Public Relations Gone to Hell’s Angels: Where Were the Lawyers?

The lawyers say “keep a lid on it.” The public relations people say “transparency” is what wins in today’s online media world. I’m not sure this classic conflict will ever be fully resolved. However, I will say there is one corporate publicity stunt that should have called on all the lawyers first.

B2B Magazine has an article titled, “Dell’s Angels.” The story is about how a sales manager at Dell wanted to find a clever way to let the employees know that the new Dell Streak tablet featured an integration dock for Harley-Davidson motorcycles (I’m sure when my two year-old reads this, she’ll want a docking station on her tricycle for her Pod). This sales manager decided to storm Dell’s offices in a skull mask and all black biker outfit, while holding up two metallic objects and trying to pretend it was a hostage situation by demanding that the uninformed co-workers gather in the lobby. You can read the story to see how this ridiculous stunt ends. What I want to know is, did anyone think to ask about the potential liability with such a risky promotion in the age of being stuck in “orange alert” for terrorism?

I think this example illustrates when public relations professionals are looking for a stunt that can go viral, they need to walk into their legal counselors office first. Here are times where I see the need for the person who handles public relations to talk to the attorneys:

  • When a Surprise Can Quickly Turn Into a Crisis: Publicity stunts are designed to draw attention to something in a fast attention-grabbing way. Yet this is a great place to ask the lawyers: What could go wrong? What are the liabilities if someone is not amused or the shock is so great that it causes physical or emotional harm? The issue here is “surprise” that can literally trigger a fight, flight, or fright reaction in most people.  
  • When It Really Won’t Serve The Brand: I assume the sales manager at Dell was hoping to creatively communicate the company’s innovation. That’s great. Apple does it all the time and makes front page headlines. However, creativity is good when it stays in the character of the product or service. Who really wants to see Jim Carey in a dramatic role? Again, it would be helpful to run this past corporate counsel because if something goes wrong, they might be the ones defending the brand in court.
  • When the Only Value of the Stunt is the Stunt: When one of my clients suggests something that could draw more media attention, like a publicity stunt, I also push back with questions such as: What do you hope to accomplish? What do you want people to remember about your business? If we didn’t do this stunt, how would that impact the objectives in your marketing plan? My point is that if the stunt has a purpose beyond getting a couple of YouTube videos to go viral (many times in the wrong direction), then it might be worth talking to the attorneys and the chief marketing officer.

By the way, I wonder how this will play with driving safety laws? How does one put together a blog post on their computer while driving a motorcycles? Seems like a disaster in the making, regardless of whether the driver is wearing a helmet or not.


Will Twitter Destroy the US Economy as We Know It?

When I think about added value, I think about how professional service businesses sell their services. After all, anyone can go online to complete their tax returns. Why spend the money with H&R Block or hire a CPA that costs more that $100/hour at the low end? There’s an implied added value to the buyers that is much better than free e-filing your taxes.

Zachary Karabell, who writes for Time magazine, had this article in a recent issue: “To Tweet or Not to Tweet: Social-media sites are all the rage, but what is the added value to our economy?”  I see the basis of his arguments in this paragraph of his article:
“There can be little doubt that these (social media) companies enrich their founders as well as some investors. But do they add anything to overall economic activity? While jobs in social media are growing fast, there were only about 21,000 listings last spring, a tiny fraction of the 150 million — member U.S. workforce. So do social-media tools enhance productivity or help us bridge the wealth divide? Or are they simply social — entertaining and diverting us but a wash when it comes to national economic health?”
Good question, Mr. Karabell. His article forced me to rethink what’s the value of Twitter to my clients, or any social media platform for that matter. Here’s what I came up with:
  • Twitter is one more informational and target audience aggregator: Not a very exciting premise, but a powerful one. According to eMarketer, “Demographically, US Twitter users skew young and female. The Twitter usage rate among 18- to 29-year-olds is double that of the 30-to-49 group, according to a Pew study, and women users slightly outnumber men.” While this is a broad analysis of users, it does tell you that when you drill down into Twitter, this will be the core audience. Is that who you are selling to?
  • Twitter demands honing the art of headlines: I like the way copyblogger puts it, “Your headline is the first, and perhaps only, impression you make on a prospective reader.” Newspapers have been doing this for decades. However, the difference now is that with Twitter those who “subscribe” to your Tweets will have to decide in a matter of seconds if your 140 characters is worth their time to read.
  • Twitter shows you’re contemporary, but you still need to show competence: It’s like the idea of getting a customer in the door with a sale sign. However, you still need to sell them on the product or service. Many professional service businesses use Twitter more as a recruiting tool because they know fresh college grads are using that medium. Yet when they come in for the interview, you better be sure that you’ve gotten rid of all the boneheaded bosses. Wait, I take that back — if the potential employee went to (one of the tamer places for employer reviews), your bonehead managers could have been made public.
So, I can’t say that Twitter will bring down our economy anytime soon because I do see it adding value as a communications tool that more people are participating in. The issue is how the tool is used. Throwing a baseball in Wrigley Field brings out thousands of people to watch. Throwing a ball in a fine China shop brings out a couple of police officers.