How Much Math Is Involved In Public Relations And Advertising The Starbucks Napkin Syndrome

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The Starbucks Napkin Syndrome

Recently, a good friend of mine called and asked me about hiring the services of the advertising agency I work for. This fellow is a sharp entrepreneur, and one of his startup companies had taken off; was willing to invest in a strong marketing program to sustain its success.

After discussing an online strategy and a print campaign, we landed on the theme of their logo. “Oh no, our logo is fine, there’s no way we’re changing it,” he said, “My partner and I created it on a napkin at Starbucks.”

I was silent for a moment, processing those words. Had my friend just verbalized that cliché, with a hint of pride in his voice? This dear fellow suffers from an unfortunate disease that I’ve known about for some time, but was able to name on the spot: Starbucks Towel Syndrome.

Warning signs of Starbucks towel syndrome include the belief that executing a marketing and PR strategy is easy, often an afterthought, and anyone can do it. “We need a press release,” goes the conventional wisdom, “So Jim in Finance throws something together. No, better yet – let our intern do it – Jim is swamped.” As incredible and baffling as it sounds to the ears of marketers, I’ve seen this exact scenario played out, and I’ve seen it in large corporate environments as well as mom-and-pop operations.

Few other business decisions are made on the fly, or with as little input and expertise, as are key public relations decisions. I have yet to see a company treat paying taxes with this devil-may-care attitude: “My Aunt Betsy was good at math in high school; we send our quarterly taxes her way.” Unlikely; I wondered why marketing seems to be the only business discipline that is supposed to be free of complexity.

Reflecting on all of this, I now looked at my office bookshelf and the books I was reading about eight years ago when I entered the workforce: Books by Top PR Practitioners That Pointed to the Growing Importance of Public Relations and marketing. These books told me how our field was gaining ground, and said that soon many CEOs would come from marketing and communications backgrounds: such was the growing power and prominence of our industry.

I winced, still stinging from the actions of a client earlier that morning. This publicly traded company was dealing with some tough issues, including the resignation of a CEO, poor sales, and falling stock prices. When I started work, I found a press release in my inbox announcing the departure of the CEO. The release broke all the rules, from AP-style violations to corporate-speak quotes that positioned the company as weak and in danger. And a Google News search a second later let me know that the release had already hit the wires, without any intervention from my company.

This PR client in Charlotte also has a clear case of Starbucks towel syndrome, so it was with interest that my colleagues and I set up a conference call to hear this client explain to his employees why, exactly, the CEO had left the company.

The new CEO got on the phone sounding crazy, like he’d just woken up from a nap. He then spent 10 minutes taking advantage of a fantastic opportunity to connect with his employees and boost morale at a time when they really needed it. I can’t tell you his message, because this critical piece of employee relations was completely devoid of one.

Now later in the day and getting ready to leave for Thanksgiving vacation, I received a call from a potential client who was pitching a business in Cleveland. He told me advertising was too expensive so he wanted “free ink”. Of course, I’ll just ask you. Do you want the Wall Street Journal or Newsweek? I’ll have to educate him that yes, we can probably get your startup company some initial press, but there’s a lot more to Huntersville PR and PR identity building than that.

I guess that’s what it still comes down to so many times in our business: education. There are still multitudes of co-workers, clients and management who still desperately need to understand what PR is and what it can and should achieve for them. To me, education is what good PR is all about anyway, so I’m more than happy to stick with it.

To all non-marketers in management roles: Please take a moment: my colleagues need a seat at your strategic meeting tables. The companies that refuse us these seats do so at their own risk; companies that operate in a communications vacuum will eventually lose full control over their messages and their brands. Especially in this day and age when consumers are storming company doors and tearing down once-sturdy walls built with old methods of top-down message control, with the Internet and other new technologies as consumers’ favorite battering ram .

Well, my coffee is gone and I seem to have run out of room on this napkin.

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