The BLACK paPR Report


PR from an African American Perspective

A Multi-Million Dollar PR Intervention: Saving the Black Pro Football Player

I received a distress call from people close to a member of the San Francisco 49ers franchise requesting my services as a PR consultant. The player was on the verge of hurting his public image and his career with his on and off-field antics. He was a hot-head, a loose cannon with no self-edit button. He’d say anything, do anything and played so aggressively it caused people to be concerned about the safety of other players. Yet, the caller assured me that he really was a great guy, a misunderstood person in need of my services.

So I did some research and learned that this player who had an excellent record as a player, had a horrible reputation as a human being and had been tossed from a series of teams throughout his short NFL career because of his inability to work and play well with others. I read his bio and a few articles that discussed his troubled childhood, and started to see the bigger picture that made all of his work in the community make sense. He didn’t just give away toys and turkeys, he gave himself as a mentor to young boys on the block in need of guidance and hope.

As a consultant, you want to feel your clients and empathize with them, and I liked this guy. In fact, it’s safe to say I felt his heart. However, there was one problem.

The player. He just wanted to play a nice guy on TV but didn’t want to give up the people and things that inspired him to be a bad guy on and off of the field. I explained that while there are magical qualities to public relations it wouldn’t be able to make his issues go away; he’d have to address them in an effort to make the public believe in him. He didn’t want to and hired someone else, his problems persisted and he was released from his contract. 

About a year later, Dallas Cowboy Terrell Owens found himself at the helm of a serious PR debacle following what has been described as an accidental overdose by some and a suicide attempt by others. Climbing out of that mess has been incredible for him. It still follows him though it is coupled with his infamous tirades on and off the field. The blessing in his case is that he still has a job and he’s still a hot property. 

One morning, I listened as comedian/radio talkshow host Steve Harvey spoke about the various trials of Terrell Owens. Harvey said he felt sorry for T.O. and other athletes and entertainers who have newly acquired wealth and notoriety. He said that he wished there was a place they could go to learn how to juggle the demands and troubles that come with the territory of being young, rich and famous, and black. And after hearing Harvey’s words, it all came together for me.

First of all, there is no one place for athletes and entertainers to go for sound advice on how to present themselves publicly in a way that makes them re-think how they live privately. Many years ago, I heard David Geffen say that whoever you are before the money is who you are after it. Truer words were never spoken. Still, I’d argue that David Geffen is not a commodity as these young men are, so to focus on internal struggles while trying to keep it together AND perform at an optimal level for the people who exploit you and count on you to entertain them is hard work.

Incredibly hard work.

This past week, Felicia Young, Vince Young’s mother told The Tennessean that her son was “hurting inside and out,” after the Titan quarterback alledgedly scared the willies out of coach Jeff Fisher enough for the coach to call 9-1-1. Young had a bad game on Sunday, throwing two interceptions, spraining his knee and being booed by the fans. Young disappeared for hours leaving a maelstom of media speculation concerning his whereabouts and mental state. News reports mentioned an unloaded pistol in his car’s glove compartment, and the fact that he’d left his cell phone at Fisher’s house. Of course, a hot mess ensued and now Young is being discussed in terms of his mental instability, his mediocre playing and his need to suck it up and get it together.

In an Associated Press editorial, columnist Tim Dahlberg states, “It’s true that all we usually see is the upside of being a famous professional athlete. We see the good times, the big money, the fancy Escalades, and the women who always seem to be hanging by the clubhouse gates.

“But when things go sour the stark reality of living up to everyone’s expectations can be hard to deal with. It’s not just the boos, but the feeling that they’ve failed in something they never once imagined they would ever fail in.”

Dahlberg gets it, or at least part of it. There’s more. 

We all usually see the ‘upside’ of being a famous professional athlete, but we never see the private side of most of these athletes who have to negotiate their worth and value in their sport while negotiating it with family, friends who want them to “keep it real and ‘hood,” and with the people who pay the bills. Internal struggles aren’t even a priority to these guys due to the pressures they face on a day to day basis. I challenge some of the naysayers to deal with a day of a thousand hands in your face wanting something for nothing, telephones that ring off of the hook with offers from people who want to exploit your brand, temptations from so-called friends and family to do things that could jeopardize your career (Mike Vick), while trying to keep your head on straight enough to keep on doing whatever it is you are expected to do on the field.

Face it, everybody ain’t Tiki Barber, a player I love and admire. If Tiki has or had one issue, we never knew it and that’s because he had a support system that enabled it to be that way. Vince Young, the player I mentioned first, Terrell Owens and countless others do not have that mechanism in place and it’s obvious.

As a PR consultant and publicist, I see the need for sports psychologists and experts on the politics of sports to start an education campaign that focuses on the issues many of these young athletes face. There are a number of black sports psychologists who can lend needed information on what goes on in the heads of these guys and who can help the public understand that there’s more to it than Vince and Terrell having ‘bad days.’ The need for information is not to justify but rather give insight. (I’m a proponent of psychological assessment of and therapies for black athletes at an early age, but that’s another blog.)

As a PR consultant and publicist, I am dumbfounded and almost speechless at the handling of these situations before they hit the press. The NFL and its teams have entirely too much power and juice to allow stories about their Vince Youngs to be blown out of proportion. In my humble opinion, Vince Young’s disappearance should have been handled more delicately and quietly. 

And as a PR consultant, I urge my fellow practitioners with sports clients to start becoming more transparent in their pitching of stories to the press. Fluff stories about community service are cool, but at the end of the day, we need to know about the person. We need to know and especially unforgiving fans and media need to know about the people who in spite of their pain and heartache go out on the field to help our pain go away. Honestly, it’s time to be more sophisticated in leveraging an athlete’s celebrity to gain public support in good times and bad.

In the meantime, I’ll be watching to see how Young rebounds from this mess, and praying that he is surrounded by at least one person with some sense to help him put this into its proper perspective. Someone needs to tell Young, “Yeah, millions  of dollars in a deal is great, but you’re worth so much more. For once, take care of you.”


Filed under: African Americans, Crisis Management, Mass-Mediated Images, Public Relations, Sports PR, The Black Pro Athlete, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Fee Transparency: Services from a Value Menu

“Long tagged an unquantifiable variable since their inception, public relations firms the world over have scrapped, bitten and clawed to justify their very existence. Many campaigns have launched products and people into the stratosphere. Untold scores, however, have fizzled during launch, or worse, never gotten off the ground. When that happens, it can be a budgetary nightmare of epic proportions.” —PR Firm Shakes Up Industry With Transparent Pricing

My first thought in reading the above paragraph was, ‘They’ve been hanging around in some low places.’ Most firms, especially small independent PR firms, only scrap, bite and claw to justify their existence and fees among people who do not value the worth of public relations and publicity. We spend a lot of time educating individuals on the legitimacy of public relations and publicity as smart business practices. [African American flacks have to prove that we’re not like Tommy on the Martin Show. Remember? “Tommy ain’t got no job.” Well, that’s how some people treat what we do and who we are as professionals. I digress…]

Budgetary nightmares of “epic proportions” generally are not the fault of PR campaigns. I won’t place blame in any one direction, but will charge everyone/everything from the visionary to the marketing plan to the public relations consultant or practitioner for not marking a winning strategy. You could even blame inexperience and inflexibility, but to blame a PR campaign is ludicrous.  If a campaign launches a person or product into the stratosphere, it’s most likely because the launch is not supported by a clear marketing mission aimed at a target or goal. Someone probably forgot to ask “What is the desired end result?”

Okay, rant finished. Time for the real fight.

Transparency in fees is not a new concept, but the company who put out that release would have an unsuspecting public believe that it is new. Most firms of any worth or value do not treat their fee schedules like the ordering board in a fast food restaurant. Most will do an assessment of the client’s stated needs against their marketing plan and then prescribe a public relations and/or publicity plan that is not only complimentary but cost-efficient. Cost-efficiency should also include the number of hours it takes to labor over a project as well as the worth and value of the labor or laborers.

To menu-ize (yep, I made that word up) services is to  minimize both the value of the client and their project as well as the value of the service and servant (practitioner). Of course, there are people who would run straight to the value menu but there are many others with more specific needs and they will labor with a practitioner to come up with the very best possible plan for their campaign with and without thought to cost. And a smart practitioner will ask almost immediately, “What is your budget?” leaving very little room for exploitation and a great deal of room for the client to decide if they will increase or decrease the budget amount after an outline of services is provided with a QUOTE.

You cannot be anymore vulnerable and transparent than when you hand over the quote. At that point, the ball is in the client’s court. 

There is no reason for a practitioner to play for their pay. The independent practitioner takes risks everyday with the retainer client alone. What is the impetus for that type of client-practitioner relationship? Honestly, there is none, and here’s why …

Public relations and publicity are cost centers that only enhance a marketing plan. That should be established up front with clients, so that there are no false expectations. Moreover, public relations and pubicity require the practitioner to lend their resources, intellectual capital and time to make clients look good, establish a presence and create opportunities for exposure on their behalves within a specific market.

“You wouldn’t go buy a car, clothes, a house, etc. that someone says might show up or might work. You buy these things because you can touch them and feel them. You know where your money is going. Public Relations firms should have the same respect for you, your business and your money. We do. That’s what sets us apart.” 

Someone needs to inform the writer of this quote that public relations is not a practice that has historically given anyone something tangible — something to touch or feel. Again, it is a cost center and as such it supports. If a practitioner promises something you can touch or feel, then something is wrong. If a practitioner is truly respectful, then they will (1) make an assessment based on the client’s stated needs and desired goals, (2) create an outline of services matching the stated needs and (3) offer a fair quote for their labor. And they will not promise something they cannot deliver let alone a one-size fits all PR/publicity plan, which is incredibly disrespectful to the client and the profession.

The things that should set a PR firmapart are quality of work and integrity.

Dang, who would have thought I’d live to see a day when PR needs a publicist?

Best, Robin Caldwell

Filed under: African Americans, Client Relations, Ethics, Fees and Rates, Help for the Practitioner, PR Standards & Practices, Public Relations, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It Will Cost You More

An undertaker taught me an extremely valuable business lesson. He shared that it is a common practice for families to have one funeral home pick up their dead loved one while they scout around for a cheaper, less expensive funeral home to perform the services. During their consultation, he’ll tell them “it will cost you more” and they will ignore him, ask him to pick up the body and employ his services on the spot. All is well until they see the bill, which they must pay in full upfront.

What they would not bank on is (1) his integrity (2) his relationship with the original funeral home owner — his colleague, and (3) that he’d tack the amount they owed the original undertaker on to his bill.

He was right, it costs them more, because he takes the amount due the colleague and pays him. The undertaker thought it was an unconsiable act to pick up a body from a man or woman who had not been paid what they were owed. In fact, it was a slap in the face.

The undertaker taught me the value of valuing the relationship between colleagues. He also taught me that if someone would run out on a bill with one person, they could very possibly run out on you too.

My client The Social Media Socialite and me were discussing the same thing happening in our respective professions. In hers, like in PR, it is common for a client to sign with one practitioner and run out on the contract in search of someone who is less expensive. The client genererally banks on the fact that there is no loyalty between competitors or whom they perceive to be competitors. The Social Media Socialite told me that she appreciated hearing the story about the undertaker, because she had done the same exact thing.

“You have to hold the client accountable,” she said. I agreed though I know all too often practitioners deem it a badge of honor to sign on someone else’s client particularly one with a name or brand recognition that is a potentially hot media property. The thought is that even if the client left a debt, it has no bearing on their relationship. And the newly contracted practitioner is no more concerned about a relationship with a perceived competitor than the man on the moon.

Public relation and publicity professionals are undervalued by the very nature of our jobs. We don’t offer much that is tangible short of a release, press kit and other collateral. So, we’re often treated as though we are expendible. In entertainment and sports, it is not uncommon for artists and athletes to have multiple publicists, some of which are unpaid or poorly paid. (That’s another blog.) In short, one practitioner will pick up the body as the client scouts around for a cheaper, less expensive practitioner to perform the services.

Unknown to him, the undertaker was actually practicing the very core of public relations by demanding that the client be accountable, and by expressing accountabilty to his colleague. He set a standard and in the process developed a relationship built on mutual trust and RESPECT.

It is essential — absolutely necessary — for PR and publicity professionals to start esteeming one another more highly. It is okay for one professional to pick up the body while another prepares the services, as long as both are compensated for their work. And our profession is best served when clients see us demonstrate solidarity from one colleague to another.

The next time a colleague’s client comes to you (1) do your research by calling the colleague to ensure that all is well and there is no debt or bad blood (2) think critically and examine the possible costs of taking on the potential client and (3) take a grown up pill and ask your colleague to be straight with you about their relationship with the person. If there is debt and bad blood, think seriously about signing the client. If you should decide that there are benefits to signing the client, then work with him or her to make the other relationship right. Never let a client position you to slap another colleague in the face.

Do like the undertaker and say “It will cost you more.”

Best, Robin

Filed under: Client Relations, Colleague to Colleague, Ethics, Help for the Practitioner, PR Standards & Practices, Public Relations, , , , , , , , ,

The Celebrity Divorce

Reframe a crisis and in the process reframe a client’s image…

Recently there have been a number of celebrity marriage crises, including one that involves an actress primarily famous in the African American community. The actress married her prince in a fairytale wedding a couple of years ago, but the fairytale is now a nightmare, and the couple is separated with divorce looming in their future.

Most optimists in love, and I am one, truly hope that a marriage – any marriage – can survive a crisis. We wish the best for the people we love and simply want to see them happy. Unfortunately, the bond can be so irreparably broken and the vows breached to the point of divorce, which is hard on the average citizen but worse for the celebrity who is under a public microscope.

For private citizens such as me, we can heal quietly without fanfare, at least without the fanfare of media and other watchful eyes hoping for a story. For the celebrity, an ugly divorce can make or break a career, depending on how it is played out in the public and that largely depends on the celebrity’s gatekeepers – lawyers, managers and the publicist (s).

A publicist or PR consultant is not a magician and cannot happily make a crisis go away. However, she or he can use their skill set and brain to reframe a celebrity marriage crisis and ultimately reframe a celebrity’s image with the help of first, the celebrity, and then the gatekeeping team.

It begins with the celebrity.

The celebrity has to decide what is most important to him or her – an image that is worth its weight in gold or an image potentially tarnished by a need to vent publicly and carelessly. The celebrity has to stop thinking emotionally and think rationally about the long-term effect of his or her actions surrounding an impending divorce, especially if the terms are ugly. And, believe it or not, a celebrity has a choice to vent privately and present a stoic image to the public or vent publicly and risk looking absolutely crazy.

God bless the publicist who enables and promotes the latter. God bless the publicist with a client who against their better judgment does the latter – God bless you and run right out of that contract, because no matter how loyal you are, you will look incompetent and crazy too.

PR consultants and publicists with integrity and intelligence value their own reputations as they do their clients’ reputations. Yet, when a client is intent on ruining their own reputation then they will surely throw a practitioner’s reputation under a bus too. It’s not a good look for either party, which leads to the second step…

It is imperative that all gatekeepers and stakeholders in the celebrity’s career hold an intervention to strategize on the direction of publicity and the public decorum of the client. Everyone has to decide with or without the client’s help the direction in which to follow to insure (1) an untarnished image, (2) no loss of revenue and (3) no loss of reputation. Gatekeepers have every bit as much to lose as the client. If the client loses income based on his or her public behavior during a crisis, then the gatekeepers lose income and potentially their reputations as well.

A well-crafted strategy includes accountability elements for the gatekeepers and the client. While the strategy is a preventative measure, it is also a tool to keep every party mindful of the ramifications should there be a misstep or deviation from the plan. For example, if the client decides to step outside of the plan and do something in total violation of it, thereby risking their reputation; the gatekeepers have every right to bail in an effort to keep their vested interests, including relationships with other clients, in tact.

In the not-so distant past, I was in a situation involving someone of celebrity status who refused to obey the law. Two other gatekeepers were complicit, and put the pressure on me to go along with the program. However, a fourth gatekeeper, the lawyer bailed immediately, and when she left I followed soon behind.

Note: IF the lawyer leaves, then don’t hesitate to follow. A lawyer is a gatekeeper with not only a reputation to lose but a license. It is essential for the client to understand that their gatekeepers are people who have led them to a satisfying career and people who have the capabilities to forward that career. They are to be valued.

In short, a strategy has to be employed that insures client accountability to the gatekeepers and vice-versa or disaster will follow.

This is the first phase of the reframing process: Reframing the client’s thinking and reframing the crisis with a strategy.

The next phase involves reframing the media and their role in helping the client achieve the end goal of the strategy. Media cannot be used and abused or manipulated. That’s lame and unethical. Instead, they have to be viewed as partners who have a mission to report the news; and as influential partners who have a vested interest in presenting the client’s story with dignity and tact. It has to be understood, if the client makes a fool of him or herself in a crisis, then in effect, they make a fool of their media partners and give fodder to the type of journalism that can make or break a career.

Deviate from the strategy and make a mockery of media partners in the process and make unintentional enemies who will tell the story their way and without the client’s cooperation.

Lastly, it is up to the gatekeepers to keep a few things in perspective in enabling the client to see the bigger picture: (1) The costs of cleaning up a mess, (2) the costs involved in continuing a mess, (3) the loss of a career and carefully crafted image, and (4) the window of time in which a crisis can be reframed and a client continue in their celebrity relatively unscathed. The gatekeepers have to pose one simple question to the client: Is it worth it?

In terms of celebrity marriage crises, many celebrities rebound just fine even on the heels of serious problems played out in the public eye. Their careers continued and they rebounded just fine with the fans and in some cases, created new ones. (My favorite stories involve celebrities who have reinvented their careers and public personas after a divorce or crisis.) And the one thing they all had in common was that they got out of their own ways and allowed their gatekeepers to competently and quietly pool their resources to avert more trouble.

Note to clients: Fire the gatekeeper who plays crazy with you. In the end, you’re paying someone to mess up your career and perhaps your life.

Best, Robin

Filed under: African Americans, Client Relations, Crisis Management, Ethics, Help for the Practitioner, Media Relations, PR Standards & Practices, Public Relations, , , , , , , , , , ,