Farewell to “Release”

I am closing this blog; however, it is only a hiatus from blogging. I am currently working on my Capstone project to complete my master’s studies at the University of Denver. Upon graduation in early June 2011, I will launch my new site, “The Funky Adjunct,” dedicated to my teaching efforts. This blog will also cover public relations, marketing and communications, since these are the topics I will teach. Thanks to all readers of “Release.” See you in the summer and beyond.

Sincerely,

Jason Karpf

March 28, 2011 at 10:36 am Leave a comment

Communication and Revolution

Social media has received considerable attention amid the overthrow of Middle East autocrats. CBS News says it has tipped the regional balance and reports the State Department’s multimillion-dollar program to support dissident bloggers. Mashable examines YouTube dispatches from Morocco and Libya. A Facebook page memorializing Khaled Said, who died at the hands of Egyptian police after collecting evidence of police corruption, became an early rallying point in Mubarak’s usurption. And on the lighter side, an Egyptian named his baby daughter “Facebook” to celebrate the social media site’s role in his country’s transformation.

Social media may be a new catalyst in global affairs, but communication itself is a traditional component of revolution and conflict. In my article “Adams, Paine and Jefferson: a PR Firm,” I analyze the use of modern public relations during the American Revolution. Among the tactics discussed, Samuel Adams’ Committees of Correspondence were the most similar to today’s social media.

Fast forward to the 20th century. President Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information (the Creel Committee) during World War I to build support for the war; many notable communicators worked with the committee including Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann and Arthur W. Page.  Twenty years later, the Allies and Axis intensified mass communication and propaganda in World War II, exemplified by Britain’s “V for Victory” campaign, a pre-Internet example of viral marketing. During the Cold War, the West directed anti-communist communications into the Soviet Bloc. The documentary “How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin” places the Fab Four alongside Lech Walesa and Ronald Reagan as architects of the USSR’s demise for their defiant yet optimistic message that spurred change in young Soviets.

There are differences between these past communication models and the current one in the Middle East. Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, the BBC’s broadcasts, Ronald Reagan’s speeches, The Beatles’ bootlegs: these were unidirectional, created by a few main influencers and usually emanating some distance from the lines of intellectual and physical confrontation. The mass communication driving the Middle East revolts claims mass authorship and onsite origin. Anyone with a social media account and a smartphone becomes a mashup of Alexis de Tocqueville and Robert Capa. There are no core strategists, gatekeepers or figureheads.

Last summer, Egyptian-born columnist Mona Eltahawy gave a prophetic interview to the Voice of America about social media’s role in bringing democracy to the Middle East. Historic change is now underway, but democracy has yet to prevail in the region’s governments and society. The democratization of its communication, however, is firmly in place.

February 23, 2011 at 4:58 pm 3 comments

Pile On Groupon

Groupon: time for a lot of PR and a new ad

The “fastest growing company ever” owns today’s fastest spreading controversy. Groupon has triggered outrage with Super Bowl ads that appear to mock serious issues, primarily China’s occupation of Tibet. Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton begins the key commercial by acknowledging Tibet’s woes only to segue into the virtues of fish curry from a Tibetan restaurant purchased at a discount thanks to Groupon. The ad’s tagline is “save the money.”

On the face of it, the ad appears to be a sophomoric satire linking a company’s everyday offerings with a global crisis, a la Kenneth Cole’s widely criticized tweets about the Egyptian uprising. Only later has it been explained that Save the Money is a legitimate cause-based program, not an iteration of Groupon’s discounting premise. The ad is meant to simultaneously spoof celebrity sanctimony and Groupon’s viral bargains. The problem is that Groupon is too clever for us. Its CEO, Andrew Mason, confirms as much in a next-day blog response that The Wall Street Journal calls a “non-apology apology.”

Groupon seems to be joining other web ventures that proved their clout with a Super Bowl sponsorship, although turning down Google’s $6 billion buyout is a much cooler demonstration. Amending a media mix (television now in addition to online) entails reaching out to new audiences as well as re-connecting with current ones. It calls for a basic message, not an obscure one made under the assumption that everyone already grasps the company. It can have humor–a Super Bowl advertising staple–but it must use that multimillion-dollar window to display the brand. So beyond their controversy, Groupon’s ads miss the mark as effective communications. Articles on the ads have cited the agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, as being known for edgy work. This invokes Al and Laura Ries’ warnings in The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR about shops that are more focused on artistic expression than marketing fundamentals.

Groupon has deepened its self-inflicted wounds with CEO Mason’s off-putting response on his company blog. He insists that the ads support real social causes (impossible to tell at first glance). He then points fingers at other offensive Super Bowl ads, primarily those that objectify women. He defends his ad agency, citing their precedent for irreverence with their commercials for Hulu.com. In short, Mason acts upset that people are upset with his company. He is going to need a lot more PR, an infusion of contrition, and a new ad:

SCRIPT: GROUPON “WE’RE SORRY”AD

A “backstage” setting with lights and cables visible. A clapperboard fills the screen, scrawled on its face: GROUPON “WE’RE SORRY” AD.

Clapper Loader (off screen): Groupon, take two!

The clapperboard claps and is pulled out of the shot, revealing CEO Andrew Mason sitting in a tall director’s chair. Standing around him are actors Timothy Hutton, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Elizabeth Hurley.

Mason: Hello, I’m Andrew Mason, CEO of Groupon. By now, you’ve probably heard about our Super Bowl ads that offended many people who thought we were making fun of important social issues such as human rights in Tibet.

We’re sorry. The ads were confusing and sent the wrong message. The right message is that Save the Money-dot-org is a real program soliciting donations and building awareness for worthy causes around the world. Groupon supports this program because while we’re working to save you money locally, we’re also thinking globally. Please visit Save the Money-dot-org to learn more and to give. Thank you for your understanding.

Timothy Hutton nervously leans toward Mason.

Hutton: Do you want us to say anything?

Mason (pleasant): No.

Hutton straightens back up. The foursome smiles and waves at the camera.

FADE IN: Groupon logo with titles beneath: www.savethemoney.org

FADE TO BLACK

—–

POSTSCRIPT 1: Groupon CEO Andrew Mason blogs a straight-forward apology on Thursday, Feb. 10, and pulls the ads.

POSTSCRIPT 2: Groupon fires Crispin, Porter + Bogusky with CEO Andrew Mason saying they placed “too much trust” in the ad agency. CP+B says it was simply end of project work and wishes Groupon well.

February 8, 2011 at 3:02 pm Leave a comment

Steve Jobs: All Too Human…Again

Steve Jobs’ announced leave from Apple for health reasons harkens to his 2009 leave and the similar PR issues it created. Click here to read my post from that time, “Steve Jobs: All Too Human.” In the original post, I discuss an unclear line of succession at Apple. Since then, Timothy Cook as emerged forcefully as Jobs’ heir apparent, essential to Apple’s immediate stock price and long-term prospects.

January 18, 2011 at 10:27 am Leave a comment

Mass Killers and Communication

Mass killers are communicators. They communicate their anger, their disconnection from reality, their progress toward violence. They communicate vividly and frequently. They find audiences who receive and understand their messages. And despite their prodigious output of warning signs and pronouncements, mass killers go unchecked. This is the ultimate lesson of the attack in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13 including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

In 1993, I wrote Anatomy of a Massacre, a true-crime book about what was then the worst mass shooting in American history: George Hennard’s attack on Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, TX, October 16, 1991, that left 23 dead. Hennard was a communicator, as was Jared Loughner, perpetrator of the Tucson mass shooting.

Hennard exhibited bizarre, threatening behavior in the lead-up to his crimes. He stalked a family–Jane Bugg and her daughters, Jill and Jana–who lived down the street from his parent’s home where he was living alone. Jane’s complaints to local police brought no official action. Hennard made his own complaints to law enforcement. He reported to the FBI that “a secret group of white women” had formed a nationwide conspiracy against him. He made a pilgrimage to the site of the San Ysidro McDonald’s where James Huberty set the previous mass shooting victim record at 21. He voiced his hatreds, paranoia and speculation about killing people to those around him. His physician father openly deemed him mentally ill.

Still, nothing happened to stop Hennard. He drove his pickup truck through Luby’s front window at lunch hour, exited the vehicle, and began firing on the building’s occupants with two 9mm pistols. Five minutes later, several police officers engaged Hennard in a gun battle. Twelve minutes later, he was dead in the restaurant’s back hallway. Twenty-three innocent people had been fatally shot with approximately 40 wounded.

Hennard communicated the outcome of Oct. 16, 1991, to anyone who would pay attention. Huberty communicated his instability and intent as well. So did Charles Whitman, the sniper atop the University of Texas tower, who killed 16 people in 1966. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the mass killers at Columbine High School, documented their threats and early dangerous acts online. Seung Hui Cho, who exceeded Hennard’s death toll by killing 32 at Virginia Tech, was a known menace to family, students, teachers and authorities. Nidal Hasan, murderer of 13 at Fort Hood not far from the location of Hennard’s attack, recurrently expressed extremist views and sent intercepted e-mails to terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki.

And now we hear the all-too-familiar story of Jared Loughner, his ominous behavior, his outbursts, his YouTube video speaking of genocide. In Comm 4144 at University of Denver, we are currently studying communication models. Emulating flow charts, they track the path and effect of communications. Repeatedly, the communication model for mass killers is:

Source–>Message–>Receiver–>Tragedy

It’s time for a new model.

January 13, 2011 at 6:57 am 1 comment

UC Execs Get an F

Dean Christopher Edley, graduate of the Lloyd Blankfein School of Public Relations

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that 36 top executives in the University of California system are demanding increases in their pensions. The group has written a letter to the UC Board of Regents calling the increase a “legal, moral obligation” and threatening to sue if the demand is denied. The executives cite a 1999 agreement to boost pensions if the IRS lifted a cap; it did so in 2007.

The UC system is currently in a budget crisis, as are all public schools in California and the state itself. Per the SF Chronicle, UC has over $20 billion in unfunded pension obligations. The increase demanded by the 36 executives would cost more than $5 million a year and $51 million in retroactive reimbursements from the 2007 trigger date.

Among possible self-inflicted PR wounds, money grabs are some of the most infuriating. The UC execs have infamous company:

2003, American Airlines. While exacting more than $1 billion in concessions from workers, executives at American Airlines concealed hefty retention bonuses and pension protection for themselves. After outcry, the execs surrendered the perks and CEO Don Carty left the following year.

2009, AIG. After receiving $170 billion in bailouts, insurance giant AIG announced $165 million in bonuses to members of the financial products unit, the company group at the center of the 2008 economic collapse. Public, political and media outrage came swiftly. Most of the top execs returned their bonuses.

2009, 2010, Goldman Sachs. The Wall Street giant has paid billions in quarterly bonuses during the Great Recession. Each bonus announcement burnished Goldman’s image as the epitome of Wall Street greed. The abrasiveness of their PR chief, Lucas van Praag, only worsened the firm’s rep. In an attempt to counter negative reactions, Goldman contributed $500 million to a small business development fund and switched compensation for its advisory committee from cash to stock.

All the above groups, including the UC execs, have made similar arguments: the financial rewards are necessary to attract and retain top talent. AIG’s rationale deserved a special honor for circular logic: the people receiving the bonuses were needed to undo the mess they had created.

As we have become a nation of expendable workers, no one can sustain an aura of indispensability. Scan the comments section accompanying any online news coverage of the UC execs’ pension demands and you will read dozens of calls for the execs’ termination.

Many have already turned the execs’ “a deal is a deal” argument back on them, citing the University of California’s deal to provide quality, affordable education, a deal undone by curtailed classes, slashed staff and hiked tuition. The UC homepage promises the system’s 10 schools will “open their doors to all who work hard and dream big.” The same homepage links to an overview of pension revisions for standard university employees. Here’s a hint: future retirees will take their lumps.

Amazingly, parties with self-inflicted PR wounds have the strength to twist the blade anew. As criticism and scrutiny mounted, Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein stated that his firm was “doing God’s work.” Amid the UC pension flap, Dean of the UC Berekley Law School, Christopher Edley, is the only one of the 36 UC execs to speak to the media to date. He defends the demands for higher pensions as important to his family. He sarcastically refers to himself and his 35 colleagues as “craven scum,” acknowledging yet dismissing the PR fallout of their actions.

Predictions for the new year:

  • Outrage and protests will grow as students, students’ families, and ordinary Californians return from the holidays. Social media will increase awareness of the story. I learned about it on Facebook from my state assemblyman, Jeff Gorell.
  • Every politician and pundit with a pulse will be able to score easy points off greedy execs and any milquetoast regents.
  • There will be defections among the 36 executives demanding higher pensions; people were ready to march on the homes of the AIG bonus recipients. By signing the letter to the regents, all these execs now bear a scarlet letter.
  • As self-appointed spokesman for the execs, Dean Christopher Edley stands with Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein in issuing cringe-worthy quotes. If he keeps opening his mouth, he may join the league of BP’s Tony Hayward. Like Hayward, Dean Edley may be looking at an early retirement, with or without a fatter pension.

POSTSCRIPT 1: UC faculty launch an online petition condemning the pension demands of the high-paid execs, a group they dub “the gilded 36.” The executives’ disregard for public relations begins with disconnection from UC’s vast internal audience.

POSTSCRIPT 2: California State Assemblyman Jerry Hill introduces a bill to cap all state employee pensions. It would categorically enforce the upper limit of calculable annual income: $245,000. The IRS’ lifting of this rule for UC due to its nonprofit status precipitated the pension demand letter by the 36 UC execs, all of whom have salaries near the standard limit or well above it. The bill is a predictable response to the furor, resembling to moves in the U.S. Congress to staunch the AIG bonuses.

January 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm 5 comments

Turning the Tide, Part 2

Can the king of the laundry aisle dominate dry cleaning?

Tide, Procter & Gamble’s megabrand, is expanding its horizons again. Last year, I blogged about the introduction of Tide Basic, a stripped-down version of the detergent intended to ply budget-minded consumers. Now, Tide is going beyond a line extension to a brand extension. The New York Times reports that P&G is introducing Tide Dry Cleaners.

The new dry cleaning stores are franchises, with each outlet using versions of Tide for wet laundry and offering discounts and giveaways on P&G products. Drive-through service, 24-hour pickup via lockers, and environmentally friendly practices further distinguish the chain. The iconic Tide bullseye is prominent in the signage and staff wear branded orange shirts.

There are challenges for P&G. The NYT article points out what many of us would assume: the dry cleaning industry is suffering amid the economic downturn. Cultural shifts are hurting cleaners too as business attire is becoming a week of casual Fridays. Case in point: I wore suits in my last corporate gig as AVP, Marketing Communications, for a nationwide lender. Jacket and tie have not been de rigueur during my subsequent two years as an independent consultant.

P&G is one of the biggest and most brilliant consumer product corporations on the planet. Just one of their brands–Pampers, Gillette, Mr. Clean, and CoverGirl are but a few–can dwarf entire companies in revenue and awareness. Billion-dollar sales are beautiful, but flatlines are dismaying. The NYT article explains that lack of sales growth in the U.S. is the impetus for the Tide venture, a way to leverage the brand anew.

Tide may already be in the clean clothes business, but placing that bullseye on a dry cleaning chain constitutes a brand extension, the application of a brand known for one type of product or service to a new category. It isn’t the same as a line extension, a new product/service in the brand’s established category. Tide is a study in line extension. A quick count on their website revealed more than 30 varieties of the detergent itself. Tide Stain Release and Tide on the Go add several more SKUs. When it comes to the perils of extensions, I go with the long-standing warnings of Al and Laura Ries. Al’s landmark book Positioning offers cautionary tales of numerous extensions. In dissecting Gap’s rebranding fail, Laura blogs about their diffusion in the pursuit of babies and teens.

Some may argue if such extensions are “line,” staying within category, or “brand,” venturing into a separate realm. Some may say that Tide proves line extension works, given its dominance in detergent with 30-plus permutations. Decision makers in Cincinnati have said that the dry cleaning foray is a natural. It isn’t.

P&G is getting into real estate, labor and operational issues that do not figure in selling the primary Tide brand. And no, these things are not just “the franchisees’ problems.” If P&G is concerned about a saturated, mature market blunting Tide’s growth, the answer is not trying to penetrate the saturated, mature market of dry cleaning. But can the mighty Tide brand grab share in a sector where mom-and-pops still reign? My dry cleaner is not worried.

When picking up a sportcoat and three shirts, I asked the proprietor of Wendy Cleaners about the P&G threat. He said that his customers value expertise and believe in supporting small businesses. He also said that the special detergent he uses for wet laundry is better than Tide. He didn’t ask when I’d start bringing in more suits again. He knows things have changed.

December 19, 2010 at 12:29 am Leave a comment

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