Dec 22

Is H&K’s re-brand more newsworthy than Al Qaeda’s?

BlogThere's something inherently wrong with an industry trade press that bombards readers with

breaking news bulletins to let us know Hill & Knowlton is now H+K Strategies, but chooses to ignore Al Qaeda's re-branding.

Call me crazy, but I think Al Qaeda's name change in an effort to distance itself from 9/11, bin Laden and other 'collateral brand damage' in order to attract a new generation of terrorists is just a tad more newsworthy than an ersatz cosmetic facelift by a Top 10 PR firm.

I'm not saying the PR trades are making a mountain out of a molehill with the latter and being completely irresponsible in overlooking one of the most fascinating image and reputation stories of the year with the former, but what the heck?

So, here's a quick note from a citizen journalist to our crack PR trade journalists: what defines news in your mind? And, why would you alert the world to a non-story while choosing to ignore a truly significant one? This inquiring mind would like to know.

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 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 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.

Apr 07

The Fed’s Fireside Chats

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer, and RepChatter Co-host, Brendan Mullin.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has declared he will hold quarterly  press conferences during our current Great Recession much like President Roosevelt launched his fireside chats in March 1933 during the Great Depression. Then, FDR sought to connect with Americans to discuss complicated issues and reassure depressed countrymen that brighter days were ahead. Ironically, in his first fireside chat, FDR spoke to the nation about banking and why so many banks had failed.  Sound familiar?

Storm_fig01bBut, the question of the moment is, “Will the Fed’s modern day update on the fireside chat prove useful?”

While everyone is for more transparency – and make no mistake that is what this move is intended to symbolize – many wonder if it is enough or if it will even work.

Dow Jones managing editor Neal Lipschutz wrote recently that he believes Bernanke has the right personality to handle the pressure of open communications but wishes there would be more than just four “meet the press” moments during the year for the chief banker (note: “Fed chief” and “personality” are as closely linked as “Britney Spears” and “class”).

Others have made the argument it’s just not necessary as the Fed’s monetary policy is already parsed to extremes.  As we’ve seen the last few years in particular the markets hang on the Fed’s every word.  Will we now see wild market swings based simply on Bernanke’s non-verbals!? 

It ought to be interesting (or comical) to see the pundits analyze Bernanke’s look and style during his April 27th inaugural press conference as much as the substance on which he speaks. And, I can envision Bernanke’s flack instructing him on the eve of the press conference, “Remember Ben, dark suit, white shirt, solid tie. Oh, and be sure to sit on your coat tails.”

Kidding aside, disclosures and transparency on monetary policy and global economic realities are very serious matters. I just hope the concept – or experiment – of a “press conference” is genuinely meant to be more open about the fiscal decisions the Fed make. And yes, I’m talking about those decisions that have profound effects on the markets, and directly impact everyday citizens who, knowingly or not, are participants in the very delicate economic conditions the Fed seeks to monitor and maintain.  

Maybe Bernanke & Co. did listen to FDR’s first fireside chat and believed it when he said, “After all there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people.” As we wait for curtain to rise on Bernanke’s first press conference later this month, for Ben’s sake, let’s hope FDR was also right when he said, “We have nothing to fear except fear itself.”

Get your popcorn ready. 

 

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.

Sep 22

When in doubt, blame others

Birds don't do it. Bees don't do it. But, big business sure does it. “It” is blaming others for one's Blame-game mistakes.

The latest example came a few days ago when my beloved, primary source of commutation, NJ Transit, blamed Amtrak for its record 1,400 delays this past summer.

Talk about the summer from hell. NJT experienced 1,400 delays in a period of 90 days! Now, I'm not a math wizard, but that adds up to a staggering 150 or so delays a day. I'm surprised any of their damn trains moved at all.

But, hey, don't blame NJT. It wasn't their fault. A lead spokesperson pointed the finger at Amtrak, from whom NJT leases 'track time' on the Northeast Corridor. He said that, since Amtrak has always been underfunded by the government and unable to keep pace with needed maintenance, NJT really isn't to blame for overheated 20-year-old locomotives, overhead wires that drooped in the heat and electric power interruptions. That's the business equivalent of a kid saying the dog ate his homework.

To add insult to injury, NJT also implemented an across-the-board fare hike this summer. That's akin to charging the Titanic passengers a surcharge for life jackets.

NJT officials certainly aren't alone when it comes to pointing fingers at others. BP has made it something of an art form. So, too, have Wall Street executives who shrugged their shoulders when the markets collapsed but happily continue to pocket record bonuses.

No one's better at obfuscation, though, than religious leaders. My favorite is Brother Harold Camping, a Bible expert who holds court on a national cable channel.

The 90-year-old, hearing impaired, former engineer sits in a dilapidated studio, holding a Bible and entertaining questions from viewers. But, whenever an above-average viewer stumps Brother Camping with one of the Bible's countless contradictions, he claims not to have heard or understood what was just asked. So, he thanks the viewer for her question and simply hangs up. It's hilarious to watch.

Recently, the self-proclaimed Bible authority was thrown a real caller curve: “Brother Camping,” said the caller, “please explain how the Bible preaches an eye for an eye in one section but advises us to turn the other cheek in another?” Brother Camping squinted at the camera, fidgeted in his chair and finally responded by saying, “Unless you can cite the specific passages, I can't answer. But, thank you for calling Open Forum.” Classic dodge.

Brother Camping has somehow added, multiplied, subtracted and divided various 'mathematical clues' in the bible and declared that May 22, 2011, will be the end of the world. About 15 years ago, he made a similar prediction. But, when the day came and went without an apocalyptic event, Brother Camping pulled an NJT (or, BP if you prefer) and blamed a faulty computer.

Isn't it great to be living in a society with no accountability? Hey, my train's delayed again! At least I know it's Amtrak's fault.

Sep 17

Feeding the Beast

500x_cargood Thanks to last night’s horrific and totally unexpected thunderstorm, the New York media Beast has been sated. For now, that is.

The Beast had been grumpy of late. Highly-touted Hurricane Earl, predicted by many tri-state weathermen to be the worst hurricane to threaten New York since 1938, had hung a right turn instead and headed out to the Atlantic. So, instead of downed power lines, battered beaches and terrified citizens, the media Beast was left with hours and hours of ‘filler’ time. The ‘total team coverage’ every station had set to go had to stand down. And, most maddening of all for the Beast, the anticipated ratings increases never materialized.

Then, like manna from heaven, came yesterday’s mother of all storms. And, trust me, it was a world-class event of biblical proportions. Thunder, lightning, hail and incredibly strong winds shook Manhattan like a rag doll, shut down power at my beloved Penn Station and ended up stranding tens of thousands of Long Island Railroad commuters (note to tri-state readers: Ever wonder why the most horrific traffic, weather and news always seems to impact Long Island?).

The media Beast gorged itself on the storm’s offerings. Regular programming was interrupted. Teams were dispatched to scores of severely-affected areas in Brooklyn, Queens and, of course, the Island. Cameras showed downed trees, smashed cars and storefront windows blown to smithereens. It simply didn’t get any better for the Beast. Soon, reports began coming in that the storm might, in fact, have been a tornado. The Beast loved the ‘T’ word and continued suggesting such an event had, indeed, occurred.

The Beast’s representatives also succeeded in interviewing countless storm victims and somehow, some way, induced each and every one to agree that he or she had never, ever, seen the likes of Thursday’s storm (i.e. “I’ve been living in Bed-Stuy for 51 years and I’ve never seen nothing like this!”).

It was good. Very good. The coverage went on throughout the night and into the early morning. As might be expected, the Beast positioned camera crews at Penn Station this morning to intercept incoming Long Islanders. ‘How was your commute?’ shouted one CBS reporter to a passenger. ‘Fine. Just fine,’ she replied. Undaunted by such a positive response, the reporter kept his head and nailed the commuter with a follow-up: ‘But, last night was horrible, right?’ The commuter smiled, shrugged her shoulders as if to say, ‘such is life’ and continued on. Damn. That was not good. There was no hype. No fear. No indication that this particular person’s world hadn’t been crushed like so many trees.

But, back in the studio, all was well. The weatherman beamed as he relayed the news that the National Weather Service was conducting an investigation and would decide sometime later today if, in fact, yesterday’s storm had been a tornado. Wow. A tornado in Manhattan? It simply doesn’t get any better for the Beast.

And, so, as the hype and ersatz concern in the voices of reporters began to fade away, the Beast began to hunker down. It was content knowing it had done everything possible to not only cover but, indeed, escalate the drama and hype of this gift from heaven. The Beast had been fed.

Aug 09

When your CEO isn’t New York Times worthy

Remember the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine Bennis, running low on contraceptive devices,
Nytimes1 had to decide which boyfriends were and weren't sponge worthy?

The episode came to mind recently when we were fired by a client CEO whose story, despite our very best efforts, was found by reporters at the 'old, gray lady' not to be New York Times worthy.

Never mind that we had scored tons of superb placements in outlets such as Fast Company, general business press, vertical industry and trades. The narcissistic CEO felt his epic tale should be splashed across the front pages of the 'print' edition of The Times. Aside from feeding his Mt. Everest-sized ego, the Times hit was uber critical to the CEO because the other power players in his social circle also routinely appeared in the paper. So, he HAD to be there or else.

Unfortunately, the Times editorial staff disagreed (no matter how many angles we tried). And, since we failed to produce the seminal Times hit, we were summarily discharged.

The CEOs self-aggrandizing misbehavior reminded me of the stereotypical typical dotcom founder who, armed with a freshly-minted Stanford MBA, a me-too business model and millions of dollars in venture capital seed money insisted his mug be front and center on the cover of BusinessWeek. His CMO henchwoman (they were almost always henchwomen, BTW) would nod her head vigorously and add, "How could they not put Halsey on the cover?" Well, nine times out of 10, the professional journalists laughed off the pitch as not being cover worthy and the henchwoman would discard us like yesterday's newspaper.

All of which reminds me of a superb observation the legendary Manhattan PR wizard Howard Rubenstein shared with a PRSA audience many years back. When a prospect or client CEO demanded to be on the front page of The New York Times or the cover of Fortune, Rubenstein said he'd let out an exasperated sigh, lean over, pull open his desk drawer and produce a toy gun. “You want to be on the cover of Forbes? Fine. Go murder someone and I'll get you on the cover of Forbes.” I think that sums it up beautifully.

Stanley Bing's book "Crazy Bosses" contains a hilarious chapter about the care and feeding of self-absorbed, narcissistic maniacs who believe the sun rises and sets with their every move. My only addition to Bing's pearls of wisdom would be to determine expectations BEFORE a relationship begins. If you run into the next George Steinbrenner who needs his ego stoked with one front page feature after another (and you believe the actual news value akin to what Lindsay Lohan was served for breakfast in the L.A. County jail, walk away). Tell the prospect he or she isn't client worthy.