Dec 19

A tale of two leaders

So Minnesota Vikings quarterback Dante Culpepper and three of his fellow "Vikes" were just charged with indecent conduct, disorderly conduct and lewd and lascivious conduct for their actions on an October 6th Lake Minnetonka boat cruise. Apparently, the guys went a little "overboard" in their cavorting with some of the women on the vessel and now face a trial and possible jail time. Naturally, the team declined comment.

At the same time, Curtis Martin of the Jets has undergone successful knee surgery and plans to return next season to hopefully lead his hapless team to brighter results.

One could not find a more marked contrast in two team leaders than Culpepper and Martin.

I’ve had the fortune to meet Curtis twice. The most recent occurrence was the night before last season’s Super Bowl, when I was lucky enough to attend an NFL players association gala at which Curtis was given some sort of lifetime achievement award. His acceptance remarks were nothing short of incredible as he told of having survived a brutally tough childhood in which several family members were murdered. He not only overcame those terrible odds, but has risen to become one of the all-time great running backs. At the same time, he is one of the most humble guys in the world.

Anyway, near the end of the dinner, I walked over to Curtis, who was all alone at his table. I told him I was a big fan, but added that my son Chris, a sophomore at the University of Vermont, absolutely adored him. I asked Curtis if I could dial Chris on my cell phone and have the two of them talk. Needless to say, Curtis picked the phone right up and chatted amiably with my son as if they were the best of friends. Also, needless to say, dad scored some very serious points with his son for pulling that one off.

I don’t know Culpepper, but judging by his Lake Minnetonka antics, I doubt he would have had the grace and "everyman" demeanor of Martin to have spoken with my son that night.

And, that’s probably just one example of the vast differences between these two leaders.

Sadly, I fear that Martin is the exception to the leadership rule nowadays. The quiet, dignified leaders seem to have become an endangered species in sports, politics and most other pillars of our society. And, I’m not sure there’s any way to reverse the trend.

Dec 15

All I Want for Christmas is a… Massive Transit Worker Strike!

Like most New Yorkers who rely on mass transit to get to and from work, I’ve been closely following the story of the looming strike of all NYC transit workers, which would essentially halt all subway traffic and many of the commuter trains in and around NYC. Transit_strike_1

While I’m sympathetic to the workers’ desire for higher wages, increased pension benefits and more healthcare coverage, I’m appalled at the Union’s position of being hell-bent on striking and holding the City of New York as their hostage. Unions, in general, have not done well keeping pace with the changing face of business and the role they play in it. They claim to protect the rights of workers, and attempt to do so by threatening strikes and work slowdowns, in an effort to disrupt the businesses that employ their members.

However, I wonder how many MTA workers, aside from the people at the staged rallies, really want to strike, especially in light of a contract offer that does bring them considerable pay increases over the next two years. Are they really looking to be out of work with no income right before Christmas? Do they think the hundreds of dollars they pay each year in union dues are worth all of this? Furthermore, do they realize that a strike will cost small and medium-sized businesses in NYC hundreds of millions of dollars? The strike would hurt all the wrong people, including members of the union.

Unions, in their current state, are becoming more and more irrelevant in today’s economy. To survive, they must reinvent themselves and prove their value by better understanding the economic issues that drive considerations for wage increases and educating their members on how to protect themselves and diversify their capabilities as workers. Unions have a reputation problem and the theatrics being played out in NYC are not helping matters.

Dec 14

It must not be cool to keep warm

So I’m wrapped in four layers of clothing, encased in gloves, scarf and a wool hat at the Middletown train station this morning, doing my very best to stay warm in the Arctic cold. And yet I’m still shivering.

So along come three businesspeople wearing nothing more than suits and ties. They’re happily engaged in an animated conversation about telecom sales support and, apparently, totally unfazed by the frigid temps.

I’m both horrified and mystified. Are they immune to what others feel? Are they from some other planet? Or, was Thomas Jefferson wrong when he wrote that all men were created equal?

I had to find out. So, I sidled up to the nearest one and asked him if he wasn’t freezing. He looked me over as if I’d just asked if he’d ever served a prison sentence and sniffed, "I guess I’m just tougher than you."

So, is this gent’s wanton disregard for warmth part of a larger image he projects to the outside world? One can only wonder what other superhuman traits he possesses. Does he forego an umbrella when it rains? Does he opt to walk from New York to Boston instead of drive? Can he leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Whatever it is that keeps this superman warm, I’ll stick with my gloves, scarf and wool hat, thank you very much. I’d rather be dull and warm than cool and cold.

Dec 12

My heart bleeds for you

David Carr’s New York Times column in today’s business section, "Hollywood gives the press a bad name," bemoans the portrayal of his craft by those big, bad writers, directors and producers in Hollywood. He cites "King Kong," "Munich" and "The Constant Gardener" as the most recent examples of Tinseltown’s misrepresenting journalists as "a flock of cawing seagulls" or "as sleazy bystanders who take people down as a matter of general practice."

As Shakespeare might have said, "Me thinks thou dost protest too much, Mr. Carr." For years, public relations has had to deal with the double whammy of Hollywood and the media in determining how the public perceive us. I’d match the horrific portrayals of "press agents" in "Days of wine and roses," "The Phone Booth," and "Sweet Smell of Success" with anything Mr. Carr can drum up. (Although I must admit "Days" is one of my all-time favorite movies).

Plus, unlike the media, which has its own newspapers, magazines, TV shows, etc., with which to "fight back" on the perception front, we in public relations tend to turn the other cheek (because most of us are afraid to incite the media to publish even more negative coverage of the field).

So, Mr. Carr, I ask you to look at how other professions such as mine are portrayed by Hollywood before you become too enraged. After all, you do have that bully pulpit otherwise known as the Times with which to publish "all the news that’s fit to print."

Dec 08

Substance trumps style every time

Today’s announcement by the 3M Corporation that it had replaced rock star CEO James McNerney, Jr., with George W. Buckley,Gbuckley_3 the low-profile but rock solid former CEO of Brunswick Corporation, is a sign of the times.

According to a Spencer Stuart study, more and more CEOs are being selected based on performance rather than pedigrees. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of the CEOs of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies hold an Ivy League degree (fewer than half as many as 15 years ago). That trend brings back an interesting memory of my days at a division of J. Walter Thompson, where it was all about style and pedigree. I recall a working lunch with the CEO, CFO and creative director of our firm. At the meeting, the CEO was praising the agency’s strategic planner, "She went to Brown, you know. That accounts for her rigor and intellectual energy," he sniffed. The CEO then asked each of us where we’d gone to college. When we were done, he paused and said, "We should all be ashamed of ourselves. Here we are at a major firm and not one of us has an Ivy League diploma."

I thought his logic was twisted then, and it’s even more perverse in hindsight. Happily business and industry seems to be getting over its affair with the CEO superstars of yesteryear and is, instead, opting for people who’ve proven themselves in the trenches….where a degree from Harvard or Yale doesn’t mean a thing.

Dec 06

This time it’s personal(ity)

Over in the UK something rather remarkable happened today. The 250,000 members of the Conservative Party, a largely aging group of upper middle class and establishment types, recognized that the reputation of their party needed an overhaul and duly elected David Cameron as their new leader. David_cameron_at_2005_conservative_party_1

While the election of a new Conservative Party leader has become a regular fixture in British politics since Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, Cameron’s election represents more than just another chapter in the leadership merry-go-round. For 26 years the Tories (as the Conservatives are commonly known) had just two leaders, Cameron however will now be the fifth man in eight years that Blair has faced in the House of Commons.

So what’s the fuss? Why is this man different? On paper Cameron represents everything the Tories are trying to get away from, he is a well spoken, Eton educated establishment man. Cameron’s opponent, David Davis grew up in a single parent household on a tough estate and has many years of Parliamentary experience under his belt. While many respect and admire Davis, it is Cameron, the young telegenic communicator that has galvanized the imagination of the party. Moreover, Cameron and his team have learnt the lessons of Blair’s successful media management.

Tony Blair’s rebranding of the Labor Party into New Labor propelled the party to three electoral victories, now, with David Cameron at the helm, the Tories have a similar opportunity for success. As for Cameron’s critics who claim he is all style and no substance, well, only time will tell, but even if that is true, perhaps style is all that matters anyway?

Hat tip to Carl Foster in Peppercom’s UK office for his thoughts.

Dec 05

Spellcheck isn’t the solution

I recently had the opportunity to lecture before a University of Vermont business class. They’d invited me to address the changing nature of marketing, ways in which to connect with an increasingly fragmented society and to share best practices.

I came away extremely impressed by their energy and curiosity. As might be expected of soon-to-be-college grads, however, many of their questions revolved around job opportunities.

I didn’t pull any punches and told them the job market is tight and that, to be successful, they needed to think of themselves as a brand. By that I meant they need to figure out their strengths and points of differentiation as well as the key message points needed to be communicated in any job interview.

I also warned them about the single biggest challenge every public relations firm faces in recruiting talent, namely, the dearth of quality written communications on the part of applicants.

Recruiters everywhere are bemoaning the horrific writing skills of many college grads. I’m not sure what the cause or causes are, but we need to figure out a solution.

There’s problems in "them there hills" when graduates of top schools choose to spell "there" in the preceding phrase as either "their" or "they’re." And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve seen such misspellings as "unexceptable" instead of "unacceptable" from applicants. And, the word "here" is another one that is routinely misused. And it’s not just spelling. It’s grammar and word usage as well.

And, that’s where the "kids" get in trouble. They’ve grown up relying on the spellcheck function on their computers. As we know, spellcheck won’t correct improper usage.

I’m not sure how we can fix the problem, but I have to believe it’s too late by the time kids arrive on college campuses.

Maybe it’s as simple as asking grammar school teachers to provide spellcheck clinics? Whatever the answer, I know I speak for other PR executives when I say I’m tired of hitting the virtual "delete" key when I see another dismal, spellcheck-dependent writing sample.

Nov 30

Have you never been Mellow?

Gina Kolata’s NY Times article today about rude and indifferent physicians certainly rings true with most of us.

Alongside those crack troops at the Division of Motor Vehicles, I cannot think of another group of professionals who care less about customer service. Long waits, callous or rude attitudes and a total lack of concern on the part of most docs has punctuated many of my visits over the years.

Which is why Dr. Ellen Mellow is such an exception to the rule. Since being referred to this NYC-based internal medicine specialist, I never cease to be amazed at the time and care she provides. Dr. Mellow knows exactly what my past history is, and goes above and beyond to discuss different approaches to solving whatever ails me at the moment. She also takes the time to ask about people I’ve referred to her, wanting to know how they’re faring, etc.

Compare that, if you will, with the statistic in Kolata’s article stating that most patients have 18 seconds to talk about their worries, questions, etc., before their doc will cut them off and move on to the next patient.

Sadly, with too many patients and too few docs, there isn’t much incentive for doctors to start behaving better. But there may be relief in sight. In California, eight major health insurers have a new program in which they divide $30 million among 35,000 physicians depending upon how their patients rate them. Hopefully, that will get their attention.

As for Dr. Mellow, if she was incentivized based upon her patient caring, she’d be living in the same ultra upscale neighborhoods as T.O. and some of those other pampered sports superstars.

Nov 29

Hats off to Manny the coffee guy

Rain or shine, Manny the coffee guy is there every morning at the Middletown train station. In addition to dispensing a piping hot cup of coffee and a big grin, Manny greets everyone by first name and wishes them "god speed" on their daily journeys.

Manny is a great example of someone who takes the time to nurture his client base and perform at a consistently high level of customer service. While he may not be a Harvard MBA, Manny instinctively knows that, by treating people well, he’ll develop deep, long-lasting relationships.

Contrast that, if you will, with three recent examples of very "un-Manny-like" performances we’ve encountered.

In one case, a small client of five years faxed a termination notice in which they misspelled our name twice in the body of the message (I thought that was a nice touch). In two other instances, we’re still trying to get five minutes of time from a couple of large, multinational organizations we recently pitched. In letting us know we hadn’t won either account in their form-letter e-mails, both corporations said they’d be available to provide additional, personalized feedback. Yet, despite repeated attempts on our part, neither has had the courtesy to respond. In an industry where most agencies win approximately 1 in 10 pitches, this behavior isn’t shocking.

I’ll bet if Manny was head of corporate communications for any of these organizations, he’d have acted very differently. Manny would know that his actions reflect on the image and reputation of the organization, and would have treated us gracefully and in a timely way. And knowing Manny, he would at least have remembered our name.

Nov 24

Do you think the model might be broken?

The 20th annual Salz Survey of Advertiser-Agency Relations is just out, and it ain’t pretty.
According to the results, clients’ views of ad agencies are at
an all-time low, and vice versa. For example, when asked about teamwork
between client and agency, 59 percent of client respondents said there
was more teamwork than last year, but only 25 percent of the
agency-side types agreed. The 34 point gap is the second largest in
survey history. So, what’s up with that?
At the same time, when cliennts were asked if there were more,
fewer or the same amount of "hassles" with their agencies, 35 percent
said "more." That’s the highest total ever. And, 43 percent of agency
folks also answered "more." That’s the second highest level ever
recorded in the survey.
Man, there are a lot of unhappy advertising types out there.
What’s causing their angst? A couple of things. As Stuart Elliot
observed in his November 21st New York Times column, a lot of the
dissatisfaction has to do with the splintered marketplace, the rise of
the consumer as king in deciding what products to buy and the plethora
of new ways in which to reach consumers. It’s that last point where
Elliot and his advertising media brethren continually miss the mark.
They keep publicizing new advertising campaigns from hot agencies
without realizing that the traditional 30-secnd spot is dead as a
doornail. Consumers have tuned out commericals in favor of Tivo,
blogging, mobile marketing, word-of-mouth and God knows what else.
Traditional advertising is in a freefall. The sooner the agency
types realize it and retrofit their offerings to reflect how consumers
are actually getting their news and, based upon that input, making
their buying decisions, the sooner they’ll turn thing around on the
Salz survey.
Advertisers are unhappy. Their agencies are unhappy. So, rather
than point fingers at each other, maybe its time for them to figure out
new and different ways to stay ahead of changing consumer behavior.
Ever hear of public relations?