May 01

How many heart attacks will it take…

Pfizer just doesn’t get it. A mere 16 months after the company stopped advertising Celebrex over serious concerns about its heart risks, Pfizer is back at it with a major consumer campaign aimed at reviving sales of the drug, which plunged last year during the ad moratorium.Celebrex

Consumer groups, physicians and many other industry specialists have quickly voiced their displeasure. They claim that Celebrex is so dangerous that Pfizer should stop selling it and clearly not encourage any patients to use it. Dr. Sidney Wolfe, the director of health research for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen was quoted in Saturday’s New York times article as saying, "There’s no objective evidence of any unique benefit with this drug, and there is objective evidence of a unique risk." Just Google Celebrex and you’ll find handfuls of similar statements from others within the profession, including one from the former FDA commissioner who said in 2004 that he has "great concerns about this product."

Why would Pfizer go out on a limb and take such a risk with Celebrex? It’s very easy to see — Celebrex accounted for $3.3 billion in sales in 2004. Just one year later, during its inconvenient advertising moratorium, sales plunged to less than $1.7 billion. With few other blockbuster drugs in the pipeline and yet another quarterly earnings season always just around the quarter, companies like Pfizer have few alternatives to make Wall Street happy.

Still, this line of thinking truly makes little sense. After watching Merck’s continuing debacle with Vioxx from the sidelines, one would hope that Pfizer and the overall industry would easily take the hint. Putting aside the cost of all the law suits that will undoubtedly be filed if indeed Celebrex is linked to heart problems in the future, why doesn’t Pfizer care about its most important asset — the company’s reputation?

What is the price of a corporate reputation? Is $3 billion or $10 billion or $20 billion in new sales worth the trade off? I think not. This is really quite elementary and Pfizer should be following the Corporate Public Relations 101 Hand book that most corporate insiders have become wise to over the last decade. Three simple rules follow as such:

1) Truly care about your customer: If this is true, then you wouldn’t create and then offer services or products that run contrary to this rule.

2) Learn from other industry PR blunders: The pharmaceutical industry has a two-ton weight on its shoulders believing that no one understands its true motives (the welfare of its consumers, of course). Yet, actions speak louder then words. These actions scream profit, profit and more profit!

3) Be honest with your customers: Transparency is the name of the game. Pfizer has put a black-box warning on Celebrex detailing its risks (after Federal Regulators forced it to), but I’ve yet to witness any honest and open conversations with consumers about what the real story is and whether they should be concerned.

I find it interesting that the pharmaceutical industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year trying to convince its customers that its members truly mean well and are in business to develop drugs that prevent, treat and cure countless diseases. Yet when it comes down to making a buck…sometimes the customers welfare is actually thrown aside and damaged much greater than if the drugs never existed. Celebrex was created to relieve pain. Seems very ironic to me that its impact may actually cause more pain to the company that stands behind it.

Hat tip to Ed Moed for his thoughts.

Apr 24

What to do when the big guy fudges the truth

One of the most difficult challenges facing a corporate communications/public relations executive is deciding how best to handle a CEO credibility crisis. As you’ll recall, the RadioShack people did absolutely nothing when their former CEO David Edmondson was caught lying about his college degree. Day after day, as the crisis escalated out of control, the corporate communications department issued one "no comment" statement after another. Finally, RadioShack’s board of directors stepped in and fired the CEO.

Today comes the revelation that Raytheon’s CEO William H. Swanson, the celebrated author of Swansonsbook_1 "Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management," has been ousted by a blogger who revealed that no fewer than 17 of Mr. Swanson’s bon mots are direct rip-offs of a 1944 book written by a UCLA professor.

Corporate spokesperson, Pamela A. Wickham, said some of Swanson’s rules were "…absolutely on track" with the Bruins professor’s work, but said the final Swanson booklet had been shaped by the CEO’s own experiences. Oh baby, talk about doubletalk.

This crisis could have been averted (and still might) if Swanson had merely given Professor King credit as a source for some of his pearls of wisdom. Instead, he and Raytheon have sat back, published the handbook as original thinking and reaped the image rewards of Swanson’s being positioned as something of a latter-day Peter Drucker. And, sadly, rather than counseling the CEO to admit fault and give credit where credit is due, the PR spokesperson is busy spinning the story in a pro-Raytheon way.

It remains to be seen if the Raytheon CEO’s fudging of the truth will cause the same uproar we saw occur at RadioShack. Regardless, corporate communications/PR seems to have lost yet another opportunity to play a senior strategy role in counseling an executive what to say and do in a crisis. But, as the Nick Naylor character in "Thank for Smoking" likes to say, "Hey, we all have to pay for the mortgage."

Apr 20

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

Can you believe a General Motors PR staffer approached ex-Clinton Labor Secretary and current political pundit, Robert Reich, and offered to pay him to use his blog and other communications "vehicles" to say positive things about the auto maker’s worker buyout program? Oh baby, talk about falling asleep at the wheel!

In this post-Armstrong Williams-Ketchum debacle world in which we live, you’d think any PR person worth his or her salt would know better than to approach a political commentator cum journalist and offer him money to shill for them. The Williams-Ketchum mess was major news for months, so I find it hard to believe GM’s combined client-agency team missed the coverage. Or did they?

Reich was right to publicly condemn GM for their foolish offer. The incident, though, leads me to ask another question: if an allegedly smart and savvy marketer like GM is still doing pay-for-play stunts, are there others out there as well? If so, then maybe its time for the Arthur Page Society and the Council of PR Firms to offer refresher courses explaining why pay-for-play is so wrong and how much damage such mistakes wreak on our industry’s image.

And, how about poor GM? Is this Detroit’s version of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, or what? Someone there needs to get on a ‘fast track’ ASAP or there won’t be any money left in the coffers to procure future pay-for-play deals.

Mar 20

Don’t Huff, just apologize

If you were tuned into the blogosphere and mainstream media last week, it was impossible to miss the "he said, she said" dispute going on between Arianna Huffington and George Clooney.

On March 12th, a post from George Clooney titled "I am a liberal. There, I said it" appeared as an op-ed on Huffington’s widely read "Huffington Post" blog.

After Clooney’s post generated significant media attention, along with a mix of positive and Gclooney_1 negative reactions within the blogosphere, he quickly responded saying that he did not write the piece. It was then determined that Huffington had actually compiled Clooney’s various political statements (culled from previous media interviews) and re-worked them into a post that appeared to be submitted by Clooney himself. It’s now clear that Clooney’s incompetent publicist played a big role in this miscommunication by approving a draft of the post without his blessing.

Regardless of the publicist’s bone-headed move, it’s the Huffington Post that beared the brunt of criticism. And rightfully so. The Huffington Post, and other top-tier blogs, have grown huge audiences because they pride themselves on offering honest, unfiltered opinions that encourage reader participation. Transparency is key in the blogosphere (and in life for that matter). Attempting to fabricate posts (ghostwriting articles, not citing sources, etc.) will only hurt you in the long run.

Fortunately, Huffington was smart enough to realize this and finally issued an apology and promise to her readers, but not before speaking out and initially putting the blame on Clooney’s camp.

So, let this be a lesson to anyone who is thinking about launching a blog. Always remain 100% transparent, write your own content, and give credit where it’s due. Attempting to deceive your readers will not only alienate them, it will damage your reputation in an instant.

Feb 22

Glaxo’s new communications strategy is a sure fire prescription for success

I love what GlaxoSmithKline is up to. The other day, GSK’s vice president of external advocacy (ya gotta love the job title) announced that the entire 8,000-strong sales force had been media- and message-trained and would be asked to interact with various constituents to help overcome the pharma industry’s horrific image. Gsk

This is so smart that it absolutely baffles me why more organizations don’t take similar steps. I cannot tell you how many companies we’ve come into contact with that keep their sales and marketing groups in separate silos. One erstwhile client in particular stands out in my mind. One of the world’s biggest and best-known brands, this company’s sales and marketing teams functioned like warring armies. Sales was openly disdainful of marketing, seeing it as an unnecessary drain on the bottom-line and only good for developing product spec sheets. Simultaneously, marketing perceived sales as an out-of-control group of high flyers who would say or do anything to land the next big sale. Bringing the two groups together in an off-site meeting enabled us to begin the process of tearing down the walls and overcoming preconceived stereotypes.

It takes an enlightened management team to bring sales and marketing together. Here’s hoping that Glaxo’s program is successful and serves as a bellwether for other, less progressive organizations.

Hat tip to Dandy Stevenson for this idea.

Jan 27

Oprah comes clean

Here’s to Oprah Winfrey for devoting yesterday’s show to accepting blame for the James Frey/"A million little pieces" debacle.

Oprah, whose endorsement of Frey’s book sent its sales into the stratosphere, took the fabricating author to task for his egregious lies, chastised his publisher for not doing any fact checking, and, critically, apologized to her fans for initially recommending the book and, later, justifying Frey’s lies when she phoned in to the Larry King Show a few weeks back.

How refreshing it is to see a "leader" actually hold herself accountable for her actions. While I’ve never, ever been a fan of Oprah’s, I really admire what she did yesterday. Compare that with the waffling and outright avoidance we see from leaders in such areas as:

– government (the Hurricane Katrina cover-up being only the most recent example)

– business (a la Messrs. Lay and Skilling, who go on trial next week)

– the Catholic Church (which continues to avoid addressing the root causes of its pedophilia plague)

– sports (where the likes of Ron Artest, T.O. and the Minnesota Vikings sex cruise perpetrators do as they please with no repurcussions, etc.).

So, hats off to Oprah and her gutsy move to hold herself and those around her accountable. If only we had a few more people like her in positions of power and authority.

Jan 17

Will Sirius make Stern Superfluous?

The Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating editorial the other day questioning Howard Stern’s longevity as a counter-culture icon now that he is free to say and do whatever he pleases on Sirius radio.

Unshackled from the constant harassment of the FCC, Stern can now assault listeners with as many Lesbian lovers, little people and other "unique" characters as he pleases with absolutely no retribution from on high.Stern

And, that’s exactly what threatens Stern and, potentially, could turn him into yesterday’s one-trick pony. You see, a lot of the fun in listening to Stern, so I’m told (note: I’m an Imus fan), was to hear him rail against government authorities and plead his First Amendments rights.

Will Stern be able to re-invent himself on Sirius or will he continue to revert to the same-old, same-old without the "David vs. Goliath" subplot of freedom of speech vs. filth to fuel interest?.

The best brands find ways to reinvent themselves when confronted with seismic marketplace changes. Apple and IBM are two great examples. It remains to be seen whether the shock jock can follow suit and come up with a new shtick that will keep consumers of commercial-free (and censorship-free) radio coming back for more.

Hat tip to Dandy Stevenson for her thoughts.

Jan 17

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Talk about a case of the shoemaker’s children having no shoes," how about the latest misstep from Sprint? According to the Associated Press, a Sprint operator refused to provide information to help locate a toddler who was in his father’s SUV when it was stolen.

The incident went down just before Christmas when Jason Cochran buckled his 10-month-old son Cochran_child_1 into his car seat and ran inside the house to collect his three-year-old. While he was inside, the car was stolen with Cochran’s infant and cell phone, equipped with a GPS system, inside.

Despite frantic calls from Mrs. Cochran to Sprint to provide the coordinates, the company operator refused to cooperate, saying it wouldn’t release the information without a subpoena and a $25 service fee. Happily, the SUV and the child were found within a few hours, safe and sound.

But, what about Sprint’s horrific behavior and the nonsensical bureaucratic policies and procedures of its operator? In my opinion, they should be severely chastised in the court of public opinion. Yet, as far as I know, there hasn’t been much fallout beyond the article.

Sprint’s boorish behavior is yet another example of performance trumping image and reputation. In other words, all the public relations and advertising in the world won’t make any difference if the organization’s product, service or, in this case, conduct, are shabby. Hopefully, the powers that be at Sprint have made some changes based upon this "near miss." Next time, they and their customer may not be so fortunate.

Jan 12

You can’t judge a book by its cover…

…because Oprah sure can’t. A departure from Nobel Prize-winning works for her Book Club of must-reads is the subject of a heated debate that boils down to nothing more than what section of the book store the public should find A Million Little Pieces, a book on substance abuse and recovery by James Frey.Frey

After the muckraker site TheSmokingGun.com posted a damning report on the veracity of Frey’s harrowing tale of alcoholism and crack addiction this week, the author, and even his mom, have taken to the Web and the air to defend not only the book that "kept Oprah up at night," but the memoir genre itself.

Frey’s story is about his experience as a 23-year-old man who wakes up broken, bloody, and with his teeth nearly dangling out of his mouth on a plane heading to Minnesota, where he is to begin rehabilitation treatment. While he is trying to sober up, he must face the demons in his very near past, which include arrest warrants in three states.

TheSmokingGun.com claims this is a flat out lie and that Frey was never wanted in three states and that he never served any jail time. In fact, they devote eight pages to dissecting the lies that "abound" in Frey’s book on their site.

In an interview last night on Larry King Live, James Frey offered that, by definition, the memoir genre, whose rules and boundaries as a new genre have yet to be outlined, lends itself to the embellishments of the author. In fact, he admits that the book was originally shopped to different publishing houses as a novel and that the decision was ultimately made by Random House to distribute it as a memoir.

This is where the debate begins and where it should end. James Frey is not a liar, he’s an author who got a very nice check for writing a good book and his publishers decided to label it X while some people (perhaps without book deals of their own) would prefer to call it Y.

Whether Frey was missing one tooth or three by the time he arrived in rehab or whether he served three months or three years in prison as a result of his drug use has nothing to do with the fact that the author was in fact a young man who hovered near death in the grips of addiction. To call the author a fraud, or worse, a liar, is ridiculous.

As is TheSmokingGun.com’s headline "The Man Who Conned Oprah."

Even Oprah would agree with that, as she made a surprise phone call to Larry King last night to say that despite the controversy surrounding Frey’s story, she made a connection with his words and so have hundreds of thousands of other people. This, she says, is what critics should focus on: the impact of a writers words, the quality of the story, and the lessons to be gleaned from it.

Kudos to Ms. Winfrey for subtracting herself quickly and masterfully from a rather bland debate by pointing out the bottom line for Larry King and his viewers: A Million Little Pieces is a good book that will scare anyone straight on even casual drug use and it should continue to inspire future readers.

As with anything involving Oprah, she always comes out on top. Now THAT’s reputation management…

Jan 05

Good night and good luck

And so, after all his protestations and arguments to the contrary, it appears that Jets coach Herm Edwards is in the final stages of leaving to accept the top spot with the Kansas City Chiefs.

How sad is it that leaders in all walks of life today say one thing and then do the exact opposite? It Herm seems to me that Herm’s behavior is now the norm and not the exception.

Why isn’t the media holding our leaders more responsible for living up to their promises? Why aren’t there repercussions for people who act and behave the way Herm Edwards has done in recent days?

Herm’s behavior (i.e. re-assuring the press and fans that he wasn’t interested in the KC job while negotiating with Chiefs management behind the scenes) reminded me of an incident at Peppercom during the dotcom heydays.

As we were growing to the tune of about 100 percent annually, we decided to reward one of our top performers with a partnership in the business. The negotiations were heated at times, and took the better part of the Summer as "I’s" were dotted and "T’s" were crossed. Finally, the deal was struck. We called together the staff, issued a press release and lifted our champagne glasses to toast our newly-minted partner. About a week later, she resigned to take a corporate gig (with whom she was obviously negotiating all the while).

To both our erstwhile partner and the departing Herm Edwards, I’d borrow the signature sign-off of legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow and say, "good night and good luck."