Oct 17

Rudderless in a perfect storm

Much has already been written about Harvey Weinstein’s decision to retain the service of Sitrick and Company, one of the best-known crisis firms in the country.

Most of the rhetoric has either excoriated Sitrick for defending such a heinous client who continues to see one starlet after another come forward with new accusations of rape. Others defend Sitrick arguing that, as is the case in our jurisprudence system, any defendant is innocent until proven guilty and deserving of counsel.

Few, if any, have weighed in on what I have to believe are the toxic effects of Sitrick’s decision on the average Sitrick employee.

It’s one thing to advocate on behalf of such controversial clients as Big Tobacco and quasi-dictatorships, but the Weinstein crisis strikes at the very root of our nation’s latest flashpoint: sexual harassment. I wonder how female employees of Sitrick explain to their family and friends how they can work for an organization that is defending such an alleged serial predator. That can’t be a fun discussion.

And while Sitrick has a long-standing record of defending controversial clients, this could prove to be their Waterloo. Just look at what happened to Bell Pottinger, a leading U.K. public relations consultancy. They found out the hard way that defending the wrong client at the wrong time can not only destroy employee morale, but actually put the firm out of business.

I believe Sitrick chose to defend Weinstein because the firm lacks a clear purpose (Note: a purpose may be defined as why an organization exists, why its employees show up to work every day and what higher purpose does the company serve). In other words, the firm is rudderless.

I recently co-authored a blog with Roger Bolton, president of the Arthur W. Page Society in which we said: “An overwhelming number of employed adults expect their organizations to speak up in times of crisis. But doing so should be guided by the corporate character (or purpose, if you will). A purpose should serve as a company’s ethical and moral company, and guide a CEO’s decisions and actions.”

Lacking purpose, Sitrick chose profits over people (and principles) and, I believe, will pay a very heavy price.

After word: I did some quick sleuthing to see if some of the best PR firms in the business do, in fact, have a clear purpose. They do. Two of the best came from:

  • Edelman: “….We drive powerful connections between companies and the greater good. In other words, we help marry profits and purpose…”
  • Weber-Shandwick: “….We’re energized by the ways our diverse global network of employees apply their passion and ideas in partnership with clients around the world to contribute to a brighter future.”

I’d like to believe that neither Richard Edelman nor Andy Polansky, CEOs of Edelman and Weber, respectively, would even entertain the notion of representing Harvey Weinstein since their purpose would guide them to do the exact opposite.

Oct 16

No More Cattle Calls Please!



Today’s Repman guest blog is authored by Deb Brown.

It appears that our industry is rapidly becoming a microcosm of society as a whole. In particular, I’m speaking about civility, or the lack thereof. Case in point: cattle calls.

When we receive a Request for Proposal from an organization, we always vet it, part of which includes how many agencies are in the mix. If the number is more than five, we usually bow out since the chance of winning the account starts to diminish. I’m always surprised when organizations reach out to many agencies. Not only is it unfair to the agencies to have a slim chance of winning, but it has to be tedious for the prospect to read through many proposals and/or sit through many presentations.

Sometimes, we cannot find out the number of agencies in advance. This happened recently when we were invited to participate in an RFP and had to attend an in-person session to ask questions. We found ourselves being one out of 15 agencies in the room. While the opportunity was a good one for us, putting hours of our time into the proposal with a slim chance of winning didn’t make sense.

Prospects should do their due diligence and choose no more than five agencies. Or, if they want to start with a larger pool, conduct a 30-minute call with each agency and then, based on the conversations, whittle it down to no more than five. It shows respect to the agencies and it makes it more manageable for the prospect. Having a “cattle call” frustrates agencies and, ironically, the agencies that may be best suited for the account may drop out.

A cattle call happens to be just one example of lack of respect for an agency’s time and hard work. Another is never responding to the agency after the agency submits a proposal. Four years ago, we submitted a very thoughtful and strategic proposal to a company looking for a communications partner. We are still waiting to hear. And, sadly, that company is not the only one that hasn’t responded over the years. A “Dear Agency” letter is another demonstration of lack of respect for an agency’s hard work. Personalizing a letter and providing feedback on why an agency wasn’t chosen would be very much appreciated.

These issues are very easy to fix, but sadly continue. Perhaps “business civility” should be taught in schools of communications and MBA programs. If future executives don’t learn the ropes there, where (and when) will they ever grasp the adverse impact on their own image and reputation if they continue to treat agencies like cattle?

Oct 10

Have lecture, will travel

I’ve had the unique privilege to address two classes of public relations students/executives in the past week. The initial victims attend George Washington University. The second group participates in a master’s program in communications management at the University of Toronto.

In each instance, I found the students/executives hungry for information about CEO advocacy in particular, and best practices for dealing with an unexpected attack from the West Wing.

Happily, and courtesy of The Institute for Public Relations and the Arthur W. Page Society, I was well-equipped to field each, and every question, and cite both proprietary primary research as well as highly relevant secondary research to support my arguments.

I suggested that public relations in general, and the CCO in particular, has never been better positioned to provide counsel to the CEO in the new normal of fake news, hate-mongering and personal attacks. Indeed. I firmly believe the CCO should be carefully advising her CEO in terms of when to advocate and how best to communicate it.  As my colleague, Roger Bolton, president of the Page Society mentioned in our recent PRSA-sponsored webinar, an organization should follow its corporate purpose, mission and values statement in positing  a POV on everything from Charlottesville and DACA to climate change and women’s rights. And the CCO should always be serving as his organization’s ethical and moral compass.

I recently interviewed Colleen Penhall of Lowes, who  provided a best practices roadmap for the path her organization took in determining a corporate purpose that has profoundly impacted every aspect of her organization and equipped the CEO with guidelines should he choose to speak out on an issue of the day. Other CCO’s who have yet to determine their organization’s purpose would be well-advised to follow Colleen’s lead.

CEO advocacy will only become more important in the days, weeks and months to come. The wisest orgazanitons are those who have already taken time to anticipate what cannot be anticipated, and created various responses that have been approved, in advance, by the entire C-Suite.

We live in interesting times. And, neither digital gurus nor advertising copywriters have a clue as to how best to navigate TrumpWorld. These are heady times for the public relations profession, and I’m more convinced than ever that we will rise in stature as employees and stakeholder audiences look for a CEO to provide a voice of reason in a time of turbulence.

Oct 04

The Power of Vulnerability

It’s always been my opinion the strongest leaders are the ones who aren’t afraid to display their emotions, vulnerability and humanity in times of stress. Vulnerability is, in fact, one of the key lessons we instill in our troops as they undergo stand-up comedy training (a de facto part of our management development for the past decade).

There are a few terrific examples of CEOs who “get it”, but I’ve rarely seen a late night talk show host display his emotions and vulnerability to the degree Jimmy Kimmel did in the aftermath of the Las Vegas tragedy.  Regardless of your political views, watch the entire segment.

The single best advice I could provide any CEO addressing stakeholders in a time of crisis is to emulate Kimmel’s authenticity. It’s riveting (and incredibly effective).