Nov 14

Sandusky, Ohio’s PR challenge

1849658501pLet’s suppose for a moment that your name is Daniel J. Kaman. For the past seven years, you’ve been president of the city commission of Sandusky, Ohio. During that time, you’ve no doubt had to deal with all the things city commissions deal with: taxes, infrastructure, tourism and attracting business to the city. Then, in the waning months of your seven-year term, boom! The earth, the moon and the sky itself suddenly fall on your shoulders. Your city’s name is front and center, day-in and day-out, right smack in the middle of the year’s uber crisis: The Penn State University scandal.

Can you imagine a worse image and reputation challenge? How do you deal with the fact that your city’s name is now synonymous with one of the worst alleged pedophiles in American history? What do you do?

I’d suggest several options for Mr. Kaman and the city commission’s consideration:
-    Ignore the crisis completely. Your terms end on 12/31/11. Let the incoming commission deal with the image and reputation fallout.
-    Call together the best image and branding minds in the city, county and state and brainstorm new and different ways to position the city’s outbound marketing.
-    Change the city’s name. This is a big deal though since, in 2018, Sandusky, Ohio, will mark its 200th anniversary.

I’d opt for the third choice if I were in Mr. Kaman’s shoes. Like it or not, his city’s name creates insurmountable business challenges. To wit:
-    Can you imagine some Mid-West husband shouting upstairs to his wife, “Hey honey, let’s bring the kids to Sandusky this summer!” Just placing the words Sandusky and kids in the same sentence sends shivers up and down this blogger’s spine.
-    Or, how about a CFO and risk manager making this recommendation to their CEO: “Sir, we’ve conducted our due diligence and made our choice. We believe it’s in the best interests of Moed, Moed & Birkhahn to move our corporate offices to Sandusky, Ohio. Yes sir, we’re aware that Jerry Sandusky is the Jack the Ripper of modern times, but we believe the tax breaks and local community environment outweigh the fallout we’d receive from every one of our constituent audiences.”

The city has to change its name. But, they can do so in a smart and strategic way.

I’d counsel Commissioner Kaman to involve Sandusky’s citizens in the name change exercise. Create a microsite that is linked to the city’s website and invite local kids, parents and seniors to contribute names. Or, maybe Kamen is a revenue-driven guy and decides, instead, to approach a technology or Web 2.0 company and offer his city’s naming rights for, say $1 million? Maybe Sandusky, Ohio, becomes Godaddy.com, Ohio? I have to believe those Godaddy types would love this sort of negative buzz.

Whatever he does, I do hope Mr. Kaman does something. The name Sandusky will be forever linked in the minds of Americans to pedophilia, cover-up and disgrace. And, what city wants to have to deal with that albatross when trying to market itself?

Nov 07

What did JoPa know and when did he know it?

No one's smiling in Penn State University's Happy Valley today. Long-time assistant coach Jerry Joe-PaternoSandusky has been accused of 40 counts of inappropriate contact with eight young boys, ranging from touching to statutory rape.

If he's found guilty, the Nittany Lions coach may spend the rest of his life in jail. And, two other PSU officials have resigned in the shocking scandal's aftermath.

The really big questions, though, are swirling around legendary PSU coach Joe Paterno (or, JoPa, as he's affectionately known). The winningest football coach in Division One history says he was told about the allegations in 2002 and passed them up the food chain, but that's it. Pretty weak, no?

I think JoPa's in denial. I think the head coach knew about Sandusky's hijinks all along. And, worse, I think he helped cover it up in a Nixonian bid to maintain his power base (clearly, the guy has no interest in ever retiring).

Paterno certainly had the power and motivation to cover-up the scandal if he chose to do so. After all, Sandusky was his top lieutenant for decades.

Regardless of what he did or didn't know, JoPa's legacy will be forever tainted by the Happy Valley scandal.

And, depending upon how aggressive top school officials are in admitting fault and implementing change, the university itself may be likened to a collegiate version of The Vatican. Maybe the school will even take a page out of the Church's play book and blame others for its own sins (i.e. “Sadly, Assistant Coach Sandusky is yet another victim of the sexual liberation that pervaded the 1960s.”).

For the sake of the school's image, if not his own, Coach Paterno needs to come clean and answer two basic, Watergate-inspired questions:

– What did JoPa know?
– And, when did he know it?

His answers will determine whether the sex scandal is an unfortunate footnote to JoPa's legendary career or college coaching's version of Watergate. If the latter proves to be the case, I wonder if David Frost might be interested in a sequel? Nah. 'Frost: Paterno' doesn't have the same panache.

Nov 01

Guiding the guides

I look up to mountain guides. Literally. I've climbed rock, ice and alpine routes all over the world, following the leads of such terrific guides as Art Mooney, Miles & Liz Smart, Mark Chauvin and the incomparable Vern Tejas.

P1030...093So, when Betsy Winter, executive director of the American Mountain Guides Association recently asked me to discuss branding, marketing and crisis communications with the board, I was only too happy to oblige.

While the AMGA prides itself in providing exceptional climbing experiences as the "premier source for training, credentials, resource stewardship and services for U.S. guides and instructors," they face a few image and reputation challenges:

1) The media rarely call for comment, except in the aftermath of a climbing fatality.

2) Individual members rarely plug their AMGA certification or the need for more certified AMGA guides in order to ensure safe climbing.

So, I walked the board (all dressed as if they were ready to lead a nine pitch climb up one of the Gunks' legendary walls, BTW) through a branding and crisis primer this past Sunday afternoon.

I explained that media objectivity has become something of an oxymoron thanks to downsizing, the rise of younger, lower paid, less objective journalists and the voracious appetite of the 24×7, 'if it bleeds, it leads' media beast.

I told them it was their responsibility to shape positive stories and position themselves as thought leaders who could be ongoing sources for such stories as outdoor vacations, fitness, and preserving our remaining wilderness and parks, etc. I told these aggressive, mountain men and women it was time to focus some of that same can-do spirit into generating positive press for the AMGA.

I also walked them through the basics of crisis communications, the importance of admitting fault (if true) and viewing every crisis, no matter how bad, as an opportunity to reinforce the AMGA safety principles (since most accidents occur when climbers attempt foolish routes without a certified AMGA guide to lead them).

West Coast guide Mark Chauvin may have asked the best question of the session when he sighed and said, 'Steve, how do I get the media to stop calling me ONLY after accidents occur and start calling me to talk about the many great aspects of climbing?"

I responded by demonstrating the ways in which to build a story, the critical importance of data and trends, and discussing the media's infatuation with human interest stories. I suggested he lead climbs of interested groups who, perhaps, might be comprised of cancer survivors, the sight challenged or even wounded warriors who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Provide a lazy, local reporter with a neatly tied feature package like that and you'll receive a positive article in return, I promised.

Finally, I answered the board's fundamental question about why so many member guides aren't participating in the AMGA's publicity efforts. I responded by saying: “You've got to answer their ‘What's in it for me?’ question.” When a call comes into AMGA headquarters from a national reporter, I said, suggest he or she also interview one or more of your certified guides. Then merchandise those results back to ALL members. Once they see their peers being quoted in an AMGA feature, member guides will be only too happy to mention the AMGA the next time a local reporter calls them.

And, what did I charge for this advice? Some branded merchandise, of course. And, Betsy Winter obliged by handing over a sweet AMGA-branded climbing jacket. That's when I made my offer to the entire board: “Call me anytime you have a question or find yourself knee deep in a media crisis. I'll be only too happy to help as long as there's some SWAG headed my way.”  Hey, everyone has a price. Even Repman.

Aug 25

We need a Fifth Estate

Sky-is-falling-2 This country sorely needs a Fifth Estate to police the Fourth. Whether it's new, sports,  entertainment or, as is the case this week, weather, the media beast increasingly opts for hyperbole and superlatives over objectivity and balance.

Take local New York media. Please. They're in seventh heaven at the moment; basking in the afterglow of a 5.9 magnitude earthquake and bracing for the approach of a category three hurricane.

Not content to report mere facts, local news and weather reporters have been routinely going for the jugular.

Consider this near verbatim conversation I watched live on one of the local channels:

Anchor: "To repeat, New York has just been hit by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake whose center was in Falls Church, Virginia. Ron Mieth is at the corner of 42nd and Third right now. Ron?”

Ron: "Thanks Tim. I'm with Rebecca LargeCalves, who has an amazing story to share. Rebecca, where were you when the quake hit?”
Rebecca: “Getting out of a cab.”
Ron: “Tell us what happened.”
Rebecca: “I got out of the cab”
Ron: “And…?”
Rebecca: “I felt something.”
Ron: “The quake.”
Rebecca: “Yes.”
Ron: “Were you scared?”
Rebecca: “No.”
Ron: “Did you think to yourself, uh oh, another 9/11?”
Rebecca: “No, but the cabbie said something like that.”
Ron: “There you have it, Tim. More than one New Yorker wondering if today's quake was the start of yet another 9/11 attack. Now back to you in the studio.”
Tim: “Wow. And, of course the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is just days away. Well, stay safe Ron.”

Then, this morning there was this irresponsible banter on a local good morning show:

Anchor: “Now here's meteorologist Hiawatha Habitat with news of what appears to be New York's second major wake-up call from Mother Nature in less than a week. Hiawatha?”
Hiawatha: “That's right, Walter. We have a category three hurricane that, if it stays on course, will slam into New York beaches sometime early Sunday morning.”
Anchor: “Good lord. Considering Manhattan is at sea level, are we looking at another potential Katrina situation here, Hiawatha?”
Hiawatha: “Walter, meteorologists are trained to never say never.”
Anchor: “Understood. City building officials have to be losing sleep worrying how well our earthquake-weakened structures will withstand this new threat. Thanks Hiawatha and please keep us posted on this developing mega threat!”

This sort of fear mongering drives ratings. And the corporations who own nearly all the major media outlets are driven by the bottom line. As a result, superlatives and hyperbole increasingly rule the airwaves.

We need a Fifth Estate to hold the Fourth one accountable. But, who does it and how? And, how do we avoid a State-controlled media if we do have another entity step in? I'd ask more unanswerable questions, but I think I just spied a tornado over Fort Lee bearing down on 470 Park Avenue South. I can't wait to hear the hype on this one!

Jul 20

From ambassador to vigilante

When United and Continental merged, the move was accompanied by the usual marketing hoopla.  AaaaaaaaaaaaE-mails promising 'increased efficiency,' 'greater service,' and 'expanded routes' were routinely pushed to this long-time Continental customer.

But, almost immediately, I noticed a slow, but steady, deterioration. First, my long-time Gold Elite status simply disappeared with no explanation whatsoever. Then, my regular routes began experiencing far more delays than before.

But, the real clincher occurred over the past few days as I attempted to fly home from Portland, Maine, to Newark.

My original flight was scheduled to depart at 1pm on Monday. At about 6pm Sunday evening, though, I received a trip alert e-mail notifying me the flight had been canceled. No explanation was provided. A second e-mail followed shortly thereafter. It provided a URL and 888 number for me to call "…with any questions." I had a question all right, "How the hell was I supposed to get home?"

We dutifully called the number provided and, after the usual 15-minute wait and countless bilingual prompts, we reached a live person. She told us she'd book us on the next available flight from Portland to Newark. The scheduled departure time was now 7pm on Monday night. Oh, she said our original flight had been canceled because of weather. Yeah, sure.

Once I arrived at Portland airport on Monday afternoon, the Continental trip alerts began pouring into my blackberry. They said the originating flight was late departing Newark, but would only be delayed by five minutes. No, make that 35 minutes. No, wait, make it a full hour. Oh never mind, the plane just arrived. We were told by a gate agent to board immediately so as not to lose our departure slot. Yes ma'am. Will do, ma'am.

The pilot apologized for the delay, but promised the flight would be '….a very short 59 minutes.' About 90 minutes later, the pilot sighed and said, 'Ah, ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed we've been circling for the past half hour.' Damn straight I'd noticed. I was tired and hungry and wanted to get home pronto. The pilot explained that '…weather at Newark had deteriorated and that we had about 20 more minutes of fuel.' Now, that was comforting to hear. What would happen when the fuel ran out? Would be asked to flap our wings?

The pilot came back on the P.A. a few minutes later to tell us we were being diverted in order to re-fuel. Nice. So, now, instead of being home at, say, 3pm Monday afternoon I was, instead, parked on the always scenic Albany, NY, tarmac at 10 pm.

We eventually arrived home at midnight, some nine full hours later than originally planned.

As I deplaned, I noticed the countless placards and banners boasting about the United/Continental merger. They all said the same thing: 'It's not who's merging that's exciting, but what's about to emerge.' Ha! I can tell you what's emerged: a third rate airline that can't get its act together.

Sadly, Continental is just the latest in a long line of brands that promise one sort of experience but deliver a totally different one. As a result, I've gone from being a brand ambassador to a vigilante.

So, caveat Continental. I'll be gunning for you, or United, or whatever it is you're now calling that steaming mess of a merged airline. Keep messing with me and I'll keep spreading news about your delays, disingenuous explanations and diverted flights.

Epilogue: when we met our driver at Newark Airport, he asked what had happened. I told him Newark Airport had been closed because of severe weather and we'd been diverted to Albany. 'Severe weather?' he asked incredulously. 'It hasn't rained a drop here all day long.'"

Jul 12

Nothing to Bloody Smile About

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer (and UK citizen) Carl Foster.

As the world’s preeminent media mogul, you might expect Rupert Murdoch to have this public relations thing down pat. Evidence would suggest otherwise. NOTW

Let’s ignore the fact that Murdoch-owned News International has ignored the standard PR crisis modus operandi of ‘tell it all, tell it early’. When an investigator working for Britain’s largest selling Sunday newspaper, The News of the World, was jailed in 2007 for hacking into the phones of royals and celebrities, the News International hierarchy must have known that this was just the beginning. Coming clean was never on the agenda though and the level of institutional obfuscation, with thousands of deleted emails, is only now becoming apparent. For News International, and its parent company, News Corp, ‘tell it all, tell it early’ became ‘tell nothing and circle the wagons’.

Anyway, back to the here and now. Much was made of Murdoch flying to London to take charge of the crisis, a crisis that has ballooned from hacking the phones of celebs to that of a murdered schoolgirl, families of soldiers killed in Iraq and possibly even the families of 9/11 victims. So, when Murdoch’s plane touched down you’d think it would be an ideal chance to make a short statement about sorting this mess out. But no. Instead, the evidence of his presence in Britain was a sneaked snapshot of him driving away from the airport looking like the man from Del Monte.

Next, Murdoch went to his Mayfair apartment to meet Rebekah Brooks, the editor of NOTW at the time of the alleged hackings and now chief executive of News International. Murdoch and Brooks are close; according to The Economist they share an almost familial bond. It is understandable they would want a tête-à-tête before heading into the breach, but the meeting was badly managed.

First, they met in Mayfair. In the British version of Monopoly, Mayfair is the last place on the board before you collect your £200. Nothing like reinforcing the image of being an elitist.

Second, when they emerged they were dressed with all the gravity of a Sunday afternoon game of bowls in Henley-on-Thames. When an investigator working in your name hacked into the cell phone of a missing schoolgirl and deleted messages, which gave hope to her parents that she was alive when in fact she was dead warrants at least a tie, don’t you think?

Third, they are smiling! Bloody smiling!

Fourth, and this is the clincher, with thousands of people all over Britain wondering what intrusion might have occurred in their worst moments of personal tragedy, Murdoch was asked what his top priority was. Punishing those responsible? Giving what compensation might be possible to those affected? No. His answer? ‘This One’, referring to Rebekah Brooks.

This story has got a long way to run. Some are calling it Britain’s Watergate. Whatever the case, News International should try and avoid making matters worse for itself with poor public relations.

Jun 09

A tale of two crises

This is a tale of two crises. One was handled flawlessly. The other was badly bungled.

The first dominated yesterday's PR news world and concerned the ill-advised attempt by Delta Airlines to charge returning Afghanistan veterans $200 for their extra bags. Ugh.

A social media savvy vet captured the unfortunate and oh-so-unnecessary airport confrontation between the vets and the “Sorry sir, but rules are rules” airline worker. He posted the video on YouTube and it spread faster than Anthony Weiner's nude pics.

In the blink of an eye, Delta suddenly had a 747-sized crisis on its hands. But, that's when the airline turned on the after burners, fastened the seat belts and weathered the increasingly bumpy ride. A Delta blogger, identified only as Rachael R (is Rachael Ray moonlighting?)  quickly posted an apology AND announced an immediate change in the airline's baggage policy for traveling U.S. military personnel. A simple, yet brilliant move. Crisis averted. Delta and the vets can move on. And, Rachael R. can get back to her cooking.

Now, compare Delta's response with the Bank of America's incredibly, ham-fisted mishandling of a Florida couple's mortgage payment.

Warren and Maureen Nyerges had purchased their foreclosed home outright.   However, while on a foreclosure frenzy, BofA decided the property’s foreclosure was still in force and past due.  So, the bank went on with their foreclosure on the hapless Nyerges. With no other recourse, they hired a savvy lawyer who turned the tables on the bank in a brilliant legal maneuver that would impress even the legendary Mike Lasky of Davis & Gilbert fame.

The couple's lawyer proved the home was free and clear and demanded the bank pay their $2,500 legal fees. BofA refused. So, get this, the lawyer got a court order to go to the local bank branch and take possession of their furniture. Ya gotta love it!

Sheriff deputies and a moving van showed up at the bank. But, the brain-dead BofA branch manager STILL wouldn't comply. It took a full hour before he finally gave Mr. & Mrs. Nyerges a check for $5,772.88 as restitution. This local news clip below is a MUST SEE and should be included in any crisis planning workshop.

 

Did BofA issue an explanation, an apology or announce a change in their foreclosure policy? Nope. There wasn't even a peep from the massive financial institution.

So, here's an idea. Since BofA has shown itself so inept at managing crisis communications, why not outsource the function to the Delta Airlines team? I'm sure the ailing airline could use the incremental income and Bank of America desperately needs competent PR counsel. Hey, maybe BofA can even convince Delta's Rachael R. to cook the Nyerges a special 'forgiveness meal.'

May 16

From gold standard to sub standard

Johnson-And-R_jpg_600x345_crop-smart_upscale_q85Rather than crafting just another blog castigating Burson for its catastrophic mishandling of the  Facebook crisis, I thought I'd instead reflect on a delicious irony that seems to have gotten lost in the fray. I refer to the positively karma-like timing of the Burson crisis and the latest in a long-line of product recalls that have decimated the image of its one-time client, Johnson & Johnson.

Some 30 years ago J&J's executives, in partnership with a Burson team led by the legendary Al Tortorella, literally wrote the crisis communications handbook when consumers started dropping like flies after ingesting arsenic-tainted Tylenol tablets. They did everything right. The corporation's CEO was front and center in any and all interviews. He apologized for the mortal mistake. He grieved right along with the affected families. He even yanked ALL Tylenol products off every single store shelf. That decision was unexpected, unprecedented and unbelievably gutsy. It was also the right thing to do and it became the gold standard against which all future crisis responses were judged.

Now, juxtapose what Tortorella & team did then with what Burson, in particular, isn't doing today. Burson has delayed, obfuscated and issued terse, impersonal statements. Perhaps, most importantly, they haven't apologized for their mistakes. I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that neither Burson, nor its erstwhile client, will be setting any new, gold standards in their management of these latter-day crises. Both are, instead, now textbook examples of how NOT to manage a crisis.

I don't know Mark Penn and his senior Burson lieutenants, so I can't comment on what they knew or when they knew it. But, their post crisis communications has been abysmal at best. One wonders why they didn't just give Al Tortorella a call?

I won't lose any sleep over Burson's blues, but I am genuinely sad for Harold Burson. He's a great man who built a great firm that was once populated by great people. He deserves much better than this.

May 11

Ten days to go!

Harold-campingAccording to Bible scholar and Family Radio personality Harold Camping, Judgement Day will occur  on May 21, 2011. (Note: Harold & Co. spell judgment with an “e” so RepMan is compelled to honor their mistake. But me wonders if their math is off too…?) That's right. We have 10 days until “The Rapture” begins. But, don't sweat it too much. May 21 may be Judgement Day but, says Camping, we have until October 21, 2011, before God actually destroys the entire earth. Whew. That was a little too close for comfort.

Camping bases his calculations solely on God's predetermined time line. That's the one that began when 'He' created the world in 11,013 B.C. and will come crashing down this coming October 21st (and, isn't it a real bummer that He couldn't wait until AFTER Halloween to end things? There's nothing merciful about this god).

As proof that the end is well nigh on hand, Camping cites such “biblical prophecies” come true as:

– the complete degradation of the Christian Church (I'll grant you that Catholics have, in fact, done a superb job of completely mucking things up, but who has any image issues with Methodists, Unitarians or other Christian sects?)
– the complete breakdown of society (I'll give Camping this one. 'Jersey Shore' was, in fact, the final sign that society had gone to hell in a handbasket)
– the rise of the national state of Israel in 1948 (OK. So?)
– the rise of Gay pride (this is starting to sound like the Bill O'Reilly Show).

Camping says Judgement Day will kick off with a catastrophic earthquake (Wait. Didn't that just happen in Japan?). Based upon the description Brother Camping provides though, this does sound like the mother of all earthquakes. It will “open every grave in the world and only true believers will rise to heaven.” Non-believers will chill with earthquake survivors and await the actual end of days on October 21. At least that still gives them a full summer's worth of tanning and jet-skiing. I take back my crack about His being unmerciful.

I must admit to being at a loss as to what to do in my final 10 days. Should I learn to play acoustic guitar? Nah, not enough time. Foreign language? Ditto. Ten days does not a language master make. Hey, I know, maybe I'll set my sights on stealing away a client from a large holding company. I guarantee there's a client out there right this second who's had it up to here with her account team's constant turnover, the agency's exorbitant billing and its minimal results. And, winning a $1 million account in the next 10 days would certainly qualify as my definition of rapture.

What about you? Suppose, just suppose, Brother Camping is right and Judgement Day WILL begin in less than two weeks. What would you want to accomplish between now and then? By the way, this whole end of days thing has to be a real impediment to funeral parlor recruiting. How do you attract the best and brightest to an industry whose end product will be jumping out of their respective caskets in a matter of hours? Talk about a dead end.

Apr 11

“Let’s see, 11 fatalities should add up to, yup, a bonus of just about $180k for each of us.”

Blood-MoneTo paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, “CEO's aren't like you and me.” How else to explain the  decision by Transocean CEO Steven Newman to split a year-end bonus pool of $898,282 with four other C-suite executives?

If the name Transocean sounds vaguely familiar, that's because they're the engineering geniuses who built the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in 2010, killed 11 people and caused the worst environmental crisis in history (think: BP oil spill).

Newman & Co. split the loot after proclaiming 2010 to “be the best year in safety performance in our company's history.” Can you imagine what the worst year must have been like?

After the bonuses were announced and an incredulous public recoiled in disgust, Newman swiftly backpedaled and cut the bonus pool to a mere $650,000. Now, that's more like it. This way, the five fat cats only pocket a little under $130k per cadaver.

As might be expected, the chief executive officer appeared suitably humbled by his heartless heavy-handedness and issued a statement (probably after being prompted to do so by his chief communications officer). He said: “The executive team made this decision (to take fewer dollars) because we believe it is the right thing to do. ”Huh? The right thing to do? How about not taking any bonus at all? How about starting a fund to pay for the college tuitions of the children of the dead workers? How about waking up to reality?

Imagine if Transocean had, say, built the World Trade Center complex or the Japanese nuclear reactors? The management team would be set for life.

Sad to say, Newman's behavior doesn't surprise me one bit. Fortune 1000 CEOs aren't like you and me. They're much closer in type to pampered, superstar athletes such as Barry Bonds, Brett Favre and Roger Clemens. They're surrounded by handlers, schedulers and sycophants, and made to believe they walk on water (a most unfortunate phrase in the case of the Transocean guys).

In fact, Newman's behavior reminds me of John Thain's whining after the crash and fall of Merrill Lynch. Despite overseeing the worst year in the Thundering Herd's history and being forced by the government to sell the firm to Bank of America, Thain still demanded a performance bonus of $25 million!

Is it any wonder the average American now lists CEOs right alongside lawyers and used car salesmen as the least respected profession?