Saturday, March 04, 2006

"Publicity" vs. Public Relations: A case study

For those confused about the difference between mere "publicity" and public relations, here’s a great example of both.

In early December, H&R Block, the tax preparation company, got it’s name in the news from an unlikely source - a game show.

Jeopardy contestant Ken Jennings ended a 74-game winning streak by blowing this question: "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year." The answer was H&R Block. The answer he gave was, "What is FedEx?"

Both companies’ ad agencies sprang into action to gain "ink" for its clients. H&R Block offered free tax preparation for life for Jennings, who won $1.3 million on the show. FedEx's ad agency ran a full-page ad in USA Today proclaiming, "There's only one time FedEx has ever been the wrong answer. Congratulations, Ken Jennings, on your amazing ‘Jeopardy’ winning streak. And thanks for mentioning our name. Even if it was the one time you shouldn't have."

The Kansas City Star newspaper (Block’s hometown paper) said the firm "won the publicity game," and said, "That’s the kind of positive exposure money can’t buy." It was called, "a stroke of genius" and "public relations at its finest" by the CEO of Hallmark Cards, also of Kansas City.

Well, that’s great. But I want to ask you one thing: Do you remember any of this? If you’re a huge Jeopardy fan, maybe. Otherwise, probably not.

And even if you do, does it make you want to use H&R Block more, or less, or does it make no difference in how you feel about the company? For most of us, the answer is: "What is: ‘Who cares?’"

Flash ahead to Feb. 23, when we learned that, "The company that is preparing millions of tax returns right now admits to messing up on its own. H&R Block says it underestimated its own state income tax rate in previous quarters, meaning it owes another 32-million dollars in back taxes."

A Google search shows these wire stories appeared in papers and online for four days.

The effect of this news was devastating and immediate. H&R Block stock plummeted, and the timing - during tax prep season - couldn't have been worse. Late-night comics like David Letterman also had great fun with the news.

All of this was "bad publicity" for H&R Block, but it was far worse than that. It strikes at the heart of the company’s credibility. Its reputation is now at stake.

But consider an opportunity for "good" public relations for the firm.

H&R Block is providing a volunteer force of up to 500 of its tax professionals to help hurricane victims reconstruct their financial lives, offering free tax preparation, among other things.

This has received little notice in the media. I’ve seen no television ads touting this effort.

That’s a failure to use public relations, all the while thinking that the occasional minor publicity mention ("getting your name out there") is enough, not realizing it's neither long-lasting or effective.

Public relations, in short, is doing good and telling others about it in order to gain good will and build a good reputation. Given recent bad news, H&R Block can use something to rebuild its tattered image. And it can do it only with a long-term, well thought-out public relations plan designed to build good will and build back its reputation.

Can you or your business use more good will from your current and potential customers?

No comments: