Jul 31

I guess .04 percent is better than nothing

A Randall Stross column (subscription required) in yesterday’s New York Times revealed that only two, count ‘em two, of the Fortune 500 chief executive officers maintain a blog. Of the two, Jonathan Schwartz of Sun Microsystems and John Mackey of Whole Foods, only Schwartz blogs with any regularity.

Even though he is alone in his convictions, Schwartz could not be more adamant about the Schwartz_2 importance of blogging in a CEOs life. "My number 1 job is to be a communicator," said Schwartz. "I don’t understand how a CEO would not blog if committed to open communication." In fell swoop, says Schwartz, he simultaneously reaches shareholders, software developers, and current and prospective customers. He says a single blog saves him countless hours of time that would have been spent composing individual e-mails to these very same groups.

So, why don’t more CEOs blog? It’s not because, as some suggest, blogging is a passing fad. It’s because CEOs fear the loss of control that comes with blogging. Unlike a letter in an annual report, a prepared speech to an industry trade group or a print advertisement, blogging demands open, two-way communication. And, for an authoritarian, top-down manager surrounded by sycophants, that concept is way too scary.

But, as Schwartz pointed out in a Harvard Business Review article, one day all CEOs will blog. They’ll wake up to its efficiencies and its ability to create new and different relationships with core constituents. It may take a few years, but I totally agree with Schwartz. Why? Because market competition and good ol’ peer pressure will force the CEO to adapt or die. Once Schwartz’s competitors realize how his blog pre-empts the types of traditional relationships they’ve been trying to nurture with the same prospective customer base, you’ll see them pick up the keypad and start banging away.

There was one other key point in the Stross article that I wanted to share. Schwartz says he’s dead set against ghostwritten CEO blogs. I totally agree. My good friend and competitor, Ken Makovsky, has gone on record as disagreeing, saying a ghostwritten blog is no different than a ghostwritten speech. Conceptually, he may be right. But, the blogosphere has its own rules and regulations. Bloggers want to have direct, one-on-one conversations with one another, and not have to deal with a designated member of the corporation’s palace guard. As a result, ghostwritten blogs get deleted faster than those unsolicited requests from Ethiopian widows looking to deposit $15mm in your bank account.

So, here’s a virtual tip of the hat to Mr. Schwartz for having the brains and the guts to go where no other CEO has gone. Let’s hope future text books and manuals on business acknowledge his visionary act.

Jul 27

To sir with love

How low has our society sunk that former NBA star "Sir" Charles Barkley is now considered a serious candidate to become Alabama’s next governor? Aside from the ego gratification of it, why do actors and jocks get involved in politics? And, more importantly, why do voters take them seriously?Bark

In my mind, the Barkleys, Venturas and Arnolds of the world are taken seriously because:

1.) The current crop of "professional" politicians" may be the worst ever

2.) The best and brightest thinkers in our country avoid political careers because of the intense, pitbull tactics of mudslinging pack journalism

3.) Society seems to be rapidly going to hell in a hand basket and voters probably think a jock or actor couldn’t possibly do worse than the incumbents

And, so, we see the rise of a totally unqualified guy like Sir Charles, who says he is considering a run because "he wants to help people." How noble of him. Sir Charles originally said he was a Republican, but recently changed party affiliations because, he said: "…Republicans have lost their minds."

How statesmanlike.

Is it any wonder our country’s image is as bad as it is when we elect actors, jocks and political hacks to higher office? Is there any way to ever turn back the clock and somehow convince our nation’s truly gifted individuals to commit their lives to public service?

Not never. Not now. The best qualified individuals simply do not want to subject themselves or their families to the intense scrutiny that accompanies any run for public office. So, instead, they choose the private sector and the country is deprived of their abilities. And we are left with Sir Charles thinking about a Alabama gubernatorial run.

What’s next? Derek Jeter running for mayor of New York? Peyton Manning becoming an Indiana congressman?

Having just spent the past few days in San Francisco, I’m both amazed and appalled at the genuine love and support the locals have for a thug like Barry Bonds. Maybe even Barry can look forward to a political career after he breaks Aaron’s home run record next season. After all, I don’t think there’s any mandatory drug testing for political candidates in California. Hey, he could even take on Arnold in a winner take all gubernatorial epic pitting the Terminator against the ‘Roid King.

This sort of insanity can only happen in America.

Hat tip to Chris "Repman Jr." Cody for this idea.

Jul 26

Can’t anybody here play this game?

A new survey released today shows that eight in 10 U.S. cities say they are unprepared for a mega 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina-type disaster. The U.S. Conference of Mayors surveyed 183 city administrators and found that 44 percent haven’t created or updated their evacuation plans and nearly three-quarters say they’re not prepared to deal with a flu pandemic.

While the survey findings are horrific, I’m sorry to say they’re not surprising. When it comes to crisis preparedness, it seems as if the prevailing mentality falls into one of several buckets:

1.) "Its’ not my job, man"

2.) "It won’t happen here"

3.) "We don’t have enough money to create or execute a plan"

By the way, this mindset is not unique to the public sector. I can distinctly remember a presentation to one Fortune 500 company in which we detailed how we’d simulate any number of potential crises, involve all of their line executives in the exercise and provide them with a report card and evaluation based upon our work with other large companies. I think we asked for $20k to handle the day-and-a-half simulation.

After waiting about a week for a response, we were told this multi-billion dollar, publicly-traded corporation didn’t have the budget to pay for the work!

You would think the individuals who control crisis planning budgets would understand the ramifications of their penny-wise, pound-foolish avoidance behavior. And, yet, today’s survey provides a reminder that, as we approach the fifth anniversary of 9/11, most of America remains woefully unprepared for the inevitable.

This widespread denial reminds me of a classic Casey Stengel quote. When the late NY Mets managers became totally exasperated by his team’s abysmal play, ol’ Casey screamed: "Can’t anyone here play this game?" Someone needs to play the role of Stengel and scream at our city’s mayors and corporate risk managers and break through their lethargy. The hour is late and the crisis is approaching.

Jul 25

I, journalist

David Carr’s excellent column (subscription required) in Monday’s New York Times highlighted an increasingly prevalent trend in journalism. As newspapers and magazines continue to downsize, consolidate or disappear entirely, more and more journalists have embraced "web 2.0" and created their own blogs or eBusinesses. Carr cites Fortune Magazine’s Nina Munk, who has her own web company called Urban Hound, as a great example of the trend. There’s also Om Malik and Rafat Ali, erstwhile journalists with Business 2.0 and the Silicon Alley Reporter, respectively, who have their own news sites/blogs.

Carr believes that more and more journalists will be creating their own blogs and eBusinesses in order to compete and survive as the digital revolution continues to wreak havoc on traditional communications channels.

Carr’s column got me wondering why the more progressive PR firms aren’t creating their own information-based eBusinesses. Why shouldn’t Edelman, Weber, CRT/Tanaka or Airfoil provide "insider" perspectives on the industry in which they operate? While we are obviously client and new business focused, we could just as easily create content driven thought pieces that would rival anything published by the current trade journals. And, our eJournals would carry the first-hand "I was there" immediacy the trade journals lack.

Sure, there’s the question of objectivity, but, if the top management consulting firms like Bain and Accenture can do it, why can’t we? And, why can’t we connect directly with prospective clients in the process?

Malik’s gigaOM.com and Ali’s paidContent.org cover technology and digital media news. Both have broken a number of stories and received funding from venture capitalists.

So, why can’t a public relations firm also create a separate revenue stream by creating a Web site that provides analysis, fresh content and an "insider’s view of what’s really what?" Hey, maybe David Carr would be interested in becoming editor?

Jul 24

Gone with the .wind

Our erstwhile Controller Fran Bainbridge recently compiled a list of every client our firm has represented since its inception in 1995.

Talk about a trip down memory lane. Wow! Along with the GEs, Tycos and Avayas, there was the government of Kuwait (which, to this day, hasn’t paid us for managing a special event five years ago), Playboy.com (my partner, Ed, is still kidded about the advice proffered to Christie Hefner about how best to cross and uncross her legs during interviews) and Vayu Web (a technology company whose owner was found floating face down in Long Island Sound one Summer morning around the turn of the millennium).

What really struck a nerve, though, were the dotcoms, all of whom thought they were the modern day equivalent of alchemists who could transform a mundane, mediocre business model into instant gold.

There was FerrousExchange, which enabled online trading of precious minerals (there’s a big market for you!), VisionRx, which hoped consumers would pay money to test their eyes on a desktop eye chart (er, ah, the mouse cord only extends 18 inches and patients are supposed to be 20 feet away from the eye chart) and Hypernix, whose hard-charging Israeli commando-type executives connected web visitors to people with similar interests and backgrounds.

As crazy, condescending and downright confusing as some of the dotcom executives and their business models were, though, they were no match for the interactive eAgencies that arrived on the scene to charge outrageous fees for creating Web site infrastructures. These were the true masters of the dotcom universe and, boy, they let you know it in no uncertain terms.

We had our fair share of these firms: Iguana Studios, Methodfive and Noblestar come to mind.

The best example of the "Alice in Wonderland" mindset that prevailed in those days, though, had to be an interactive eAgency calling itself iFrame.

iFrame hired us to create their positioning and publicity and, man oh man, were they ever in a hurry. Right after we began the positioning process, we literally had to stop almost immediately. That’s because management didn’t want us to create a unique and sustainable positioning that would set them apart from the competition. Instead, they wanted to be seen as just another Razorfish, Sapient or iXL. I remember the CEO screaming at our team and saying, "Look, all we want is for the Street to think we’re just like the other web designers, give us an outrageous valuation and then take us public. This is all about us making millions. Period! If you can’t get that through your minds, then leave."

Needless to say, iFrame went nowhere fast with their "me too" strategy and went belly up in a few months’ time. We tried to collect some of our unpaid monies only to have them counter-sue us for "poor performance." It was classic dotcom nonsense. Naturally, the business disappeared long before we could reclaim a dime.

In retrospect, I’m amazed how an entire "sector" came and went in the blink of an eye. From an image and reputation standpoint, dotcoms were absolutely white hot in the late ’90s. If you weren’t working for, or representing , dotcoms, you were a nobody. But, by the early part of the new decade, they were gone with the wind, and many former high-flying dotcom employees were struggling to land decent jobs with the brick-and-mortar companies they had once disdained. Yes, indeed, Fran’s list of former clients sure brought back some interesting memories.

Jul 21

Our cheating hearts

With the Barry Bonds steroid scandal continuing to lead sports headlines across the country, and everyone still reeling from convicted Enron Chairman Ken Lay’s untimely demise (or was it a "timed" demise?), there now comes news of a college student survey pinpointing how our younger people justify their cheating.

Conducted by three business professors at Iowa State University, the survey identified four ways in which students rationalized their unethical behavior (i.e. cheating on tests, etc.).

In reviewing the four explanations provided by students, I was struck by how they mirrored what high profile figures in society use or have used to rationale their actions. To wit, according to the profs, the kids either distance themselves from the act (think Barry Bonds), blame someone else for it (our man, Ken Lay comes to mind), redefine it as a good thing (those missing weapons of mass destruction as justification for invading Iraq?), or conclude that the outcome (even a negative one) made cheating worthwhile (Gitmo torture techniques?).

What does it say about a society when its next generation of leaders can rationalize cheating (and have that rationalization categorized into four, neat quadrants)? It’s really not the kids who are at fault, it’s us. Our current generation has allowed ethics, morals and overall deportment to slip to abysmally low levels. And, sad, to say, I see no way in which the trend can be reversed.

As long as our media glamorize the Diddys and Bonds along with the Ebbers and Kozlowskis, we’ll continue to see our kids take the easy, shortcuts to wealth and success. And if it means cheating to get ahead, well so be it. At least the next generation wil be able to identify what kind of cheaters they are.

Jul 20

The times, they are a changin’

Digital technology is having a seismic effect on media and publishing as we know it. The latest indication comes in the form of two separate studies.

The first, undertaken by Forrester Research, showed that viral advertising is a much more effective way of engaging consumers than traditional advertising. At the same time, the survey of some 1,000 U.K. Internet users showed that most are "increasingly fed up with advertising as a whole."

In my opinion, viral advertising is a great example of the power of word-of-mouth in the consumer decision-making process. Forrester survey respondents said they pass viral ads along to their friends because they either found them "funny" or thought the person(s) on the receiving line would "…..find the product or service of interest." How powerful is that?

The Forrester survey also proved what many of us instinctively knew all along: consumers are becoming increasingly disenchanted with traditional advertisng. Just five percent of survey respondents believed that companies tell the truth in their ads, compared to eight percent two years ago. I sure hope marketers wake up and look at those percentages again. Talk about a poor ROI.

Digital has changed the communications model. Advertising’s approach of talking "at" consumers, instead of engaging in a dialogue "with" them is the industry’s Achilles Heel. Until the advertising moguls adapt to the sea changes underway, they’ll continue to see their model slip sliding away.

I found another survey equally fascinating. This one was undertaken on behalf of Parade Magazine, and revealed that one-third of Americans surveyed no longer read the Sunday papers. Respondents cited time constraints, lack of home delivery, a preference for TV news (ugh), and general lack of interest, period, as reasons why they bypass the Sunday papers.

In its own way, the Parade Magazine poll should be just as much of a wake-up call for newspaper publishers as the Forrester findings should be for ad moguls.

The times, they certainly are a changing. And, it’ll be fascinating to see how the advertising and traditional publishing sectors deal with the severe challenges to their previous, near monopolistic positions. In the meantime, public relations and non-traditional media continue to be the benefactors of the changing landscape.

Jul 19

The cruise ship industry is sailing into troubled waters from an image standpoint

Yesterday’s mishap on a Princess cruise ship in which scores of people were injured, two critically, is just the latest in a series of very scary setbacks that have hit the cruise ship industry like a giant 067198814 rogue wave.

It seems like every month or so a new report is issued about food poisoning, collisions or, as was the case yesterday, some sort of steering malfunction that caused the giant ship to roll violently on one side and pitch passengers pell mell down staircases, slam them into walls, and also empty the swimming pools.

Princess issued an apology and promised to refund the tickets of all 3,100 passengers. But, in my mind, that’s not enough. I think this industry is going to suffer a major drop in business if it doesn’t address the problem. Too many passengers have had too many bad experiences on too many ships to ignore it any longer.

I’ve been on four or five cruises and have really enjoyed myself. In fact, my cruise to Alaska remains my single best vacation experience. That said, I’m really starting to have second thoughts about taking my family on a planned cruise to the Galapagos Islands next year. We’d love to go, but will I be unwittingly putting them in harm’s way by doing so?

If the cruise industry was a client and I was advising them on earning back the trust of people like me, I’d suggest the following:

1.) An extensive passenger/target audience survey to determine current perceptions of the industry. Is it as bad as I think? Or, are most people willing to risk life and limb for a romantic Caribbean cruise?

2.) If the survey shows the results I’d expect, I’d then commission some sort of panel headed by a travel & tourism/transportation expert. This panel would hold a series of tough investigative sessions to not only dig deep into the causes of the various problems but, like the 9/11 commission, issue a report suggesting system-wide infrastructure changes.

3.) Last, but not least, I’d counsel the industry to communicate the survey results, and the actions and recommendations of the commission throughout the entire process.

FYI, I recently engaged in a podcast debate with Ted "Ludacris" Birkhahn about Israel and how difficult it must be right now to get anyone to plan a vacation to that embattled State. I never thought that, a few weeks later, I’d be venting similar concerns about cruise ships. But, yesterday’s accident has prompted me to at least temporarily change course in terms of planning my next vacation.

I’m not booking another cruise until I know what’s going on.

Jul 18

First impressions can, indeed, last a lifetime

There’s a great article by Sara J. Welch in today’s NY Times (subscription required), entitled, "Traveling with the boss." It’s chock full of useful tips from experts on what to do and not do while traveling with the one’s boss. The bottom line is that a junior employee is "always on" when traveling with a boss, and should act accordingly.

The article brought back a flood of memories for me, both on the sending and receiving end of things.

I remember traveling with a client many years ago to attend a sales retreat. I was about 25 at theTraveling  time, and made sure to ask the client in advance how I should dress for the Sunday afternoon flight to Phoenix. He responded by saying, "dress casually." I took that as an opportunity to wear jeans, t-shirts and sneakers to the airport. Imagine my surprise when, upon conecting with him, I saw the client sporting a blue blazer, blue button-down shirt, khakis and loafers. He immediately pulled me aside and said, "Steve, there’s casual. And, then there’s casual. Don’t let this happen again. Your appearance reflects on me as well and makes me look bad in front of my management." Lesson learned.

The Welch story also advises junior staff to be mindful of what they say to their superiors when traveling on business, and to not be too casual or engage in inane or inappropriate conversations. The latter admonition reminded me of a more recent incident in which I was traveling with one of our newer employees. Up until the point, I’d never really had a chance to speak with her with the exception of a few e-mails, etc. So, as we sat back and relaxed, I told her to go ahead and ask me any question about myself, the agency, or the industry. She became flustered, and was obviously at a complete loss as to what to ask. Knowing that the firm had recently rented a midtown Manhattan apartment for use by our senior executives and visiting clients, she finally blurted out, "So, what does the corporate apartment cost?"

That was it. That was her sole question of me. I answered her question, she nodded her head and then dove headlong into a book she’d brought along. Needless to say, I wasn’t very impressed. And, needless to say, she no longer works with us (not to imply that that comment cost her job. On the contrary, she simply didn’t work out).

Here’s one final, more upbeat travel saga. A group of us were recently traveling to the Midwest, and had encountered endless, weather-related delays. In fact, our late afternoon flight was eventually cancelled and we were forced to stay overnight at a godforsaken Newark-airport hotel, and grab the first flight out the following morning.

Beaten bedraggled and brutalized by the experience, our little quintent shuttled over to the terminal at five am. Once we checked in, we discovered that one of our group had been upgraded to first class. It wasn’t me. But, guess what? The woman who had been upgraded selflessly gave me her first class seat. She’ll forever be a hero to me and today, sits in my partner Ed’s office (only kidding). I may, in fact, remember her in my will.

Business travel, and comporting oneself in a professional manner while traveling, is a subtle, but critical, part of one’s overall professional development and career path. Ms. Welch’s column should be made mandatory reading in all college and university business programs.