Thursday, December 27, 2012

My Hopes for the PR Industry in 2013

With so many year-end forecasts and predications out this month, I thought I’d take a different approach and focus on my hopes for the PR industry in 2013.

Doctors, it is said, are often the worst patients. Why? Well, not to generalize too much -- but many feel compelled to interfere with their own health management, trampling the jobs of accomplished nurses and other qualified physicians because, after all, they are doctors too. And damn it, they know what’s best for their own bodies!

True enough. But doctors aren’t the only professionals blinded at times by their own confidence and arrogance. Many others are guilty of letting pride block rational thinking, stymieing best courses of corrective action.

Countering the signs and symptoms of a communications illness  

Right up there with MDs are our very own PR professionals. As we close out 2012 and face a New Year, I fear our industry has developed an infection -- caused in part by an outdated way of measuring our own “health” (or revenue and client success) and the failure to cede some of our communications control to others in our industry who might be able to heal our ailment. Maybe we should call it acute communicative technological undermining and paralysis, or ACTUP for short.
The signs of ACTUP include:

·       The reliance on dated metrics like advertising value equivalency, as well as the Web’s equally rickety ad value formula that is as much substantive as it is subjective. While both formulas no doubt strive for empirical accuracy and consistency, they fail to incorporate the vagaries of a news story’s importance to a reader, and whether the length of an article is truly a measure of its worth. In other words, bigger isn’t always better and color (versus black-and-white) may not always bring in more green (cash).
·       Failure to appreciate that in many circles, public relations gets some rather bad press -- even from within its own ranks. An October 2012 study by research firm Edelman Berland (part of the Edelman PR empire) found that when asked the question “Which profession provides the most value to society?” only 11% of consumers felt “PR Professional” met that standard. Think marketers themselves would reach a healthier conclusion? Think again. Less than a third of those working in communications (23%) felt their job held societal value. Coming from an industry that prides itself on message management, this is an abysmal finding.
·       An almost allergic reaction to many forms of social media. And in the select cases where it is adopted, its integration into the messaging plan is haphazard and ad-hoc. Sometimes that means big failures with little impact. Case in point: a little error, one keystroke long, caused quite the embarrassment for the United Nations in November 2012 when UN Information Officer Nancy Groves tweeted about the UN General Secretary’s desire for a 1-state Palestinian solution when in fact his official position supports a 2-state resolution. Oops.

PR patient prognosis: healthy if we ACT now

To be clear, I’m not saying I have ACTUP’s cure. Nor have I been holding out all this time as the PR industry was ridiculed both privately and publicly earlier after it tried to give itself a new definition of what exactly it does -- the first attempted definitional overhaul since 1982. I won’t bore you with rehashing it, but suffice it to say it’s loaded with enough jargon and wordsmith gobbledygook to make you hang your head in shame and consider a new profession. Doctor maybe? But as we begin 2013, the adage remains sound: recognizing there’s a problem is the first step toward recovery. It’s the conversation starter that inspires feedback, makes waves and, frankly, gets sh*t done. 

In fairness, the fact that the PR industry has tried to redefine itself speaks to the beginning of that conversation. However, that’s not good enough. Traditional metrics aren’t likely to change much any time soon. But as the Web, carried by smartphones and tablets, grows ever more complex and critical for communications, we must as an industry better embrace these technologies. Not as gimmicky add-ons and apps, but through integrated, ground-up measures.
Although we may struggle to define ourselves and ad values remain notoriously suspect, there’s no doubt that in the tech-savvy, 24/7 news world we live in, our services are vital to the clients and corporations we serve. So we better get healthy and ACT fast.

Here’s to a happy New Year knowing we’re actively addressing our communications shortcomings. And here’s to a healthier one as little by little, brainstorming session by brainstorming session and conversation starter to conversation finisher, we tackle and triumph over each of our collective symptoms! It won’t happen in a day, a week or a month. But as with medical professionals, nothing inspires us quite like a challenge and the discovery of a new illness.

Together, let’s prove we can be better patients after all.

I would love to hear what your hopes or wishes are for the PR industry in. Feel free to email me at You can also find me on LinkedIn or visit my company’s website at

Here’s to a healthy and successful 2013!

PS – the above article originally appeared in Marketing Daily on December 27, 2012.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Black Friday About to Steal Cyber Monday’s Thunder Thanks to Mobile

By: Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer

I’m about to date myself, but remember the “Happy Days” theme song? You know, “Sunday, Monday, Happy Days. Tuesday, Wednesday, Happy Days. Thursday, Friday”… you get the point.

Aside from the jingle’s addictive tune, it also had a point: every day was a happy day. There were no distinctions.

And despite all the marketing, retailing and consumer hoopla over the recently passed Black Friday and Cyber Monday – once billed as distinctly different days, one largely an in-store affair and the other mobile – the truth is mobile commerce has become an essential component to all types of shopping on any day of the week.

Happy now?

A recent infographic posted by Mashable along with an article on the holiday weekend underscores that point. Over half of in-store Black Friday shoppers, 58%, used their mobile phones to augment their brick-and-mortar buying. In addition, tablets of all sizes were getting in on the buying act too with iPads being the distinct frontrunner. Fully 88% of traffic to the mobile web came through iPads, garnering 10% of total online shopping.

But wasn’t online buying supposed to be on Cyber Monday or Mobile Monday as some pundits began calling it not too long ago?

Yes. But from a PR perspective, it’s entirely possible the names we’ve ascribed to these retailer do-or-die days are failing to keep pace with technological reality. Think about it. Even the term “Cyber” sounds so nineties and may need upgrading. Cyber, it turns out, (thanks to cyberspace) comes from the word cybernetics, first coined in 1948 by author William Gibson and his novel, Neuromancer, and was a prefix common during the early Internet. Today we have words like: cyber security, cyberbullying, and yes, cybersex.

The same type of misnomer applies to Black Friday too, which has morphed into nearly a two-month-long holiday in and of itself. Which, of course, is augmented by mobile. So whether we call them Black Friday, Smartphone Saturday, Cell phone Sunday, Cyber Monday, Tablet Tuesday, Web Wednesday, or Tech Thursday, mobile shopping and mobile price comparisons have woven themselves through each and every day of the week.

In other words, “Goodbye gray sky, hello blue [mobile’s here and you know it’s true”]

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Putting Profits Before People: Just How Much Bad News can Apple’s Brand Withstand?

The damaging news just keeps flowing out of Foxconn’s “employee barracks” in China, where Apple’s iconic products are made.

In August 2012, the Fair Labor Association released the results of an investigation it had conducted at Apple’s request after reports of employees rioting and committing suicide over excessive work hours, inadequate compensation and unsafe working conditions.

The FLA reported that Foxconn had addressed most of the problems regulators said must be fixed, including ergonomic breaks and equipment redesign to prevent repetitive stress injuries, cutting excessive overtime hours and updating safety and equipment-testing policies.

But new trouble at Foxconn is creating yet more bad publicity for the Taiwan-based manufacturer – and for Apple.

The Economic Policy Institute reported earlier this month that the FLA’s assessment of Foxconn’s progress was too “rosy,” that high demand for the much-hyped iPhone 5 has essentially undone what few improvements have been made and gave a sharp criticism of the most valuable company in history:

The paramount issue remains whether Apple will ever choose to apply its legendary business prowess and spirit of innovation, and its enormous financial clout, to the goal of protecting the basic human rights of the people who make those products."


The news comes at a time when the gadget giant is dealing with several PR hits it has taken over the past few 
  • In early September 2012, during the run-up to the big announcement of the iPhone 5’s impending release, Forbes reported that Apple’s patent court battle with Samsung was drawing criticism even from its fans, many of whom felt Apple is filing frivolous patents and is afraid of Samsung’s competition.
  • Shortly after that the Maps debacle that left many befuddled iOS 6 users “iLost” dominated tech media for several weeks.
  • More recently, research firm Strategy Analytics released a report showing that iPhone owner loyalty is in decline, with 75% of Western European iPhone owners planning to buy their next phone from Apple, down from 88% last year. In the US, repeat purchase intentions have also declined since 2011, from 93% then to 88% now.
  • On November 8, former Apple exec David Sobotta told CNet that Steve Jobs’ successor as CEO, Tim Cook, is a technological “lightweight.”

And now there’s the latest episode in the ongoing Foxconn saga. If human rights violations continue unchecked at Foxconn, it could mean a very serious hit for Apple notwithstanding the powerful halo effect I’ve written about that seems to protect the company’s reputation and bottom line.

So I am in full agreement with the sentiment the EPI investigators expressed in closing their report. If Apple were to use its huge economic and cultural clout to force Foxconn to truly improve conditions at its Chinese factories – and I mean improvements verifiable by independent investigators, not those acting at Apple’s behest – it would not only make worker’s lives better (the most important thing), it would have the side effect of being a great PR coup for the company.

Pushing to put people before profits could protect Apple’s halo and advance its once-untarnished reputation. Will the tech behemoth put aside shareholder pressure and have the guts to do it?  I don’t think Apple will, but in this case, I would love to be proven wrong.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Loyalty To Go: How Mobile is Remaking Guest Allegiance

This article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared in the Hotel Business Review on 11/19/12. 

The ballots are in. The votes tallied. And President Barack Obama successfully avoided joining the more than 12 million unemployed. While pundits will argue his re-election was as much about an aggressive (and expensive) negative ad campaign as it was substance, there will be just as many supporters who will point to his recent speeches and swearing in address earlier and say they’re loyal to the man who offered a list of promises – prevented financial meltdown, began an economic recovery, fixed healthcare, hunted down Osama Bin Laden – and delivered, and so on.

Yet supporters will say even more. Obama loyalty remains multi-faceted: from his cool, calm, demeanor, to his matter-of-fact style, to his reliance on tech-savvy youth to help get out the vote via smartphones and tablets, to his all-too-human human blunders, (remember the Beer Summit?) people were also loyal to the person for good or for worse, and not the politics. As President Obama placed his hand on the bible and swore to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” his immediate concerns over citizen loyalty came to a close.

But when it comes to industry loyalty, and specifically the hospitality sector, hotel operations don’t run in four year cycles, and nor can they take presidential retreats to Camp David to collect their thoughts. Committing to loyalty is a constant process, where even the slightest misstep could impact occupancy rates and the equally important revenue per available room, (REVPAR). In these still-challenging economic times, for hotels as in other industries, retaining existing patrons – like voters – is vital. And to a large extent, mobile is the ideal medium to drive that engagement. While 2012 has proven to be a banner year for mobile and its incorporation into hotel hospitality and loyalty, 2013 is where hoteliers must get creative. They must move beyond mobile’s low-hanging fruit e.g. mobile booking, checkout, trip itinerary planning and really break new ground.


Because the above mobile amenities list is becoming as standard (and unimpressive) as the placard boasts of “in-room color TV.” As the New Year removes its training wheels, sobering itself from the parties and hoopla that closed out 2012, the new “loyalty party” is fast moving toward the realm of social media. Only through the combination loyalty programs and social media, and the ways in which guests are being empowered to become the next generation of brand ambassadors is where the as yet uncharted hotel loyalty territory lies.

The Rise of “Socialized Loyalty”

Just like the President’s mislabeled healthcare reform, “socialized loyalty” is not about a government or hospitality takeover of social media – far from it. But it is recognition that social media, specifically mobile social media is rapidly becoming standard and a must-have component for hotel loyalty programs.

In the last 12 months, US smartphone adoption has continued to surge and by all accounts, has exceeded critical mass. Business and leisure travelers alike now enjoy adoption rates above the 56% U.S. average (around 84% for business travelers) and others report that smartphones and tablets might be the world’s fastest spreading technology ever, beating out telephones, electricity, radio, television, computers, and others. Or put another way, according to a recent Flurry report, iOS and Android adoption rates are moving 10 times faster than the 1980s PC revolution, twice the speed of the 1990s Internet explosion, and triple the speed of social network adoption.

And with 3G broadband mobile Internet access nearly ubiquitous and 4G access being provided by Verizon, AT&T and Sprint in 2012 and T-Mobile joining the ranks in 2013, it’s clear consumers crave constant connectivity – even if many consumers are still uncertain what differentiates one broadband carrier from another.

Increasingly that connectivity includes their social media connections to brands as well as people. Consider these five staggering stats:

·         91% of adults use social media regularly
·         70% of adult “social networkers” shop online – which bodes well for loyalty programs
·         Every minute of the day 684,478 pieces of content are shared on Facebook
·         Facebook enjoyed a 67% year over year mobile growth rate
·         28% of consumers share deals, (coupons and discounts) through social media

So if social media is where consumers are already heading in other facets of their lives, why can’t hotels move their mobile initiatives one step further and join the social media conversation?

Socializing Guest Allegiance

The good news is that hotels are beginning to get the mobile message and are readily taking to social media in new and novel ways. But before we address those, one of the most effective approaches is for hotels to incentivize guest social media usage through loyalty programs. In July 2012, MGM Resorts International expanded the provisions of its M life loyalty rewards program to include points accumulation and tier status upgrades for members of various social media sites including, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram. All members have to do is rely on their smartphone’s embedded location-based technology so that their physical presence and social media shout out (worth 500 credits per tweet, Facebook post or Instagram picture) at MGM-owned properties in Las Vegas, Mississippi, and Detroit generates excitement and buzz from other would-be guests. Doing so earns members rewards that can be used beyond the casino floor, like restaurant dining. Dedicated loyalty members can rack up 6,000 credits each day and up to 30,000 a year.

Essentially, guests are rewarded for what they’re already doing naturally even before the rise of social media: telling people, both friend and stranger alike, that they’re at “such and such” a location, have had a positive experience, and directly and indirectly nudging others to “go check it out.”

Looking ahead, future use of social media and loyalty may involve aspects beyond the digital shout out and include items like gaming – another online and mobile activity that’s become increasingly social. Staying within the casino-hotel sphere, imagine if a casino offered a virtual gaming experience where future guests could play poker against other future guests and all of the winnings linked to one’s loyalty program membership? Rather than waiting for guests to arrive, they’ve already been incentivized possibly weeks before their journey. And, the more casino-hotels that offer such mobile amenities, the more their allegiance will be secure. Casino-hotels (and any others looking to drive guest allegiance via mobile loyalty) that fail to keep up will essentially be rolling snake eyes.

Caution in the Coming Quarter

While linking mobile, social media, and loyalty together are an essential 2013 next step, equally important is to be mindful of the basics and the realities of the current global economy. Even though stock markets have settled some following the presidential election, the world’s economic outlook remains uncertain at best: Europe’s debt crisis looms like an unpaid (and unwelcomed) hotel guest bill and the US “fiscal cliff” (the mandatory government spending cuts that went into effect some three weeks ago) is just beginning to be managed and dealt with.

That being said, there’s no denying that for hoteliers, 2012 was a positive year. As of this article’s writing, the week of October 2012 saw gains in three important year-to-date metrics: REVPAR grew 11%, to $71.42, occupancy rose 6% to 65.1% and the average daily room rate was up nearly 5% to $109.65.

But the proper implementation of social media and mobile means that it must be done in a way that doesn’t upset other budgets, or undermine the basics of what hotel brands do well: provide an unsurpassed, unique brick and mortar (read: traditional) customer experience. If the basics can’t be covered, mobile’s next-level incorporation may have to wait. Besides, assuming your hotel brand has been successful in the years leading up to 2013, it’s likely you’ve earned at least some leeway with your most loyal guests – before they reconsider.

The ballots may be in for the President and the Electoral votes cast. But in the early weeks of 2013, when it comes to the latest in lodging loyalty, hotel guests have yet to cast theirs. The hotel “election season” is just beginning and it’s looking like the merging of social media with loyalty programs might break the race wide open.

A new race is on and all hotels are up for a vote!

This article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared in the Hotel Business Review on 11/19/12. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Does Miami have what it takes to make a thriving tech hub?

Are you worried about the state of Miami’s tech scene? I am.

ThinkInk recently became the PR agency of record for KULA Causes, a Boulder, Colorado-based provider whose online giving platform enables partner companies to connect their loyalty program members with millions of causes worldwide – while allowing those members to turn their unused reward miles and points into cash donations to causes they care about.

And while Boulder might not be a city one thinks of as a thriving tech hub, the Denver/Boulder region is actually one of this country’s top 10 techie havens, according to the National Venture Capital Association. MapQuest and Photobucket were born there and hundreds of millions in venture capital are invested in and around the Mile-High City.

ThinkInk also provides PR support for tech companies including OtherLevels which is based in the world’s tech mecca of San Francisco and Synchology which hails from another top-10 tech city – Chicago. As well as GuestLogix and iSIGN located in Canada’s tech capital of Toronto, ranked by Startup Genome as #4 among the world’s tech cities.

So, looking at Miami, my home since 2003, the home of ThinkInk’s North American headquarters and the craziest metropolitan area in the country’s weirdest state, I see a town ­­famous for its political shenanigans, wildly diverse demographic mix and off-the-wall stories.

But tech business? Not so much.

I got rather annoyed when I read a recent Fast Company article about Miami tech start-ups that focus on another of the city’s most storied industries: the high-end nightclub scene.

We’ve got an online repository of nightlife jobs, an app that allows friends at different venues to buy each other drinks and a platform that club managers can use to track patrons by promoter, seating area, alcohol consumption and overall spending.

There’s also a site  that allows average partiers who want to feel super-important freeze the price of a VIP club table (at, say, $1,000 – a whole paycheck for many) on the off-chance that a Kardashian or a Miami Heat player will stroll in the door and bump up the table’s temporary value by thousands of dollars.

And even then that’s far beyond what your average Miamian can afford to drop on a night out. But what bothered me most is how the Fast Company article perpetuates Miami’s image as a shallow clubbing town.

Yes, the local club scene does pull in revenue for venues’ host municipalities, but how far can this go in a large county with the nation’s second-highest income inequality? And while Miami has produced some inspiring success stories in the tech realm - including online language school Open English, with offices in large South American economic centers such as São Paulo, Caracas and Bogotá; and CareCloud, an electronic medical record storage system whose CEO, Alberto Santalo, will be a speaker at FIU’s upcoming Americas Venture Capital Conference - there doesn’t seem to be the kind of critical mass in the city to build a true tech hub. Unfortunately, the nightclub scene’s fickle nature – hot today, passé tomorrow – and fairly narrow target audience are unlikely to bring a lot of large-scale, long-term investment to the area.

It’s so frustrating to know that Miami has not been able to capitalize on the many perks that make it a prime market for both existing and new consumer technology companies to grow. With a booming Hispanic population (America’s fastest-growing demographic population) and a reputation for serving as a link to the business hubs of Latin America, Miami should be booming with technology ideas and products that cater to the unique needs of a group that will represent approximately $1.5 trillion of purchasing power by 2015.

There is plenty of talent here in Miami as well: both major universities in the area (Florida International University and University of Miami) have burgeoning information technology, computer engineering and business programs, with graduates just waiting for the next hot opportunity to get their hands dirty in creating great technology products. Instead, these new technology and business professionals are faced with the idea that there is not enough of an opportunity for them in this city. They flock off to Silicon Valley and other American tech meccas, helping contribute to the brain drain that has impacted South Florida for years.

There are some hardy souls trying to get a robust scene goi­­ng here, including FIU and the organizers of tech event SuperConf. But they’ve got some serious obstacles to overcome if they want to help Miami become any sort of recognized tech center.

The most popular programs and apps appeal to as wide a cross-section of consumers as possible. While lavish partying may be a way of life for some Miamians, most simply can’t afford a place in that fantasy. The success of Open English shows that investing in companies that provide widely-inclusive services that are affordable and add genuine value to people’s lives can bring in remarkable returns.

Perhaps there’s still hope for this dysfunctional metropolis to grow a real tech scene.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Obama's Second Act: PR Lessons Learned

This article, by Vanessa Horwell Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared in Marketing Daily on 11/14/12.

I wasn’t expecting to wake up on the morning after Election Day feeling refreshed and ready to face the day. Like many nail-biting Americans, I too had consumed “pundit porridge” and was fully prepared, stiff drink in hand, set for a long night of dimpled chads, hanging chads, pregnant chads, stuck levers, recounts, court battles, and computer voting systems that did not compute.

Does anyone remember The Simpsons spoof when Homer tried to vote in 2008, or his latest battle with the booth? Yet none of that came to pass and surprisingly, a valuable PR lesson emerged.

On Election Eve, Wolf Blitzer of CNN delivered another “major projection” -- that President Obama would win re-election as battleground Ohio went from yellow (unknown data) to Democratic blue on the large touchscreen Electoral College map. In the end, after being behind or tied (depending on which poll you read) with Governor Romney in all eight of the toss-up states, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, Obama swept the board. CNN called Obama’s election at almost the same time in 2008.

But it wasn’t exactly déjà vu.

As many political observers noted -- albeit with greater fanfare after the fact -- President Obama’s 2012 re-election efforts bore little resemblance to his 2008 campaign. It was an entirely different game plan. Gone was much of the soaring rhetoric -- the emotional appeal to “Change we can believe in.” Many felt the campaign was missing something. As in the first presidential debate in October (which I had plenty to say about in anearlier article) had Obama shown up for work?

The answer, we now know, is a resounding yes. In the days since President Obama’s victory speech, David Axelrod, a senior advisor to the president’s re-election campaign, has emerged almost hero-like, the engineer of his boss’s return to the Oval Office. Axelrod, along with the President’s Chicago campaign staff, basically rewrote their 2008 election rule book and went for an entirely different approach, painting Romney as an out-of-touch business elite, while quietly and effectively working “on the ground” to drum up base support and drive home the get out the vote message. The famed Ronald Reagan-asked political question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” quickly became the political statement “Think how much better off you will be with Obama at the helm four years from now.” Implicit in the craftily reworked question: think how far we’ve already come, and are you ready to turn the clock back now?

Whether you’re the future president of the United States, an executive in a communications company, or a client seeking public relations counsel, candidate Obama’s 180-degree turnaround tactics serve as a vital PR lesson for us all. Just because a particular strategy or communications channel is working at one point in time doesn’t mean it will work for the same client going forward -- or even other clients in related industries. Each client campaign, like a presidential campaign, is radically different from the next. Technology changes (remember, we don’t call out Obama’s BlackBerry anymore) and data, stats -- and yes, colorful infographics too -- update almost as fast as people tweet.

Often I fear that companies fail to appreciate this simple lesson. Like a presidential cabinet filled with “yes men” and “yes women,” they have grown isolated in their own insular and endlessly praising micro universe. If left unchecked, they begin speaking their own jargon-laden language, touting internal developments that wouldn’t fill up a press release and certainly wouldn’t inspire a journalist to open the email pitch.

This may not be the most profound conclusion. But when a profound person like President Obama demonstrates the flexibility and honesty to radically alter his approach, recognizing the shortcomings of the old, that too is a sign of leadership in and of itself. And perhaps it’s the first indication that Americans of both Red and Blue leanings will see a different kind of leader emerge from the White House in this second act.

If presidents can change, so too can PR firms and the companies they serve. And that’s not a CNN “major projection.” It’s a prediction that I fully vote for and endorse. Anyone care to join me?

This article, by Vanessa Horwell Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared in Marketing Daily on 11/14/12.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Communication Gap and an Un-American Decision: Sandy Sinks More Than Property

By: Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer

Sometimes 140-characters isn’t enough.

In my continuing efforts to practice what we preach at ThinkInk when it comes to the importance of social media, yesterday I tweeted about two retailers, The Gap, and American Apparel and their careless  (some would add heartless and foolish to the list of descriptors) marketing ploy. Both tried to weasel their way into “competitive advantage” following the devastation and destruction wrought across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic by hurricane/super storm/nor’easter/post-tropical storm/Frankenstorm Sandy.

Both companies reached the absurd conclusion that marketing to customers during a tempest that rivaled the ferociousness of weather not seen since 1888 was a smart idea - and a novel way to win loyalty.

Wrong. And this Tweeter needed to go on her own tear.

American Apparel’s 36-hour, 20% off “in case you’re bored” sale was geared toward residents in nine of the 11 states in the grip of the crisis: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Why Rhode Island, a New England state where summer cottages fell into the sea and West Virginia, pounded with some 3 ft. of snow in higher elevations, were left off the “generous” list remains unknown. For its part in the PR fail, Gap sent out a tweet that while telling people to be safe, also nudged them to consider a dose of retail therapy.

Needless to say, the public reaction has been swift and the Twitterverse is alive with derision, with “the lowest of low,” being a very common tweeted and re-tweeted sentiment.

Misery loves company as the saying goes, so of course there are plenty of examples of Gap and American Apparel-like PR blunders. Just last year Kenneth Cole’s Twitter account tweeted:

“Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”


But returning to the recent crisis at hand, as a PR professional I wanted to go on record and add my voice to the chorus of disapproval. It’s truly disturbing that someone, somewhere, likely paid a decent to very decent salary, had the light bulb go off in their head and thought, “Wow, I’ve got the brainiest of ideas! Let’s use a natural disaster for our own gain and corporate greed.”

Well, I’m sure that in many Gaps and American Apparels across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic their light bulbs (and their heat, and phone lines, and computer systems) really are off now. Perhaps time spent in the cold and dark, thrown back for a moment to simpler times, will remind executives and higher ups at these retailers and beyond that the almighty dollar is not always king.
Many of our clients speak about the importance of driving quality experiences. Having a dose of humility and knowing when not to hard sell, soft sell, or anything-else sell is also a respectful way to move beyond the pettiness and triviality of our daily lives.

When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a staunch Republican, praises President Obama for a job well done handling this historic calamity, you know you’re approaching the humility, honesty and transparency of which I write.

Eventually, every state impacted by Sandy’s arrival will rebuild. Beaches will open for summer. Amusement parks will charge overpriced tickets. Communities will come together and the lights will come back on. Just know that for every American Apparel and Gap blunder, there are other companies, nonprofits, communication companies, and everyday citizens all-too-eager to lend a hand and help.

None of them come 20% off. They’ll be there 100%.

Shame on American Apparel and the Gap – two companies whose despicable actions won’t fast be lost to the waves, nor this PR executive.

And if you would like to help your fellow citizens who were impacted by the storms, here are a couple of links where you can donate money or blood to the relief efforts.  If they were half-clever, that’s what American Apparel and Gap should have been encouraging people to do, not banking on others’ misfortune.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Are tweets the new press release?

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared on Mobile Marketer on 10/25/12.

Leave it to the wonder and mystery that is the human brain to channel ideas together and combine them into cohesive article-worthy or press release-fit logic. One hour and voilà! Nine hundred and twenty-six words. It is a shame that my computer cannot achieve that independent feat of intelligence and brainstorm client copy on its own.

But, then again, maybe it should not have to. Maybe we all need to embrace Twitter and leave the press release behind?

Arty or RT
Let us face it. For an industry that prides itself on being up on tech-savvy knowhow, playfully – and, sometimes, not so playfully – chiding our distant cousins (print journalists) in their dinosaur-like ways, the press release is often our antiquated little secret.

Of course, we publish them online and they can be written, edited and read across all mobile platforms.
But when you think about it, how much have press releases changed in the course of their 106-year lifespan?

The answer is not terribly much. The basic press release is as formulaic as computer code – and often just as monotonous to this right-brainer.

An obligatory jargon-filled run-on lede sentence that tells the reader what the company has done, and what said company plans to accomplish from now through the next decade.

This is followed by a series of quotes and concludes with marginally relevant big picture data, some contact information and request for interviews.

Apart from the 1.5 line spacing we used to use – back in the day when we still snail-mailed press releases complete with stuck-on photographs – it is a formula that has not ever changed.

So it is hardly surprising that press releases, in this traditional format, have not set the mobile world on fire. And why would they?

Feeling the need for speed and connectivity
Because the reality is that the Internet – once erroneously called the “information super highway” when the 24.4 Kbps-modem Web was anything but fast and efficient – is beginning to live up to that dated moniker.

Compared to 2012, the Internet of, say, 1996, was like a gravel road fit for horse and buggy and the occasional tractor.

Enter Twitter in 2006 with its 140-character space limitations quickening its communicative back and forth and you just might have the fastest and most efficient way to disseminate a message yet.

As of June, Twitter boasted some 400 million tweets per day, marking an 18 percent increase from March and has around a half-billion users.

And it is in this ever-faster space that the press release has tried to remain relevant and itself newsworthy.

But in recent years, social media has been the mover and shaker of all sorts of news: from the 2011 Arab Spring youth-led uprising, to the Twitter-revealed death of Whitney Houston – 27 minutes before mainstream media – and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps earning top honors not only in the pool, but in the number of tweets he sent out regarding his medals.

Even President Obama got in on the act to congratulate Mr. Phelps as he tweeted back, “You’ve made your country proud.”

If this is where the world’s most Earth-shaking events are getting first light, then it is incumbent on corporate communications and public relations professionals to more completely embrace this medium.

Twitter’s immediacy, combined with its brevity is like instant movie teasers, with 140-characters replacing 140-second television and radio ads.

Add to that their nearly zero production costs, minus the need to pay a staff to generate and monitor multiple tweets across multiple clients, and you are left with an instantly adaptable medium tailor fit for the mobile world that we all inhabit.

Of course, all this Twitter trumpeting begs the question that in part inspired this piece, “Are tweets the new press release?”

Yes. And no.

Despite my press release bashing above, press releases are necessarily written in a predictable format to make it easier for journalists and others who would be interested in the information to gather it quickly and reach out to additional sources. And there is no denying that a 500-700-word release contains far more information than a barrage of tweets.

Tweet this: Press releases and tweets can and should work together
When it comes to the Twitter versus press release tiff, it is likely press releases will undergo two major
changes to keep pace and adapt.

On the one hand, they will likely get shorter and begin mimicking other forms of concise social media communications. Or at least there will be two versions: a complete release, or its lede with a hyperlink option to “expand details.”

It is also likely that they will be relegated to niche markets, and nor will they remain a PR team’s first line of communication defense.

Like the longer, more narrative-feeling second-day news story that expands on the gritty hard news details from a day-one event, press releases will become a secondary form of outreach, but nor will they end up deleted from our collective inboxes.  

At least for now, the press release hard work of crafting a lengthier message, distributing that message and making sure it gets to the right people in a timely fashion is not going anywhere – yet.

And considering the growing popularity of the phablet – tablet and smartphone hybrids – and tablets outright, mobile screen size may not prove the information processing stumbling block for which it is often chastised.

So it is back to writing client copy – Twitter for the head’s-up and press releases for the data that follows.

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared on Mobile Marketer on 10/25/12.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What role do launch events play in a mobile device’s success?

The following article by Chantal Tode, Associate Editor of Mobile Marketer, originally appeared on Mobile Marketer on 10/23/12.

Apple is expected to launch the so-called iPad mini today at what will likely be a well-orchestrated event showcasing how the product impacts consumers’ lives. The company is the acknowledged expert at using such events to drum up excitement for its products although other manufacturers are increasingly copying the strategy.

Apple has nearly perfected the launch event, using them to drive anticipation and keep its name and the product in the news for months. More recently, the strategy has been adopted by Amazon, Samsung, Google, Nokia and Microsoft, among others, who are looking to drive product sales but have not yet perfected the strategy.

“Apple has been doing these events for many years – they were kind of a hallmark under Steve Jobs, who was a true impresario of these product introductions as theater,” said Noah Elkin, principal analyst at eMarketer, New York.

“Others have studied at the feet of the master and have begun to put on events of a similar caliber,” he said.

“The ones that we’ve seen in the past year from Amazon and Microsoft clearly read from a similar script in terms of how the product is being introduced, what the focus of the event has been and the similar cast of characters that appears at these events.”

The mobile experience
Apple’s events are successful for a variety of reasons, including that they focus on the mobile experience over the technology itself and they help build a feeling of community around the Apple brand.

The attraction of these events for manufacturers is that they can garner a lot of attention from analysts, the media and consumers and, hopefully, help drive sales.

For example, Samsung launched the Galaxy Note last year at the IFA in Berlin last year and sold 5 million units between the start of Q4 2011 and Q1 2012.

 Amazon held a launch event for the Kindle Fire HD in September

When well-executed, these events can play a key role in the success of a new product launch.
Some of the key characteristics of Apple’s events that can serve manufacturers well is dedicating a good amount of time to showing product details – more than is possible at a trade show – and bringing in guest speakers.

A key focus for Apple’s launch events is to focus on how a device will improve a consumer’s life over product specs.

“Other manufacturers are trying to follow Apple’s lead because they see how effective it is,” Mr. Elkin said. “Amazon at its recent Kindle Fire event listed relevant specs but really tried to emphasize its ecosystem of content, which is its key competitive advantage in the marketplace and probably the element that is most relevant and compelling for a consumer audience.”

Getting it right
Manufacturers are also following Apple’s lead when it comes to the script for these events and bringing on stage various members of the team who have been involved in some aspect of product development, who each have their own role in the event and who work well together.

For a successful launch event, it is also crucial to insure the presentation media are working perfectly and in sync.

“These things make for a great launch event – which not only garners attention for the product, it also boost the reputation of that company by making it look competent and efficient,” said Vanessa Horwell, chief visibility officer of ThinkInk PR, Miami Beach, FL. 

“Today’s tech bloggers and media are ruthless when it comes to imperfection or flaws,” she said. “Mobile companies should know this and must be prepared to deal with a media ‘assault’ if the launch of their product is premature.”

While manufacturers can reap many benefits from a big launch event, there are also some potential pitfalls.

For example, technical glitches during an event can undermine a brand’s attempt to present itself as a technology expert.

Companies can also run into trouble when they make claims that are not true.

For example, at an event in early September, Nokia showcased photos and a video that it said were captured by the brand-new Lumia 920 using its PureView camera.

However, bloggers quickly discovered that the video and photos were shot with other equipment. As a result, Nokia found itself forced to apologize and launch an internal probe to address the mishap.

“It is very difficult to conceal anything in today’s day and age,” eMarketer’s Mr. Elkin said. “Reporters and bloggers are going to turn the device inside out and are going to investigate every single claim about its superiority.

“In the case of Nokia, the images that were posted, which turned out not to have been shot with that particular smartphone camera, forced it to make an embarrassing retraction,” he said.

Maps mishap
In other cases, a feature talked up at launch event simply may not live up to expectations.

For example, at the recent launch event for the iPhone 5, Apple talked up its new Apple Maps, which is replacing Google Maps. When Apple Maps’ performance did not meet expectations, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued an apology.

“The one potential danger is that when you do one of these big launch events is that because you are bringing a lot of attention to your brand and the product, it sets the expectations of the audience at a very high level,” Mr. Elkin said. “If in the case the product fails to live up to expectations created at the launch event, it can put the brand in a very difficult position.”

Despite, the potential pitfalls, these launch events are likely to continue to proliferate because they can help a company make its executives seem more approachable.

The danger is to make sure the product represents a big enough advancement to warrant its own special event.

“It’s not easy or cheap to perfectly juggle all these elements and getting them to fall in the right place at the right time,” ThinkInk’s Ms. Horwell said. “Any part of this process going awry hurts the reputation of both product and company.

“And, of course, a company must make sure everything every function of the product – a complex process when you’re dealing with tech gadgets that have a thousand and one features – is absolutely ready for market,” she said.

The following article by Chantal Tode, Associate Editor of Mobile Marketer, originally appeared on Mobile Marketer on 10/23/12.