May 26

There’s no such thing as a merger of equals

NewsweekBeastAdweek reports the merger between Newsweek and The Daily Beast is a steaming pile of sh*t. As  is the case with most 'mergers of equals', this one is anything but.

It started out well, though. One unnamed departed editor told Adweek, “Initially, a lot of us were really excited.” But now, says Adweek, former staffers say the newsroom is “…in a constant state of turmoil, uncertainty and confusion.” No surprise.

I was part of a multi-agency merger of equals back in 1992. Earle Palmer Brown scooped up four or five of us simultaneously promising that, although we'd lose our individual firm names, we'd still have full autonomy. The first indication to the contrary came two weeks later. I was attending a firm-wide, 40th anniversary retreat in lovely Bethesda, Md., when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was our human resources manager. He pointed to a spot in the distance. “See that guy with the moustache? He's your new boss.” When I asked what had happened to the old boss with whom I'd negotiated my contract, the human resources guy shrugged his shoulder and sighed, “Oh, he'll be gone in three months. He just doesn't know it yet.” Nice.

I've also witnessed countless mergers of equals as an agency partner. None went very smoothly. Some management teams really tried. Others merely went through the motions. And, then there were the unmitigated disasters. I remember visiting the headquarters of the 'loser' in one merger of equals and thinking it must have been like touring Hitler's bunker in May 1945. The halls were empty. The survivors shuffled along staring blankly ahead and, when we held a morale building workshop we listened to one horror story after another (up to, and including, one very senior executive who told us she was tossed out of her office and told to find the first empty cube).

One key reason mergers of equals fail is the cultural disconnect. At Newsweek, staffers are going nuts because as Tina Brown herself was heard to say, “Oh, I'm causing all sorts of trouble. I'm changing all the features in the last hour (before going to press).” What a fun gal! I know first-hand how much staffers detest 11th hour changes on a big presentation, so I can only imagine how the merged equals react to a steady diet of this type of drive-by management.

It's rare to find a marriage of equals. It's even rarer to find one in the business world. Here's betting the merged Newsweek/Daily Beast sputters for a year or so before either folding or sold at fire sale prices. It's the AOL-Time Warner of 2011.

May 25

Advertising’s early warning system

WynfordVaughn-ThomasbbAdweek is to ad agencies what radar was to the Royal Air Force in September, 1940: an early  warning system.

Adweek, and its peers, Advertising Age and The Delaney Report, never hesitate to warn agencies about badly behaving clients. Consider Adweek's April 25th column entitled, 'Is Heineken the Worst Client Ever?'

According to Adweek, nine agencies have represented the beer brand in just six years! Talk about a revolving door. And, get this, the $60 million account is once again up for review, and Publicis and Wieden are pitching it. Why are they wasting their time?

Adweek did some digging to better understand Heineken's heinous habits and cited churn in the leadership ranks (four CEOs and four CMOs since 2005). Yup. That'll do it. The new sheriff almost always boots out the incumbent, regardless of how good the team or how effective the work. That happened to us no fewer than three times in 2008 and '09. New sheriff. New agency. Sure as rain.

Now, as part of our due diligence in new business, we warily check the prospect's churn record. If it's anything like Heineken's, we run away faster than you can say pop top bottle.

Frequent agency churn not only damages the firms, it hurts the client's marketing efforts. As Ken Robinson of search consultancy Ark Advisors says of Heineken, “…how can you possibly put together a cohesive positioning when they switch agencies so often?” Amen, brother.

All of which prompts a question from this blogger: how comes PR trade journals don't provide a similar watchdog service? How come they can't (or won't) 'out' serial prospects as their advertising brethren do?

The client coverage I read in the PR trades is limited to:

– Case studies
– Personnel announcements
– Updates on the latest crisis du jour and accompanying statement (“Pigglesworth & Swine take these allegations very seriously,” said Jane Hare, VP of corporate communications)
– A fawning profile of the VP, Corporate Communications (“His peers at Toxic Chemical say Jim Electron is strategic, creative and positively unflappable; rare qualities indeed in a Fortune 500 executive.”)

PR trades could do a tremendous service to their tens of thousands of agency readers by tipping us off to a serial prospect on the prowl (akin to British radar's alerting the R.A.F. of yet another Luftwaffe sortie).

Radar saved Britain. The ad trades are aiding ad agencies. So, how come the PR journals aren't stepping up to the plate? If they did, I'd be the first to step forward, quote Churchill and proclaim, “This was their finest hour.”

May 02

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Or was it?

If two leading trade journals are any indication, the advertising industry is suffering from a Mood-swings1 severe case of manic depression.

On the one hand, there's The Delaney Report (TDR), which humbly bills itself as 'the international newsletter for marketing, advertising and media executives'. TDR just ran a lead story entitled, 'We'll Take It from Here.' The text provides a sobering report about inroads being made across the board by public relations. “No longer is it uncommon to have a PR agency compete for a client's services (PR, digital, advertising and direct) versus a traditional advertising agency.” TDR says, “PR is now in the sweet spot of a company's marketing plans.” Nice. Very nice.

Unfortunately, though, TDR then dives deep into PR's gains in social media and corroborates its thinking with observations from the heads of three PR holding companies: Harris Diamond of Weber, Gary Stockman of Porter and Ken Luce of H&K. Now, I could be wrong, but I'll bet an annual subscription to TDR (a damned pricey proposition, BTW), that none of these three, old white guys personally blogs, tweets, posts comments, podcasts or does anything else that would remotely resembles engaging in social media. Asking these three for their views on social media is akin to asking a couch potato what it's like to compete in a 230-mile cycling race. “Tough, dude. Very tough.” C'mon TDR, show some journalistic chops, dig a little deeper and interview PR executives who actually walk the talk.

And, now, for something completely different, take a gander at another ad industry trade: Michael Wolff's supercharged revamp of AdWeek, which calls itself 'The Voice of Media.' Methinks this particular voice suffers from laryngitis.

How else to explain its love fest with all things advertising? You'd never know traditional advertising is staggering like some drunken sailor on shore leave. Or, that other disciplines such as PR and interactive are stealing away market share faster than you can say land grab.

Instead, AdWeek's pages are an unapologetic homage to the 30-second TV spot (ugh) and mainstream TV advertising in general (Yuck. What's become of one-on-one marketing and engaging in a conversation with customers?). There are even photographic retrospectives of Doyle Dane Bernbach's and McCann-Erickson's offices from the halcyon days of the 1960s (should PR Week retaliate with a photo essay of, say, the Lobsenz-Stevens offices of the mid-1980s featuring an adolescent wunderkind named Edward Aloysius Moed?).

Like just about everything else, I suspect the truth about advertising's massive struggle to reinvent itself lies somewhere in-between TDR's doom-and-gloom report and AdWeek’s sunshine-and-roses tome.

I'd suggest readers view the two the way I do The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and Fox News and MSNBC, respectively (absorb the extreme POVS of each, realizing the truth lies somewhere in the midst of the murkiness).

In the meantime, though, a quick note to the big agency PR guys: I'm happy to issue an apology if you fellas actually do engage in social media.

Apr 28

Does anyone read in-flight magazines?

Do you read in-flight magazines? You know the ones I'm talking about, right? They're shoved into  an airplane's seat back right alongside the evacuation instructions and vomit bag.

Since I've been traveling relentlessly of late, I've decided to pass my time during the endless delays to observe my fellow passengers to see if any actually picked up and read the magazines. No one did. Not a soul. Not the morbidly obese man on my left or the pajama-clad, trailer park denizen on my right. And, I'm positive the toddler sitting directly behind me and repeatedly kicking my seatback wasn't flipping through the articles eitArticle-1200719-005E374800000258-743_468x330her.

This wouldn't matter if airlines weren't relentlessly cutting costs and adding a la carte pricing faster than you can say sleeping air traffic controllers. 

Just imagine how much money every airline could save (and pass along to passengers) if they did away with in-flight magazines. The publications serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever except to show me diagrams of various airports and maps of the world. (So, that's where Ceylon is, eh?)

Back in the mid-13th century when I plied my PR trade as an account executive, securing a placement in an in-flight magazine was a HUGE deal. In fact, most clients considered it an A-level hit, right alongside a Times article or GMA appearance. I guess that's because, in the days before iPads, iPods and laptops became ubiquitous, airline passengers actually read the damn magazines. Nowadays, though, I can't think of a single new business proposal or year-long plan that so much as even mentions gaining publicity in an in-flight magazine.

So, why do they still exist? You'd think one of the more progressive airlines such as JetBlue or Southwest would have banned them years ago, announced the move as a further reflection of their eco-friendly ways and made a big splash about passing along the cost savings in a massive advertising campaign. Nah, that would be too obvious.

Sometimes the easiest solutions are the ones staring you right in the face. So, here's hoping some airline executive wakes up and cancels his in-flight magazine order at the same time he gives air traffic controllers a little more vacation time. The flying public would thank him for both.

Apr 27

PR’s answer to Don Draper

Long before 'Sex & the City', 'The Hills' and 'Kell on Earth', there was What Makes Sammy Run?

310-1 For those of you unfamiliar with the 1941 book, it was written by the legendary Budd Schulberg (best known for his Academy Award-winning “On the Waterfront” screenplay).

What Makes Sammy Run? follows the sleazy, backstabbing ways of Hollywood publicist, Sammy Glick. Although dated, I highly recommend it for anyone plying the PR trade, or aspiring to do so.

I also highly recommend a far more obscure tome entitled, The Build-up Boys. It was written by someone named Jeremy Kirk and first published in 1951. Unlike La-La Land's Press Agent Extraordinaire Sammy Glick, however, Kirk's protagonist is a New York and Washington, D.C.-based public relations “agency man.”

Although The Build-up Boys reads more like a Raymond Chandler detective novel than an insider's view of PR, it's funny as hell and, sadly, still highly relevant. To wit, check out this passage: 

“There were about as many ethics in the public relations racket as in a contest to see who could gouge out the most eyes.” Ouch.

The build-up boys tracks the progress of “…Clint Lorimer, a smart and ruthless operator who had every qualification for success as a public relations expert except for a small, deeply-buried shred of self-respect.” It also follows Anne Tremaine, “…an advertising agency expert who was successively Clint's partner, mistress and boss.” Sounds just like any of today's prime-time TV dramas, no?

In fact, Clint Lorimer is PR's answer to Don Draper. He has an answer for every client and a wink for every attractive woman. And, like the quintessential Mad Man, Lorimer positively thrives when the chips are down.

He even delivers some of the same strategies we would suggest in similar circumstances today (i.e. His firm represents a failing dairy company that's tanking because its CEO would rather deliver milk bottles at sunrise than examine P&L statements at sunset. When Clint meets the shrinking violet of a CEO and his marketing chief, he recommends doubling both the advertising and PR budgets. The clients are incredulous. “Are you nuts?” asks the marketing chief. “Nope,” says Lorimer. “We're going to feature your CEO in a national ad and PR campaign about a big man who's not too big to do a little man's job. John Q. Public will eat it up and wash it down with your milk.”). It's a brilliant suggestion and exactly the strategy I'd recommend today.

Sammy Glick and Clint Lorimer are sexist, unscrupulous and, at times, loathsome. But, they're also successful PR executives who GET business strategy. I'd recommend any student of PR analyze the protagonists' professional approaches, deep-six their personal proclivities and see if you don't learn a new trick or two from these old dogs. Oh, and here's one other reason to read both: there are still plenty of Sammy Glicks and Clint Lorimers out there. Knowing what makes a Don Draper type tick will make it that much easier for you when you eventually bump into him.

And a tip o' Repman's straw boater to Thomas Joseph Powers, Jr. for this idea.

Apr 13

A blog about blogs

Remember the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer writes a coffee table book about coffee table books? Well, this is a blog about blogs.

Attack-of-the-blogI began blogging in 2006. Since then, Repman has been named best in industry, consistently ranked among the AdAge Power 100 and attracted hundreds of subscribers and thousands of pass-along readers. It's also landed me in a lot of hot water. One blog antagonized Jack O'Dwyer so much that he lambasted me on the cover of his trade publication for two straight weeks. Another, criticizing the inherent flaws in industry awards programs, earned me a lifetime ban as a PR Week Awards judge. (Note: I stand by my original POV's and find having been fired as a judge makes for a great cocktail party conversation starter.)

All that said, I still have no idea what makes my blog successful. Oh sure, I know it's important to keep the content short and sweet. It's also essential to generate new content daily. And, it's critical to provide readers with a unique perspective. I think it's also important to avoid the breaking news of the day and posit views on less well-known, but equally important, facets of reputation management. (I tend to take the road less traveled when it comes to blogging.)

When I say I have no idea what makes my blog successful, I'm referring to reader response. I've written some blogs that I thought were so edgy and, dare I say it, so insightful, that they'd generate a significant response. And, then, nothing would happen. Nada. Zilch. At other times, like last week, I'll pull together a hastily written blog about the five most influential TV shows in my life and, voila, the flood gates will open and I'll receive 45 or more comments (insert link).

I'm fortunate to have my blog featured on the front page of The Daily Dog and CommPro.biz. I share those home pages with 15 or 20 other top bloggers. And, I must say, I don't get why some of those blogs are successful either. Like the agencies and service shops they represent, the other blogs tend to be good, bad or just plain ugly. To wit:

– One blogger is an inveterate name dropper and loves to let you in on the latest world leader, Hollywood celebrity or media mogul with whom he's dined and opined. Big deal. I once sat alongside Robby Benson on a flight from West Palm Beach to Newark.
– Another blogger's essays are meticulously researched, beautifully crafted and invariably as dull as dishwater.
– Then there's the blog from hell, authored by an agency leader who clearly played hooky when basic English grammar was being taught. His tomes are endless rants, replete with every spelling and punctuation mistake possible.
– There are also the blogs written solely about media training or video communications. These are the one trick ponies of the PR blogosphere.

And, so I end where I began: clueless as to what constitutes a good blog and why some blogs I find self-serving and self-important routinely sweep the industry awards (could paid advertising have anything to do with it?). Oh well. I've also never figured out why 'little people' don't constitute a minority and never come up in conversations about the need for greater diversity in PR. But, that's a subject best left for another blog or the stage of the New York Comedy Club.

And a tip o' the hat to Mrs. RepMan (aka Angie Cody) for this idea.

Mar 24

In a modern crisis, a full page print ad is as relevant as yesterday’s news

JournalNews_Ad_Japan_LetterRunning a full page print advertisement in The Wall Street Journal or New York Times used to be   part and parcel of any serious crisis response plan. The ad provided the chief executive officer of the company in crisis with an unfettered opportunity to tell his side of the story without any editorial interpretation from media, pundits or the average Joe.

But, those days are dead. They died when social media made each of us a citizen journalist. They died when CEOs such as Dennis Kozlowski, Jeff Skilling and Bernie Ebbers stole millions of dollars from their organizations. They died when once respected brands such as Johnson & Johnson, BP and Toyota were caught covering up their transgressions.

Nowadays, full-page print ads signed by the CEO of a company in crisis make me cringe. Take the one penned by J. Wayne Leonard, chairman and chief executive officer of Entergy Corporation (insert ad).

Petrified that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's call for a review of the Indian Point nuclear energy plant by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission will result in its closing (and, possibly the closing of other Entergy-run nuke plants,) Leonard lists reason after reason why his Indian Point facility is safe.

Sorry, Mr. Leonard. But, I don't buy it. And, I doubt anyone else does either. That's because, like print advertising itself, Fortune 500 CEOs have little, if any, street cred.

Americans trust word of mouth. They trust family and friends. They trust influencers such as "Consumer Reports," J.D. Power & Associates and The Good Housekeeping Seal. But, they no longer believe the inside-out, top down 'C-suite speak' one finds in a paid print advertisement.

If I were advising Leonard, I'd suggest a much different approach. I'd begin by enlisting credible, third party ambassadors who do believe that next generation nuclear power plants are safe. This group could range from academics and authors to bloggers and informed individuals without a personal or political agenda (does such an animal still exist?). I'd provide these trusted sources with my facts and figures and encourage them to speak on my behalf (knowing that I couldn't control what they eventually write or say but understanding that's what makes their voice so much more compelling than mine).

I'd reach out to my employees and assure them they're not earning paychecks from an evil corporation that's building and maintaining death traps. I'd provide them with messages they, in turn, could share with their family and friends.

I'd also engage in face-to-face community relations in each and every market where my nuke plants are located. I'd hold town hall meetings and invite local leaders, activists, employees and the average Joe to attend and share their concerns.

There are probably other, even smarter strategies Leonard & Co., should employ. But, relying on a paid, full-page ad in the Times is not only old school crisis management, it's counter-productive. It's changed my mind from neutral to skeptical. And, that dear readers, is why smart public relations is the new king of the integrated marketing mix. When it comes to credibility, PR trumps advertising each and every time.

Mar 15

America needs a man like Chris Atkins

Chris-atkins-star-suckersjpg-8d9bd8d259178b30_mediumLeave it to a bulldog, investigative journalist from the U.K. named Chris Atkins to tell us what we  already knew: the quality of mainstream journalism is in decline.

Recently, in an attempt to show how lackadaisical the British media has become, Atkins created three completely fake products. He then placed himself in the role of a product publicist, pitched the press and, voila, the hits started coming faster than one can say Meet the Beatles.

I like seeing the media being taken down a notch or two, especially when it’s done by one of their own. I’ve attended far too many PRSA and PR Week panels in which pompous, self-congratulatory ‘journos’ complain about the unprofessionalism of PR people. And, I’ve cringed whenever some highfalutin editor ‘outs’ publicists who bug him with one too many pitches.

If nothing else, the Atkins piece shows how easily duped the Fourth Estate can be. They, like us, are human. But, journalists never, ever forgive public relations professionals for our mistakes. So, should we cut them some slack for these transgressions? I’d be interested in hearing your POV.

Feb 22

When an irresistible force meets an immovable object

Jack Griffin's breathtakingly brief stint as CEO of Time Inc. is yet another example of the wrong Empty-office person being in charge of the wrong place at the wrong time.

Griffin was cherry-picked from Meredith Publishing's magazine division to be a change agent and was the very first CEO in Time's storied history to come from outside the company. He lasted all of six months.

The reasons why are obvious in hindsight. According to reports, Griffin's brusque management style rubbed the establishment the wrong way. Several high-ranking executives bolted almost immediately. Others resented some of Griffin's seemingly insensitive words and actions. To wit:

– He retained strategy consultants to help identify what was broken. Old-timers saw that as an indication Griffin wasn't up to the job.

– He insisted his name appear at the top of every Time publication's masthead. (Even this egocentric blogger would never contemplate such hubris.)

– A devout Catholic, he likened Time Inc. to the Vatican as a way of illustrating its prestige and might. (That analogy might have worked well during the Spanish Inquisition, but certainly not now.)

– In his first town hall meeting, he joked that he “…finally worked at a company where he could read the magazines,” a remark that offended many women since his erstwhile employers publishes such titles as Better Homes & Gardens and Ladies' Home Journal.

As someone once said, success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. Griffin is taking the fall for a mistake that should be pinned squarely on the shoulders of the board of directors. They hired him. They misread his talents and management style as well as the culture of the organization. But, the board stays put while Griffin licks his wounds and decides how best to invest his handsome severance.

The real loser in this charade is Time's already-battered image. In an era when magazines are struggling mightily to stay afloat, it's critical to find a leader who listens and learns before acting. That said, desperate times call for desperate measures. So, if any readers know of a CEO who can turn around a set of floundering magazines while not offending the firmly-entrenched establishment, please alert the Time Warner board of directors. Something tells me they can use all the help they can get.

Jan 10

The ultimate ambush interview

Every public relations professional fears the ambush interview. For the uninitiated, an ambush An_2_Apache_Ambush__1892_gouache_henry_farney_cowboy_weste interview is exactly what the phrase implies: a television ‘journalist’ ambushes an unsuspecting subject and makes him or her look very foolish, frightened or fraudulent in the process. And, if the genre has a founding father, it would have to be Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” fame.

I raise the ambush interview issue for two very different reasons:
1.)    Despite countless individuals and organizations having been savaged by ambush interviews, self-congratulatory, inward-focused and Kool-Aid drinking CEOs continue to put themselves in harm’s way by requesting off-the-record briefings in order to tell their side of the story in the midst of crisis. CEOs are best advised not to do so unless they’ve anticipated every conceivable negative question and have ironclad responses in hand.
2.)    I’ve just finished reading “The Kennedy Detail.” It’s written by one of the surviving members of the Secret Service detail entrusted with President John F. Kennedy’s safety and security, and is intended to set the record straight, once and for all. As something of a Kennedy assassination buff, I thought I knew all there was to know about the sad event. But, I did not. And, I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in learning more about November 22, 1963.

Near the end of the book, there’s a fascinating chapter about Clint Hill, who had been assigned to Mrs. Kennedy’s Secret Service detail. He was the agent who climbed aboard the president’s limousine just seconds after JFK had been mortally wounded. Twelve years after the shootings, Hill was invited to appear on 60 Minutes by Mike Wallace.

Hill agreed to do so only if Wallace promised not to probe into the details of the assassination. Wallace readily agreed and said he was really only looking to do a profile of the Secret Service itself. And, Wallace was true to word. The taping went well. Wallace asked Agent Hill about Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, and the role of the Secret Service.

Then, a few days later, Wallace called Hill up and said there’d been a problem with one small section of the taping. He asked “Secret Service Agent #9” if he’d mind re-taping about five minutes of it. Hill agreed.

Now, double click on this link and watch what Wallace did to Hill: Hill-limo Mike Wallace Clint Hill 1975 "60 Minutes" Interview.

The media perform a valuable service in a free society. But, journalists such as Wallace are to be feared. His gotcha style of gonzo journalism devastated Hill, and exacerbated the agent’s downward spiral towards alcoholism and depression.

CEOs and their counselors would be well advised to watch the Secret Service Agent #9 clip before they decide to sit down for their next interview. The image and reputation they save may be their own.

Thanks and a special tip o’ RepMan’s climbing helmet to Edward M. Ted “Conspiracy Theory” Birkhahn for sending me the Clint Hill link.