Sunday, March 19, 2006

Block memo shows it has good PR sense after all

As a follow up to the recent post about the woes of H&R Block, it's interesting to note that maybe they do know how to handle public relations after all.

In a recent post, I noted that the company's public perception was taking some hits for not paying its full share of taxes, all the while failing to make legitimate hay from the fact that it was doing great work behind the scenes on behalf of Katrina survivors in the Gulf Coast.

Well, recently, a secret internal memo showed that in the realm of crisis management, at least, perhaps it knows a thing or two about P.R.

The March 15 memo, from Tax Services Division head Timothy Gokey, outlines some talking points for company officials after the company faced a lawsuit from the Attorney General of New York over the company's "Express IRA."

The memo notes that the IRA has been "broadly hailed by consumer advocates as a way to help moderate income people to save." It attacks AG Eliot Spitzer, noting that he is running for governor of New York, and outlined the allegations and stated why they are false.

The internal email listed, in bullet-point fashion, some "key truths" about the Express IRA product, and ended, bitingly, with, "While the Attorney General will get his press coverage, we are confident that we will prevail when the facts can be impartially presented, in Court."

So far, so good. But, you may ask, how do I know about this so-called secret, internal email? Why, it was on the Drudge Report, that's how.

The fact that Internet news-hound Matt Drudge posted this on the same day it was released tells me that the Block people shrewdly released it to them for public consumption. The site gets MILLIONS of hits per day, and this article (titled: "Block Internal Email Defends Against Charges") was featured prominently on the page.

The only argument against the intentional release of the memo are the political attacks on Spitzer, who isn't mentioned by name. The company's official news release is a bit less incendiary, although just as combative.

Are things turning around for the company? Well, on the same day the internal email was released, the company was given approval to open their own bank, but they have also been sued by the AG's Office of California over their Instant Tax Refund program, which its claims was a disguised "high cost loan." Mixed bag.

But if they can learn to handle problems effectively (and, perhaps learn to tout their achievements better) they will be fine.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

SAC is now APR

SAC Becomes APR in Re-launch
Stephen Abbott, owner of Stephen Abbott Communications has announced a “re-launching” of SAC as Abbott Public Relations, effective Monday, March 6, 2006.

Abbott, who has advised numerous political campaigns over the past six years, and managed the 2004 New Hampshire gubernatorial campaign of Charles Tarbell, said he hopes to focus on both business as well as political clients.

"The new name reflects a new emphasis on business and on the public relations management function," said Abbott. "I hope to work with small businesses, home businesses and individuals who want to build and maintain their reputations with their customers."

APR will also continue to assist politicians and would-be politicians connect with voters.

Abbott offers a wide variety of affordable writing services, including news releases, personal biographies, mission/goal statements, company backgrounders and fact sheets, and speechwriting. Abbott will also offer business or political PR strategy reports, customer interviews, event planning, and basic Website creation services.

Please contact Stephen Abbott for further details.

Abbott Public Relations is located in Manchester, New Hampshire. They can be found online at


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?