, I label with Sharpie, I define with Sharpie. 

Yes, I think Sharpie is fine. Ultra-fine! (Heh.)  I also think Sharpie is smart, smart, smart. I’ve gushed about the brand blog before, I still hold it up as a model for powerful branded presence in the social media space. The presentation below (from SlideShare) provides a fabulous glimpse at how the Sharpie team does what they do. Kudos to Susan Wassel — or SharpieSusan, as she is known to her Twitter followers — who’s been the tireless force behind this work.

View more presentations from GasPedal.


Image via.

BlogHer Round-Up: Swag is the New Black

July 27, 2009 18 comments

swagI credit the fabulous Liz Strauss with the title of this post. As she tweeted yesterday, “Swag is the new black in broadcasting a message.”  There is ample commentary in the blogosphere today on the deluge of product samples and other “gifts” given away at BlogHer this weekend. Most of what I’ve seen is critical — of the marketers, the bloggers who made the pursuit of free stuff their priority, or both (see suggested reading, below).

Yes, there was an insane amount of product given away. The photo above, taken by Laura Mayes of, tells you all you need to know.  (Full disclosure: some of my clients were there a-swagging, too). This is what happens when marketers discover an influential community: they want to give you stuff. People — or consumers, as we marketing/PR types call them — listen to women who blog. Corporate America knows it, don’t resent them for wanting to get their wares in your hands.  Laura’s photo is not a sign of End Times; it is recognition of your incredible power. That’s a good thing.

(By the way, swag at professional conferences is not a new phenomenon. I nearly exfoliated my own hands off 15 years ago at the American Academy of Dermatologists convention, demonstrating a new anti-aging enzyme for 12 hours straight for the beauty company I worked for to hordes of sample-ravenous doctors and their wives. )

As Kristen Chase wisely tweeted today, “We’ve got to find more creative ways to start conversations between sponsored bloggers and attendees.” She was referring specifically to bloggers individually underwritten by marketers to distribute their samples at the conference, but I think the statement is true for any brand trying to make connections at BlogHer.  I will absolutely advise my clients to repeat their involvement at BlogHer 2010, but will also make sure we all learn from what went on this year. 

And with that, I offer this mini-PSA for marketers contemplating a BlogHer sponsorship.

PR Mama’s Advice for Marketers at BlogHer

Lesson #1: Be creative (to Kristen’s point.) Swag is not currency. What do you have of value that is wholly brand-ownable and will actually bring some value to the bloggers you meet?

Lesson #2:  Go big or go home. You don’t have to be the biggest sponsor, but you should do/bring something (or someone) that gets every single blogger there buzzing. You’ll get lost othewise, you just will.

Lesson #3: Speaking of bloggers buzzing — if you have an off-site event, do make sure it’s baby-friendly. Trust me.  If you don’t believe me, talk to the Nikon PR team.

There’s more but if I share it, my clients will accuse me of educating the competition and I’ll get in big trouble. And possibly lose my job and believe me, this blog is hardly a fall-back source of income (bizarrely, Sharpie and HP have not deemed me worthy of paid ambassadorship despite my vast readership. I was pondering that last night while I was typing on my thin, light and enticingly affordable HP Pavillion DV2 laptop with one hand and writing out loud with my teal Ultra Fine Retractable Sharpie with the other.)

Wait. What was I just saying about brands finding ways other than giving away free stuff to connect with bloggers…?

*   *   *   *    *

Suggested Reading:

Stephanie Precourt shares thoughts on being at BlogHer with a baby here and here.

Alma Klein laments the increasing presence of marketers over the history of the conference here.

Kristen Chase weighs in on the darker side of blogger behavior at BlogHer, also discusses the Nikon party controversy. (Note that Esther Brady Crawford, the mom who found herself at the center of the “Nikon Hates Babies” controversy, comments on the post. Do read it for a first-hand account of what actually happened.)

Julie Marsh and Chris Jordan express  similar sentiments to Kristen here and here.

Liz Gumbinner defends BlogHer marketers hereCV Harquail suggests in this post it is the swag specifically, not the sponsors, who distract from the real purpose of the conference.

There were some recaps NOT focused on swag. Kevin Pang from the Chicago Tribune captures more general soundbites and vignettes here.  Jennifer Howze recaps one of the conference sessions (“How to Find Your Blogging Tribe”) here.

And finally — and refreshingly — some recaps were just absurd. Brilliantly so. See Adam Heath Avitable’s insightful interview with the, uh, BlogHer09 hashtag here.  And this photo recap from Neil Kramer which speaks for itself.

Sharing “Over the Fence” with Twitter

June 23, 2009 4 comments

I had a great time attending the first-ever 140 Characters Twitter conference here in New York last week. It’s been recapped comprehensively elsewhere, so rather than lending my voice to that crowded chorus, I thought I’d hone in on two sections of the agenda which are particularly relevant to the work we do here at the agency. This is the first of a two-part post. 


First up, my favorite speaker of the conference: Mike Koehler (@mkokc). Mike is an unassuming guy from Oklahoma, former multi-media editor at the Oklahoman and now a social media consultant at a Tulsa-based PR firm. He spoke about using Twitter for public safety, something he’s quite well-versed in. Mike learned first-hand the power of Twitter to connect people and provide real-time help in times of community crisis earlier this year, when Oklahoma City was beset with not one but three major disasters. In a freakish sequence of events, Mother Nature walloped Mike’s community with ice storms, tornadoes, then wildfires. By creating tailored Twitter hashtags (#OKice, #OKstorms, #OKfires) and housing the conversation streams alongside raw video from reporters in the field, Mike and his colleagues transformed the newspaper site into a one-stop safety resource for the community. It became a virtual town hall where a non-stop exchange between journalists and citizens helped keep neighbors informed and safe.

It was only a 10 minute talk but it was profound. Mike spoke from the heart, allowing himself to be moved before a sleepy digerati audience (it was 8 am on Day #2 of the conference, after all) about the power of a digital tool to unleash the best in all of us. Listening to Mike, I felt a surge of new energy to help clients understand all Twitter is capable of. I have to think that even the ones who’ve laughed it off as a flash in the pan or scoffed at its validity as a news-gathering tool would be willing to give Twitter a second look after listening to a guy like Mike Koehler talk. I was also inspired, not for the first time, at the vital role Twitter can play in cause marketing campaigns. This has been discussed in lots of other places; Beth Kanter and Scott Henderson are just two of the many people doing great work at the intersection of cause and social media. Suffice it to say that Twitter can be a powerful accelerant when put in service to the goal most cause marketers share: rallying and empowering people to make a difference. As Mike says, Twitter is a part of the toolbox that makes our world smaller. It’s Mayberry. It lets us swap information “over the fence” – whether we’re in Tehran or Oklahoma City — and in doing so, express our care and concern for one another.

I suppose it’s an overstatement to say that a micro-sharing tool could help unlock our inner angels. Or is it? Not a single fatality was reported in any of the three disasters that hit Oklahoma City earlier this year. Mike is cautious not to attribute that to Twitter but really – don’t you kind of wonder?

See Mike’s talk in its entirety here.

Image via.

Five Things I Learned from Mom Bloggers Last Week

June 1, 2009 17 comments

hand_printLast week I posted on the topic of proposed FTC guidelines on blogger endorsements and disclosure. Thanks to Twitter and some nice link love  (thank you DebbieMark and Liz), the post attracted more attention than I’m used to, including a slew of terrific comments from a number of different mom bloggers.  Today’s post was inspired by the exchange in the comment thread, some of which I’ll quote directly in a bit. 

Wait, I’m being lazy. I said “mom bloggers.” That’s convenient shorthand for woman with offspring who maintains online personal journal filled with reflections, comments, and hyperlinks, shared chronologically.  The reality is this group of women is no more homogeneous than any other group of mothers out there — which is to say, not at all.

Which brings me to #1 of the Five Things I Learned From Mom Bloggers last week. “Mom blogger” (or worse, “mommyblogger” – by the way, when did that happen, that run-on, lower-case thing, like Wal-Mart becoming Walmart?) is painting these women with too broad a brush.  We need to rethink the nomenclature. I don’t have an alternative, all I know is there’s a difference between how Katja Presnal reviews product at Skimbaco Lifestyle and how Jenny “The Bloggess” Lawson does it at Good Mom Bad Mom.  To say the least. They’re both wonderful, and about as different as – I don’t know – lingonberry soda and tequila. The kind with the worm in it that makes you loco.

#2. Some bloggers currently maintain (or are thinking about creating) separate product review sites. While some integrate reviews and personal narrative within a single blog, others prefer to write without “commercial interruption” in their personal blogs. Victoria Pericon provides terrific product information at Savvy Mommy, and personal reflections on parenting and other stuff at Veep Veep. Liz Gumbinner writes a brilliant personal blog at Mom-101, and reviews products at Cool Mom Picks. Jessica Gottlieb’s eponymous blog is emphatically review-free, but she might do a giveaway or review products at other sites where she’s a contributor. And some bloggers only do product reviews and giveaways. (Jessica Smith of Jessica Knows makes an interesting case against writers with established blogs creating product review off-shoots, check it out here.)

#3. Some mom bloggers have no interest in ever reviewing products or forging brand partnerships. They might be moms and the Chief Purchasing Officer/Primary Decision Maker/Key Gatekeeper/etc of their household, but that doesn’t mean they want to hear from the likes of us PR/marketing types. They might be blogging to chronicle their kids’ lives as they grow older. Maybe they blog to document a difficult parenting challenge, like bullying or drug abuse, so others might benefit from their hard-earned experience. Some bloggers chronicle events so painful it knocks the wind right out of a reader, like the terminal illness of a child or a shattering divorce. Woe to the PR person who spams these bloggers with their press releases.

#4. Product giveaways are great. Well, for the PR and marketing people and the blogger’s readers for sure — but the blogger? Unless she’s getting paid a promotional fee, maybe not so much. I was speaking with a blogger last week in preparation for a panel discussion I’m moderating this week for a client; she walked me through exactly what she has to do to facilitate a giveaway at her site. It’s tedious work: notifying the winners, trying to extract their mailing addresses and real names (let’s assume the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t deliver mail to them as “BeerWench666” or “Crazee4Shooz”), packing up the product and shipping it out, etc. This is why we have fulfillment houses. They like doing this tedious stuff, and they get paid for it. As should bloggers.

#5. The world of mom bloggers is often called a community. I’m beginning to think it’s more like an ecosystem. Dynamic, evolving — a complex system of interdependent relationships way more intricate than the traditional media communities I’ve been dealing with lo these many years. When I first started doing beauty PR, it took me about a month of intensive lunching and drinks-ing with magazine editors to figure out what the pecking order was, who was BFF with whom, who had just been canned where and had managed to land a better gig at a better book, and so on.  Easy when you’re dealing with a core group of about 20. But it’s not just the size of the group that was easier to manage. Try as you might to follow bloggers (RSS, FeedBurner, news alerts, Twitter, etc.), tracking every word they say in response to other bloggers’ posts is a whole other undertaking. Their opinions and influence can spread as quickly and in as many different directions as cracks in spring ice —  so try and keep up, and don’t go in without a guide.

So back to the question of nomenclature. Like I said, I haven’t figured that out. At the very least, we can start by being more precise in our descriptions, acknowledging (as Liz Gumbinner pointed out in her comment here last week) the difference between parenting blogs and review blogs. Or being aware of the woman behind the mom, as Candace Lindemann of Mamanista suggests:

It is important to remember that before a lot of ‘mom bloggers’ were moms and bloggers, they wore other hats, too. They have expertise in marketing, journalism, education, medicine, law, science, etc… labels have the power to empower and build community. They can also limit and denigrate. I think it is difficult to change language (though not always impossible and sometimes necessary). What I prefer to concentrate on in this case is to get people to see each of us as individuals as well as a community.

I kinda know how Candace feels. There are plenty of PR people who would say the same: we  hope to be seen as individuals, not a pack of silly flacks blanketing the ‘sphere with generic press releases. That we’re working overtime to better understand bloggers so don’t we don’t biff and fumble. It’s a tricky ecosystem, as I said. And we’re working towards our wilderness scout badges in real time. Please bear with us – we’re trying.

Bloggers, Brands & the New Publishing Paradigm

May 22, 2009 56 comments

Boy do I understand the value of blogger endorsements. Along with many of my PR brethren, I’ve been championing the power of their influence for several years. And by now, enough marketers have embraced bloggers that the FTC wants to revise its endorsement guidelines to make mandatory the disclosure of “material connections” between bloggers and companies whose products or services they’re endorsing. This has been widely discussed on- and off-line so I won’t belabor it here; good news is, many leading bloggers already have disclosure policies posted on their sites. This is a good thing, whether they’re being paid to road test products, being taken on trips, or given product gratis to try (more on this in a moment.)

(I’ll pause here to say that the agency I work for has organized events and product road tests with bloggers on behalf of our clients. We also wholeheartedly support the disclosure of such arrangements on the part of the blogger.)

In the wake of the FTC announcement, some of our clients are anxiously wondering if they should change the way they’ve been dealing with bloggers.  If you’re in PR, I’m sure you’re having the same conversations with your clients and marketing colleagues. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and was eager to hear what some of the leading voices in the mom blogosphere had to say during a Twitter chat last week on bloggers and brand representation.

The conversation moved at a blistering pace and I jumped in for only a portion but this was my big takeaway: this group is well aware of the need for transparency and disclosure. As mentioned, most of them already operate this way. Here’s where the conversation got interesting:  there is sentiment in many corners that bloggers deserve compensation for what they do. I was interested to hear some bloggers describe what they offer on their sites as “advertorial” in nature, thereby casting themselves in the role not of content editor, but publisher. In other words, akin to the business-building side of the classic magazine church/state divide.

Which is sticky, because we PR types have helped our clients “get” bloggers by equating them with editorial influencers. In which these rules apply: marketer provides gratis product, editor tries, editor may or may not write about it favorably. No money changes hands. So the editorial game is high risk/high reward – you can’t control the outcome, which is why PR will always be several parts art (vs science) – but the potential value of unpaid editorial endorsement far outweighs the risk that an editor will slam your product after trying it.

Here’s where blogging gums up the works. “Publisher” vs “editor” distinctions don’t apply anymore. The blogger role is actually a new publishing paradigm. They wear multiple hats: selling advertising space, marketing themselves and their blog(s), creating promotional partnerships with brands, publishing content – but (here’s the gummy part) they are also the ones writing that content. And in some cases, that content involves road-testing and endorsing products. But unlike the magazine world, the blogosphere has no guidelines establishing the boundaries between publishing and editorial — indeed, publishing and editing seem to have merged and no one’s quite sure how to assign a monetary value to the blogger’s output.

To that point, some bloggers who approach product endorsement as an advertorial opportunity believe the endorsement carries a cash value. But remember that advertorial is an off-shoot of advertising and – crucial distinction – the marketer who pays for it in a magazine controls the content. And the resulting advertorial is clearly labelled as such, as dictated by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Bloggers wanting to traffic in advertorial should be aware that the marketer writing the check will expect to control the resulting post content. And the bloggers I know have too much integrity to let their blog real estate be “rented” in this way. This is why we will likely hear more on the question of whether bloggers should create off-shoot sites solely dedicated to product reviews. Which raises the question: does the product review lose its value if pulled out of the context of the blogger’s real life, everyday narrative? (A debate for another post.)

So here’s what I’d like to say to the bloggers I’ve gotten to know in the past few years, many of whom I respect a great deal, genuinely like and would love to partner with ongoingly:

The power of your personal endorsement makes you very attractive to us, just like an “old school” editor is attractive.  But if I can’t control what you say about my client’s products, I can’t in good conscience give you their money. If I do, we’ve entered into an advertising/advertorial relationship and my clients are will expect to call the content shots. 

Some of you are up-front about being “PR-unfriendly.” You filter out press releases and don’t do product reviews for free. I respect your honesty. So if I need bloggers willing to review product for free, I will leave you alone, seek the others out, give them the product to try, support them in disclosing the gratis arrangement, and be prepared to take the lumps if they don’t like the product.

For those of you who don’t do free reviews, there are plenty of other things I’d love to pay you for.  Here are just a few:

Consulting and creative services: come help us shape our next social media campaign…please. We’d love to collaborate with you this way.

Panel and roundtable discussions: we would happily pay for your time and experience to participate in such events for the benefit and education of our clients and our own staff.

Promotional partnerships: will you be at an upcoming social media conference, and have an innovative sampling idea that will get my client’s product in the hands of influential bloggers? Sure, I’ll pay you to provide that service. I’d pay models in branded tees to sample on street corners; why wouldn’t I pay to benefit from your time and connections?

This is a rapidly evolving landscape, to be sure.  I don’t need the FTC to tell me that.  I hope that as we all continue to learn our way towards appropriate rules of engagement, we can continue to find mutually beneficial ways to work together that create value all around and — most importantly — keep us all on the right side of the ethical debate.

I welcome and value your thoughts. Please do share them.

Recommended reading:

To check out the FTC proposed revisions firsthand, read here.]

The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek weigh in (read here and here) but please, if you read those articles you need to scroll down for the bloggers’ perspective:

L.A.-based blogger Jessica Gottlieb speaks out in this post (there’s gold in the comments, including from Jessica Smith (“Jessica Knows”) who actually tags her Twitter tweets when necessary to identify them as sponsored.)

Jessica Smith also addresses inaccuracies in the BusinessWeek reporting here.

PR Mama Gets Schooled

May 3, 2009 3 comments
Rainmaker, Patron Saint of New Business

Rainmaker, Patron Saint of New Business (via comicvine)

A month ago our agency didn’t advance past the first round of a very big search for a retailer you’ve heard of. And though I’ve already blogged about how it was for the best and yada yada, truth is — we should’ve made it at least into the semi-finals. Something didn’t work, and as the person responsible for this stuff, I didn’t have a clear sense of what to fix for next time. So I was delighted when my boss decided to invest in some new business training for us.  

We’ve historically been a pretty insular crew (this happens when you’ve been around and doing well for 31 years). But things are different now and without laundry-listing why (because I’m guessing you and I live in the same economy, with the same land grabs going on across all marketing disciplines, with the same pressures to protect the top-line and manage the bottom-line, etc…), let’s just say getting an objective third party to talk to us was a good idea.

Enter Select Resources International, a consultancy who handle agency searches for Fortune 200 companies and see presentations from countless agencies every year, from boutiques to the global big boys. I got a lot out of my day with SRI Senior Partner Dan Orsborn, a great guy who’s known our agency for some time and has seen us in a number of pitches. In his affable way, he made me realize that we’re kind of …just like…everyone else.  Oh, we’re good (we are, really!) but ouch — it’s not coming across as powerfully as it could in pitches.  Eye. Opener.  

Herewith, five humbling things I learned from Dan:

#1  Four words not to use.  

  • Smart
  • Strategic
  • Passionate
  • Creative

Everybody uses these words. Everyone. It’s kind of like, don’t say you’re funny? Remember that one?  Much better to demonstrate through your response to their brief that you are smart, strategic, passionate and creative.  

#2  Rethink your reels. Good chance you’re presenting to marketing people who — guess what — see presentations from every marketing discipline, not just PR. And unfortunately, advertising agencies are light years ahead of PR shops in the quality of their reels.  I know, I know. Apples and oranges.  Ad agencies have commercial directors and copywriters and producers at their disposal — true.  Still — you want to win this pitch?  Rethink your sizzle reel.

#3  We all look the same.  Most humbling moment of the training: Dan spreads about 25 documents across the table, agency responses to Requests for Proposals (RFPs, for those who don’t know) including some from DeVries. RFP responses are crucial — step one in any search, the document that determines whether you’ll get invited to a “chemistry check” second round. Seeing our carefully crafted, neatly bound documents in the pile with all the others, I realized how very, very similar agencies look.  What will you do to make your RFP response stand out?

#4  The pitch is not about you.  Sounds counter-intuitive but really — it’s not.  All the client prospect wants to talk about/hear about is THEM. Yes, of course, you need to present your capabilities and case studies but boy you better make sure you’re putting that through the filter of the client’s brief as overtly as possible. They’ll be seeing lots of agencies in the course of their search — don’t make them connect the dots as to why you’re the right agency for them.  

#5  One person can kill it.  Oy, this is tough. Pitches have been lost because one person on a team of many did not click with the client.  This happens for any number of reasons — the senior person who greedily dominates the Q&A. The CEO who comes across like an “empty suit” or worse, a “clownish master-of-ceremonies.” (I did not make that up, nor am I referring to my boss — in case you’re reading, Jim.) The creative who can’t channel their brilliance and ends up alienating the client team.  Am still noodling through how to deal with this. For now, I’ll make sure we’re casting the pitch team correctly — consider personalities as well as expertise and be willing to tell the suits to stay home (easier said than done.) Build in way more rehearsal time than you think you need (we are terrible at this, I admit) so you can anticipate client questions and decide in advance who will field — hopefully engaging all levels on the team in the responses. And have the guts to sit a colleague down and give them candid feedback if they need it — and invite others to do the same for you.  I’ve developed a reputation as a good presenter, but I have my off days and I probably need to invite my team’s feedback way more frequently.  Are you doing the same?

So there you go.  I hesitate to hit “publish post” because then you’ll know my secrets and will start beating us in pitches.

Or will you?  Just wait till you see the revamped DeVries Sizzle Reel — oh, sorry, gotta run. Ridley Scott’s on the line…