ANA Confab Needs Less PR Speak, More Digital

Al Gore's Current TV Sales Pitch Epitomizes Worrying Trend

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There are smart corporate-communications tactics aimed at reducing a company's or personality's exposure to negative publicity. Then there are misguided attempts at mind control. I'm starting to wonder whether some companies know the difference anymore. Certainly one or two of those whose execs took the stage at last week's ANA Masters of Marketing conference seemed unable to distinguish between the two -- among them, Al Gore's Current TV.

That Mr. Gore, with his run at the presidency, Oscar-winning documentary and life in public service, should speak the day after being given a Nobel Peace Prize only on the prearranged condition that he talk solely about his media company was odd, maybe even absurd.

Were Mr. Gore's handlers and the folks at Current worried that, in his media naiveté, Mr. Gore might misspeak if Bob Liodice threw him a nasty fastball such as: So how does it feel to win the Nobel? Or, what next in the battle against climate change?

If nothing else, the folks at Current could've written Mr. Gore a speech about consumer-generated content, which is what the ANA said he had agreed to discuss. That, followed by answers to a couple of prescreened audience questions about the other irons in his fire, would have left all but the real Gore haters satisfied. Instead we got nothing but a naked pitch for Current TV.

Gore wasn't the only one who'd clearly been through the PR spin cycle and wrung so dry as to border on dull, but he was the most egregious example.

That it happened is also symptomatic of a wider PR-speak malaise. The communications execs who control what these speakers are allowed to say or strip their public utterances down to only the most positive, on-message stuff, are just doing what they believe to be their jobs. But I wonder whether they and their taskmasters ever consider that they're also eroding their companies' and executives' credibility. You don't have to come out and raise hell, but equally no one believes it's all good news all the time. And standing for something is way more likely to put you in the all-important consumer conversation.

The only person I've found who was neither dumbfounded nor angry about Gore's naked pitch was IAB chief Randy Rothenberg, who, in his new and informative "clog," declared after the speech that the would-be climate savior "may go down in history as the man who saved television advertising."

Despite our just-slightly differing views on that subject, I did find myself wondering whether Randy and his team should be charged with programming a morning at next year's ANA. The most consistent theme of my hallway chats at the event was the confusion that continues to reign over digital strategy. And you only have to look at some of the charlatans who are being touted as digital thought leaders these days to see that some marketers will glom onto anything if they think it'll help them understand digital technologies.

It's not that digital should be on the ANA agenda because it's somehow a more important media channel than the others. It's not -- at least not yet. It should get extra attention because it shouldn't be treated as a media channel so much as a way of life.

The ANA is still, without doubt, the best marketing conference of the year, and you couldn't help but be impressed this year by the fact you could fall over Fortune 50 players at cocktails. But the content could still bear improvement. A collaboration with someone as marketing and digitally savvy -- comments on Mr. Gore aside -- as Mr. Rothenberg might be worth considering.
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