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 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 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.

Jun 26

If you’re part of the problem, how can you also be part of the solution?

Nestle’s acquisition of the weight loss company, Jenny Craig, sure makes for strange bedfellows. Here’s Nestle, which pumps out such weight-inducing, artery-clogging candies as Nestle Crunch andCrunch_2  Nesquik, about to simultaneously market a ‘meal’ of prepackaged low-calorie meals and motivational   workshops. Say what?

While the move is a pure profit play since Jenny Craig is red hot in the wake of the Kirstie Alley spokesperson campaign, it does create some interesting mixed messages. In supporting the acquisition, Nestle chief executive and chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, said, "The rise of obesity and resulting metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, is a major public health concern, not only in the U.S.A., but the world over. The Jenny Craig acquisition puts us in the privileged position to help many of our consumers." Well, yeah. But, you’re hurting them at the same time with all that rich, gooey chocolate stuff you’re making.

Maybe, like RJR, which presents a balanced portfolio above and beyond its line of health-wrecking cigarettes, Nestle is justifying its bad stuff with its new line of good stuff. Or, maybe they’ll re-position themselves as a more holistic marketer ("We made you fat. Now we’ll help make you thin. But then we’ll make you fat again…").

If the Nestle "lifecycle" marketing trend takes off, maybe we’ll see other smart partnerships take root. A pediatric clinic, for example, could merge with a funeral parlor chain to create Morning & Night, Inc….."We’re the hello and good-bye people!" Or, how about a tricycle maker partnering with a manufacturer of walkers and canes? ("For your first spin and very last step"). McDonald’s could get into the act by striking a partnership with, say, the Tour de France ("Slowing you down before you   speed it up").

I guess Nestle’s made a smart business move, but I sure wouldn’t want to have to explain it to a group of activist shareholders at an annual meeting ("People people! Please calm down. Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe will be happy to answer all of your questions. But, you have to stop eating so many Crunch bars for crying out loud. Those things are like speed. Happily, we have a Jenny Craig clinic starting in a few minutes in one of the breakout rooms so you guys can work off all that pent up stress.")

Hat tip to Moon Kim for this idea.

Jun 16

GM’s not a jolly green giant after this latest miscue

How come there are so many smart people in Corporate America who, when banded together, become incredibly stupid? Okay, it happens in small companies too, and God knows it happens in government. But when organizations like GM beautifully juxtapose their so-called "Live Green Go Yellow" initiative with subsidizing gas purchases for anyone who buys the company’s biggest gas guzzlers, you can’t help but wonder if group think could get any worse.

GM’s green program is a great idea. Done right, as The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman describes with razor-sharp accuracy, it could spark the company’s comeback. But instead, its short-term thinkers, no doubt staring at what must be legions of unsold SUVs and trucks, convinced the company to offer gas at $1.99 a gallon for a year to anyone who’d actually feel good about buying one at a time like this.

When this kind of thinking wills out, companies, governments and other groups lose the chance to do something great. They’d rather make this quarter’s numbers than invest the time, energy and money to create something of lasting value, not only for society but for the company as well.

GE figured out that a solid eco-strategy would not only be a good thing for the environment, but great for the company’s reputation and over a fairly short time, damn good for its bottom line, too. Its eco-imagination program is expected to yield billions for the company over the next few years.

What really galls me in GM’s case is that its highly respected head of global communications has either bought into the group think or is willing to serve as the mouthpiece for it. His job is to stand apart, even when it feels mighty uncomfortable (let’s face it; it’s a lot more comfortable to agree with the boss than disagree), and fiercely protect the company’s reputation by advocating for policies that improve it and strongly objecting to those that don’t. A real green initiative, one that spans all of the company’s lines, would certainly fall into the former category.

Until that happens, GM can look forward to more columns like Tom Friedman’s, and we can look forward to more dumb, short-sighted decisions born of group think that may ultimately consign this particular company to the scrap heap.

Jun 13

North or South of the border, people still seem to be sweeping the diversity issue under the rug

I had the opportunity to speak to, and exchange views with, scores of public relations professionals attending the Canadian Public Relations Society’s annual conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

My remarks were entitled, "Creating a future-driven vision" and argued that we, as PR pros, need to keep a half-step ahead of the multiple, simultaneous marketplace changes going down or risk being swept aside as irrelevant. In the talk, I touched on everything from the rise of the corporate purchasing manager and the ‘consumer as king’ phenomenon to digital marketing ‘best practices’ and diversity (or lack thereof) in our industry.

Blogging and diversity were the ‘hot’ topics of the day. We went back-and-forth on digital best practices and agreed that blogging provided an ideal way with which to engage in new and different conversations with ‘consumers.’ That said, everyone agreed that digital ROI remains elusive to say the least.

When it came to diversity, one attendee thought my call to action was outdated and said ‘affirmative action’ was yesterday’s news. He believed it was time for us to "move on." I responded by saying that, while his comments may reflect what’s happening (or not happening in Canada), it definitely doesn’t translate south of the border.

In my opinion, the PR industry has done a very poor job of diversifying. Collectively, we don’t even come close to reflecting the society in which we live. Nor do I see any overt, proactive initiatives that will dramatically change the landscape. I believe that’s because our clients aren’t driving the discussion. Until they insist that their agency partners become more diverse (or suffer losing their business) we won’t do so (or, we’ll take our sweet time getting there).

Maybe the PR industry needs to be taken to task a la what our advertising brethren are going through. Beginning on June 17th (which happens to be the start of ‘Advertising Week’), a gaggle of ad agency honchos will be subpoenaed to testify before NYC’s diversity hearings and explain why their shops are so lily white. It should make for great ‘copy’ as an ad guy might say.

Here’s hoping our industry can get its act together and start taking real, concrete steps to becoming more diverse. And beyond leveling the playing field in terms of skin color and ethnic backgrounds, we also better wake up and figure out how to recruit more young men to our ranks. One of PR’s dirty little secrets is that fewer and fewer guys are entering the field. If we wake up one day and find ourselves an all-white, all-female industry, how will we possibly make the case for being relevant to 21st century marketers? And how long will it be before some group of media-hungry politicians hauls some of us before public diversity hearings to defend the indefensible?

Jun 12

What’s old is new again

I happened to glance at the recent NY Times obituary of Wilber Huston, Jr., who passed away at the ripe, old age of 93. What drew my attention was the obit’s headline, calling Huston America’s Wilberhuston_1 ‘brightest boy.’

Spurred on by Thomas Edison’s lament in 1929 that "….not enough students were choosing careers in science and engineering, Huston and others youngsters ‘competed’ for a four-year, all expenses paid college education courtesy of the ‘wizard of Menlo Park.’ Edison assembled an historical ‘dream team’ of judges that included Henry Ford, George Eastman, Harvey S. Firestone and Charles A. Lindbergh.

Huston, a Washington state native, bested competitors from around the country in an oral exam delivered by Edison himself that included questions in math, physics, chemistry, cultural and moral issues (i.e. "When do you consider a lie permissible?"). As the winner of the novel competition, Huston was heralded as ‘America’s smartest boy.’ (Note: girls were not invited to compete). Huston leveraged his notoriety to build a successful, lifelong career in the sciences, ending up as a rocket scientist.

Besides my fascination with all things historical, what caught my attention to the Huston-Edison story were the parallels to today. As everyone knows, many leaders from both the public and private sector are rightly concerned about the lack of interest in science and engineering by today’s youth. Worrying that countries like India and China will leapfrog the US in terms of global competitiveness if we don’t stem the tide, organizations like the Society of Women Engineers are holding "science is fun" days for middle school girls. And major multinationals like Siemens are reaching out to inner city classrooms to generate interest among urban boys and girls through Siemens Science Days.

I have no doubt we need such programs to attract the next generation’s best and brightest to pursue careers in math and science. But isn’t it comforting to know that ‘shining lights’ like Edison (pun intended btw) worried about the same issue 77 years ago? And if my memory serves me right, the U.S. didn’t fare too badly in the 20th century. Here’s hoping for a similar result in the 21st century.

Jun 03

Politically correct job titles are a hoot

I get a huge kick out of politically correct descriptors (i.e. "weight challenged," "little people," "golden years," etc). What really gets me going, though, are the job titles dreamed up by some PC-focused consultant with way too much time on his or her hands.

Case in point: I just landed this morning at Newark Airport and noticed two or three uniform-clad men standing in front of wheelchairs. I thought nothing of it until I happened to glance at the patch on one man’s shirt. It read "mobility assistance representative." How about that? I’d always wondered what those people were called. Outside of nearly being run over by these "airport Andrettis" as they zoom by on their go-carts, I’d really never thought about what to call them. "Mobility assistance representative." How perfect. How politically correct. How sensitive.

I think the PC job title police need to come up with some other warm and fuzzy monikers. Here are some suggestions:

1. Old title: limo driver. New title: strategic logistics coach

2. Old title: hot dog guy. New title: hunger alleviation specialist

3. Old title: toll booth collector. New title: coin facilitation officer (or CFO, if you like)48750_a 

4. Old title: cable guy. New title: information & entertainment troubleshooter

I could go on and on. But, isn’t it fascinating that someone feels the need to change the job titles that our parents and grandparents were used to using? And, who appoints these PC name/title police to their posts? I’d love to see some statistical support that validates how and why a title change also changes a jobholder’s internal or external image and reputation. After all, a rose by any other name…(and, a garbage man by any other name)…

Jun 03

Sony’s woes should be a wake-up call for the Apples and Microsofts of the world

Sony’s announcement last month that launch of the Playstation 3 has been pushed back until the Fall is yet another image and reputation blow to the once-stellar golden boy of the consumer electronics world. Problems with the Blu-ray disk have been blamed for the PS3’s long-delayed launch and high price compared to competitors.

According to published reports, the PS3 is the cornerstone of Sony’s entire consumer electronics market strategy. If it fails, the fallout could be devastating and might bring the fabled Beast of the East to its knees.

Sony’s image and reputation challenges in the wake of its precipitous fall in recent years should sendPs3 a stark wake-up call to two American powerhouses: Microsoft and Apple. Both embody some of the same corporate arrogance and indifferent customer service that many ascribed to Sony in its heyday.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit I worked on Sony for three years in the 1980’s, and witnessed some of their ‘tude up close and personal. At that time, Sony was the absolute darling of Wall Street and seemed unstoppable. Their executives were masters of the universe and their attitude towards public relations and PR agencies was a pure lose-lose scenario from our end. If we scored, say, a major New York Times profile on the next generation Walkman, the response would be, "Well of course you did. We’re Sony. The Times HAS to write about us." But, woe betide the person or agency who didn’t get Sony included in a major consumer electronics industry piece. The beatings were merciless, to say the least.

I’m not suggesting that that same attitude pervades Sony today. But, I’m not surprised they’ve taken a serious drubbing over the past few years. When a company (or an individual) begins reading his own newspaper clippings and drinking her own Kool-aid, they stop doing all the little things it took to get to the top. Complacency sets in and, like a cancer, spreads throughout the organization. Now struggling to halt its slide, Sony has to not only build better products, but also undo a lot of the ill will it created over the years when it steamrolled, juggernaut-style, through the known consumer electronics world. Regardless of how they do, I hope some other market leaders are watching and learning from Sony’s painful slide.

Jun 01

Honesty is the best policy in job interviews

I’m in the midst of writing what I hope will be my second book. This one will focus on job loss and gain, and borrows "best practices" from the worlds of psychology and public relations to help jobseekers get over job loss, optimize their chances for success and beat their competition in an interview.

When it comes to job interviews, I’ve spoken to headhunters, human resources managers and our765  own executives to determine what works and what doesn’t. Not surprisingly, it comes down to building rapport and establishing trust. Just as is the case in the rapidly-changing communications world where word-of-mouth has supplanted traditional marketing as the most effective way to influence purchasing decisions, trust and reputation are paramount prerequisites to job interviewing success.

For older job seekers, who are a target of the new book, the general consensus is to put the "age" issue right on the table and use it as a positive rather than dancing around it as the "800-pound gorilla" in the room. By admitting that there may have been some career missteps, an older job seeker can build rapport with a younger executive in a hiring decision. Age and experience can be leveraged into a distinct competitive advantage if, and it’s a big if, the job seeker can disarm the interviewer from the get go and "admit fault" as we like to say in crisis communications 101.

In an increasingly crazy and uncertain world, an individual’s trust and reputation are what will set him or her apart from the pack and, in the case of older job seekers, help land the ideal job.