NYT under the microscope

02/02/05

I guess we should have seen it coming. Now there’s a blog critiquing the editorial cartoons in the New York Times.

Granted, it’s authored by an instructor from the Parsons School, but it seems the vast majority of students would profit from basic instruction on simply how to find the op/ed page.

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The Coolhunter: Pimping the Demo to the Uncomprehending

01/21/05

I got a pitch yesterday for a new book (which I’ll mention another time if I find it’s useful), and the pitch prompted me to look at some white papers pulled together by a San Francisco agency called Plan B – one of which cites the poem (?) excerpted below. Mark Lewman, apparently their Creative Director, wrote this back in 2001.

    THE COOLHUNTER

    I prepare trend reports for fortune 1000 companies.
    I am paid to play
    the disenfranchised against the disrespected
    make the F1000 feel connected
    to the cognosumers who reject them,
    stuck in the cultural crosshairs.

    … And some guy in a conference room in Ohio says into his speakerphone:
    “Tell me more about the Krautrock movement and the abstract bands.”
    I spit out details to counteract,
    and wipe my face with my cuff,
    generating more fluff,
    without concentrating on the end result,
    just the next step which is an orchestrated effort to tap into tech step. …

Read the rest. Really.

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Ketchum, Williams, Rosen and the wood shed

01/20/05

Jay Rosen has rightly taken the PR blogging community to the wood shed for our (relative) lack of commentary on the Williams/Ketchum contract.

Many PR bloggers DID comment on the controversy – even those of us who do not work or live in the United States. Nonetheless, we can be critcized for not feeding this important debate on PR ethics at the speed or volume expected by most inhabitants of the blogosphere.

Not that we’re dealing with an isolated case. As Jeremy pointed out, the industry seems to be backsliding when it comes to transparency and ethical behaviour.

Public relations has long harboured underhanded operatives and unscrupulous tactics: the only way to demonstrate our commitment to open, honest and two-way communication is with the unstinting and outspoken leadership of prominent professionals, firms and associations (maybe even bloggers!) in the industry.

Neville Hobson, among others, hit the nail on the head when he asked where our professional associations have been hiding during this ethical imbroglio.

Several bloggers have suggested the associations’ low-key reaction may be a defensive tactic, designed to preserve their relationship with prominent members and sponsors.

If so, what is the worth of their codes of ethics? Are they just another page in a boring membership package, or a laminated plaque for the firm’s lunch room?

But why was the PR blogging community so subdued in its reaction? Why didn’t a feeding frenzy of debate and recrimination erupt, as in other parts of the blogosphere, building and tearing down arguments by the minute?

This, I think, reflect the differing motivations of the global PR blogger community: as Steve and Jeremy point out, we have individual areas of interest and concentration, and we don’t necessarily jump on the issue of the day when writing for our blogs.

Of course, our collective reaction could simply reflect natural aversion of all PR pros to becoming part of the story.

And that would be a shame.

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Public Opinion Research: an easy target for a quickie column

01/19/05

So. Should governments use public opinion research, including flash polls, syndicated surveys, consultations and focus groups, to test possible policy options and communications strategies? Or should they save those millions of dollars and just wait for the issues activists, paid lobbyists and professional associations to prime and guide the policy development process?

Jeffrey Simpson, writing in the Globe and Mail, argues that true leadership is missing at the head of the Government of Canada: the 593 assorted public opinion research studies commissioned in 2003-2004, at a cost of $25.4M, are apparently evident proof that our government cannot go to the washroom without directions.

He notes that… “for some years now, every departmental memorandum to the cabinet outlining legislation or some other major initiative has required a “communications plan.” These plans have often driven the need for research, since a department has to show the cabinet that it has already pretested public opinion.”

As communications professionals, we know that POR is an essential component of the planning process: assessing our strategic options, shaping accurate messages, designing products and identifying or eliminating possible tactics.

We’ve all incorporated findings from POR in our strategic advice: it’s only logical and practical to base your observations and recommendations in reality.

That doesn’t mean our advice has to be tied to the findings of POR, nor does it have to be unimaginative or uncontroversial. (insert civil servant joke here)

But one thing’s for certain: if a reporter wants to phone in a column, start with a list of government of contracts and build a straw pyramid of logic on top.

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Blogging’s going to get harder for PR folks

01/18/05

Blogs are a wonderful communications tool, but the shine’s starting to wear off the experience for some information consumers. Just ask Seth Godin:

    With corporate blogs and fake blogs and cia blogs and calculated traffic-driving blogs, it’s not authentic media any more.

    I’m not whining, here. Instead, I’m pointing it out because your expectations as a reader and a writer have to change. The benefit of the doubt is gone.

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Speeches, foreigners and mid-afternoon drinky-poos

01/17/05

Over at Slate, Dana Stevens had something to say about the speeches at the Golden Globes last night:

    “People? You’re professionals receiving a positive job evaluation from your peers, not Alcoholics Anonymous members getting a 10-year sobriety medal. Wear a nice dress, crack a couple of jokes, and go away.”

Quite true, but she should cut the poor glitterati some slack. The International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton is a strange and confusing environment – even for celebrities.

Every public relations rep has run through the speechmaking basics with their clients: be familiar with your audience and their interests; write notes that speak to the audience at their education and interest level; at the very least, prepare key points you want to cover; rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; and stay sober.

Well, I think we can check off one reason why some of the people on stage were unsteady and nearly uncomprehensible.

Here are some other reasons why actors might muddle a Golden Globes acceptance speech:

– The normal West Coast social strata are reversed, if not abandoned altogether. TV stars from the WB, even PAX, sidle up to $25M a movie stars without compunction.

– There’s a red carpet, but there’s no Kodak Theatre.

– The room, despite CBS’ best efforts, still feels like an off-strip Vegas burlesque show.

– Two hours sitting in the stretch Hummer waiting to hit the red carpet can only means one thing: empty mini-bar.

– Those strange little foreign men at the bar asking Hillary Swank to autograph their biceps.

– Waaay too much Star Reynolds-Jones.

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Getting your agency through the pitch unscathed

01/17/05

The Guardian‘s got a little tidbit about how media planners are using “office theatre” to add flair and drama to their new business presentations.

    “… One agency accidentally set the call centre of its client on fire as the result of a pitch stunt. In another, following a successful pitch, an agency director left his notepad, on which he had jotted, “We’re going to have trouble with the c*** in the glasses”, under the nose of the said bespectacled client. Needless to say, the business was taken elsewhere. “

I said “office theatre” because these guys aren’t going to draw any easy comparisons to Steppenwolf Theatre or Beyond the Fringe with these performances. Let’s remember that media planners excel at … planning.

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I said WHAT on my Blackberry?

01/07/05

Oops. Remember last week, when you used the PIN function on your Blackberry to send a note to your colleague, thinking PIN messages didn’t go through the corporate server? Turns out those secret PIN messages may not be so secret. They may even be open to subpoena. Whaaa?

A nasty lawsuit between CIBC and a group of former bankers is focusing on the frank and uncensored language used by the bankers in emails and Blackberry PIN messages – all of which were archived on CIBC servers and are now playing a large role in court.

How stressed are bankers, lawyers and consultants in Toronto? Here’s something from today’s Globe and Mail:

    “I would say that up to today, 99.9 per cent of the world felt this was secure,” said one brokerage official. “I think that’s like finding out there’s no Santa Claus.”

    The official said employees in Toronto’s financial district were hounding their information technology departments for answers as to whether BlackBerrys could be monitored. When people chat via PIN messages, they will often communicate things they would not divulge in a regular e-mail, he said.

    “If you’ve got a guy’s PIN, it’s like another level of intimacy. It’s like the next level in a relationship on Bay Street.”

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Driving your customers to post-Christmas sales

01/03/05

Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in two Polo Ralph Lauren outlets in Southwest Florida. (What can I say? My fashion sense was imprinted in 1985!)

Both stores carry similar merchandise, are situated in high traffic outlet malls off main thoroughfares, and are staffed by similarly indifferent teenage employees. (Apparently, Fort Myers’ job market is really tight) They had identical pre-Christmas specials in place, clearly marked with signs hyping price discounts and hanging banners highlighting special promotional items.

The traffic during the week before Christmas was steady, but not overwhelming.

The day after Christmas both places were nuts. Lines of customers snaking through the store. Piles of clothes everywere. Yet most of the pricing remained the same.

The difference? Promotion and consumer sentiment.

The six foot banners in the windows had been refreshed to now proclaim “Up to 60 % off” – when the manager got around to putting them up an hour and a half after the store opening. It was an accurate claim: prices were up to 60% off regular factory outlet prices, just as they had been on December 22.

A broadcast email from Polo’s marketing department, making the very same promise, had pushed me to the outlet on December 26. I suspect it pushed others to drive their rental Lincolns and road-weary RVs to check out the deals for themselves.

I noticed that quite a few of the customers were British or German: Fort Myers has direct flights to both countries, and I suspect the day after Christmas was their first opportunity to hit the outlets after arriving in the US.

I shouldn’t overstate my case – there were deals to be found. I snatched up those deeply discounted corduroy shirts and pants, winter ’04 season casual shirts and chinos. After all, there will always be a 65 degree difference between Florida and Ontario in January!

Still, was their post-Christmas pricing promotion simply intended to reinforce the perception that deals can be found once the Christmas rush is over? Over at Saks, they actually had a 25% off promotion for early shoppers on December 26, over and above in-store pricing. Were they playing us for fools? Sniff.

Side note: I’m proud to note that the Polo Ralph Lauren outlet in Estero, Florida operates out of the Miromar outlet mall – a facility built and owned by a Canadian company.

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Podcasting your customer service beef

12/07/04

Jackie Huba has a great idea: amplifying the volume on your unresolved customer service complaint through podcasting.

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How not to mine email addys

12/07/04

In January, an Ottawa man received an unsolicited marketing email from the Ottawa Renegades, the local CFL team. He asked how his addy had made it onto their list: turns out they scraped it from his work site. The man, Michael Geist, asked the team not to email again without permission. We all know where this is leading: Geist got another email from a different Renegades rep.

Problem is, Michael Geist is the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. He sits on the federal government’s spam task force, and writes a weekly column for the Toronto Star on intellectual property issues.

We all dream our marketing lists are up-to-date, sparkling clean and full of potential bzzagents. We certainly hope our “unsolicited marketing messages” won’t irritate people or alienate key demographics. But I’m sure none of us wants to find a knowledgeable and politically-aware lawyer at the other end of the line.

Here’s what the Renegades have produced: the first official ruling under Canada’s new electronic privacy law (PIPEDA).Canada’s Privacy Commissioner ruled that the Renegades had violated this privacy law when they harvested Geist’s email from a business listing, and then did not accede to his request for contact to stop.

The ruling isn’t legally binding, but it calls into question an industry belief that business emails are exempt from this privacy legislation.

There’s more coverage in the Toronto Star.

Disclosure: I work at the Department of Industry, initially responsible for creating the PIPEDA legislation. I did not work on the act, and do not deal with electronic privacy issues. That said, nothing on this blog constitutes the opinion of the Government of Canada.

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Your mobile and you: PR and chatting outloud

12/03/04

You can pretty much identify a person’s PR specialty by their mobile phone habits:

Investor Relations: very short, abrupt conversations, finished off with “I’ll call you on a land line.”
Trade Communications: very long conversations about concrete plant specs and the next client meeting in Waukesha.
Marketing Communications: call starts with a discussion about a new boss (“she’s a witch!”), then moves into discussions about retail campaigns
Media Relations: “did you get my email? No, the other one. The one about the tree planting Sunday morning!”
Corporate Communications: “Hi. Mom? What’s for dinner?”
Publicist: “What time is it? Two? Why don’t you and Lindsay meet me at Megu at eleven.”

But all PR folk know to limit their conversations at certain crucial moments. When? As the old saw goes: it’s all about location, location, location!

For instance, you probably shouldn’t spin your new business pitch while on a crowded train:

    But last week the Paddington-to-Swansea … train gained notoriety as the blabbermouth express when staffers at one agency decided not only to discuss the pitch they were on their way to – but to prepare for it with a plethora of loud calls to the press, sounding out views on their potential client.

    ‘It was embarrassing – it was very Ab Fab,’ PRWeek’s spy on the train tells us.

    The agency boss … defended her loudmouths … ‘It was nothing confidential, we would never discuss something confidential in public.’ It is not the first time pitches have been overheard on the Paddington train – PROs be warned. (PR Week UK – behind a sub wall)

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Online monitoring of political demonstrations

11/30/04

It’s a nice crisp fall day in Ottawa, and President Bush has just landed on his first official visit to Canada’s capital. He’ll be making a brief visit to Parliament Hill, then will travel to view several culturally significant but interminably boring local sights.

Plenty of organizations across the country are exercising their democratic right to protest various issues of personal interest, and you can watch some of them congregate on the Parliament Hill Cam – which is supported by a department of the Government of Canada.

CBC News Online’s Paddy Moore is on the ground filing every few minutes. He reports that some of the protesters on the Hill are playing “Rebel, Rebel” from a loudspeaker.

A webcam and a minute-by-minute blog: shades of the new world of participatory and instantaneous reporting.

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Now with more Herb Tarlek!

11/02/04

    “The Tarleks came from the west — they grooved. White belts shining in the pounding sun …”

WKRP’s own leisure suit-wearing Herb Tarlek will be in Toronto Wednesday to star in the video for the Rheostatics’ new song, “The Tarleks.”

The quote from the song, and some mighty fine commentary about the new Rheostatics album, can be found on thismagazine’s blog.

Of course, we have all forgotten that Herb, Lucille, Herb the Third and WKRP were the subject of the first reality tv show: “Real Families.”

    SPCA Worker: Mr Tarlek had placed some ducks in the window of Hunter’s Department Store as an advertising gimmick with his radio station. At noon, one, two and three PM, the ducks would do a little dance, sort of a jitterbug.
    TV Hostess: Mr Tarlek had trained the ducks?
    SPCA Worker: No, the ducks danced on a little stage made of aluminum foil. We discovered that under that, Mr Tarlek had placed a hot plate. He would turn it up, and the ducks would dance, and he would turn it off and the ducks would go on about their business. You know the interesting thing about this case was that this man Tarlek and another man named Carlson were cited for throwing live turkeys out of a helicopter to their deaths.

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CanLit BitchSlap

10/29/04

Take one upstart but successful Canadian literary magazine – the Walrus. Add a disgruntled former editor from another Canadian literary magazine – Robert Fulford of Saturday Night, now of Toronto Life. Throw in the accomplished son of a Canadian literary icon as commentator – Noah Richler.

What do you get?

    “The Walrus,” [Fulford] writes, “has a serious problem and its name is Ken Alexander,” who – wait for it – “holds his job only because he brings with him his old family money.”

    As a result of [Walrus founder] Alexander’s efforts, the Walrus offers far more interesting, far more necessary stuff than the perpetually tired pages of Saturday Night.

But what do you really think, Noah?

    Alexander … committed a major Canadian faux pas when he behaved like someone who believed he could do better than the small pool of apparently proven trade staff from which Canadian custom says he should hire – “proven,” in this instance, merely meaning that the departed worked on various incarnations of magazines that have consistently, um, failed.

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Scientists are sentitive people!

10/21/04

While some scientists may be lacking people skills, a stained labcoat and corrective lenses should not prompt PR folk to discount their work and strongly-held positions when developing a pitch and communications materials.

Some scientists working for one US government agency have begun to speak out about what they see as unwarranted revisions and spin by senior officials and public affairs staffers:

    “Political appointees have regularly revised news releases on climate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, altering headlines and opening paragraphs to play down the continuing global warming trend.

    The changes are often subtle, but they consistently shift the meaning of statements away from a sense that things are growing warmer in unusual ways.

    The pattern has appeared in reports from other agencies as well.

    Several sets of drafts and final press releases from NOAA on temperature trends were provided to The Times by government employees who said they were dismayed by the practice.

    On Aug. 14, 2003, a news release summarizing July temperature patterns began as a draft with this headline: “NOAA reports record and near-record July heat in the West, cooler than average in the East, global temperature much warmer than average.”

    When it emerged from NOAA headquarters, it read: “NOAA reports cooler, wetter than average in the East, hot in the West.” (NYT)

Now, in this case dedicated scientists believe their findings are being undersold and misidentified. Usually, they find the media is too eager to zoom in on the sensational aspects of otherwise serious public interest science – like the study If You Drop It, Should You Eat It? Scientists Weigh In on the 5-Second Rule or An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces.

Some scientists, however, see popular reknown as key to communicating their findings and their personal agendas. Think David Suzuki or Stephen Hawking – people who developed a personal brand while pursuing scientific goals. For others, popularity is a product of their academic strengths – their professional research and publication output is directly reflected in their Googlerank.

As for those communicators and scientists who need help translating esoteric concepts into popular analogies? Earlier this year, the Pfizer Journal (sure, a bit of self-interest for the firm there, but still interesting) ran an entire issue examining The Story of Science: Health Care and the Media

Up here in Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council has prepared a very useful primer: Communicating Science to the Public: A Handbook for Researchers

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Dandy comics – a milquetoast relaunch?

10/10/04

What’s this about a relaunch for the Dandy comics? I relished picking up Dandy and Beano as a child living overseas. The crude jokes, the true-to-life hooligans, ne’er-do-wells and braunnosers; characters that rang true to me. Sure, circulation is down – by about 1,900,000 copies. But what sort of changes are these?

Smasher is gone, replaced by a kid with big sister problems? Desparate Dan has been slimmed down?

    … he has no gun. His holster’s still there, but it looks like one of those fabulously over-designed belt-worn mobile phone pouches that went in and out of fashion sometime in 1995.

Ugh. Dan sounds like a metrosexual. Or a European tourist. (As the Glasgow Daily Record sniped: “I’m Fancy Dan!” Or how about Leeds Today’s “I’m not half the Dan I used to be…“?)

Of course DC Thomson, the publisher, swears that this new direction is informed by “in-depth research” designed to make Dandy more appealing to the essential 7 to 11 year-old reader demo. Unless that research was conducted in the schoolyard and behind the chip shop by other 9 year-olds, it’s faulty.

Chances are, the survey team looked like this.

Chris Donald, former editor of Viz, an expired Dandy competitor, had a remarkably similar reaction. But he also noted that kids today have far grittier diversions to occupy their growing minds, the net being only one.

Nevertheless, the publisher is paying lip service to maintaining a rough edge in the comic.

“If we became politically correct, it would be the death of The Dandy. In fact we are gunning for political correctness,” [an executive at DC Thomson] said of the comic that revels in naughtiness. “I would stick my tongue out and blow a big raspberry at anyone who suggests we are politically correct.”

A raspberry? How 1955.

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David Byrne, trusted filters and parrots

10/07/04

Are you a trusted source of information or a corporate parrot? Are your relationships with reporters and editors one-way, or do you work to maintain a reputation as a reliable, informative and trustworthy source of information in your industry? Are you an artist or a mechanic? Are you shooting for a string of one-time hits, or is your goal a career of continuing success and a ongoing royalty cheques?

David Byrne spoke about his relationship with Nonesuch, his new record label:

    ”It’s a curatorial effort, a filter. The people who are at the head of it want you to trust their judgment, so that if you like one artist you’ll get to know others. A certain kind of relationship gets established, and it’s based on trust. That’s a very different concept from record labels that go for Top 10 hits. There’s no trust there at all — it’s about that one song.

    The reason the record business is in trouble is the things they’re selling — the hit singles and the physical records — have become devalued. If people can get those things for free, what do the record companies have left? Whereas what’s incredibly valued and needed is the relationship and trust.”

Parrotting the corporate line will get you through the day, but are you preparing for tomorrow, next month, next year? Are you a member of O-Town or Menudo?

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What if you had a party, and they said nobody came?

10/04/04

What if you were a national high fashion store, thriving upon glamour and allure and the whiff of exclusivity, and the major national paper reports that your big Toronto Film Festival bash attracted no celebrities?

Well, you’d probably try to correct the formal record – despite the model already having toppled off the runway, so to speak. That would produce this:

    Many celebrities attended the Holt Renfrew party at the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday night. Incorrect information appeared in an item in yesterday’s Review section. (pay article in the Globe and Mail)

Now, you can parse words and argue that Jennifer Tilly, Kevin Bacon and Heather Graham aren’t the brightest “stars” in the firmament – but remember, the salient point being driven home by Holts is that “celebrities” were there. Even Pauly Shore would count.

Fine. The Director of Communications did her job. The errant scribe has been corrected. But, as the NYT pointed out today:

    While Holt Renfrew, a upscale department store, was the main host, The Globe and Mail was one of the party’s co-sponsors …

    “We wanted them to know the party was a success,” [Holt’s Director of Communications] said. “They were the newspaper we partnered with.”

Ouch.

On another track: what sort of paper makes readers pay to view CORRECTIONS?

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Performance advice for an aspiring author

10/04/04

Amanda Stern (in the NYT) has some realistic advice for authors, poets, aesthetes and pretentious knobs facing their first public performance (likely in the Borders reading/conference/craft room), including:

  • Do not prepare with vocal warm-ups, neck rolls or the Japanese Suzuki Method of stomping.
  • Do not refer to the surrounding space as the ”mise en scene.”
  • Do not ask if there is Kabbalah water in the V.I.P. room.
  • Be polite to the computer-geek girl who wants to discuss her novel-in-blogs.
  • Do not engage the sociopath lurking in doorway.
  • You’re not going to just read, are you? Have time to learn banjo?

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How does your newspaper cook the books?

09/13/04

Ever been offered a “free four week trial” of a local newspaper? Been handed one by a street hawker on the way to work? This weekend, one local paper dropped off a free copy of the paper at every house in my subdivision.

What’s up with these newspaper promotions? How in the world do they keep an honest count?

If you’ve been following the Audit Bureau of Circulation scandals in the US, it’s obvious some newspapers haven’t been keeping an honest count. Newsday, for example:

In the beginning, the computerized process was used for legitimate sampling programs or to start batches of subscriptions sold by telemarketers, and it included strict criteria for paying credits to agents, the former manager said.

By 2000, however, Newsday’s circulation department had loosened the criteria for credits and started using electronic lists to add thousands of customers who hadn’t ordered the paper, the former manager said. With a couple of keystrokes, managers could boost their daily tallies and credit agents for the nonexistent or free deliveries, he said.

He said he once even witnessed a former manager entering a $1,500 agent credit into the system to pay for World Series tickets the agent had obtained for him.

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Intangible assets: flower arranging, thermometers and TollHouse cookies

09/01/04

As Europe prepares for the introduction of new guidelines for the accounting of intangible assets – like brands – our marketing and PR colleagues across the Atlantic can smell the change in the air.

Numbers are back in vogue. Performance metrics aren’t only a late-minute add-on to PowerPoint campaign pitches. European CFOs are now as interested in brand valuations as their US counterparts – the AOL/Time Warner merger demonstrated the impact improperly valued intangible assets can have on a corporation.

Uh Oh. We shouldn’t have dropped Financial Accounting I in second-year.

The Financial Times discussed the evolving environment with several marketing, consultantcy and financial executives.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” says David Haigh, chief executive of Brand Finance, a London consultancy that measures brand values for corporate clients. “Historically, marketing people have been off in the west wing of the castle, flower arranging. Now, they are in the great hall arguing with the lord of the great manor.” (FT.com, sub. req.)

“They usually measure the wrong stuff with the wrong things at the wrong time,” says Kevin Roberts, chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi … “It’s like using a thermometer to check how tall you are.”

Are you a marketing specialist? Imagine you were the brand manager for TollHouse Cookies, and your development team has just perfected a new 2 calorie cookie free of cholesterol and saturated fat. A perfect opportunity for career advancement? Not if you don’t understand the numbers. What are the basic financials behind a marketing homerun like this? Try your hand at this case study prepared by Franklin Allen at Wharton.

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Deep thought on reputation systems

08/17/04

I’m a month late on this meme, but it’s still a valuable read for PR folk. “Manifesto for the Reputation Society” is an exercise in sketching out the benefits and hindrances of encouraging a growing reputation system, based on easily available information, shared opinions, personalized experiences, categorized relationships and maybe a touch of accreditation or regulation.

The paper examines how reputation societies might grow, using increasingly popular social networks as building blocks to compile information, gather critiques, solicit opinions and bring together communities of interest to influence the decisions made by consumers, companies, markets and governments.

PR folk will be challenged by this paper. The future of the profession isn’t explicit in the system being proposed – unless you see your future in obfuscation, falsification, and the consternation of your audience.

Deliberate skewing of reputations by those who benefit from their inaccuracy is one of the greatest operational problems reputation systems will face, once they have dealt with implementation issues like privacy and authentication. The public relations agencies of today may evolve into the reputation manipulation and repair agencies of tomorrow, with expertise ranging from understanding why one’s reputation is in trouble to underhanded ways of gaming reputation systems.

Arenas with more heterogeneous interest groups like politics and commerce will naturally have more pressure for skewing reputations — consider the present–day difference in deceitfulness between commercial and educational Web sites.

We put a lot of our energy into developing relationships with reporters: how much effort will we put into understanding all our other stakeholders? You will have to understand the entire public environment affecting your issue, staff, development, process or company if you’re going to play in a reputation society.

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Social Networking Bingo

08/11/04

history.jpg
Remember Bullshit Bingo? It was funny, and you flipped it to all your colleagues as a joke. But there was a horrible, cruel, irony in your actions: you probably used three to five words from the bingo card every day. (empower, parking lot, vertical)

Any longtime tech-head can build a good drinking game out of the chart I’ve posted today. You could probably start a couple of fights arguing about the accuracy of the chronology, or whether the authors have overlooked a seminal evolution in technology (like Civilization, Pong or Dungeon). It’s pulled from a new report, “Online Communities in Business: Past Progress, Future Directions,” prepared by Jenny Ambrozek and Joe Cothrel. It’s available here. It’s worth a read.

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Paddywhack! You’re Googlewhacked!

08/09/04

I seem to have a comment spam problem from one particular knobgobbling spammer. If this keeps up, I’ll have to turn off the comments until I can identify a solution.

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Gene Simmons: “You deserve a good bitch-slapping for that”

07/19/04

Warren Kinsella, Liberal party backroom boy, lawyer and sometime author, had a chance to interview Gene Simmons recently. There are some quick comments about greasepaint, Michael Jackson and John Kerry. Worth a read.

WK: If you were marooned on an island, what ten records would you bring with you?

GS: Something by Chilliwack. (laughs) These guys should have been beaten up, very badly, not because they put out good music or bad, but because they had the gall to call their band Chilliwack. You deserve a good bitch-slapping for that.

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Basic Principles for Crisis Communications

07/15/04

This is my entry for the Global PR Blog Week, running through tomorrow.

Whether the phones are ringing, camera trucks are showing up at a worksite, union leadership is speaking at a public hearing, or a regulator is issuing safety warnings about your product, it’s pretty clear you’ve got a crisis.

Instead of days or weeks, you’ve got minutes to map out how your organization will respond. You have to demonstrate awareness of the issue, empathize with the community and possible victims, appear knowledgeable to stakeholders, and prepare for detailed questioning from the board, Wall Street analysts, regulators, politicians and the public.

Ideally, you will have already tackled your toughest challenge: preparing your leadership for the glare of the local, national or international spotlight. In some industries, some tough media training will suffice. In others, CEOs, Presidents, General Managers and Plant Managers may be called upon to explain safety or health consequences of an accident clearly and competently.

The key to the success of this dialogue is a corporate culture that understands the benefits of risk communications. It’s a field of study that emphasizes transparency, information sharing, honest consultation processes and accountability.

Effective risk communications forces your organization to identify possible threats to its business, clients, workers, neighbours and other stakeholders – and to work with these groups in developing a shared response. It’s an ongoing process – more effective than a stale binder on a shelf, and more reassuring than a troubleshooter flown in when the first reporter calls.
(…)

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Trailer Park Boys: pushing more than just dope

07/12/04

You may already be familiar with one of the actors on Trailer Park Boys, if not the show itself. Jonathan Torrens is appearing as “Gerald” the gay waiter on the latest edition of the Joe Schmo franchise.

The Trailer Park Boys takes a visceral yet outrageously funny look at life inside the Sunnyvale Trailer Park. Characters like Ricky, Julian, Randy and Bubbles play out their lives in this fetid cultural petri dish – swearing, growing dope, getting jailed, and getting into fights with the half-naked security guard.

Lately, the Trailer Park Boys have been jumping the divide between pay cable and reality: Bubbles was spouting his opinion about the recent Canadian election, and the whole gang is now being featured in a radio spot for a payday loan company.

You would wonder if a company would want to associate itself with a bunch of foulmouthed, law-breaking and deadbeat trailer park trash. Unless you were trying to bridge the gap between your traditional customer base and the youth demographic that tunes into the Trailer Park Boys on Showtime and BBC America.

Andrew Clark, an instructor at Humber College’s School of Comedy in Toronto, explains the show’s appeal – to the viewing public as well as to a very select group of advertisers.

“Good comedy characters are generally what you’d call ‘low-status,'” he says. “Most people can relate much more easily to a guy who’s on the low end trying to get by and make his way or her way, than they can with someone who has everything.”

In other words, what matters is that the folks in the trailer park are underdogs. Clark sees them being in the same mold as Wayne Campbell, the goofus created by Mike Myers, or the lovable losers brought to life on the big screen by John Candy. They are part of a tradition that stretches all the way back to Greek comedy.

“You just want to root for these guys because, you know what? They’re not trying to hurt anyone. And the folks that they are trying to hurt kind of deserve it: the government, insurance companies – the overdogs, as it were,” notes [Executive Producer Mike] Volpe. “So these guys are just trying to eke out a living. There’s a little bit of a Robin Hood thing going on: they steal from the rich to give to the poor, which happens to be themselves.”

Ahh. The radio ad makes sense, then, because payday loan companies have always portrayed themselves as standing up for the little guy, being the backup when the big bad bank just won’t cut you a break – or a cheque.

Speaking of payday loan advertising – I’ve told you once, and I’ll tell you again, to look at this sendup of Scottish frugality (.mov) from Money Mart. And here’s an opinon column on Scottish stereotyping in ads from a recent issue of Marketing Magazine.

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Measuring up to the Great Leader

07/08/04

The Great Leader, Mao Tse-Tung, sure knew how to turn a phrase. I don’t hold my hopes up for the new cadre of spokespeople being let loose by the PRC State Council Information Office.

The party apparatus has apparently decided that government departments and agencies need to develop a minimal level of response in the face of an accelerating international media environment. After all, you can only block so many websites and expect foreign stringers to read so many roadside hoardings and decipher official party organs.

“Being a spokesman is a high-risk occupation. Every sentence is another opportunity to make a mistake,” confides Liu Jianchao, vice-director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Information Department and one of the ministry’s three spokesmen. “But if you don’t speak or provide information, that’s the biggest mistake.”

The 40-year-old, Cambridge-educated Liu is emblematic of China’s younger, more polished and professional spokesmen. He deftly fields and parries questions in front of the cameras, and banters cordially with foreign reporters behind them. While spokesmen are often limited to the sort of boilerplate that veteran correspondents could recite in their sleep, Liu is confident in his ability to give ample information within the prescribed limits. “You come as close to the line as possible without crossing it,” he explains. (Far Eastern Economic Review, sub. req.)

Before you get all excited about a great leap forward in media relations in China, you should know that these spokespersons will remain in their functional positions – they will not be media specialists. If they stray from the approved position, a spokesperson could lose BOTH their jobs.

The FEER throws a nice cheap shot at the end of their story:

When training spokesmen, [Wang Guoqing, deputy director of the State Council Information Office] tells them that they “must not treat reporters as minions, students, friends or enemies.” …

And he reminds them to leave time for reporters to ask questions by handing out prepared speeches instead of spending entire press conferences reading them. As if they didn’t know.

Ouch. Then again, there’s nothing like a carefully recited treatise on the state of China-Vietnam fishery agreements to perk a foreign correspondent’s ears!

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China singled out one group of spokespersons it characterized as the “free speech elite.” In identifying various controls on free speech and the media in China during its investigation into the SARs epidemic, it observed:

This group is composed of senior government and Communist Party leaders, those with the patronage of these leaders and, to a lesser extent, academics. Although not immune to the vagaries of PRC law, members of this group are able to express concerns and criticism of the government with less fear of punishment than the average PRC citizen.

The operative principle could be expressed as follows: the degree to which the government is willing to tolerate criticism of its leaders and policies is contingent upon the size and nature of the audience and the ideological credentials of the speaker. The PRC government has thus transformed the constitutional right of free speech for the people into a political privilege of freer speech for the ideological elite.

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Touchdown at the OK Corral: A case study

07/02/04

As he turned to pick the football from the air, Doug Stevenson reflected on the day’s events.

He had brought his sales managers to this Wyoming dude ranch to help them refocus after an exceptionally bad quarter.

The 10,000 acre spread had begun life as a hobby ranch for an East Coast management consultant. His income had declined as his telecom customers had imploded, one by one.

Looking for some extra revenue, he opened his eighteen bedroom ranch to Fortune 500 management teams looking for a little direction and a few days away from the grind.

Together, the consultant and the salesmen had drilled down to some core objectives, identifying accounts with greater potential for growth, and those needing pruning.

That all changed as Stevenson planted his foot in the loose gravel. A pull, then a twinge, finally searing pain: he dropped to the ground with a torn MCL.
(…)

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Lawn Signs: tool for voter education or ground aeration?

06/25/04

Unless you’re just a grumpy landowner, you’ll agree that lawn signs do have a place in a political campaign. Those little wire and plastic signs will, in an incessant and subliminal manner, help raise general awareness of your candidate’s name, affiliation and well-deserved elected position. And on election day, who knows, they may swing a few votes during the drive to the polling station!

Most creatives and political organizers question whether lawn signs help move votes in a campaign dominated by issues, rather than name recognition. As one Toronto advertising executive commented:

“They defy every rule of advertising that I would abide by,” he notes. “But at the same time … they work, I think.”

Still, they can provoke negative reaction from voters feeling overwhelmed by door hangers, stickers, pamphlets, flags, trade show pop-ups and free standing inserts. The Missouri Press Association asked a sample of readers what tactic is the most offensive form of political advertising:

  • 1st — Phone calls from candidate campaigns (32%)
  • 2nd — Television ads (30.3%)
  • 3rd — Lawn signs (19.3%)

    Of course, if you’re a warm and sensitive Green Party member, lawn signs pose a far more hazardous risk to the environment:

    “You could frame an affordable house with all the lumber in . . . the NDP signs and the Conservative signs,” [said one Vanouver area Green Party candidate] …

    But it’s clear the plastic-bag lawn signs are still a bit of a sore spot with the campaign — one Lewis said he’s still working on. “Somebody suggested we make them out of hemp and then they could be shopping bags after you’re finished with them,” he said.

    We’ll leave the final observation to a Canadian political organizer. Do any signs stand out for their design, wit, or imagination?

    “Oh, Good Lord no. They’re all uniformly execrable.”

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  • The battle between creative and procurement continues

    06/24/04

    Shhh. Can you hear that? It’s the sound of David Ogilvy, hooked up to a turbine in the grave, generating enough power to light Six Flags over Georgia.

    Almost two thirds of procurement directors questioned in a survey by spend management company Ariba said their marketing departments were “suspicious” of their activities, while 20% claimed they had been accused of interfering in client relationships. (MediaWeek)

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    Small business isn’t totally sold on e-commerce in Canada

    06/16/04

    A limited survey conducted for UPS Canada reveals that small businesses are nervous about their ability to succeed in an e-enabled environment. Ipsos-Reid surveyed and analyzed the responses of 400 small business owners/managers:

    Generally, small enterprises do not seem very well prepared for e-business. Less than one-fifth (17%) feel they are adequately funded to support developments in this area, and only 29% believe they have an adequate technical platform in place to support e-business. Finally, just 28% think their employees have a clear understanding of the potential for business through this channel.

    I was going to make a sarcastic comment about the observation that “four in ten (37%) owners/managers feel that the Internet will have little or no impact on their business over the next 3-5 years,” but I couldn’t actually imagine a business that would not be affected by e-commerce over the next five years.

    Shoe shops, used book stores, holistic health boutiques, stamp dealers and maple syrup manufacturers: they’re all on the web or reachable by email.

    Who are these 37%? I guess parking lot attendants, construction site lunch trucks, and roofers might be counted.

    Those who do imagine impacts were most likely to mention marketing and company exposure (18%), communicating with customers and clients (13%), and growth in sales and profits (10%).

    This information would indicate there’s a real opportunity to provide personalized IT infrastructure and advice to a large number of small businesses – an opportunity that could be well exploited by an international organization that has established relationships with small business and can pull in corporate resources to provide reliable and local IT products and advice.

    Damn – that would be an opportunity for FedEx/Kinkos. Sorry UPS.

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    A dedicated advance team – for Reagan’s funeral

    06/10/04

    Although all Presidents are asked to begin planning their funeral as soon as they leave office, the Reagans and their alumni have long worked to prepare an event suitable for “the great communicator.”

    Today’s WSJ (A1, sub. req.) reveals the work of a small group of former Reagan aides charged with the advance planning for a week-long funeral:

    … ‘We need every opportunity to show the media, who might be skeptical, that this is the way America feels about the guy,’ says Jim Hooley, 53, who was … head of White House advance in Mr. Reagan´s second term, and is staging the West Coast part of this week´s events. ‘This is a legacy-building event.’ …

    Apparently, twenty years can really shine up the positive experiences and repress negative memories:

    …The Reagan White House was the golden age for political advance men, the team of about 20 aides who handled the logistics — from arranging traffic routes to podiums — for all presidential public events. … ‘We went from being seen as the guys blowing up balloons and getting cars for the motorcades to senior, respected members of the team,’ Mr. Hooley recalls.

    He even had an office in the west wing of the White House. Mr. Reagan set the tone. ‘He was an actor, and he understood there was somebody who planned the lighting, somebody who built the set and wrote the script,’ says Mr. Hooley.

    Planning has been on-going, to the point that the advance team was expanded years ago to bring in additional TV expertise:
    (…)

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    Political ad consultants: talking out of their …

    06/09/04

    There’s a brief overview of the challenges facing political advertising in the latest Atlantic, and Joshua Green highlights some valid comments about the level of creativity and effort put into producing truly effective advertising.

    On a giant-screen television [Republican media consultant John]Brabender first played “Waste,” which he created for Rick Santorum’s successful 1994 challenge to Senator Harris Wofford, of Pennsylvania. It opens with a hand daintily snipping a sliver of paper with red kiddie scissors. “This is how serious Harris Wofford is about cutting government waste,” begins a gentle voice, over the lilt of chamber music.

    Cut to another pair of hands as a chain saw tears through an enormous stack of paper. The voice becomes a bellow fit for a monster-truck-show announcer: “And this is how serious Rick Santorum is! In the last term of Congress he introduced more original bills cutting government waste than anyone else! Join the fight!”—a boxing glove smashes through the screen—”Santorum for Senate!” Memorable and funny, the whole ad lasts just fifteen seconds …

    Design by committee, Brabender says, stifles creativity and produces lousy ads. Less is often more in a visual medium like television, but many pollsters and campaign managers seem blind to that: they try to cram as many issues into an ad as they can. If someone throws five tennis balls at you, he points out, it’s tough to catch any of them. But with a single ball it’s easy.

    And, depending upon the candidate’s standing in the race, a consultant can choose to use a tennis ball or a wrecking ball – with a relative attention to detail. Take a look at a clip Brabender’s firm prepared for a Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate. A little over the top, wouldn’t you say? Looks like the polls say elderly voters could be driven to their candidate through panic about possible tax increases.

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    How to belittle a protest movement

    06/02/04

    The antiglobal army of a few years ago increasingly looks more like a procession of weary Grateful Dead fans near the end of another tour.

    That’s just one observation in the WSJ’s A1 story on the preparations for the upcoming G-8 summit on Sea Island, Georgia. While it’s largely a straightforward report on the challenges facing government and protesters alike, there more than a few hints of condescension scattered throughout. But what else would you expect from the leading propagandist of the capitalist pig army?*

    It’s not all sarcasm, though. Since the summit is being held in Georgia, we can also find the requisite references to noblesse oblige and good ole-fashioned Southern hospitality:

    … when Carol Bass showed up in her floral skirt and silver peace-symbol pendant at a town-hall meeting in April, local police moved in quickly and refused to let her and fellow activists hand out their leaflets.

    As it turned out, Ms. Bass’s flier was an invitation to a “Meet the Protesters” potluck supper in a nearby church fellowship hall, and the word got out anyway. At the gathering the next night, after spaghetti, sweet tea and banana pudding, organizers coaxed County Commissioner Cap Fendig to play homemade trivia games. (Sample question: How many windows were broken during the 2002 G-8 meeting in Canada? Answer: zero.)

    And that’s the lede!

    Is this an attempt to inform WSJ readers about the alternative protest activities being organized by dedicated activists? Surely, WSJ editors must have realized that many of these activities would seem unusual or just plain wierd to their average subscriber.
    (…)

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    Stepping on the message – keeping your candidate in line

    06/01/04

    Messaging and presentation are essential for spokespersons – that’s what we repeat ad nauseum in our training sessions and during pre-interview prep. Especially at events. So much effort, money and time goes into preparing for the perfect event that PR folk, spokesperson and management can fixate on getting the right message out – over and over and over again.

    In a political campaign, like the national election happening up here right here, right now (mp3), the message and attendant event become essential components of the campaign and, hopefully, of the media cycle. Candidates and party leaders are increasingly blunt in exposing the mechanics of messaging and repetition as they battle for a toehold in the evening news.

    Last week, the leader of the Conservative Party let it all hang out. He even got a bit of grief about it from the media. Here’s what CBC radio reported.

    SUSAN MURRAY (REPORTER) : The local candidates are there, but as usual, he avoids the general public. It’s become the Harper style. Holding just two or at most three events a day, surrounded by supporters. Harper was asked about his controlled campaign.

    STEPHEN HARPER (LEADER OF THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY OF CANADA) : I don’t know if I should talk about communication strategy at all this, but you know the gold rule: you don’t walk on your own message.

    MURRAY: His message? It’s time to defeat what he calls a tired and corrupt Liberal government. And yesterday, when a question was asked off-message – what would he do about farmers, the big issue in Saskatchewan – Harper seemed (…).

    HARPER: Well, that’s… Farming is obviously not the subject of this particular announcement, but… Yeah, well… We’re doing a message event here…

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    Canada: how to run a political campaign on the cheap

    05/24/04

    The Prime Minister’s gone and done it. Canada’s going to have an election on June 28. Somehow, he and his fellow politicians will reach out to nearly 30 million Canadians spread across the second largest country in the world – and only spend about $40 million.

    Sure, that doesn’t count the costs of the actual election mechanics, or the costs to be tallied up by the media. Did you know a Canadian network has borrowed one of ABC’s now-ubiquitous wired buses? (It actually broke down yesterday. On the first day of the election.) Even CPAC, the public access politics channel, has a bus.

    Several outlets are trying out blogs, including the CBC (it reads like a college road trip journal). The Globe and Mail is promising to have reporter’s blogs. (When? The campaign’s into its second day)

    In the interests of free and open democracy, I’ve prepared some helpful hints for those thrifty Canadian politicians looking to save a few dollars on the campaign trail:

  • Get all the staff on one of those “friends and family” phone plans
  • Public access programming – it’s where you find the really committed voter
  • Take advantage of cross promotion – lawn signs can also advertise driveway resealing or lawn care companies
  • Save on focus groups and polling: hang around the Tim Horton’s on Saturday morning (or the mall food court, for the youth demo)
  • Integrated marketing – deliver take-out menus with outreach material
  • Campaign plane? I hear WestJet/EasyJet/JetBlue hit ALL the vote-rich suburban areas
  • Media plane too expensive? Try hotel minibar pricing on the booze
  • Meals too costly? Give the candidate’s son the “important job” of cleaning out the free breakfast bar when the team checks out of the Holiday Inn Express
  • Gas prices too high? Get the assistant driving the media van to distract the service station attendant after you fuel up the campaign bus – then make a break for it!
  • Update the campaign website and blog on the road by phishing WiFi hot spots. (A latte a day keeps your ISP bill away!)

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  • In PR, you’re always waiting for bad news

    05/21/04

    Jim Horton’s been running a series of dispatches chronicling his work with a client in crisis mode. A little snippet in Fortune only reinforces his observations.

    There is a quiet period before a bad story appears. In that time, clients work to prevent the story from happening. (They can’t). They ask an agency to tell them what to do. (The agency tries to prepare them for the worst.) Eventually the story comes and expectancy is rewarded by the force of an awful report. By then, however, the client and the agency will have feared the worst, and the story might not seem as bad as it is. But, it might be worse, and it is hard to tell until feedback comes from customers, employees and others. (Here, and other days)

    Fortune ran a 6000+ word piece on executive suite troubles at Coca-Cola this week, and it is obvious that the PR staff knew the article was coming.

    How obvious? In discussing Douglas Daft, who “would come to be called Coke’s ‘accidental CEO,'” the reporter notes an exchange with the PR staff:

    (A company spokeswoman said Daft wouldn’t be made available for interviews because “you have to understand, we’re trying to do as little damage as possible. We’re trying not to blow the place up.”)

    Ouch.

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    Promotion Is Like Chinese Food?

    05/20/04

    Interesting analogy from the May edition of Computers in Libraries:

    Good promotion is like Chinese food. When it’s done right, it’s slightly enticing and pleasantly satisfying. And shortly after it’s finished, you want to go back for a little bit more. Creating good promotion can be like preparing Chinese food. You may or may not have all the right tools and skills. If not, then you probably want to order out to get it. But you’ll choose your vendor carefully, to be sure that you’ll get just the right flavor combination that you’re looking for.

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