What Crocs, Inc. Knows about PR that You Don’t

Crocs in London's Covent Garden. Photo credit: Hoodrat's Flickr

Crocs in London's Covent Garden. Photo credit: Hoodrat's Flickr

Last week’s panel discussion on the future of journalism held by the Washington, D.C. office of Ogilvy Public Relations had a lot of bloggable moments — lessons for journalists and public relations professionals were plentiful.

One of the best anecdotes came Washington Post staff writer Ylan Mui. Close readers of the Post may recall Mui’s recent front page story which told how the recession had impacted the Crocs, Inc.

Crocs, Inc., as the more trendy among you know, makes and sells those colorful, comfortable and clunky shoes with the same name. They were a big deal when they burst onto the scene in 2002.  But as Mui explained, the firm expanded to meet demand over the last few years. Unfortunately, in 2008, as the economy tanked, it had to slash 2,000 jobs and figure out how to pay down $185.1 million in debt.

In her story, Mui quoted an independent financial analyst saying the company was “toast”.

As the story went live on WashingtonPost.com, Mui braced herself for an angry call from the Crocs public relations rep or the company’s CEO whom she interviewed, but those calls never came. While she waited for her phone to ring, Mui became pleasantly surprised that the story had gone viral over the Internet.

As Mui told the audience at Ogilvy, she was proud that the story was the most viewed story of the day on WashingtonPost.com when it was published. She was even prouder that it was the most commented upon on the site. It was a big deal on Twitter, too. The story was ricocheting across the Internet.

But why didn’t the Crocs team contact her? As the day went by she didn’t even get an email from the company.

Instead, the Crocs team took a different tact. Rather than write a letter to the Post’s editor reacting to the story, the Crocs CEO offered his reaction to the Mui’s story on his blog — twice.

The next day, NBC’s Today Show picked up the story about the dire financial straits Crocs, Inc faced. Mui assumed that she and the Post would be mentioned in the segment. Except Matt, Ann and Al, God love’em, failed to do so — the Today Show producers presented their Crocs story as original reporting. 

How did the Crocs PR team respond to the Today Show? On social media, of course. The team asked Crocs customers on Facebook to posted comments on the Today Show’s Facebook page. On Twitter, the Crocs team’s social media manager George G. Smith, Jr. tweeted to customers from the Crocs Twitter feed: “Everyone tweet @todayshow and tell them that @crocs isn’t going anywhere!!! #crocs4ever

And apparently, everyone did. By the afternoon the day the story ran, the social media manager for the Today Show tweeted back, “You have a lot of fans on Twitter. A lot of tweets about our story this morning. Thanks for watching and feedback! #crocs4ever.”

When the Post’s own Newsweek copied Mui’s storyline without crediting her, the Crocs team repeated their social media tactic of talking directly to customers.

Mui pointed out that the Washington Post Company has no way to capture the revenue that NBC Universal gained when the Today Show stole her story. But from her remarks at the Ogilvy panel, I think she has a much clearer understanding of how social media is impacting her job and the job the public relations people she encounters in her reporting.

On Sunday morning, I had an email discussion with a friend who works in the Post’snewsroom with Mui. I pointed out that PR people like me often work for weeks with reporters like Mui, confident that the reporter will fairly report the context of the issue being covered. To be honest, we’re just as frustrated with the Gawkers of the world as they are. These bloggers typically don’t call us for an original comment and often they don’t understand the context of the story they are stealing excerpting reporting.

But as a media relations person, I’m stuck. I’m obligated to work with whomever is writing about the company I represent, whether they are a reporter for a print newspaper, a radio station, a television station or a Website like Gawker. I have to go where the audience is.

Shouldn’t the best journalists do the same thing? In my next post, I’m going to share with you some predictions made by the panelists at the Ogilvy discussion on the future of journalism.

Correction & Clarification

On August 5, Steve Tuttle, the author of the Newsweek piece I mentioned above, contacted me to clarify that his Newsweek article on the financial problems of Crocs, Inc. was written one week prior to the Washington Post story by Ylan Mui. In his story, Steve linked to a column he wrote about Crocs last year. Steve writes: “I found out about the Post story when someone emailed me the link, about a week after my story had been edited and written, though mine wouldn’t actually come out in the mag for a few more days.”

I assumed that Mui’s piece was written first because her story was published on July 16, while Steve’s was published two days later, on July 18.

As I indicated to Steve today, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have used the word “copied”, because that implies plagiarism – I certainly don’t think he plagiarized his story, but I do think perhaps the Newsweek.com editors, given Newsweek’s ownership by the Washington Post Company and the prominence of the Mui’s story on the front page and on the Post’s Website, perhaps should have disclosed that a very similar storyline appeared two days earlier in the paper — or least linked to it. I should have been more careful and I apologize to Steve for leaving a false impression with those who read this post. (Steve, thanks for being so gracious in how you pointed out my error.)

Steve disagrees with the need for Newsweek to reference the Post story, pointing out that despite common ownership, the editorial teams of the two publications don’t communicate about stories. Fair enough, but I wonder if online versions of a column or story shouldn’t include more links. One of my favorite New York Times columnists, Frank Rich, does that a great deal in his columns. In my view, this enrichs the online experience for readers.

What do you think?


2 responses to “What Crocs, Inc. Knows about PR that You Don’t

  1. I think that mui ,she is stupid,she is one of the bad reporter on washington post.
    she only wanted publicity and you get it when you lie and exaggerate.
    crocs company has $50m cash,$17m only debt,re-organization working very well,profitabilty next year according to the ceo and new styles are the best sellers.

    • Ylan is actually one of the better reporters at one of the best papers in the country, if not the world.

      Often reporters are faced with writing stories where the facts don’t reflect well on the subject of the story. Her Crocs story was exactly that. As a PR person working for a company who’s been the subject of many critical stories over the last few years, I can tell you I really only get upset with the writer if they are unfair.

      In my view, Ylan was more than fair. And no where did any official from Crocs say otherwise. What they did do, which was very smart from a PR point of view, is use social media to get their reaction to the story directly to the customer.

      Thanks for the comment, but on this one, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

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