In Defense of ‘Flaks’

Mark Cuban

Mark Cuban (Photo credit:

Here’s what it said: “Never hire a PR firm.” You can certainly understand my bemusement when reading these words.Entrepreneur Magazine recently published “Mark Cuban’s 12 Rules for Startups.”  Many of the rules provide a common sense approach to starting a new business.  But the eleventh rule made me woozy.
Cuban qualified this rule by saying that PR folks are calling and emailing reporters and editors when, in fact, the founders of companies should be calling and emailing the same reporters and editors “who will welcome hearing from (them) instead of some PR flak.”  Gosh, that’s harsh.  I mean, calling PR folks “flaks” is the equivalent of calling a fresh piece of rye bread a “crouton.”
Indeed, Cuban is talking about startups and not established companies, and hiring a PR firm isn’t always a top priority when eating and keeping the lights on are hard enough.  But if you cannot afford to hire a PR firm, you should probably ask a flak friend for some pro bono advice before banishing their firms altogether.
Here are my top six reasons why:

  1. First impressions matter.  If you send a lackluster pitch or sloppily written email to any self-respecting reporter or editor, it’s going to be tough getting their attention.

  2. It takes a lot of time and energy to cultivate media sources, so determine whether you have extra time to contact editors and reporters with punchy and seductive things to say.

  3. Crafting your own messaging (basically how a company describes itself to the public) is about as simple as staring at yourself in the mirror and describing what you see.

  4. It’s not easy communicating a calm and cohesive message to employees, investors, customers and others who rely on your services when you find yourself in the midst of a crisis.  That’s when PR pros really come in handy.

  5. The number of professional reporters and editors is shrinking due to consolidation in the media industry.  That means startups and established companies alike are responsible for generating their own buzz, and at the very least, communicating with important constituencies.   That’s what PR firms do.

  6. And finally, always question someone who criticizes the value of a PR firm when they themselves are billionaires, not to mention shameless self-promoters.  From the Washington Post:  “He (Cuban) is on television or the radio marveling at his charmed existence … ‘When I die, I want to come back as me,’ he likes to say…”  Unfortunately, we’re not all Mark Cuban.


Evan Pondel,

Think Before Sending

Time and again people underestimate the power of the Internet.  Social media and the pervasive use of video make it very easy for online content to spread like wildfire.
E-mail and texting also ring true to this phenomenon.  Just this week Marilyn Davenport, a local Orange County, California GOP official, became national news as she sent a blast e-mail depicting President Obama and his parents as apes using the tagline, “Now you know why — No birth certificate!”
Earlier this year, Representative Chris Lee (R-Buffalo) also made national headlines when he texted a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist.  The married, two-term congressman abruptly resigned after the story broke on the Gawker website.
It’s understandable for anyone to forget how easily a video, e-mail or text can spread across the online universe.  Billions of e-mails are sent daily across the globe.  Not all are professional and many carry unsavory content or crude jokes aimed at generating a laugh or giggle.
The general rule for e-mailing is simple.  Think first, but think big.  Before sending, imagine the e-mail is going to 1,000 people or being read on the evening news.  While this may sound extreme, creating some kind of filter is good policy for preventing a potential disastrous snafu.
While this may not be relevant for the average person, it is an important rule to follow for corporate executives and public officials.  These high profile figures always are under scrutiny from constituencies and media.  As ‘gotcha journalism’ and the 24/7 news cycle become mainstay in the new media landscape, press are on the lookout for sensational story lines.  A racially charged e-mail from a public official no doubt is fodder for a media firestorm.
Putting the cat back in the proverbial bag is close to impossible once the news is out.  The next phase is damage control.  Statements and press conferences can help clear the air or possibly insight more coverage.  Party officials are still calling for Davenport’s ouster even after her press conference, where she offered a quasi-apology to the president saying it was unwise to send the e-mail.  Davenport is not resigning, yet.
The purpose of social media ironically is for users to be able to share and engage with each other in a robust platform.  The lesson here is that at any time, an innocent e-mail, text or video can become a live wire, so just think before sending.


George Medici,

Is There a (Spin) Doctor in the House?

When the Securities and Exchange Commission recently charged three former senior executives of IndyMac Bancorp with securities fraud for “misleading investors,” two fundamental questions immediately arose in investor relations and strategic public relations circles:  Did they have professional IR/PR counsel when communicating with investors?
Contrary to popular and misguided belief, the professional practice of investor and strategic public relations isn’t about painting rosy pictures, making things appear better than they really are, or coloring fact.  Rather, best-practice counsel condones transparency, clarity, and timely, factual representation of corporate news–good or bad.
The corporate executives at IndyMac are accused of making false and misleading disclosures about their company at a time when its financial condition was rapidly deteriorating.  Perhaps in time, we’ll learn if they were counseled by IR/PR pros or not.
As Lorin L. Reisner, deputy director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said in a statement, “Truthful and accurate disclosure to investors is particularly critical during a time of crisis, and the federal securities laws do not become optional when the news is negative.”
We and our fellow professional communications brethren couldn’t agree more with Reisner.  These IndyMac Bancorp officers now need legal representation.
Ironically, communications counsel is crucial more than ever, since the fight will continue in the court of public opinion, as the executives look to prove their innocence and reestablish their careers.
To many outsiders, this could sound like a job for a (spin) doctor.  The truth is that IR and PR pros, many of whom– yours truly included–began their careers as journalists, abhor the notion of spin, including the word itself.    There is no cure-all medicine for managing a crisis.  Only solid thinking and communications skills will win the day; certainly not a job for a doctor of spin.


Roger Pondel,

Review Internet Policy Before Losing Your Shirt

Former U.S. Representative Christopher Lee

Former U.S. Representative Christopher Lee (via Gawker)

Thankfully for him, U.S. Representative Christopher Lee (pictured to the right via Gawker) had the good sense to resign within just a few hours of his shirtless photo/response earlier this week to a personal ad becoming the lead story in both gossip pages and major media outlets.  Lee may just have meant to send a simple, flirty email.  But he wound up being embarrassed and losing his job.  
What does this have to do with strategic public relations or investor relations, you may be asking?
The incident serves as another cautionary tale about  how easily personal information can find itself in unintended hands due to the power and immediacy of electronic media.  In our world, this incident and others should serve as reminders for companies to review their social networking and Internet posting policies.
In one recent lawsuit between the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and American Medical Response (AMR) of Connecticut, NLRB alleged that AMR illegally fired an employee for posting critical remarks about her boss on Facebook.  The NLRB said AMR’s Internet policy, which prohibited employees from, among other things, making disparaging comments when discussing the company or superiors, was overly broad and interfered with employees’ right to free speech.
AMR settled the case, agreeing to relax its rules.  But companies should review their policies to determine whether they interfere with employees’ protected first amendment rights, including the right to discuss wages, hours and working conditions with fellow employees or others.



Adding value for clients when content is king

Glancing at any traditional outlet online will show stories covered across multiple platforms using video, audio and yes, good old fashioned text.  While agencies are optimizing press releases to accommodate the new media landscape, knowing how to leverage video properly can be a challenge.
Simple is better.   A short flip video of a client providing unbiased expert commentary can be leveraged with a local newspaper or business outlet.  Offering advanced or exclusive access to the content can go a long way in securing coverage.  Knowledge of proper video handling is also important, although most video captured and shared is not created by professionals.
It’s OK if it doesn’t get picked up.  Video can be shared across an organization’s own social media including Facebook and YouTube, which can be found by a simple search using Google or Yahoo.  Local or corporate events also can be leveraged.  The content builds credibility and helps foster engagement with key target audiences.
More media are using video in their daily coverage.  However, beware that not all content is good.  Make sure the video adds value not only to media but to current and prospective audiences as well.


George Medici,

To beef or not to beef. That is the question.

A lawsuit filed last week in California asked Taco Bell, “Where’s the beef,” and alleges the fast-food giant is filling its shells with a mix that was less than 35% beef.
Instead of sicking the “Yo Quiero” dog on the bogus beef accusers, Taco Bell is sicking its lawyers on the firm and promising a counter-suit. The company added some hot sauce to the debate with a national ad in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today that sarcastically quips, “Thank you for suing us …Here’s the truth about our seasoned beef.”
Taco Bell’s president Greg Creed also cut a video, stating that the claims are absolutely false and that their beef is 88% USDA-quality beef and 12% secret recipe. Creed also gives away what’s in the 12% secret, so if you’re dying to simulate the Taco Bell experience at home, now you can.
Thumbs-up to Taco Bell for its swift response managing a potential public relations nightmare.   Using a combination of traditional and social media like Twitter and YouTube helped Taco Bell tell its story across multiple platforms and customer segments.  Now, can you bring back the Frito Burrito, please?


Ron Neal,

IR and PR Are Not Like Oil and Water

BP’s future seems pretty bleak at the moment.  The stock hit another low this week as the company’s latest effort failed to stop the massive oil leak, which continues to spew millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, severely impacting the Louisiana coastline.
Making matters worse, BP boycotts are underway coupled with an onslaught of lawsuits and fines that undoubtedly will cost the company tens of billions of dollars.
Can BP ever recover? Some on the street say no and that the political, economic and environmental fallout from the disaster will be too tough to overcome.  Media pundits have even compared the crisis with the Arthur Anderson scandal of 2002, when the company surrendered its license because it was found guilty of criminal charges for its auditing of Enron.
No doubt BP will become a heavily studied case history among B-schools for years to come.  It’s important, however, to understand the dynamic between the company’s crisis communications efforts and its stock price, which dropped more than 30% since the April 20 explosion of drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 workers.
No question the fact that they still can’t plug the hole is a key reason for the stock drop.  But by how much? Will the boycott hurt business?  Sure it will. Will that affect profits?  Of course.  Could a boycott be prevented?  Probably, but only if BP communicates more strongly and frequently about its repair efforts.  There has been some apprehension, at least on BP’s part, to get out in front of the problem and be more open in public statements.  This only invites public anger, which leads to a consumer backlash that can, in fact, result in a boycott.
BP will never get a handle on the crisis until the leak is stopped.  Only then can it begin to attempt to rebuild its brand among investor and consumer audiences.  In the interim, BP’s investor and public relations divisions need to work in unison, making sure key messages are tailored appropriately and communicated effectively (and regularly)  to each of its core audiences.  Understanding the needs of different target audiences creates a stronger overall messaging platform and allows for deeper dialogues between BP and its investors, as well as the media, which is paramount during a crisis.


George Medici,

Are Web Sites a Suitable Disclosure Outlet?

According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the answer is…maybe.  The SEC’s new interpretive guidance states that posting material information on a corporate Web site may satisfy Regulation FD, but that the facts and circumstances of each case must be weighed first.
According to law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, several factors must be determined before a Web site can be used as the sole means of disseminating material information.  These include:

  • whether the Web site is a recognized channel of information distribution;
  • how, where and when the information is posted and becomes broadly accessible to the public; and
  • the Web site’s capability to meet the “simultaneous or prompt” timing requirements of Regulation FD’s Rule 100 as well as the Web site’s capability to meet reasonable usage demands.

At this point, it’s probably a safer more shareholder friendly bet to continue utilizing the wire services to disclose important information.


Laurie Berman, Senior Vice President,

Eye of the Storm

A friend of mine recently curated the “Eye of the Storm” photography exhibit at the Reform Gallery in West Hollywood, featuring images from enlisted combat photographers in the U.S. military.
PondelWilkinson did a little pro bono public relations work for the exhibit, which was created to raise awareness and provide funding for The Wounded Warrior Project, a non-profit that helps severely injured soldiers transition to civilian life. The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and others have written about the show, and the curator would be honored to host any friends of the firm who would like to take a personalized tour. Of course, you are more than welcome to peruse on your own time as well.
If you are interested in checking out the exhibit, Reform Gallery is located at 816 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069. For more information, you are also welcome to call the exhibit’s curator, Dane Jensen, at 323.632.2909. Or, check out the Eye of the Storm Web site. 


Evan Pondel, Vice President,

Tacos and Beer

I don’t drink that much beer, but I do enjoy an occasional light brew when tacos are present. It’s a very nice complement, kind of like mondel bread and coffee.
The media is shedding light on a different kind of complement these days. I am referring to blogs and PR. The Wall Street Journal recently devoted more than 20 inches of copy to a beer blog that Miller Brewing Co. recently launched.
The blog is written by a former Advertising Age staffer who channels his sudsy muse into an analysis of the beer industry. Of course, I suspect the blog doesn’t break news about the very brewer that pays for its existence. But to Miller’s credit, the company is completely transparent about its relationship with the blog.
As more companies attempt to ride the wave of blah-blah-blogging (ours included), I find Miller’s approach refreshing and full bodied. They are taking the foam out of foam. They are tapping the proverbial keg and making themselves look smart, as opposed to drunk and stupid.
So, here’s to Miller Brewing Co. for drumming up a savvy PR program. The question is whether a similar program could be applied to a publicly-traded company.
My advice is to proceed with caution. Don’t get me wrong, I think blogs can be valuable for public companies. However, public companies must not forget that they are blogging on behalf of shareholders, too.


Evan Pondel, Senior Associate,