Public Relations

Blackfish and the Murky Side of PR

I am so glad I finally got a chance to watch Blackfish. As expected, it left me feeling awful and depressed. But the one thing that really made me sad was the murky side of PR that was exposed in the film. I agree, that the film was one sided because Sea World’s perspective was completely missing. But it feels like in spite of repeated efforts, Sea World authorities refused to be interviewed.

It was shocking to watch Sea World’s cover up for every single trainer who became a victim of the killer whales. Not only were the authorities covering up brutal deaths but also pushing out wrong information. They blamed the trainers for the accidents that happened.

As PR professionals, we see our clients face crises and unfortunate situations. The natural instinct for the brands/companies is to panic and go to any length to save their faces. But as a PR counsel, it’s our duty to convince them why it is important to be honest and forthright during these challenging times. When a brand or company shows accountability and delivers a sincere apology, it really works. The public trust is built over years. But it takes just one wrong move to break it.

PR persons are often referred to as “spin doctors”. And such incidents only reinforce this public perception of our profession. I strongly urge my fellow communicators to practice honest communication and be courageous enough to stop the client/employer when they’re doing something wrong. It’s time we did some PR for PR as a profession. We need to show that we are good storytellers but not the ones that spin the truth!


Public Relations

Are you a nice person?

I know, this is a bizarre title for a blog post but it is inspired by this question I’ve been asked a gazillion times on the streets of New York City. Mind you, this question is not asked by random tourists testing the common stereotype of New Yorkers being rude but by volunteers of various nonprofits. Having been stopped by several such volunteers in the past one year, I am dedicating this post to this kind of marketing and PR.

Photo courtesy: Buzz Feed
Photo courtesy: Buzz Feed

If you happen to live or work in New York, you’ll come across young volunteers or workers from nonprofits trying to sign up people to support some or the other cause. And like most New Yorkers I find it completely annoying. They choose the worst hours to stop people and make small talk. Either it’s during lunch hour when everyone’s rushing to grab a bite and get back to work or it’s during the evening hours when everyone’s rushing back home.

I don’t think guerrilla marketing is bad but I wonder if this particular tactic works. The volunteers try everything from flirting, small talk and nagging to get pedestrians to sign up with the nonprofit. But I wonder if signing up for causes in this way can ever be heartfelt. The cause at the heart of the campaign, for most times, is genuine and important. I hate skirting these people because it makes me feel like a heartless person. But I don’t want just any person to stop me in the middle of the street and preach me about how to be a nice person. I don’t know what objective drives such guerrilla campaigns. Whatever it is, I think nonprofits need to train their volunteers better and identify the right kind of places to station these people.  Just any other street in New York is definitely not the place to be.

Ethics, Public Relations

Athletes as brand endorsers?

Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant and now Oscar Pistorius… What do they have in common apart from being tainted athletes? They’re all Nike sponsored athletes. Is Nike picking up the wrong people or is this a risk it is willing to take while sponsoring thousands of athletes?

From doping, to sexual assault, adultery and now murder – Nike’s athletes have landed themselves in some serious trouble. With the exception of Lance Armstrong, Nike is known for standing by its athletes. In the past it has terminated its contract with Michael Vick only to re-sign him once he served his prison term. But now with Pistorius’ murder scandal, the brand will have to tread carefully.

 Off late, athletes from around the globe have made headlines for inappropriate behavior proving them to be a risky proposition for brand endorsements. Cases of sexual harassment, display of extreme rage, adultery, violence, doping, and so on have become so rampant. By offering money, a company like Nike could easily cover up such cases in the past. But now, in the age of social media, it’s almost impossible to do that. Let alone traditional media reporters, there are Tweeters, bloggers, Pinners, Instagrammers to deal with. How can anyone stop information from getting public! Forget hiding an issue, social media further magnifies it instead.

People have continued to look up to sportspersons as their role models because they are ordinary people who have made it big in life. Increasingly, athletes are destroying the image of an ideal sportsperson. From being stereotyped as heroes, they are soon going to fall in the trap of being stereotyped as immoral and unethical people. It’s time for companies like Nike to reconsider their brand strategy of spending billions on athletes because of the price that comes with signing them. On a smaller scale, in the long run, it may create a dent on its reputation and may turn out to be an unprofitable investment. 

But the bigger problem with companies standing by maligned sportspersons is that it reinforces the belief that public memory is very short. A great performance is all it takes to forget about a defamed athlete’s misdeeds. Nike continues to sell its products by portraying such athletes as role models. It continued to sponsor Joe Paterno, what more can we say? It’s time we take a moment to think about what kind of role models these companies are creating!


Can a name sabotage a brand?

Last month, I read that Iceland is running a contest to find a new name for itself because the current name is discouraging tourists from visiting the country. Also, in recent times Iceland’s volcanic eruptions and financial collapse have not helped its tourism industry—hence the desire for rebranding with a new name.

This got me thinking about two things – the role of a name in creating a brand, and the mammoth task of branding a country.

I believe a name has little to do with the attributes of a brand, because if it did, a company like Yahoo! would have never been taken seriously. It is the overall image that an organization creates through its products, marketing and PR that give a certain brand value to the name. However, would corporate branding strategies apply to a nation? Sure.

A country’s political landscape, commerce, culture, tourism and media play a big role in defining a country’s brand. To the Western world, for years my country, India, was known as the land of elephants and snake charmers. It took a lot of effort to lift that image and be recognized as a developing nation. And now again, the country is associated in parts as a nation full of slums (thanks to Slumdog Millionaire *rolling eyes*), and in parts as a nation for cheap labor, outsourcing and IT geeks. The Indian government has started a massive tourism campaign called ‘Incredible India’ to showcase the country’s real beauty which thrives in its diverse landscape and culture.

Strategic branding is very important for countries, but I don’t think a new name would suddenly make a country seem appealing to tourists. Iceland’s weakening economy and volcanic eruptions are not going to disappear with the new name. Highlighting the country’s gorgeous pastoral beauty, unique culture and yummy pancakes will surely draw tourists!

Public Relations

Did Apple just say sorry?

Day in and day out in my PR classes we discuss the invincible brand that Apple has become.  Arrogant, secretive and defiant are words we associate with the company. But apologetic – never! In the past the company has come out with defensive statements like the one it made when iPhone 4 had troubles with catching network. Well, there was no sorry then. Even amid all the reports of child labor in China, Apple has maintained an indifferent stance.

Tim Cook, CEO, Apple

But on Friday Tim Cook, Apple’s new CEO almost surprised everyone with an apology for going majorly wrong on the Apple maps. While it’s true that the maps are terrible, an apology from Apple is so un-Apple-ish. Not only was there an apology but also recommendations for other map apps that the users could use. This was certainly a first for Apple. This makes me wonder if Steve Jobs would have ever agreed to publicly apologize. Actually the real question is would Jobs have allowed launching a half finished product that doesn’t live up to the company’s reputation. Probably not. The last time it did so (with Mobile Me) he fired the entire executive team. I still wonder why was the company in a hurry to introduce the maps which were hardly reliable. When competing against something as powerful as Google maps we would have assumed Apple to have come up with something full proof.

However, I must say the apology was a great PR move by Tim Cook. The letter had an apologetic tone and still managed to keep the company’s messaging on commitment to quality intact. I admire Cook’s move of breaking away from the arrogant tone that the company has maintained all this while. Some may disagree with me on this saying that this is not what Apple is all about. It is not in line with most of Apple’s communication.

Yet, I think it’s a good damage control tactic. The company has been drawing a lot of negative attention lately because of the maps. There have been several videos and ads by techies and rival companies poking fun of it. This letter will help them bring an end to that. Now that the CEO himself has acknowledged how terrible the maps are, others will not have much to talk about.

What do you think about this? Do you think it was a good PR move? Would love to hear what you think about this. In the meanwhile, enjoy this funny e-card I found on Apple maps.


Freedom of religion?

I came across this article in Huffington Post a few days back on NYPD monitoring Muslim students all over Northeast.

This article deals with two things- privacy problems and freedom of religion. Imagine being under scrutiny 24/7 simply by virtue of the religion you follow. The constitution grants freedom of religion to everyone in this country. Then why discriminate on the basis of religion? Scrutinizing every single Muslim student violates this freedom. There were no charges against these students to vindicate such operations. They were followed because of their religion and their association with the Muslim student groups. One of the girls mentioned in the article came under the radar because she forwarded an email about an Islamic conference.

Being on NYPD’s weekly reporting list is a big deal. The NYPD investigators followed students everywhere – from campus, to homes, to leisure outings – reporting every minute detail of what they’re doing. These students had no privacy because they knew that they are being watched. They knew that a little joke or a careless act could get them into trouble. I think the universities should have done something about this. It is their responsibility to ensure the privacy of their students is not intruded by unwarranted surveillance.

Such acts only foster animosity among students and encourage discrimination based on religion. I have seen several Muslims being mocked at or looked down upon by their peers. When a body like NYPD conducts such operations, it encourages others to believe that all Muslims are into suspicious activities and need to be scrutinized. It creates mistrust and an environment where students start to feel ashamed or embarrassed because of the religion they follow. This can lead to lack of confidence and can hinder the growth of students. It also encourages people to be secretive about their religion, not open up much with others, and remain with people of the same religion. This is certainly not freedom of religion. More importantly, this is not what university education is all about!

I am quite disappointed that some universities refused to comment, whereas the ones that commented said they’re concerned about their students’ privacy. But no one really did anything about it. If the universities don’t protect their students, then who else will?

Ethics, Media/Communication

The “customized” experience!

My professor shared this very intriguing article from New York Times by Charles Duhigg on how companies are monitoring our purchasing pattern. This article particularly talks about Target and how it targets pregnant women. Expecting parents, according to Target, are the most appealing target audience. Around the time of a child’s birth, the brand loyalties of parents are up for grabs and they would love a one-stop shop destination. Thus, Target has got a technique in place that can identify pregnancy in its early stages and offer a range of customized offers to that woman.

Facebook has often been accused of using user information and providing it to advertisers. But in reality, it’s not just Facebook that’s using us and the information we throw in off and on at various places, but literally every other marketer we expose ourselves to. Target, to me, probably goes a step beyond what Facebook does. It’s a direct invasion into every little thing we do in our private lives.

Advertising and marketing are becoming more and more customized, targeting an individual rather than the masses. Earlier individuals were slotted into categories and then targeted. Now, the marketers know that no two individuals are exactly same and are thus, creating a customized experience. One would argue that this is a great thing as it makes our experience smoother and gives us a break from the clutter of advertising.

My problem is with preserving and using personal data without one’s consent. Finding vulnerable moments in people’s lives to sell products is not right. Pregnancy, for example, is a very private thing. I wouldn’t want my local store to track my shopping pattern to find out when I am pregnant and to bombard me with marketing related to pregnancy, and make the most of the fact that because I am pregnant I am more vulnerable to reacting to advertising and marketing. I wouldn’t want the store to dictate what I should be buying and what I shouldn’t be. I wouldn’t want to be deprived of options simply because my local store things it can cater holistically to all my needs.

I think marketers need to know where to draw the line. As a consumer I feel like there is nothing like privacy in my life anymore. Whether it’s my local grocery store or my social media profile, every marketer out there is watching what I am doing, to give me a “customized” experience. But do I really want it? That is something the marketers need to find out first.

I found this article an interesting read not only because I got to know how marketers are keeping a tab on our buying patterns but also about how our brain functions and how habits are created. Duhigg has explained the process of habit formation in a very understandable manner. After reading this article, I have become more conscious of what all I do. I am more aware of what my mind tries to impose and what to do to control those urges.


Bali – the Land of Thousand Temples

I am back after an eventful month-long vacation back in India. The major part of which was gone in my big fat Indian wedding. Well, yeah I had the wedding I always dreamed of – thanks to my wonderful family who organized everything while I was busy studying here in New York. This is a going to be a one-off blog post where I won’t be talking about anything distantly related to PR. I am still hungover on my vacation and can’t wait to talk about this lovely place that I visited. In the jam packed post wedding schedule we managed to squeeze in a short trip to beautiful Bali and that is what I am going to talk about.

The beach in our hotel in Seminyak

Situated in a faraway island of Indonesia, Bali is one of the most popular holiday destinations of South East Asia. Unique for its all-Hindu population in the predominantly Islamic country of Indonesia, Bali is deeply influenced by Indian mythology. Balinese people are extremely devout and strongly believe in Karma. Every house owns a temple of Lord Surya while almost every street has a big temple of Lords Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh. Sculptures of two devils in various forms guard the temples to ward of all unholy and evil spirits from entering the sacred spaces of the temples. Bali is known for its temples, exotic beaches and resorts. The cheap water sports, small happening towns of Kuta and Seminyak, hilly Ubud, exotic beach resorts, and the several famous temples make Bali a great holiday destination, attracting a host of tourists from across the globe.

Getting to Bali can get quite time consuming, especially if you’re traveling from a place like Ahmedabad that doesn’t have a direct connection. In totality we spent almost a day and a half on our commute. We flew Malaysian Airlines from Mumbai with a layover in Kuala Lampur.

Our little villa in Kuta

Our first stay was at the happening Kuta. We stayed in Villa De Daun which was a complete surprise package for us. It was a lovely resort set right in the heart of the buzzing Legian street which has some of the most popular clubs, pubs and restaurants. On Saturday evenings it seems like the entire tourist population from Bali and around comes down to party in this small town. Kuta resembles Goa in many ways. The hippy culture, cheap street shopping and several partying options make Kuta a must-visit town.

Water sports were definitely the highlight of our stay in Bali. There are several companies organizing water sports at the Nusa Duan beach. These activities range from parasailing, jet ski, banana boat, fly fish, and the much touted about scuba diving. Of all the sports we enjoyed scuba diving the most. It was the most surreal experience of our lives. Far removed from reality you give yourself to the ocean admiring the colorful fishes, corals and other aquatic life. It was an experience of a life-time. We also did some river rafting in Ubud which wasn’t as challenging but was fun nevertheless.

Tanha Lot temple, Bali

The Balinese experience is incomplete without visiting its lovely temples. We visited several temples but my favorite ones remain the Tanha Lot temple and the Ulluwatu temple. Both the temples are famous for their sunset views because they are situated right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately January is a rainy season so we couldn’t catch the sunset. But the temples are absolutely gorgeous and would highly recommend them to anyone visiting Bali.

Bali is also famous for it’s spas. After a tiring day of water activities, Balinese massage feels absolutely blissful. There are several spas across Bali and most of them aren’t very expensive.

There is so much more I can talk about from my trip to Bali. But these were pretty much the best parts of my sojourn. All in all, i had a wonderful trip, just what I needed before getting back to New York. If you want to enjoy beaches with a dash of culture and history, Bali is the place to go.

Public Relations, Social Media

My Learning From The Social Media Class

As we approach the end of the social media class, I thought of dedicating my last blog post to the key learning I derived from the class. I got a good insight into the intriguing and fascinating world of social media. Below are 7 things that I will remember while using social media professionally.

1. Clarity of objectives is very important while using social media professionally. There is no point in just joining the bandwagon because “everyone is doing so”. Social media campaign without any direction is a waste. Thus, it is important to keep objectives in mind before using social media.

2. There is a plethora of social media platforms out there but that doesn’t mean an

Licensed under Creative Commons

organization needs to use them all. There is no benefit in being a jack of all trades. Social media is a mere tool and not a practice in itself. Thus, one needs to identify which platform would benefit the organization the most and try to master that instead of blindly using several platforms.

3. Knowing your audience is very important in order to push out the right message to the right people depending on the social media platform you adopt. The target audience on Facebook is very different from that on Linkedin.

4. Social media is a great listening tool during crisis as the organization can track down the conversations and address the rumors, questions and conversations going on. It also comes in handy while developing messages during crisis because the organisation can say what it wants in the way it wants without any media manipulation or misinterpretation. The organization can control the message.

5. In the shifting media landscape, there is a change in journalism. Collective intelligence is what social media thrives on and this can highly benefit the journalists.

6. Things stay on the internet forever. So it is a good idea to be extremely careful before sharing something stupid and regret about it later. There are watchdogs out there ready to plunge the moment there is a slip. Also, NOTHING remains secret in the wide world of social media. Thus, there is no point in hiding truth about products, services or organizations because it is going to come out at some point. People discuss just about everything and anything and the word normally spreads faster on social media.

7. Measuring and monitoring are very important for any businesses. There is no point in investing time and effort in something that is not giving you enough returns nor is helping you achieve the set objectives. Social media success is no longer restricted to number of hits and impressions. With the availability of some very savvy tools, monitoring and measurement have become very easy. It is no longer difficult to find out how many people are talking about your brand or how many people you are reaching out to through a particular campaign. It is good to keep a check on how successful one’s social media campaign is by regular monitoring and measurement of returns.

These were some things I learned in the social media class. What else do you think should one keep in mind with regards to using social media professionally?

Ethics, Public Relations

Eventually, It Is Going To Come Out!

History has probably lost a count on the number of stories on social gaffes and unethical deeds committed by people. The perpetrators have most often than not paid a price for it and quite heavily at that. Yet people don’t seem to learn from their predecessors. This era of 24/7 media consumption and social media demands a high level of transparency making it difficult for anything to be hidden for long. The truth is likely to come out someday, and eventually people are going to know. But this doesn’t seem to be deterring people from doing wrong. Scandals related to ethics (or well, the lack of them) have rocked businesses, politics, education, sports and practically every other sphere. I guess soon history textbooks will require a chapter on the social faux pas and unethical acts that have led to the downfall of many.

This month has seen some major blunders and unethical acts surface. From Herman Cain’s alleged sexual harassment case, to Dr. Conrad Murray’s man slaughter and the infamous Penn State Scandal. Each of them has great PR lessons to be learned. But I am going to concentrate on Penn State because I feel very strongly about it and would like to discuss Jerry Sandusky’s interview with NBC’s Bob Costas in particular.

The Penn State scandal is probably the most talked about topic on social media. Child rape, to me, is probably the most heinous crime ever. It cannot be taken lightly. It amazes as well as disgusts me how Penn State hid it for so long. That move to safeguard the university’s reputation is probably going to cost them way more reputational damage now.  The university has suffered credibility as well ethical issues on a lot of grounds.

Jerry Sandusky’s interview with Bob Costas can definitely be nominated as one of the biggest PR blunders by far. Sandusky’s responses really made me sick. Not that the allegations against him didn’t, but after listening to the interview, in my mind, he has become more of a monster than I could possibly ever imagine. Firstly, he agreed to be interviewed and then admitted to have “horsed around” and taken showers with young boys, yet with no remorse claims his innocence. Seriously, which assistant coach showers with young boys? And who in the right mind would consider it to be normal! I don’t know why his lawyer would have allowed him to be on that show in the first place. Murky details of this story are consistently being unraveled and Sandusky’s case is weakening by the day.

Sandusky’s responses were non-committal. They didn’t seem to be coming from a man who was genuinely innocent. If you see the video above, Bob Costas asked some very insulting and pointed questions which could have aggravated a genuinely innocent person. But Sandusky calmly answered the questions. His silence before answering the question on whether he was sexually attracted to young boys said a lot. Not only this, there have been reports that the university made Sandusky sign a contract that made sure he did not take showers with young boys or not to get young boys to the facility where he ran his charity. Unimaginable, isn’t it?

It’s sad that so many people were rallying against the ouster of Joe Paterno and blamed the media for bringing attention to this story. We’re talking about child rape here! How can you show sympathy towards someone who turned a blind eye towards a heinous crime like this? Even Paterno didn’t employ the best of PR skills while handling this crisis. The arrogance he maintained throughout really turned me off. Instead of owning up for a big mistake he committed and apologizing, he said he would retire after the end of the game. And now after being fired, he is going to hire a lawyer for himself. Personally, a good PR strategy would have been to be honest at least now and show some remorse for being unfair to those little innocent boys.

I am interested in seeing how this story develops over the coming days. No matter how hard one tries, wrong deeds don’t take you too far. Eventually, you are going to get caught. Like they say, reputation takes ages to build but a moment to ruin. I shall sign off with the phrase most heard of in all my classes… “Do the right thing!”