Jul 19

Where’s Harry S. Truman when you need him?

Passing the buckEmbattled media impresario Rupert Murdoch folded like an accordion today and blamed others for the phone-hacking scandal that's doing a major number on his empire. 

Speaking before an enraged British Parliament, Murdoch said he is not ultimately responsible for 'this fiasco'. Ha! Sound familiar?

Richard Nixon said he wasn't to blame for Watergate. Jeff Skilling pointed the finger at Andy Fastow for Enron's demise. And, Dennis Koslowski said his solid gold wastebasket, shower rods and bacchanalian parties on the Greek Islands were just part of the perks he deserved as Tyco's CEO.

Harry S. Truman must be spinning in his grave. Our nation's 33rd president, Truman was noted for assuming ultimate responsibility for his administration's successes and failures. In fact, instead of having a name plate on his desk, Truman's featured a sign that read, 'The buck stops here.'

Sadly, the buck never seems to stop anywhere with anyone anymore. From Anthony Weiner and Casey Anthony to Roger Clemens and Rupert Murdoch, we've become a society of finger pointers and blame duckers. We not only blame others for our mistakes but, in many cases, are allowed to literally get away with murder (well, at least, in Casey's case).

Murdoch's comments come as no surprise to me. And, like Joe Nocera of the Times, I'm delighted by the rich irony in seeing a scandal monger such as Murdoch caught up in the midst of scandal.

Murdoch may not pay for his years of abusive leadership and right-wing fanaticism, but his image and reputation will be forever tarnished by the News of the World scandal. And, for me at least, that's punishment enough. In fact, it might just be enough poetic justice to put a smile on old Harry's face if he were alive today.

May 12

So, these two lawyers walk into a bar…

Aside from used car salesman or al Qaeda operative, I can't think of a single occupation with a worse image and reputation than lawyers. In fact, a recent survey of America's most trusted professions showed that lawyers finished just above used car salesmen and beneath politicians.

Lawyers also rival insurance agents as the people I try my best to avoid at cocktail receptions. The former try to sell you policies while the latter can't wait to cite some arcane precedent regardless of the subject. (“Interesting that you bring up long distance cycling as a hobby, Steve. In the case of Armstrong, et al, vs. Humanity, we argued that…”)

So, imagine my trepidation when I was recently invited by a top law firm to lead a 90-minute Humor in the Workplace seminar for their litigation and employment attorneys. Brother, that sounded like as much fun as hanging out with some TSA agents and discussing pat downs for an evening.

Well, guess what? I was wrong. The lawyers were warm, engaging and open to learning how and why humor could make them more effective. And, get this, some of them were actually FUNNY. Not Joe Pesci funny but funny enough.

I've had the good fortune to lead humor workshops for pharmaceutical executives, human resources directors, PR executives and, now, lawyers. And, I have to tell, lawyers would NOT be on the bottom of my list. In fact, the toughest crowd I've EVER had to work with was PR executives who were attending an industry conference. Not only were some openly disdainful, others were downright rude and multi-tasked on their BBs right in front of me. Boo, hiss, PR types.

So, here's a big shoutout for the legal profession. Sure, they still gouge society for each and every penny they possibly can. And, yes, they're the absolute lowest of the low. But, I'd be honored to sip some sauvignon blanc with any of the litigators I trained on Wednesday. Your witness.

Jan 14

How many lawyers does it take to pay back a student loan?

Today's guest post is by Greg Schmalz, president of Schmalz Communications.

 The future. No one has a crystal ball as to what tomorrow will bring.  Just ask your local weatherman. There are no guarantees, especially in life. But for teenagers and college students, the one thing they cling to is hope for the future. 

Lasky_Mzzz The value of a good education has been drilled into them by parents and educators. College students pick their majors and then pursue their dreams.  Pretty much like a leprechaun hoping to reac h the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow-  to reap the rewards, there must be some risk. 

And while U.S. News in 1997 painted a rosy picture for future law students, today is anything but rosy with unemployment hovering around 10 percent. An article in Sunday's New York Times focuses on how graduates with law degrees are steeped in debt (some in the neighborhood of $250,000) for schooling, yet are unemployed. Like any other industry, the law profession has been hit hard by the economy. While tuition costs vary, paying in the range of $150,000-$200,000 is not out of the realm.

Sure, once a graduate with a J.D. degree finds employment, salary could be upwards of $150,000 annually.  But how long will these graduates need to sit on the sideline before they get their chance in the real world?

Unemployment checks aren't going to help much when they are overwhelmed with debt. Is the risk worth it?  The only job I know where you start at the top is a grave digger.  Have some of these students who chose law as a profession made a "grave" mistake? 

While there may be prestige in becoming a lawyer, it still doesn't put food on the table if you don't have a job. Many of us have transitioned from one career to another. Students these days are going to have to take a serious look at this profession before determining their career path or at least have something to fall back on.

What suggestions would you have?

Jan 25

A marriage made in heaven

Guest Post from Trish Taylor, Peppercom

January 25 - drew peterson In the Chicago area, the name Drew Peterson is nearly as well known as Barack Obama. Drew Peterson gained infamy when his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, went missing in 2007. Because a body was never found and there were no signs of foul play, he was never charged with a crime. But coincidentally his third wife, Kathleen Savio, mysteriously drowned in an empty bathtub in their home in 2004. He is now on trial for the murder of Savio.

It has been a media circus since Stacey went missing in 2007 and every time I see his antics I wonder why the media covers him. He has appeared on Larry King and all the national morning shows. When indicted for Savio’s death he told the media, “I guess I should have returned those library books.”

Well it looks like Peterson was able to finally find a law firm that loves oddball publicity as much as him. This week his legal representation issued a release titled, “Not just another pretty face.”  The defense team now includes a former model turned lawyer who is a single mom of three kids. Why does this matter? I have no idea, either. The release goes on to say that although this lawyer (Reem Odeh) doesn’t normally address the court, they are utilizing her mom skills to interview Peterson’s kids on the stand.

The best part of the release? This line: "Reem wants the public to know that beyond her stunning good looks is a hard-nosed attorney who is detail-oriented and brings keen analytical skills to Team Peterson." 

You can’t make this stuff up. While most law firms want to fly low, avoid the radar and encourage their clients also to keep quiet, this firm wants all the attention it can get. I’m all about transparency, but why add to the PT Barnumness of this trial? Luckily only the Chicago Tribune seems to have picked up the release and I’m pretty sure it was to scoff at the ridiculousness of it all. It seems like Peterson has found a perfect fit for his antics.

If this works out for Peterson, maybe Odeh can be his fifth wife. She fits the bill.

Jan 21

Love ’em or hate ’em, procurement types and in-house legal teams are only gaining in power

January 21 I had the distinct pleasure of recently addressing attendees of the Corporate Communications Institute at Baruch College.

Created by Dr. Michael Goodman, the CCI holds executive education conferences twice every year: one in the U.S. and another in the U.K. Attendees represent the who's who of the global 500 and typically carry the title of director of public relations or corporate communications. As might be expected, Dr. Goodman and the 'class' explore everything from shareholder relations to ethics and transparency.

I spoke to them about client-agency relationships and shared some recent findings from the Council of PR Firms. When I reached a Council survey finding concerning the increasing role of in-house procurement in retaining outside firms and legal counsel in message shaping, you'd have thought I'd touched a live wire. Wow. Did this group ever have strong opinions.

With one notable exception, most corporate communicators held procurement officers in disdain ('They slow everything up,' said one. 'Their arcane policies and procedures are scaring away my boutique PR partners,' said another). The sole advocate of procurement actually said she loved the function ('Their background screenings have prevented individuals with past criminal records from visiting our corporate campus,' she said. 'Oh, well, that's nice,' thought I).

The relationship with in-house legal counsel was more complicated. One attendee says she typically wins one-third of her arguments with the corporate legal beagles, loses a third and compromises on the rest.

Everyone agreed that, in these days of full disclosure and massive cost-cutting, lawyers and procurement types are only gaining in importance within the corporate hierarchy.

So, what's a corporate communications executive to do? Best practices seemed to include holding conversations with legal at the very beginning of a campaign so that both parties can raise key messaging goals and potential liabilities.

As for the bean counters, some suggested an attempt to educate the procurement types on the strategic role of communications (i.e. 'Don't treat us or our partners the way you would an office supplies superstore.'). Others merely shrugged their shoulders and said they saw no light at the end of the procurement tunnel (except for the woman who loves it when the CEO of her PR firm pays a visit and has to fill out endless paperwork at the front desk courtesy of new procurement procedures. 'Oh, well, that's nice,' thought I).

What about you? Do you have any best practices for closing the gap between corporate communications and legal? Or, for educating procurement types? I'm all ears. So, too, are the CCI attendees.

Jan 11

If a public relations firm declares a certain type of PR dead, does that automatically make it so?

January 11 - lawyers-13200 The fine folks at Jaffe PR sent me a press release the other day declaring an end to law firm public relations and replacing it, instead, with law firm reputation management. I found the release intriguing, to say the least. So, with the help of Jaffe PR staffer Kathy O’Brien, I decided to dig a little deeper to find out exactly what agency president & CEO Jay M. Jaffe had in mind.

Here’s our back-and-forth:

1) Why declare law firm PR dead now?
It is time. With the dramatic changes in the news media and the economy, along with the explosion of online content and social networking media, public relations no longer adequately defines how law firms effectively build, communicate and extend their brands. Today’s business realities call for a broader and more integrated approach to media relations, marketing and communications that incorporates a complete blend of marketing disciplines including advertising, media relations, face- to-face and social networking, optimized content, Web sites, Internet marketing, crisis communications, legal rankings, speaking engagements, research, strategic planning, and more. Traditional public relations is about building relationships and while we don’t deny that is still important, it is no longer enough.
2) Do your law firm clients and prospects agree with your premise that reputation management trumps PR?
Last year was one of the most difficult years for law firms since the great depression. Firms were plagued by a changing business paradigm, record layoffs, deep salary cuts and an overall decline in profitability. This is a fresh, bold approach that is necessary to remain competitive and we are simply putting a name to what we are doing for our clients and what we feel firms must be doing in this changed industry.

3) Does your declaration extend to other types of law firm marketing? Is law firm advertising dead as well, etc?
Think of it this way – public reputation management encompasses many aspects of marketing. Again, it is just putting a name to the way law firms need to think about positioning themselves. You asked specifically about advertising and in fact, the way law firms advertise is indeed changing. Online content is becoming far more important as print media is rapidly becoming less critical and influential. An online presence, complete with video, offers a more immediate and intimate connection with target audiences, and for law firms, that is groundbreaking.

4) Does your declaration extend to professional services firms in general? Should all professional services firms abandon the term PR and, instead, embrace reputation management?
After a 23-year run, PepsiCo decided to pull its Super Bowl ads in favor of focusing marketing efforts on an online campaign. It could be seen by some as a bold public “relations” move, but it really comes down to how PepsiCo chose to manage its “reputation.” Companies and professional businesses across all industry sectors need to carefully consider new and exciting ways to reach their audiences. It’s more than the single focus of building relationships.

5) I'm a huge proponent of PR agency marketing and have always considered Peppercom to be one of Peppercom's most important clients. That said, your announcement could be seen by some as publicity for the sake of publicity. How would you respond?
This is not about us. It’s about the PR needs of the legal industry. We are reacting to the sea change that is happening in the legal marketplace as well as the rest of the economy. Legal marketing has been virtually stagnant for the past 100 years and public reputation management is the right catalyst at the right time to move law firms up in the reputation curve. It's no longer about sending out a few press releases and calling it PR or marketing. It's about building or growing a brand on many fronts with the right 2010 marketing mix, using a wide range of tools for specific aspects of managing a firm's reputation: media relations, crisis communications, Web 2.0, creative, advertising, etc. These are still all important elements but they can’t be viewed or used in a vacuum – they must be part of a much bigger plan if they want to succeed in this competitive environment.

Thanks, Jay. I must say, I really like the idea of PR firms declaring certain things dead and have decided to add to your list. Here’s what I’d like to declare dead:

The ‘new sheriff in town’ syndrome. This occurs when a new CMO or VP of corporate communications is hired and, regardless of the excellent work done by the incumbent firm, immediately cleans house. I’d like to see an ‘incumbent agency protection clause’ added to PR industry bylaws that reads, in part, ‘Give the damn incumbent half a chance before yanking the plug.’

The ‘tell us what you think it will cost’ cop-out. Too many prospective clients refuse to provide budget parameters and, instead, ask the agency to spin their wheels and submit various scenarios at various price points. By-laws clause number two: ‘Tell the agency what your budget is. Period.’

The black hole of non-response. This occurs when big corporations hold an intense new business search, invite agencies to travel to their faraway headquarters and make a pitch (all within an extremely tight time frame). Then, the prospect never returns calls or provides a status on what the hell happened. By-laws addendum number three: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

Bait-and-switch. We continue to benefit from the fallout that occurs after a large agency trots in former White House press secretaries and other big-time superstars to a new business pitch, promises the prospect these heavyweights will be part of the ongoing team and, then, after being selected, instead staffs the business instead with a bunch of 24-year-old junior executives (no offense intended towards any 24-year-old junior executives, btw). Bait-and-switch hurts the image and reputation of the entire agency world and should be abolished. Final bylaw: Agencies agree to conclude all new business meetings by promising the prospective client, ‘What you see is what you get.’

Aug 06

When lawyers call the shots, corporations typically lose in the court of public opinion

Proving the old adage that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, Yamaha Corporation, makers of a white hot, off-road vehicle called the Rhino, were absolutely skewered by CBS evening News investigative reporter Armen Keteyian.

August 6 Doing his best retro impersonation of Mike Wallace in the latter’s halcyon 60 Minutes’ days, Keteyian dug deep into Yamaha’s files to find damaging memos, pulled off a beautiful ambush interview in the corporation’s lobby and enlisted the support of the new head of the Consumer Products Safety Commission to absolutely crucify the organization for knowing all about rollover problems with the Rhino, and doing nothing about it.
Keteyian interviewed a consumer who’d lost his hand as a result of a Rhino rollover, aired a video from a Yamaha dealership in which a salesman rolled his Rhino over in the parking lot and, get this, unearthed a 2002 internal company memo admitting that Yamaha’s president and vice president had both been injured when they’d taken the Rhino for a spin. Ouch!

I cringed as I watched minute after minute of evidence pile up and waited for the Yamaha response. It finally came after the ambush interview (in which an armed security guard ordered Keteyian to leave Yamaha’s lobby. That certainly projected a warm, fuzzy feeling). Yamaha’s response? A few paragraphs from in-house lawyers pointing to the Rhino’s spotless safety record and suggesting that any accidents were the result of reckless driving by over enthusiastic enthusiasts (Hey Yamaha: Ever hear of the Ford-Firestone SUV rollover crisis?).

The Yamaha Rhino story is a textbook example of how not to handle a breaking crisis and yet another example of how badly lawyers can bungle corporate reputation. Lawyers live, eat and breathe caution. And, in a situation such as this, are far more concerned about legal liabilities down the road than popular perception today. And, that’s what will cost Yamaha dearly in the weeks and months to come.

I’m not privy to the facts of the case, but I do know that Yamaha should have been much more forthcoming in admitting guilt (assuming Keteyian’s facts are true). They should also launch an internal investigation of the product, suspend manufacturing until the flaws are found and fixed, and compensate the victims of any Rhino rollovers.

Corporate communications executives like to talk about how our profession is increasingly ‘earning a seat’ at the table and playing a more strategic role in an organization’s business decisions. The Yamaha crisis reminds us, once again, that far too many corporations still see PR as little more than a staff function.

Jun 18

Hey, it could be worse. We could be lawyers.

June 18 When Kansas City-based Publicist Andi Ennis tells people what she does for a living, she says '…..she'll often get looks suggesting she had just morphed into a hideous bug.' Ouch. And NYC-based PR 'rep' Termeh Mazrahi says people assume she's 'incapable of making genuine, no-B.S. statements.' Double ouch.

Ennis and Mazrahi were interviewed for a ClassesUSA.com article headlined, 'Good careers with bad reputations.' In addition to 'publicist,' the other good career paths with bad reps are mortgage broker, executive recruiter, insurance agent and tax collector.

According to figures provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook (and, I'll bet that's a fascinating read), PR specialist gigs are expected to grow by 18 percent in the next seven years. That's impressive, especially considering the industry-wide contraction in 2009.

I'm not surprised PR jobs have a bad rep. There are a number of reasons why:

  • Hollywood depicts PR people as either clueless, gum-popping blond party planners or sleazy snake oil salesmen
  • The media resent the role played by public relations practitioners in story development and go to great pains to ridicule us at every opportunity
  • Our various PR trade organizations do a woeful job of portraying the many facets of our profession and the countless, positive contributions we make to society.

As a result, we're stuck being listed alongside used car salesmen, mortgage brokers, headhunters and tax collectors. But, hey, it could be worse. We could be lawyers. As bad as our image may be, we'll never come remotely close to the reputation depths plumbed by the average lawyer.

I'm happy to see the strong job prognostications for PR. And, I'm not at all surprised by the 'hideous bug' reaction. But, I am curious as to the type of bug Ms. Ennis would describe as hideous. A tarantula, perhaps? A red ant? Wasps do it for me. In fact, they scare the bejesus out of me. Even more than the average lawyer.

*Special thanks to Jessica Hayward and Matt Sloustcher for the idea.

May 05

I-man, a word to the wise is sufficient

So a New York advertising agency has sued a blogger for copyright infringement, defamation and trade libel and injurious falsehood, whatever that is. The suit, filed by Warren Kremer Piano against a blogger named Lance Dutson, concerns the latter’s belief that the State of Maine’s Office of Tourism was "pissing away tax money" by hiring the NY agency to reinforce Maine’s "vacationland" image.

The ad agency sued the blogger because it said his nasty notes would hurt its business. Agency president Tom McCartin says that, as a result of search engine optimization listing Dutson’s comments first, prospective clients might see his negative posts before they ever get to see the WKPA web site. Horrors!

This got me to thinking about Repman and some of the comments posted by those who disagree with what I say. As far as I’m concerned, negative or contrary comments are what makes a blog effective and worth visiting more than once. So, keep ’em coming. That said, though, not even my friend I-man has suggested we’re "pissing away" clients’ money. So, I’d have to reserve judgment until I-man or someone else pulls a "Dutson."

WKPA’s decision to sue the blogger is an amazingly stupid move for a communications firm. In doing so, they’ve escalated the story and painted themselves as the big, bad Madison Avenue agency trying to crush the Down East blogger. So, I-man, you’re probably safe for now. But, as my eighth grade teacher, Sister Maria Eucharia, used to say, "A word to wise is sufficient."

Nov 03

I’m a Victim. You’re a Victim. Everyone’s a Victim.

I was reading yet another Church scandal story yesterday (and how sad is it that Church scandal stories are now mundane news events?) when I came across an interesting twist.

A Garden City man is suing his pastor, the Presbytery of the City of New York and one of its largest churches, claiming that his pastor seduced his wife. So, to make himself whole again, this cuckolded parishioner is suing the Church for $1 million because the pastor "didn’t perform up to the standards of his calling," $3 million because the aggrieved husband says he’s now "lost his faith and trust in the Church in particular and religion in general" and another million for emotional trauma. Gimme a break.

If this guy wins, just imagine the floodgates it might open from a precedent-setting legal standpoint. If I didn’t like my Mahi-Mahi at Bolo Restaurant, maybe I can now sue them for undermining my trust and faith in the dining-out experience. Or, if my abysmal NY Jets lose to San Diego on Sunday, maybe I’ll sue Herm Edwards for not "performing up to the standards of a coach."

I think our highly litigious, "victim-centric" society has hit a new low when individuals can capitalize on an unfortunate set of circumstances such as an alleged extramarital affair to cash in big time. When and where will it end? When will personal accountability be restored as an admirable trait in individuals? Probably not until the Jets win the Super Bowl again. Or, in other words, not for a very, very long time.