The PR Spin Debate Soars Again: Is Terrafugia Flying on Hype Alone?
Victor Cruz, Principal, MediaPR.net
How many ways can you peel hype? One could say any story that spreads like a San Diego county wildfire, receiving national media attention lasting for at least three days is a story that has been hyped. There’s a good reason for it. It sparks enough genuine curiosity to plunge it into the public conversation stream. But hype has a negative connotation for PR/marketing. To label a campaign as ‘hype’ can be an insult. But when the same campaign goes viral and achieves big media attention, well then, that’s called being wildly successful. Something about hype rubs the wrong way. It implies superficiality. It implies the opposite of truth and what is genuine. Webster defines it as: “To create interest in by flamboyant or dramatic methods.” And “To intensify (advertising,
Questionable claims. Flamboyant methods. Hype achieved by deceit versus hype achieved by hype itself. Let’s paint it black and white to distinguish bad hype from good hype.
If PR is the mouth that blows air into the bubble pipe, and if the bubbles lift off in many directions succeed in capturing the desired attention, that is good hype. If the campaign has made bogus claims, and achieves the same result, then that is bad hype because it’s based on falsity. If the planets happen to align and the campaign takes upon a life of its own, PR shifts to reactive mode and is left fielding calls; it occupies itself with containing the barriers of truth from breaking into hyperbole. This is the case with media darlings, the Apples we all know.
This has not been the case with Terrafugia (ter-ra-FOO-gee-ah). For starters, it’s not a new story. It has been written about in IT and trade journals ever since the company was founded 2006. Its science has been on the drawing board for longer than that. The people behind Terrafugia (Latin for “escape the earth”) are scientists and not in the business of putting hype on the radar.
The interesting twist here, and one that major media missed, is not that the company is building a car that can fly, but rather, an airplane that can drive like a car. It’s founders are pilots with PhD’s from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.
I had one of its investors as a client, Semyon Dukach, quite the colorful character. He was the central figure in Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction bestseller Busting Vegas: the MIT whiz kid who brought the casinos to their knees about his blackjack playing days during the mid-90s. Today Dukach is a serial entrepreneur, philanthropist and CEO of SMTP Inc., a bulk email delivery service that he took public on the OTC BB alone, without the use of bankers. Need it be said that he is a genius with money? Once known as “The Darling of Las Vegas,” Dukach came from Russia as a young boy with two beans in his pockets. Despite being a helicopter pilot, he’s not someone likely to throw money away carelessly.
It just happens that the 2012 New York Auto Show, where Terrafugia is having its coming out party this week, is lacking anything else of interest that can compare with a “flying car.” (Or a plane that drives like a car.) The Chevy Volt had its sunshine last year. There is nothing bigger to fill the media pipeline gap. Yahoo laid off 2,000 people. Mitt Romney is a shoe-in. Saber rattling has quieted down in the Strait of Hormuz. The Final Four came down to the “unibrow” of Kentucky player Anthony Davis, as reported by the WSJ. Market averages hit multi-year highs; the Nasdaq alley-oopping its highest level since late 2000. But good news is no news.… A $279,000 car that can park in your garage and fly like a plane? Yes, that’s our home page.
Who created the hype? Most likely the company was blindsided by the tsunami of attention. It was never actually, the plan. They don’t even work with an agency. It released two public statements this year and seven in 2011. (Contrast that to Microsoft, which put out seven PR’s in the first four days of April.) This pretty much concludes the “lessons learned” portion of our program.
On April 2, after all the major news orgs wrote about Terafugia’s “The Transition,” the International Flying Car Association put out a press release, probably its first. It announced, and nothing else, an announcement to come, about “flying cars from two companies,” both of which the PR failed to actually name. Perhaps that second company is Dodge, and its product, the 2013 SRT Viper. As AutoWeek put it, “Fans of the snake have been salivating over the new Viper for months now.”
Eleven years ago the guru Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Fallows wrote his seventh book, Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Travel, that could have been the inspiration for the MIT founders of Terrafugia, Fallows points out (as does the company’s FAQ page), that 5,000 public regional airports across the country are highly underutilized, unlike their mega-sized commercial airstrip brothers. Fallows, who is also a pilot, envisions and advocates for a future where thousands of single engine aircraft are pressed into a kind of taxi service. It makes good sense. Less congested metro airports; more flexibility in scheduling air travel; more use of airplanes for shorter jaunts. How much bigger can O’Hare get without it devolving into a death trap? Terrafugia and the PAL-V from the Netherlands, a flying gyrocopter, could well help materialize this idea.
Innovation makes the world go round, but innovation is mostly about exploring the end of a dead end road if its application is deemed impractical, unrealistic, unfeasible, eventually untenable, and in this case, groundless. It’s painful enough to get city hall to issue a permit for a backyard lawnmower shed. How does the Government regulate safety in the air at 1,400 feet? Where’s the green story and noise pollution story? The public won’t have it. They fight against wind turbines off Cape Cod. Many problems loom in the sky. Despite its sell-out of all 100 pre-orders, most people are probably smirking, “Not in my time.”
In 1977 Digital Equipment Corp founder Ken Olsen said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” To be fair, the PC was an infant, not yet identified as a PC. Olsen looked at the practical side of the ledger. But he didn’t see its application making any sense. It failed his truth test. Innovation is Darwinian, and a lot of what’s driving new growth and jobs is in cloud computing, evangelized by small companies like Google, Amazon, Salesforce.com, Joyent and GuardTime… but how utilitarian can it get?
When an aircraft crashes, investigators are able to retrieve useful information about what went wrong from the flight data recorder, more commonly known as the black box. (The data recorder itself is actually not black, not until it’s retrieved from charred remains.) Statistically speaking, plane crashes are extremely rare when compared to car crashes, so why not install a black box in cars?
That’s exactly what Japanese telemetrics company Crew Systems developed: a driving data recorder for cars and trucks that includes a video camera that can record data about driver behavior and GPS location. It captures video and audio of accidents in real-time. All of this data is streamed to a server in the cloud where it can assess the data and pump out records of safe driving rankings. Its use is not limited to accidents, since it also flags unsafe driving practices. You can imagine parents demanding that these smart cameras be installed on school buses, vehicles that don’t even feature seat belts.
Will this useful, practical, logical technology ever hit hype stage? Maybe, but doubtful. Is the nature of hype something that PR/marketers can drum up at will? Rarely, if ever, with B2B companies and their low budgets and only if they have full cooperation from major media, which seems to only crave an appetite for celebrities.
What do you do when your client is a retail store that sells yarn?
PR maven Peter Shankman found a hyper creative solution. He shares the case study in his 2006 book, I Can We Do That!: Outrageous PR Stunts That Work And Why Your Company Needs Them. Lifting a page from the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, he had a van customized with three giant balls of yarn. Since 1936, this hypey ploy worked wonders for a hot dog company. The Yarn Van played the media like needlework for this NY retailer. It’s wonderful to see how creative ‘big thinking’ can work so well. Was this hype? Sure it was; it fell to the “flamboyant methods” side of the hype debate. But it was good hype because it didn’t hoodwink the public.
You can define hype the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined hard-core pornography: “I know it when I see it.” For B2B marketers whose promotions never shout through the public bullhorn, hype as something luckily attained hardly raises its lopsided head but when it does, most of us are gratefully thrilled for it.
Victor Cruz is principal of MediaPR.net and a blogger whose articles have appeared in American Venture, Cloud Computing Journal, Developer Tech, eSecurity Planet and Wired.com Cloudline.