Nov 01

Wal-Mart’s Big Chance

Weeks after heroically taking over for an impotent federal government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart finds whatever goodwill it earned to have evaporated.

Bracing itself for the release of an unflattering documentary by Robert Greenwald, the company has set up a so-called "war room" at its Bentonville headquarters. It is staffed with high profile ex-White House aides now employed by Edelman, such as Reagan image genius Michael Deaver and former Clinton advisor Leslie Dach.

This public relations operation runs counter to founder Sam Walton’s wishes, reports today’s New York Times. Walton apparently thought public relations to be a waste of time. Were he still alive today, he would have to change his mind.

Despite all the kudos accorded Wal-Mart for its bringing bargains to communities all over the country, its practices have come under increasingly harsh light, even by those who applaud the company’s entrepreneurship. Its wages are so low that some employees need government assistance to make ends meet. Its health insurance is inadequate. Cities are blocking the construction of new stores. The stock price has slid since 2000.

Wal-Mart’s critics include the usual cabal of whiners and complainers, especially labor unions, which still refuse to acknowledge their own obsolescence. The anti-Wal-Mart lobby also embraces the embittered Democratic Party left, upset that voters refused to heed its wise sage, Michael Moore, last Election Day. Their steady drumbeat of criticism is obviously taking a toll on the company’s image, however, so Wal-Mart realized that it had to do something. Enter Edelman.

For those of us in the public relations industry who hear our work derided as nothing more than mere "spin," this is a chance to prove otherwise. Let us all hope that the pros from Washington do more than put out PR brushfires. Wal-Mart has an opportunity to burnish its image by responding to reasonable criticism with constructive and concrete action. One can expect no less of America’s number one corporation.

Oct 28

Short Term Results, Long Term Failure…

Are the big oil and gas companies headed for trouble?  With several of them posting record profits this quarter, one would think not.  The industry is enjoying the rare benefit of increased demand along with surging prices.  The cash is rolling in.  Life is good.

But one wonders how sensitive these behemoths are to a potential backlash from the American public for profiting at their expense.  As we head into winter, the gap is likely to worsen. Oil and gas consumption will increase, causing a further dent in consumers’ wallets.

I’m not anti-business and I’m not advocating that these companies should not be profitable so we can drive around in our SUVs and purchase cheap gas without reservation or concern.  However, if I were the communications chief of one of the these oil companies, I wouldn’t be waiting around hoping that the American public doesn’t wake up and take action.  Instead, I would urge my management team to use a small percentage of those profits to benefit a cause that would help some of the people who are hurt by the rise in energy prices.  I would use it as an opportunity to preempt any consumer backlash and use it to strengthen the company’s reputation.  I would send a clear message to all of my key stakeholders that while critical, the bottom line shouldn’t be the only measure of success. After all, the price tag on any company’s reputation is likely to be a lot higher.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any oil company that has adopted this strategy.  Wall Street is too focused on near term results so management teams are too focused on profits.  Time will tell how this all plays out but ignoring the issue and continuing to reap the benefits at the expense of customers is akin to throwing fuel on a fire.

Oct 28

Penny Wise. Pound Foolish

Today’s New York Times Metro Section contains a front-page article about a returning Iraqi veteran, Michael Serricchio, finding that his former $200k per annum job at Wachovia Securities had been eliminated during his tour of duty.

The 33-year-old husband and father says that, after three months of pleading with his employer to get his old job back, he was instead assigned to making cold calls for a $2,000 monthly draw on commission. Mr. Serricchio says he intends to sue.

Wachovia executives won’t comment publicly on the issue, saying it’s a legal matter that needs to play itself out in court. As a result, what could have been a minor issue easily resolved has now blown up on the pages of the Times.

One wonders who is making the calls within Wachovia. Is it a human resources executive? Perhaps it’s Serricchio’s erstwhile boss? More likely, a chief legal counsel is calling the shots. I just hope corporate communications wasn’t involved in this fiasco. And if it wasn’t, why wasn’t it?

Too many times short-sighted decisions that can have a huge long-term impact on an organization’s image and reputation are made without consulting corporate communications first. If Wachovia was smart, they would have reinstated the returning soldier’s job. Instead, they’ve done an excellent job of reinforcing the pervasive attitude many Americans have towards large companies: that they’re cold, uncaring and focused solely on the bottom line.

Sep 16

Differentiation Should be Exhibit A

Jonathan Glater’s excellent article in today’s New York Times shines the spotlight on a few law firms that are finally getting serious about marketing themselves. This is significant because, like doctors, lawyers had traditionally felt marketing was unseemly and not appropriate to their business model. Declining revenues and heightened competition have forced many law firms to change their tune.

Having advised many law firms, accounting firms, consultants and business schools, I know that these types of organizations can be a real challenge to "brand." For one thing, they all say exactly the same thing about their practice, range of services, years in business and managerial talent. For another, each partner is a CEO unto himself/herself. So a positive article about one partner or practice area will often engender scorn, envy or outright hostility from a different partner or practice area in the same firm.

Another big challenge is that nine times out of 10, law firms cannot identify their clients by name (which the media insist upon in order to provide coverage). We typically get around that obstacle by identifying trends, undertaking proprietary surveys and having the firm host local market or industry specific roundtable discussions in order to debate issues in their areas of expertise.

Law firm marketing isn’t for the faint of heart. If one can satisfy the egos involved, uncover some distinct points-of-view and, most importantly, find some nugget that will differentiate the law firm from its thousands of competitors then, dear reader, you’ve got a good shot. Your witness.