Oct 26

Talk about a wunderkind

Note to readers: This is the second, and final, blog reviewing Harold Burson’s new book, “The Business of Persuasion” (available through Rosetta Books)….

But, after reading what Burson-Marsteller Founder Harold Burson had achieved at the same age, I must say I was beyond humbled (a unique experience to be sure).

Consider the following (taken directly from his autobiography):

  •  He became a stringer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal as a sophomore in high school.
  •  He filed reports on University of Mississippi football for the Commercial Appeal while a college sophomore.
  •  While still in college, he provided public relations counsel to D.H. Ferguson, which was helping to build the atomic bomb.
  •  After WW II began, he filed nightly written reports for all U.S. officers serving in Europe.
  •  At the age of 24, he covered the Nuremberg trials for the American News Network.

His accomplishments are mind-numbing to say the least, but Burson provides key advice for any high school or college student hoping to achieve at least a modicum of his success:

First, he proffers these tips for succeeding in PR:

  •  Content is still king. Train yourself to be a good writer, avail yourself of writing labs and tutors, seek feedback on your writing and your future will be assured.
  • As the volume of texting grows, the quality of writing declines. Do yourself a favor and take as many writing courses as you can cram into your schedule.

He next provides advice for succeeding early in life:

  • Volunteer to do the jobs no one else wants to, and to the extent possible, inform people of the importance of your service to the company.
  • Take calculated risks early in your career, risks that will hasten your trek to the objective you have set for yourself.
  • Suggest new ways of approaching problems as ideas come to you. Just because more experienced people reject them outright does not mean they are bad ideas. They may be ahead of their time or lead to alternative and timelier ideas.

Finally, Burson’s takeaways from his career in the military include:

  •  Those who have the willingness and the discipline to do the grunt work will work their way up in business.
  •  Prepare yourself to adapt to ever-changing situations such as different bosses, unusual assignments or difficult colleagues.
  •  Some assignments call for a high degree of integrity. What you say and do will either earn you the trust of others or lose it.

Stay tuned for part three tomorrow and, oh, btw Mr. Burson: Where were you when I was 24?

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 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.

Dec 01

A squeezed middle in the midst of a widening waistline

Fat-man-boatThe Oxford University Press just anointed the phrase ‘squeezed middle’ as its ‘word of the year’. The phrase, of course, refers to the financial pinch being felt by the American middle class in the midst of a never-ending recession.

I find it ironic, though, that the Oxford word wizards would choose ones that illustrate the exact opposite of what’s happening to the population’s collective waistlines. Two recent cases in point illustrate the dichotomy. The first appeared in The New York Times and told the sad story of America’s truckers. According to Abby Ellin’s article, an astounding 86 percent of the country’s 3.2 million truck drivers are overweight or obese! And, check out this tidbit provided by Brett Blower, director of marketing and development for the Healthy Trucking Association of America. A few years back, Blower’s group conducted a blood screening of more than 2,000 truckers at an annual truck show. “We sent 21 directly to the emergency room, and one of them had a heart attack on the way there,” he recalled. Talk about road kill. Wow!

At the same time truckers are dropping like flies (note: Ellin’s article blames the truckers’ sedentary lifestyle and the calorie-rich gruel served at truck stops as the chief cause of their obesity), Congress is fighting hard to undermine the Obama Administration’s efforts to take unhealthy foods out of our nation’s schools. I guess knowing that most Americans today are overweight isn’t good enough for Congress; they’re thinking long-term.

In fact, if Republicans get their way, the tomato paste used on pizza would be counted as a vegetable and they’d overturn efforts to limit the use of potatoes on the lunch line, put new restrictions on the use of sodium and boost the use of whole grains. It’ll be a huge win for potato-growers, frozen pizza makers and the salt industry, respectively; and a huge loss for the health and well-being of our kids.

So, while I wouldn’t quibble with the Oxford University Press opting for squeezed middle as the word of the year (after all, it’s the economy, stupid!), I would nominate a co-winner for the 2011 word or phrase of the year: ‘self-inflicted wound’. I cannot think of any other nation at any other point in history that has done more harm to itself than modern-day America. Of course, I missed Rome circa 476 A.D. and Athens about 800 years prior to that, but I can’t believe either society could compete with ours for sheer stupidity.

Nov 22

The Distrust Barometer

TrustI’ve just returned from visiting my alma mater, Northeastern University, where I’m honored to say I’m a member of The Northeastern Corporation, a body constituted to provide counsel on a variety of strategic issues. (And, in the interests of transparency, I should also note that I’m helping the school communicate its amazing value proposition).

During my full day on campus, I had the opportunity to lunch with five or six of the most impressive undergraduates I’ve encountered at any college or university (and, I’ve literally met thousands). Each shared his or her personal Northeastern journey with me, and some of my fellow ‘corporators’ and, I must say, each story was more compelling than the last. These ‘kids’ were not only committed to finding new ways to help make the world a better place, they were also racking up some amazing international work experience courtesy of Northeastern’s unrivaled cooperative education experience (a.k.a. co-op).

After listening to their tales, we were invited to ask questions of the students. I wanted to know their feelings about the society in which they’d grown up. After all, as I said to them, the one fundamental difference from the world I knew at the Northeastern University of the late 1970s and the world of today could best be summed up by the word ‘trust’. While The Vietnam War and Watergate may have eroded my generation’s trust in certain political leaders, we still believed in The American Dream. Today, though, every single pillar of society is either immersed in a major scandal or recovering from one. Be it religion, sports, politics, entertainment or business, kids today are growing up in a world without trust.

So I asked the undergrads if they trusted anyone and, if so, who. They all said the same thing: they trusted their friends and family first. Then, as we’ve seen in some of our audience research on clients’ behalf, the students said they trusted objective sources such as Consumer Reports. From there, they turned to bloggers and what we PR types call influencers. Next came local and regional news, followed by national news and, finally, advertising. To a person, the students said they no longer trust leaders. One volunteered that she’d actually quit her co-op job in state government because of the sleaze factor. She’s now considering an alternative career path as a result. (Note: that’s one of co-op’s many strengths; it can not only provide deep, practical experience in one’s chosen career path. It can also red flag a professional pursuit that doesn’t make sense).

After word: The world’s largest independent public relations firm has gained notoriety for its annual Trust Barometer, which measures peoples’ trust in various sectors. Based upon what I just heard at Northeastern, though (and, what has been echoed by many other students with whom I’ve spoken), the time is right for someone to create a Distrust Barometer. We need an index that will regularly take the pulse of pre-Millennials; the kids who’ve grown up in an era marked by a complete erosion of trust in everyone and everything. If Peppercom represented brands seeking to reach that demographic and how to re-build trust with it, I’d fund the study immediately. As far as I’m concerned a Trust Barometer can no longer be trusted; at least not by anyone under the age of 21.

 

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.

Oct 26

One is the loneliest number

One of the immediate outcomes of the just published IBM Institute for Business Value's study of 1,734 chief marketing officers is a collective sigh of relief among CMOs who have reviewed it, says Carolyn Heller Baird, director, Global CRM Research Leader at the Institute.

GBS_IBVhero_930x300“The CMOs with whom we've shared the results tell us they're relieved to know they're not alone in helping their organizations cope with the fundamental shifts we're seeing in business,” observed Baird. “While we're still sifting through the data on an industry-by-industry basis, the CMOs are remarkably similar in terms of how they manage data, deliver value, foster lasting connections and measure results. In reviewing what their peers say, the CMOs feel validated and inspired.”

I can relate to that. As the CEO of an independent, midsized communications firm, I often feel alone in making decisions. So, I can empathize with the pressures that must weigh on the CMO of a Fortune 500 company.

And, while Baird says there are no dramatic differences between CMOs in the business-to-consumer and business-to-business spaces, she does see distinctions between chief marketing officers in emerging markets (i.e. Kenya, Croatia and Peru) vs. those in mature ones (i.e. The U.S., Germany and Japan).

“CMOs in emerging markets have fewer legacy issues and more flexibility. In many ways, they're starting from scratch,” Baird says. As a result, they can wear multiple hats and make multiple decisions. And, that has to be liberating.

Regardless of whether they find themselves in the Czech Republic or the United Kingdom, though, I have to believe every CMO wants to avoid the gaffe just made by their peer at Netflix. In fact, The New York Times says the corporation “…made a classic business mistake. In its reliance on data and long-term strategy, the company underestimated the unquantifiable emotions of subscribers who still want those little red envelopes, even if they forget to ever watch the DVD's inside.”

IBM confirmed that managing what they call 'the data explosion' was the top concern of CMOs and that many “struggle to develop customer insights because they primarily focus on understanding markets rather than individuals.”  I believe far too many marketing and corporate communications executives depend solely on data to drive their decisions. The smartest ones know a mix of gut instinct and intuition are just as important in deciding their marketing mix; as is the elementary, but often overlooked, solution of simply putting oneself in a customer's shows and experience the brand from the outside in.

I don't know if the Netflix CMO felt alone when he made a huge decision relying solely on data and yesterday's strategy, but he'll most certainly be alone in resurrecting his career. Before he starts the journey, though, he might want to read the IBM report. It may prevent a similar mistake down the road.

Oct 14

It’s the worst of times (for men)

Feminist1If a visiting alien was asked to evaluate the roles of men and women based solely on the current rash of books, movies and TV shows, the E.T. would undoubtedly conclude that all men are not only dolts, they're also emasculated fools who can't make any decisions on their own.
 
In fact, I think the title of Maureen Dowd's 2005 book best sums up the current wave of ManBashing. It's called "Are Men Necessary'?"

And, sadly, Alessandra Stanley's review of the Fall TV season in the New York Times confirms that these are, indeed, the worst of times for men.
 
Every new show, ranging from 'Man Up!' and 'Last Man Standing' to 'How To Be a Gentleman' and 'Whitney' go to ever greater lengths to marginalize the role of men in society. And, says Stanley, the trend will only continue since "…female viewers outnumber men and network executives know what women want."
 
That may be great for feminists (and the ratings), but it's very bad news for male adolescents and boys. I don't care how many problems you have with men, ladies, but you need to speak up and stop this never-ending, ever-escalating emasculation. Here's why: you owe it to your kids, nephews, younger brothers and friends' kids.
 
By focusing on the short-term ego gratification of women, the mass media is dealing a major psychological blow to future generations of men. Not only will boys and adolescent males buy into this totally ersatz, politically correct stereotyping but, worse, their female counterparts will reinforce it.
 
But, maybe that's OK with you, Virginia. Maybe you're fine with women becoming the dominant gender. But, somehow, I doubt it. If 50 percent of the population feels permanently marginalized, how in the world will we ever regain our global competitiveness? You ladies are terrific. But, you can't do it alone. Sorry. You can't.
 
So, here's a plea to the movers and shakers in Hollywood, and on Madison Avenue and at the major publishing houses. Lay off men. Now! The psyche you save may be that of your son. And the future you save may be that of your own country.
 
 Now, though, we return to our regularly scheduled programming…
 
“…Male lead admits he's too afraid to lift weights at the gym. Female lead nods her head knowingly and sighs, “I always knew you were a dumbbell, Adam. But, I never thought you'd be afraid to lift them.” Audience laughs and applauds. Screen fades to black.”

And a tip o' Repman's gender neutral beret to Jackie Kolek for suggesting this post.

Sep 15

I have some good news and some bad news

Your name is Julian Green. You had been director of media relations for CoorsMiller. 

The good news: You've just landed a new gig as VP of communications and community affairs for the Chicago Cubs.

The bad news: You've just landed a new gig as VP of communications and community affairs for the Chicago Cubs.

GravestoneFor those of you may not know, the beloved Cubbies are major league baseball's biggest losers. They hold the record for going the most years without winning a World Series… 103 years!

In fact, the last time the Cubs won the series, Teddy Roosevelt was president, the HMS Titanic had yet to be built and Betty White had just begun dating (only kidding with the last one).

Don't get me wrong. Any gig with a major league baseball team has to be a complete gas. But, the Cubs? They're so bad they even make my lamentable Mets seem respectable in comparison. They're such a disaster they make the BP oil spill seem like a small leak. Collectively, the franchise has disappointed more fans over the decades than the combined populations of China and India.

So, how'd you like to be responsible for managing their image and reputation? In my opinion, Mr. Green has one of two options:

– He follows the lead of legendary ad man, Jerry Della Femina who, in attempt to attract fans to see the woeful Mets of the late 1970s and early '80s, ran a campaign entitled, 'The magic is back'. But, it wasn't. Not by a long shot. In fact, the only magic at Shea Stadium was seeing fewer and fewer fans each and every losing season.

– He embraces the franchise's futility with a campaign entitled, ‘A century's worth of heartaches’. Green holds contests asking Cubs fans to submit stories telling how, say, the '69 Cubs broke their hearts by blowing a nine game lead to the Miracle Mets. Others could wax poetic about the '84 Cubs collapse in the NLCS to an incredibly weak San Diego Padres team. Or, how about the infamous game in 2003 when, just five outs away from an NLCS championship, a Cubs fan reached out, snatched a sure out away from a Cubbie outfielder and the team went on to blow the series? Green's got a treasure trove of ineptness with which to work.

Whatever marketing path he should chose, I do wish Mr. Green and his beloved Cubs all the luck in the world. But, I suggest he load up on a season's worth of Pepto-Bismol, Tylenol and a scrip for some Xanax as well. Something tells me the Cubs have another century or two to go before winning another World Series trophy.