Putting Lipstick on a Pig

May 10, 2010

A few times a month I receive calls from corporate communications/marketing folks looking for an agency to help them fix a PR problem. But after a few minutes it often becomes clear that there is no PR problem, and all of the tweeting, press releases, Facebook updates, story placement, and other tricks of the trade are not going to help them out of the ditch. One such call happened last week from a company who launched an online consumer service that simply didn’t work. The CEO was under massive pressure from his board, especially the VC to fix this problem, and the marketing team determined the best way to accomplish this was through PR. Really? As much as my “friends” in the industry would like you to believe that all problems (faulty gas pedals, dropped calls, a shitty OS, bitchy flight attendants, etc.) can be solved with the right PR tools, they can’t. If your product truly sucks than it doesn’t matter how many editorial buddies your agency has, blog posts they make with fluffy words baked into a messaging soufflé, or fake reviews they have their brother-in-law post: the product is still a pig – only this time with lipstick.

I’m not sure who to blame for this problem, but it should be no surprise that my first choice would be unenlightened (not smart, big agency sheep) PR people who see dollar signs when a business problem is brought before them. I’m not saying that A LOT of customer / product issues can’t be helped with a good dose of PR, they can. But for some issues the client needs to hear that the PR problem they’re calling about is a fundamental business problem that needs to be fixed before the PR team can be called in for clean-up. I suspect fear, denial and opportunity are the key drivers to why PR is viewed as the magic potion that fixes all. Let’s take a look at each:

Fear: Customers are angry and they are vocal. Whether it’s calls to their State Attorney General, posts to Facebook, or tweets – they are sending a message you can’t ignore. Fear begins to grip the organization; are heads going to roll? will I get fired? if so, will it happen before the Nordstrom Half Yearly sale? This is also the time people start looking for the person/team to blame (it was marketings fault/it was the engineers/the CEO is an idiot, etc). Truth is – none of that matters right now. Fear is in the driver’s seat.

Denial: It ain’t just a river in Egypt. Denial is where the President/CEO or board refuses to accept that there is truly a problem with the core product or service, because accepting such a thing would have mammoth repercussions. So instead a solution is sought via the media or social media. “We need to get some good stories in the WSJ, on TechCrunch, or CNET“. Ah the delusional if we get good stories the problems will disappear angle. It’s kind of like having a terrible marriage and thinking a baby will solve everything. Yea, that doesn’t work.

Opportunity:This is my favorite one. Opportunity knocks when the call goes in to the agency (pick one they’re all the same) that claims to have a strategic team of really senior people who have fixed all kinds of problems using proven methods that elevates your message and demonstrates the value of the service you provide. It’s all BULLSHIT folks. Even the best dressed PR person with some meaningless title like Senior Account Manager or Account Director, can’t help you; but she’ll make you believe she can. And I bet if your problem is really big (read: great opportunity for the agency) they’ll even bring in the RBG (really big guns) like the agency president. But until you fix the business problem, none of their medicine is going to cure your sickness.

So the point? It’s important to recognize when you really have a PR problem and when you have a business problem, and knowing the difference between the two. Yes, business problems usually become PR problems until they are fixed, but the core problem is not PR. If your product is broken, fix it. If it’s not right, don’t ship it. And never put lipstick on the pig, because in the end – it’s still a pig.

Howie

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