Columns by Linda Formichelli:
List all of Linda's columns
Visit our other Getting Work columnist
My marketing/writing business started with a bang -- right into a brick wall. I bragged on my Web site that I knew "how to spell syzygy, onomatopoeia and weltanschaung," then sent a direct mail letter to potential clients urging them to visit my new site. A week later, one never-to-be-potential client emailed to let me know that it's not weltanschaung, dummy -- it's weltanschauung. There was nothing I could do but delete the email, fix the typo, and hide under my wood-look computer hutch, overcome with angst.
Read on and learn how to avoid PR mishaps (or do damage control when it's too late) -- or at least indulge your sense of schadenfreude with other tales of marketing woe.
Meet the Press
Big companies have Armani-suited PR people to make sure their stories get the right spin, their names are spelled correctly, and their quotes... well, their quotes are usually better than what their employees really said. IPs, on the other hand, have to do it all themselves.
When Kimberly Teed, publisher and editor of PresenceSense magazine -- a mag that explores "etiquette, social customs, life's pleasures and mysteries" -- received a call from the local paper saying they wanted to do a story about her magazine, she went all out to impress her interviewer. She bought a new outfit, spent money on redecorating -- the works.
When Teed opened the paper and saw her story, she noticed a weighty problem. "I felt as if someone hit me with a board!" she says. "There was my name, spelled correctly, with a huge photo of me... but I looked like I was 300 pounds heavier than I am, and it was so distorted I was even cross-eyed in the picture." Turns out that the newspaper's minimum-wage layout editor had stretched Teed's photo horizontally to fit the column. In addition to turning her into a Deal-A-Meal poster child, says Teed, the paper misquoted her and didn't include her contact information. "I was humiliated for nothing."
Though the photo fiasco was beyond the reach of damage control, there are ways to make sure that articles show you as the wonderful person that you are, according to Sheri Gassaway, Assistant PR Director at Adamson, a St. Louis-based marketing firm specializing in advertising, PR, and sales promotions. "Before going to a newspaper with an idea, we make sure [our] clients [are] media trained," says Gassaway. She suggests that IPs prepare not just for the obvious queries, but for hard-hitting questions à la Mike Wallace. For example, an independent illustrator doesn't just bone up on his subject matter and technique; he also prepares for questions on his objectification of women and the effect his art has on innocent kiddies. "You have to prepare for the who, what, when, where, why, and how," says Gassaway. "But you have to go beyond that to other things that may come up, especially with hot-button issues in your industry and the media. For example, environmental issues are a hot button right now."
Though some smaller papers and magazines may let you review your quotes before publication, with big papers you have to take your chances. If the paper turns your "I see my ideals in the pop artists of the sixties" to "I steal my ideas from the pop artists of the sixties," call the publication and ask them to print a correction.
Another secret: to increase the chances that an editor will print your contact information -- offer readers a freebie that they have to call to request.
You want to hear about a really bad marketing blunder? One time a radio ad for a ham company invited listeners of an urban format radio station to relive American history: "Let's go back in time to 1744 on the banks of the Virginia river." Bad move. "I don't want to go back to 1744!" says Ty Christian, managing partner of YP&B/Christian, a minority-owned marketing firm in Orlando that provides clients with diversity marketing expertise. "Things weren't so good for us back then." Another ad in an upscale African-American business publication showed a white man reading a newspaper in his office. The caption ran, "All the people at the office will think you're slaving away."
If companies that can afford radio and magazine ads can't afford a little common sense, what's a cash-strapped IP to do? Christian suggests simply showing the marketing piece around and soliciting different viewpoints. If your piece refers to a particular group -- minorities, women, whatever -- ask someone in that group to review it before going to press.
When Networking Is Not Working
A freshly-minted IP in the graphic design field recently returned to his former place of business to chat with ex-co-workers and show off his new business cards. When the ex-co-workers started to each take a card, the IP snatched the cards away and yelped, "These are for clients!"
Hel-lo! Those cards are for any living being with an opposable thumb. You shouldn't push your cards on the unsuspecting, of course, but if someone asks for your business card, for God's sake, give it to them! You never know where that card is going to end up; a former co-worker's mother, husband, friend, dog walker, therapist, or drug dealer may end up becoming your biggest client.
The Mother of All Mishaps
Jami King, owner of the Candle Beach Company in California, spent thousands of dollars to get her handcrafted candle boxes on the Valentine's Day segment of a popular variety TV show. But on the fateful day, the pregnant hostess of the show felt like, as the French say, tossing her pâté. Women suffering from morning sickness find some odors strangely attractive and others nauseating -- and apparently, some aroma wafting over the set threatened to turn the Valentine's Day gift segment into the vomit-covered gift segment.
The hostess glommed onto the first scented product on the table -- a flowery bubble bath -- and kept her nose in it throughout the entire segment, pretty much dissing all the other products on the table. Worse, the co-host dismissed the candle box as "a litterbox for candles." The results of thousands of dollars spent and nerve-wracking preparations? A whopping one order.
How can you avoid such a monumental mishap? In some cases, you can't. Unfortunately, despite all your preparation, sometimes TV hostesses have morning sickness or some joker slips a pornographic image into your Powerpoint presentation or you don't notice that Freudian misprint until you've sent your brochure to 6,000 prospects. "If something happens on live TV, there's not much you can do at that point," says Gassaway.
But don't start filling out that wage-slave job application yet; there are ways to decrease the chances that a giant snafu will sneak up from behind and smack you over the head with a sock full of pennies.
1. Gassaway suggests practicing for interview situations "even if it's with your grandma," just to make sure you're comfortable talking about your business.
2. Whether you're to be in the Frumpville Fortnightly or on Oprah, clear communication is key. "Sit down with the reporter or producer and make sure they have all the information they need and that it's correct." As for TV appearances, "Go through some of your key points with the producer and ask that they be relayed to the host of the show."
3. Here's one I learned the hard way: proofread until your eyeballs are on fire, and then ask someone else to proofread some more. That way, your marketing efforts will be a success -- instead of a source of schadenfreude for others.
We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Linda Formichelli if you like. You may also like to see her biography.