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One example of creative PR…that’s flopping

Photo:  Screenshot of Google Image search

Photo: Screenshot of Google Image search

by Frank Strong

Creative PR ideas are hard to come by. Harder still if they actually make business sense.

The Potomac Tech Wire, reported on October 28, 2009:

  • Sterling, Va. — SkyBitz, the Sterling-based maker of satellite tracking systems, said that it will deploy one of its mobile tracking units on the flatbed trailer transporting the official U.S. Capitol Christmas tree from Arizona to DC. Beginning Nov. 10, the technology will allow people to track the progress of the 85-foot blue spruce as it crosses the country from Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Data will include a detailed street-level map of the most recent location, as well as the full route that the tree has traveled. The tree is scheduled to arrive at the U.S. Capitol Building on Nov. 30, with a lighting ceremony to take place the week of Dec. 7. The tree can be tracked at the link below. http://www.trackthetree.com

Why is this a creative PR idea?
The news hooks are obvious: the Christmas season, an American icon, and a national story. More importantly, it’s a feel good story with a very soft-sell: in following the tree’s movement, SkyBitz is indirectly demonstrating the value of its technology: asset tracking.

SkyBitz plugs GPS devices on cargo so that shippers can track its movement from point to point. If you are a retailer, carrying extra inventory is expensive, so the ability to anticipate delivery times is incredibly important. An executive from SkyBitz once explained, imagine you are a grocery store, and your shipping container of canned goods is placed on the wrong truck in the shipping yard and next heads to San Diego instead of San Francisco. That’s the wrong direction and a $100,000 worth of goods you aren’t going to get on time. If you are Harris Teeter, you might want a head’s up.

There are obvious implications for national security as well. Port security and shipping containers have often been cited as a major security risk. If someone tampers with your container in the middle of the Pacific, Uncle Sam might want a head’s up too.

What I like about SkyBitz’s PR move is that it’s tied to its business value proposition. It’s a creative way to offer a feel good story — at a national level — that demonstrates the value of their technology.

Any drawbacks?
Yes. First and foremost, the Website, http://www.trackthetree.com is down. It’s been down — from the best I can tell on Firefox, IE and Chrome — from the moment I saw this announcement which is now approaching two days. A great idea, a great story and one technology glitch takes the wind out of your sails. No pun intended.

Secondly, I take exception to the quote used in the press release making this announcement:

“We are excited (emphasis added) to provide this unique and interactive experience for everyone, young and old, to get engaged in this event and the activities and history that surround it,” said SkyBitz Senior Vice President of Marketing Craig Montgomery.

Seriously? Excited? Of course you are, I’m excited too! Let’s give them some facts or statistics — something that defies expectations and is relevant to the business. For example:

  • On average, how many miles to Christmas Trees cover each year?
  • What is the average length of travel for the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree?
  • How far will this year’s tree travel relative to historical distances?
  • How many miles does any Christmas tree travel for the average consumer?

What am I driving at?
It’s a great idea…it’s creative, it’s business oriented, it’s good. It could be great. But it’s not doing so well. I did a quick Google News search which displayed zero editorial placements, the Potomac Tech Wire notwithstanding and Reuters, which picked up their press release. I also did a Google blog search — one placement to date in 2009: Tulsa Daily Commerce and Legal News. Yes, I searched Twitter too: 10 Tweets.

What should SkyBitz do?
SkyBitz has a good story. First, fix the Web site — make sure that it works. Second, add some color to the story. There have got to be a million interesting facts about how Christmas trees and the associated travels. Maybe there’s a green theme too — don’t discount that — green is important. Third, think big. There’s much that can be done with this: how about partnering with NORAD to track Santa on Christmas Eve. How about controversy? Who knows, maybe NORAD’s got it wrong!

Final thoughts
I’m playing Monday morning quarterback — its easier to sit in an arm chair and provide constructive criticism, and a lot harder to think creatively when we all have so many other tasks to juggle. I understand that, however, if you are going to do it….do it right. I believe SkyBitz has got something here and it seems to me they have done this before; it just needs some fresh air.

About five or six years ago, I did some freelance work for a small PR shop that counted SkyBitz as a client. I pitched a SkyBitz story and landed them a segment on CNBC about port security. I didn’t get to actually see the interview because Washington, DC was pounded with an uncanny amount of snow — to the tune of three feet — the night before; my little Toyota Corolla couldn’t make the trip. Now I drive a Jeep, am happily employed and I haven’t talked to anyone from SkyBitz since then. My affiliation with SkyBitz is dubious, but chalk one up for the FTC.

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  • Mary Conley Eggert

    Hilarious take on a blitz for Skybitz gone awry. You are right, Frank!…The tie-ins to their business, to the holiday season, to the common man's experience all suggested that this could be a grand slam! Bummer for Skybitz and for interested viewers.

    Your post is a great reminder to all tech marketers to test and retest before showcasing technology to the masses.

    Reminds me of a secure server firm for whom we recommended the hacker-proof server challenge. A $1M award generated considerable publicity, and reinforced the firms reputation as the server held up its claim.

    Years later, I mentioned the concept to a similar company, and the CMO laughed, happy to report he wasn't present when the organization launched a similar promo. The prior CMO didn't anticipate the demand the contest promotion would bring, and not only lost the $1M reward but the company's reputation and his job in the process.

    Moral of the story: Consider what can go wrong and address that before placing our clients or our companies on the front lines!

  • Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    I've been checking in on SkyBitz, hoping they turn this into a success. In searching for clips, I've noted one additional placement — a trucking trade publication, probably a good hit for SkyBitz, called Trucking is bringing Christmas home. And the Website is up SkyBitz Track the Tree

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