Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Great Moments in Public Relations #1

     Let me say off the bat: I know lots of skilled public relations professionals. Thoughtful, hard-working, competent. My column would be a far less diverse, less interesting place were it not for the continual pitches of people trying to catch the attention of the media and promote worthwhile stories. Happens all the time. 
     But not always. PR can also be jarringly off-putting, particularly considering the goal: to present something in a favorable light. From the robotic, going-down-a-list-and-now-I've-got-to-you phone calls, which never work, to the off-point, don't-you-read-the-column? pitches that I could never write about in a thousand years, to information that is just so trivial, such a stretch, it's hard to imagine that the most charmed hireling could hope for success, not matter how well-paid.
    Then there is mere carelessness. I am certainly susceptible to that. I can misspell a word and often do. So carping about others, who don't have a fabulous hive intelligence like the readers of this blog to set them straight, well, runs the risk of making me something of a hypocrite.
    But heck, there's a lot of that going around lately. And what's more fun than spotlight the deficiency of others? In that light, I'm going to start an occasional feature I've dubbed "Great Moments in Public Relations," where lapses in the publicity craft are held up for inspection, censure and ridicule. I'm not optimist enough to hope that it'll help keep the industry on its toes. But at least we can have fun, and show that some minimal communications standards remain. 
    Sit back, enjoy, and see how many of these gaffes you've encountered. Or committed.

1. Dear Your Name Here.

     We know these aren't really personal notes. But do you have to grind our faces in it? Particularly this one, from a Los Angeles firm, natch. Nothing screams "We're not paying attention" like the sans serif-to-serif shift. I've also gotten Dear ______ emails. Really?

2. Please be our guest ... tomorrow. 

     This Tuesday message is what prompted me to write this today. Happens more often than you would expect, though not always on the Messenger app on Facebook. I did my best to obscure the identity of the writer, since I'm not trying to drive anyone to leap off a bridge, since their intentions were good, I suppose. I replied by saying that I wouldn't go to a dinner honoring myself on a day's notice. Another man would be insulted; I was more amused.

3.  Dear Kneel...

     To be honest, so many people mangle my name—Neal, Niel, Neil Steinburg—that it doesn't even bother me anymore, and it would be petty to let a good idea go by for that reason alone. I actually responded to this email and we discussed the topic. Then I realized I did it last year.

4. Pay particular attention to that first sentence.

     I normally wouldn't even glance at a press release from N'Digo, not after its publisher sold herself to Bruce Rauner (plus, of course, her low attacks on me for suggesting that Carol Moseley-Braun wasn't going to be elected mayor of Chicago). They all go straight to trash, where their publication belongs. But figuring I should round out this list, I thought I'd give it a read and see whatever lapse was waiting. I didn't have to read far....
     So that's the opening salvo. Please feel free to share your own examples, and perhaps we can make this a bi-monthly event, if the interest is there. Or if this exercise is just too mean—I've had that thought too—let me know and this can be the first and last occasion.


  1. When I was in jobs where I got lots of PR calls, I didn't mind when people didn't know everything (or even much of anything) about the magazine I wrote for. They were trade journals after all, and those tend to be pretty obscure.

    But I did mind when they didn't seem to know anything about the people or product they were supposed to be representing. I remember getting a call from some sweet-sounding young woman:

    "We'd like to tell you about the first juice packaged in 100% plastic!"

    Me (after a pause): "Miss, I don't want to sharpshoot you, but fruit juice has been packaged in plastic bottles for years."

    Her: "Oh. Well, that's what it says on the press release."

    We went back and forth for a while, and I finally realized what she meant: It was the first 100% juice product packaged in a one-piece plastic bottle. (If anyone cares, the equipment that does this is called a blow-fill-seal machine.)

  2. Actual email I received last week...

    !First Name},

    Sorry for being so persistent, I would just like you a chance to bring more value to the table and give your clients a new opportunity for a new revenue channel.

  3. A hazard for the PR man is that his boss is apt to confused free publicity with advertising and can be disappointed if sales points aren't covered just as he would like. I belonged to a club with failing membership, due, some thought to a deficit of favorable publicity (or any publicity). So I invited Neil to attend a meeting and must have spelled his name right because he showed up. The resulting column was an accurate account of the proceedings, including, unfortunately, some of the more ridiculous aspects. Warts and all, but not unfair. Or unkind. However, some members thought they had been ill done to, and, while nothing was said, I did earn a share of the blame in some minds.

    As a practical matter, the column did attract some attention, and possibly a new member.


    1. I missed that column. Hope to catch it second time around.


    2. Tom: What group was that? Not the Sherlock Holmesians?

    3. Yes. "Hugo's Companions." 2010. "Bet you haven't a clue, but it's elementary to them."

      I located a yellowed copy in my file, and in rereading found it rather good. Captured the spirit of the occasion and the essence of the Sherlockian thing. Can't imagine why it caused a fuss, although it survives in the institutional memory of the group as something of a takedown.


    4. Now I have to go back and look at it. I remember only the faintest glimmer of the dinner, and then some kind of fall-out, disapproval. I'll post it here Thursday and people can discuss. Seven years.

  4. I often thought of starting a business called "Your Name Here".

    I figure I would never have to buy office supplies, what with an endless supply of samples.

    All I need now is a product, a business plan, office space, a staff, a water cooler, a lobbyist, and start up capital.

    But I've got pens, calendars, and note pads.

    I'm almost there.

  5. Hard to believe PR firms could be so off-putting with their carelessness and insulting form-letter correspondence. Have you ever responded to any of these with a clever (and hopefully helpful) bit of advice?

    1. Or better yet, send back a form letter:

      "Dear (blank space underlined),

      Thanks for taking the time to tell me about your (blank space underlined).

      I'll get back to you some time in the near future.

      Sincerely yours,
      (Your name as spelled in the email, or a blank space underlined)

    2. You're cracking me up, Sandy! That's a great idea.


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