Monthly Archives: April 2006

When No News Is Good News

Segway_1In Public Relations there are some situations where any news, even bad news, is good news, as long as your company gains visibility. Good PR firms always have a  contingency plan to deal with bad news in order to make the best of a crisis.

But every once in a while, you come across a situation where good news is bad, and if the planets align just right, it can even be a disaster. I watched one of these train wrecks unfold today in a news piece on NPR about Segway.

I was one of those gullible idiots that slavered over any news of "Ginger", when the geniuses behind the Segway’s introduction–including the homerun king of marketing, Steve Jobs–leaked tantalizing clues of a revolutionary transportation product that would change the way cities are designed. The public was so rabid with anticipation that, according to the Segway entry at Wikipedia, Segways were auctioned for $100k on Amazon before they were released, and a factory was built to produce 40,000 units per month in order to meet anticipated demand. And then it belly flopped. No one wanted to pay $5000 for a geek scooter, and cities weren’t redesigned to accommodate the expected legions of 12mph dorks.

I pretty much forgot about Segway, except for the occasional sighting of a gaggle of Segway-mounted tourists. But today, NPR did a small story on an industry tradeshow called GovSec–the Government Security Expo–which is proudly billed as America’s Premier Homeland Security Event. I’m not sure what I’d expect to find at a Homeland Security Event–do they pass out Predator Drone key chains?–but I certainly wouldn’t expect to find Segway as an exhibitor. Yet there was the Segway PR representative, one
of a string of asides interviewed by a vaguely disinterested reporter
breezing through the exhibit hall. To her credit, the Segway rep put on her
A-game and trotted out the kind of sound bytes that are practiced in front of a
mirror. And that’s where it all started to unravel.

I kind of perked up my ears when I heard "Segway" amid all the white
noise on my commute. There I was stuck in traffic in the middle of my daily
grind home, in a car that sucks down $3.50/gallon gas like it’s cheap beer. I
heard "Segway" and thought, wow, a quiet ride on an electric scooter,
how appropriate for today’s emerging gas crisis. In fact, how brilliant. Is
Segway about to strike a masterful  marketing blow and regain the
visionary momentum it had when it launched?

Uh, no. As the perky PR rep tootled along, it became obvious that the grand
vision was much more modest. She wasn’t skillfully positioning Segway as the
saviour of a frustrated commuting society. She was at a Security tradeshow,
skillfully positioning Segway as an alternative transportation device for
safety officers in 3rd-world airports. Yes, that’s right. The Segway is a
perfect solution for airport security guards, because, as they found in their
market research in the British Virgin Islands,
passengers feel much less threatened by police when they see them on Segways
than they do when they see them running.

Oooookay…. Because, um, in the middle of a crisis, you see, it’s a good idea
to use disarmingly cute little transporters to allay the fears of all those
innocent bystanders.

That, my friends, is called a value proposition. And in the one moment Segway
found on the national airwaves to deliver a message to the masses, they managed
to position the most revolutionary transportation product in ages as a benign
alternative for scary security guards in far off places that you’ve never been
to, and probably won’t be able to afford to visit any time soon because of
outrageous fuel prices.

Now let me just say that the PR rep did an excellent job. She did what she was
paid to do, and I’m sure she was excited to succeed in landing a national story
for Segway. But sometimes–and it’s just the way the planets align–no news is
the best news of all.

How Do You Market a Miasma

I guess I wasn’t so afar afield with the posting on Barry Bonds after all. Turns out, now that Bonds is only a handful of homers away from breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, Major League Baseball and the marketing heads of sponsor companies are wringing their hands about how they should participate in the celebration. Tough branding moment here. Do you continue to attach your product to a taintend pitch man? You can just see the gears grinding. Steroids: Bad. Spotlight: Good!

MLB’s top marketer took a bunt, saying they wouldn’t pop the cork until Bonds passes Hank Aaron’s record–which conveniently puts the pressure off most likely until another season, if not permanently. "The big record is 755," said Tim Brosnan, executive vice president for business. "That’s when we go national. That’s when we bring in sponsors and create national campaigns in celebration." So, basically, MLB will keep it’s finger in the wind until public opinion moves decidedly in one direction or another.

Pepsi’s president, however, said they would celebrate Bonds’ breaking of Ruth’s record, but, ahem, "in a muted way." I guess Pepsi is the brand of nuance. Maybe they’re banking on some share-of-mind points by being on the fringe of controversy. And what exactly does "muted" marketing mean? I’d pay good money to see that Creative Brief.

Taking the path of easy expedience, Home Depot said they would celebrate only if Bonds is cleared of all steroid-use allegations. Only Bank of  America took a firm stand, saying they would not participate in celebrating the achievement in any way. "A company like ours is always going to choose the untainted opportunity," Bank of America’s Cathy Bessant told Bloomberg News.

A company like ours… Interesting way to phrase it. So, what are the other companies like?