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Darcy Grabenstein Feb 29

6 Marketing and PR Takeaways from the Oscars

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The Oscars logo


On Sunday night, actors, directors and producers weren’t the only winners in Sunday night’s Oscar ceremonies. Marketers and causes alike came out on top.

Here are a few lessons we can learn from the Oscars and their surrounding hype:

  1. You can get in the game – if you’re willing to pay. ABC was expected to command upwards of $2.2 million per 30-second spot during the Oscars. (Compare that to $5 million for a Super Bowl spot.)

  2. Get mileage with freebies. Each Oscar nominee received a swag bag worth about $200,000. Gifts include everything from personalized M&Ms to a $55,000 VIP all-access trip to Israel.

  3. A little product placement goes a long way. Fashion and jewelry designers rule the red carpet. Stylists and makeup artists get (hair?) plugs, too.

  4. Don’t underestimate the power of social media. Have a cause to promote? Take it to social media. #OscarsSoWhite is still trending after the big event. Also, take a lesson from emcee Chris Rock on how to handle controversy (not to mention the use of humor).

  5. Get your facts straight. Sam Smith won an Academy Award for best original song, “Writing’s on the Wall,” for the 2015 James Bond thriller “Spectre.” In his acceptance speech, he said “no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar,” which was incorrect. What should have resulted in positive publicity for the singer turned into negative PR from the backlash that ensued (see No. 4 above). 

  6. Thank your supporters. Businesses, like actors and actresses, should not forget to show appreciation for the people who helped them get where they are today. For businesses, this is your customers. How can you show your customers that they are valued? By delivering quality products and services, providing exemplary customer service and offering relevant content.

And the winner is… marketing and public relations professionals!

Darcy Grabenstein is senior copywriter at Annodyne.

Marisa Albanese May 5

In-Security Issues

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I have a very good friend named Denise whom I’ve known since we were 8 years old. Dee and I have a long, tangled history of incidents and adventures, some of which were amazing and others not worth repeating in polite company. When we were 11 years old, Denise got the Internet. A little context, this was 1996, when the Internet was still dial-up and everyone got those sweet AOL CDs offering free Internet. Remember when we had to pay by the hour for the Internet? Dark and evil times, my friends.

Anyway, during one of our marathon phone conversations, Dee was regaling me with tales of Internet browsing. We decided to create a Yahoo Geo-Cities page (oh yeah, this was real old school). Here’s how the conversation went down:

Denise: “Aren’t the Spice Girls amazing? Hey, Macarena!”

Me: “Dee, too legit! But we need to focus. I stopped reading YM for this.”

Denise: “Sorry. What should we call our page?”

Me: “Hmmmm. How about The Web Page of Marisa Albanese and Denise Clarke?”

Denise: “No! You can’t put your name on the Internet! That’s how people find out where you live!”

I may have paraphrased the beginning of the conversation, but I clearly remember Dee having a conniption over my title suggestion. While we can all chuckle over this now, tween Denise was offering some sage wisdom — data security is an ongoing problem.


This was Denise back in the ’90s. After this blog, post I’m pretty sure our 22-year friendship will be history.

In February  2014, the University of Maryland’s IT department detected a breach in one of its databases. It was revealed a hacker had accessed the personal information of 300,000 student and faculty records. These records went back to 1998 and contained names, addresses, and Social Security numbers. The university stated the security around its databases was strong and that it was a “sophisticated” attack. They offered victims a free year of credit monitoring and the president of the university, Dr. Wallace Loh, even posted a video on YouTube providing updates on the data hack. Everything was under control.

Then David Helkowski made a post on Reddit.

Mr. Helkowski worked as an IT security consultant for the university. Over the course of a year, he discovered several “backdoors” on various databases containing student and faculty information. A backdoor is when someone hacks into a system and creates a way for themselves to access it. The hacker can get in and out quickly, without drawing attention. (Backdoors are created for large databases for legitimate IT purposes, too. Do not get concerned if one of your analysts uses this term.) If what Mr. Helkowski is alleging is true, that means the university’s databases had been previously hacked.

Then the February breach occurred, and Mr. Helkowski was not happy with how his warnings had fallen on deaf ears. So, he hacked into the newly “secure” database and posted Dr. Loh’s Social Security number on Reddit. He then bragged about what he did to his co-workers via the gamer site Steam (so there was a nice transcript of his conversation). He claims he did it to prove how unsecured the database was. I can’t wait for the film version of this to be made. I hope they get Ryan Gosling to play David Helkowski because God knows that man needs to be seen more.

All joking aside, what he did was stupid (and got him in trouble with the FBI because hacking is a federal crime) but he made some solid points. He also pointed out something very troubling — college databases are deep troughs brimming with valuable personal information, and they can be very easy to dismantle.

What’s the takeaway from all of this? Data security is a complex business. Take every necessary step when securing a database. If you use an IT security professional, which I highly recommend, take his or her recommendations seriously. Get educated. I truly believe the reason why these things happen is a lack of understanding. IT has its own language, but understanding what’s good and what’s bad isn’t hard. So invest in data security.

Or you could use the money to hire a PR rep to describe a data breach as a sophisticated test. Your choice.

Marisa Albanese is database marketing analyst at Annodyne.

Marisa Albanese Mar 23

Carnegie Mellon University Deserves Your Judgment

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Dear Carnegie Mellon University, I have two words for you: Test Plan.

In case you haven’t heard, the prestigious university, located in Pittsburgh, emailed 800 prospective students acceptance letters. So what’s the problem? These students were actually rejected by the admissions board.

I just felt the collective wince of our reading audience.

Carnegie Mellon is not the first university to send mass acceptance emails only then to reply to unfortunate prospective students with “You know that ecstatic glee you felt yesterday? All that hard work, long hours of studying, and immense sacrifice actually paid off in the end? Yeah, you’re going to want to sit down. Our bad!” This same thing happened at UCLA in 2012.

What’s interesting is the problem was centralized in one department – Computer Science. Side note: The publishers of Webster’s Dictionary are now using this event as their definition for the word “irony.” I don’t know what kind of system Carnegie Mellon is using to manage its admissions process. However, I will assume it is using some kind of Customer Resource Management tool (CRM for short). This allows more automated, and efficient, mainstreaming of electronic communications. Montgomery County Community College is currently entertaining vendors to help with its own CRM needs, a process which has Annodyne acting in a consultancy role.

I have a very simple question for CMU: How did you let this happen? There are no fail-safes in your system? If that’s the case, Computer Science Department of Carnegie Mellon University, then someone needs to go to Google and type in the words “test plan.” A test plan prevents stuff like this from happening. It’s mainly used when creating new software, updates to existing programs, basically any time you make a change. It’s exactly what it sounds like — a plan to test the system. But a test plan can, and should, be developed for situations like this.

Someone mislabeled a file. Fine, that happens. But there was no master file uploaded to check the names against? This can be done automatically, using the correct software. Here’s something — maybe take 20 names and run a test batch? Yeah, I’m sure the folks in the Computer Science Department of Carnegie Mellon University have better things to do with their time than to double-check an email list. Silly me!

To the students who were accepted only to get the rudest shock of their lives — chin up. Sometimes your second-choice school turns out to be the best choice. A few years ago when I was applying to graduate schools, I really, really, really, (did I say “really”?) wanted to go to NYU. But I was waitlisted. Three weeks later, I was accepted into Drexel University and never looked back. Drexel turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Get your degree and come work for us at Annodyne. This could be you!


Senior Applications Director Lester Traband is crazy about coding.

Marisa Albanese is database marketing analyst at Annodyne.

Darcy Grabenstein Feb 25

Bravo! State Farm PR Does It Again

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Let’s make one thing clear from the get-go: State Farm is not an Annodyne client (although we’d be more than happy to send a proposal). It is, however, quite adept in the public relations department (see my first post on State Farm).

This was evident in my visit to the Philadelphia Auto Show earlier this month. While most exhibitors were focused on showing off their shiny new vehicles, State Farm gave us a lesson in PR 101, focusing on teen driving safety and on interacting with the public. Its signage, in that trademark red and white, reinforced brand recognition.

State Farm Garage at Philadelphia Auto Show

The insurance company’s “State Farm Garage” area, with its teen driving simulator, was a big hit with both parents and teens. Teen drivers (and wannabes) lined up to try out the driving simulator. For their efforts, they were rewarded with a State Farm drawstring backpack and other giveaways.

Teen driving simulator

Teen driving simulator

The driving simulator showed teens just how easy it is to become distracted behind the wheel. While I’m not questioning State Farm’s motive, it does make sense that an insurer would want to reduce the number of car accidents — and the number of insurance claims it receives.


State Farm revealed its lighter side with an interactive quiz and photo sharing area. The quiz was designed to match participants with the car type that best suited their personal preferences. I’ve got to question, however, the logic used to determine the matches; a sedan was my teen stepdaughter’s match. Not even close.

Tag. Post. Print.

The quiz concludes with an opportunity to have your photo taken and emailed to you. State Farm encouraged participants to “Tag. Post. Print.” their photos, in an effort to incorporate social media.

And now, for a little more PRaise. I must also give a shout-out to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which sponsored a car seat safety check at the auto show. What a perfect tie-in to the event.

The moral of the story? With a little thought and a lot of planning, organizations can piggyback on community events to get their name out there and their message across. It’s a great way to reach a wide audience, and raising important issues creates both awareness and goodwill.

So, now that I’ve traipsed all over the Philadelphia Auto Show with my husband, he owes me big time. Did I mention that the Philadelphia Flower Show starts this weekend?

Darcy Grabenstein is senior copywriter at Annodyne.

Darcy Grabenstein Feb 18

How a Flat Tire Pumped Up My View of State Farm (and Its PR)

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The other night on my way home from work, I got a flat tire while driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Of course, it was THE coldest day of winter this season.

As I maneuvered into the far right lane and put on my hazard lights, I debated whether I could make it to the next exit. My car was riding like a belly dancer on steroids, so chances were slim. And that’s when I spotted it in the dark, cold night: My light in shining armor, a white turnpike safety patrol truck (emblazoned with the red State Farm logo on its sides) on the shoulder, its flashing lights a beacon of security to me.

The driver of the truck was already assisting another stranded motorist, but he came right over to my car. Mr. Truck Driver (Andre Nadzieja) asked me if I was a member of AAA, and when I said yes, he said help was on the way. He said he would alert them that another driver was in need of assistance as well. He took my AAA card and other information and called it in.

Granted, I could have done this on my own. But since the truck driver handled it, this allowed me to call my husband and then various car repair facilities to determine what my options were. Ironically, we had just ordered a new set of tires online for my car earlier in the week, so I was praying the shipment had arrived.

Mr. Truck Driver stopped back periodically to check on me and give me status updates. He also suggested I keep my car running to avoid having the battery die (the temperature was in the teens) and so I could keep the heater on and stay warm (ya think?).

Now I know Mr. Truck Driver gets paid to provide this service, but the fact that he was there and seemed genuinely interested in my well-being, all under the auspices of State Farm, made me feel all warm and fuzzy (well, at least fuzzy) toward the insurance company.

Turns out that State Farm has teamed up with other state transportation agencies to sponsor motorist assistance patrols. What a brilliant public relations initiative. I guess you could say State Farm’s PR is on a roll. Besides Pennsylvania, other states/agencies include Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike site, for instance, the State Farm logo gets top billing:

PA Turnpike site

This service is free to the public and is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It brings to mind a tagline used by many State Farm agents:

State Farm Anywhere. Anytime. Any day.

I would assume that State Farm must pay a hefty fee to sponsor this service. In my daily commute, the trucks are like moving billboards; I see the State Farm logo numerous times as trucks are stopped to help drivers. Obviously, State Farm has determined that the positive PR — and potential new customers — it generates as a result is worth the investment.

Mr. Truck Driver handed me a pamphlet about the State Farm Safety Patrol. As I sat in my somewhat toasty car, I looked at the pamphlet not from the perspective of a stranded motorist but from that of a PR professional.

State Farm pamphlet

State Farm roadside pamphlet

As a public service, the pamphlet listed what to do if you’re in an accident, as well as safety measures. The pamphlet included a tear-off card that could either be handed to the driver or mailed in later. It asked if my perceptions of State Farm were much more favorable/slightly more favorable/unchanged/slightly less favorable/much less favorable/don’t know as a result of my experience. (Much more favorable? Check!) The pamphlet also included a windshield sticker with instructions to dial *11 for assistance (accompanied of course, by “State Farm” in large white letters on its familiar red background). And the pamphlet included short promotional copy — “State Farm® is the number one insurer of cars in the United States.” — followed by five bullets, its URL and tagline.

Windshield sticker

Windshield sticker

The pamphlet also said I could share my comments online. Several people have already done so, making this PR promotion a great source for testimonials. Here’s one driver’s story:

“I had just dropped my cousins off at the airport. They were in NY for my father’s funeral. I was feeling emotional and heard a pop and my tire was flat. I was alone and scared. Joe LaBella calmed me down and got me on my way. He was amazing. Thank You State Farm. Now I truly believe ‘like a good neighbor….State Farm is there.’” – Deborah R., NY, Assisted by Joe L., NYSDOT H.E.L.P. – Long Island on Aug. 28.

By the way, Mr. Truck Driver stayed with me, his truck’s lights sending a warning to other drivers, until my spare tire was installed and I was on my way. While I was waiting, the jingle kept repeating itself in my head, over and over: “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” Yes, this PR campaign dovetails with State Farms branding, advertising and marketing strategies.

Staring at the truck’s flashing lights in my rear-view mirror, I couldn’t help but draw a few PR analogies. Let’s face it, many PR efforts are like a flashing light, designed to attract attention to a company, product or cause. Or, in the case of crisis PR, efforts are made to distract the public’s attention, steering them away from the “glaring light” of inquiry. In this case, however, State Farm brings to light the fact that it simply is good business to help others in need, no matter what the circumstance. And State Farm comes out shining.

Will I switch my auto insurance to State Farm? Possibly. Will I at least consider State Farm when I’m comparing auto insurance rates? You betcha. And that may be all State Farm hopes to gain from this community program.

But wait… there’s more! See Part II of my love fest for State Farm.

Darcy Grabenstein is senior copywriter at Annodyne.