Dec 29

The Red Cross: Charity Begins at Home?

After Hurricane Katrina struck, money was flowing in as fast as the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and more than a few do-gooders thought there was little harm in skimming just a bit off the top. So far, 49 volunteers have been indicted for scamming donations that were intended for victims, but the investigation is spreading to other states and this is expected to be just the tip of the iceberg.

The United Way has never fully recovered from its scandal-filled 90s and the Red Cross has been trying to patch some bad holes in its moral fabric for some time now. Now that these icons of American charity and generosity have shown their feet are made of clay, what do future generations see as models for their generous spirits? The Red Cross said it is "devising new systems with the help of the FBI and Secret Service so that such fraud will be easier to detect in the future." What? We need the Secret Service to monitor a volunteer organization?

Can’t you just see the next Red Cross "Contribution Distribution" chart? 10% to legal fees, 10% to the Secret Service, 10% to Legal Aid fund for volunteers who will sue the Red Cross because they felt they were "entitled" to at least gas money, 10% to internal audits to search for further flaws in the system, 5% to media train spokespeople to deal with crises and 25% to administration and salaries. Not much left for those who actually need aid.

Charity is big business and Clara Barton has gotten too big for her bloomers.

Hat tip to Dandy Stevenson for her thoughts.

Dec 27

The Garden State’s new tagline isn’t a rose

The powers that be in Trenton have decided it’s time to replace New Jersey’s longstanding marketing tagline ("New Jersey and you: perfect together") with a new statement.

There’s been a web site created and a contest initiated to select the new tagline. Recently, the state government released the five finalists chosen by some eight thousand residents who obviously have a lot of time on their hands.

My favorite was "New Jersey: Expect the unexpected." One can only imagine the material Jay Leno’s or David Letterman’s joke writers could generate if "expect" becomes the winning slogan.

In thinking through possible illustrations of NJ’s "Expect the unexpected" tagline, I came up with a few possible highlights for an ad campaign:

1.) "Leading the nation in toxic waste sites. New Jersey. Expect the unexpected."
2.) "More cars (and more car thefts). New Jersey. Expect the unexpected."
3.) "If our politicians don’t rip you off, our car insurance rates will." New Jersey. Expect the unexpected."

And so on and so on. If the Garden State really needs a new marketing tagline, lawmakers should choose something that New Jersey alone can "own," rings true and doesn’t invite immediate derision. How about these:

1.) "New Jersey: nowhere to go but up"
2.) "New Jersey: we glow in the dark."
3.) "New Jersey: more goodfellas and less good air"

Whatever the final decision, let’s hope the new tagline reflects an accurate picture of what it’s like to live in the Garden State (and doesn’t reinforce NJ as being the joke of the entire country).

Dec 21

Where’s Ronald Reagan when you need him?

The two-day-old NY transit strike is officially at an "impasse" and neither side seems to have the smarts, strength or savvy to solve the problem.

In my opinion, Messrs. Pataki, Bloomberg, et al, should take a page out of the Gipper’s play book and start acting like genuine leaders.

Back in 1981, our nation’s air traffic controllers did exactly what New York transit workers did Air_strike_2 yesterday: they walked out. But, unlike his contemporary counterparts, Reagan didn’t equivocate or rattle his saber. He gave the striking workers 48 hours to return to work or risk losing their jobs. The controllers held fast and so did Ron. He replaced them with management personnel and military air traffic controllers, while simultaneously initiating a nationwide job search for a whole new group of controllers to fill the vacated positions. It worked. The nation’s air traffic system continued to function and life went on as usual (except that tens of thousands of air traffic controllers found themselves permanently unemployed with no transferable job skills).

As Reagan might say if he were alive today, "Mr. Bloomberg, tear down those picket lines." Let’s give the transit workers 48 hours to get back on the job or risk losing their livelihoods. In the meantime, let’s get management personnel lined up and beg, borrow or steal qualified transit workers from other sources (i.e. Other cities, etc.).

It’s high time our leaders stopped allowing unions to hold our country and its economy hostage.

Dec 20

To blog or not to blog? That is the question.

Peppercom just released its first survey on corporate blogging, which offers insights from the marketing community on the benefits and risks for companies that are experimenting with this medium.

Although the vast majority of respondents were positive about the potential for corporate blogs as a communications channel, there was a considerable amount of concern about how companies should go about entering the blogosphere.

With the growing hype around blogging, marketing executives are trying hard to figure out how to step into the blogosphere without getting burned. And I don’t blame them. For many companies, the idea of creating an open dialogue with its customers’ is a scary proposition. What if they bash our products? What if we disclose something that comes back to haunt us?

These are all valid concerns, but I urge companies to take a step back and think about why they even want to start blogging in the first place. Too often companies dive into the blogosphere with an agenda, which is a bad move. You wouldn’t go to your high school reunion with a bullhorn and flyers talking about your company. Companies cannot assume they can jump in and exploit the blogosphere in the same way.

To be successful in this space, you need to be much more down-to-earth and transparent. First and foremost, corporations must slow down and listen to the ongoing conversation enabled by blogs. By simply listening to the debates, concerns, and praises, companies will be able to fine-tune their products and messaging. Second, companies can join the conversation as long as they engage their customers. What’s the point of blogging if you insist on keeping the walls up? Third, and probably most important, do not attempt to control the conversation with bullhorn marketing communications methods of old. Don’t treat your customer as a "target." Talk to them honestly and openly, because chances are, they probably know more about your products than you do.

Dec 19

A tale of two leaders

So Minnesota Vikings quarterback Dante Culpepper and three of his fellow "Vikes" were just charged with indecent conduct, disorderly conduct and lewd and lascivious conduct for their actions on an October 6th Lake Minnetonka boat cruise. Apparently, the guys went a little "overboard" in their cavorting with some of the women on the vessel and now face a trial and possible jail time. Naturally, the team declined comment.

At the same time, Curtis Martin of the Jets has undergone successful knee surgery and plans to return next season to hopefully lead his hapless team to brighter results.

One could not find a more marked contrast in two team leaders than Culpepper and Martin.

I’ve had the fortune to meet Curtis twice. The most recent occurrence was the night before last season’s Super Bowl, when I was lucky enough to attend an NFL players association gala at which Curtis was given some sort of lifetime achievement award. His acceptance remarks were nothing short of incredible as he told of having survived a brutally tough childhood in which several family members were murdered. He not only overcame those terrible odds, but has risen to become one of the all-time great running backs. At the same time, he is one of the most humble guys in the world.

Anyway, near the end of the dinner, I walked over to Curtis, who was all alone at his table. I told him I was a big fan, but added that my son Chris, a sophomore at the University of Vermont, absolutely adored him. I asked Curtis if I could dial Chris on my cell phone and have the two of them talk. Needless to say, Curtis picked the phone right up and chatted amiably with my son as if they were the best of friends. Also, needless to say, dad scored some very serious points with his son for pulling that one off.

I don’t know Culpepper, but judging by his Lake Minnetonka antics, I doubt he would have had the grace and "everyman" demeanor of Martin to have spoken with my son that night.

And, that’s probably just one example of the vast differences between these two leaders.

Sadly, I fear that Martin is the exception to the leadership rule nowadays. The quiet, dignified leaders seem to have become an endangered species in sports, politics and most other pillars of our society. And, I’m not sure there’s any way to reverse the trend.

Dec 15

All I Want for Christmas is a… Massive Transit Worker Strike!

Like most New Yorkers who rely on mass transit to get to and from work, I’ve been closely following the story of the looming strike of all NYC transit workers, which would essentially halt all subway traffic and many of the commuter trains in and around NYC. Transit_strike_1

While I’m sympathetic to the workers’ desire for higher wages, increased pension benefits and more healthcare coverage, I’m appalled at the Union’s position of being hell-bent on striking and holding the City of New York as their hostage. Unions, in general, have not done well keeping pace with the changing face of business and the role they play in it. They claim to protect the rights of workers, and attempt to do so by threatening strikes and work slowdowns, in an effort to disrupt the businesses that employ their members.

However, I wonder how many MTA workers, aside from the people at the staged rallies, really want to strike, especially in light of a contract offer that does bring them considerable pay increases over the next two years. Are they really looking to be out of work with no income right before Christmas? Do they think the hundreds of dollars they pay each year in union dues are worth all of this? Furthermore, do they realize that a strike will cost small and medium-sized businesses in NYC hundreds of millions of dollars? The strike would hurt all the wrong people, including members of the union.

Unions, in their current state, are becoming more and more irrelevant in today’s economy. To survive, they must reinvent themselves and prove their value by better understanding the economic issues that drive considerations for wage increases and educating their members on how to protect themselves and diversify their capabilities as workers. Unions have a reputation problem and the theatrics being played out in NYC are not helping matters.

Dec 14

It must not be cool to keep warm

So I’m wrapped in four layers of clothing, encased in gloves, scarf and a wool hat at the Middletown train station this morning, doing my very best to stay warm in the Arctic cold. And yet I’m still shivering.

So along come three businesspeople wearing nothing more than suits and ties. They’re happily engaged in an animated conversation about telecom sales support and, apparently, totally unfazed by the frigid temps.

I’m both horrified and mystified. Are they immune to what others feel? Are they from some other planet? Or, was Thomas Jefferson wrong when he wrote that all men were created equal?

I had to find out. So, I sidled up to the nearest one and asked him if he wasn’t freezing. He looked me over as if I’d just asked if he’d ever served a prison sentence and sniffed, "I guess I’m just tougher than you."

So, is this gent’s wanton disregard for warmth part of a larger image he projects to the outside world? One can only wonder what other superhuman traits he possesses. Does he forego an umbrella when it rains? Does he opt to walk from New York to Boston instead of drive? Can he leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Whatever it is that keeps this superman warm, I’ll stick with my gloves, scarf and wool hat, thank you very much. I’d rather be dull and warm than cool and cold.

Dec 12

My heart bleeds for you

David Carr’s New York Times column in today’s business section, "Hollywood gives the press a bad name," bemoans the portrayal of his craft by those big, bad writers, directors and producers in Hollywood. He cites "King Kong," "Munich" and "The Constant Gardener" as the most recent examples of Tinseltown’s misrepresenting journalists as "a flock of cawing seagulls" or "as sleazy bystanders who take people down as a matter of general practice."

As Shakespeare might have said, "Me thinks thou dost protest too much, Mr. Carr." For years, public relations has had to deal with the double whammy of Hollywood and the media in determining how the public perceive us. I’d match the horrific portrayals of "press agents" in "Days of wine and roses," "The Phone Booth," and "Sweet Smell of Success" with anything Mr. Carr can drum up. (Although I must admit "Days" is one of my all-time favorite movies).

Plus, unlike the media, which has its own newspapers, magazines, TV shows, etc., with which to "fight back" on the perception front, we in public relations tend to turn the other cheek (because most of us are afraid to incite the media to publish even more negative coverage of the field).

So, Mr. Carr, I ask you to look at how other professions such as mine are portrayed by Hollywood before you become too enraged. After all, you do have that bully pulpit otherwise known as the Times with which to publish "all the news that’s fit to print."

Dec 08

Substance trumps style every time

Today’s announcement by the 3M Corporation that it had replaced rock star CEO James McNerney, Jr., with George W. Buckley,Gbuckley_3 the low-profile but rock solid former CEO of Brunswick Corporation, is a sign of the times.

According to a Spencer Stuart study, more and more CEOs are being selected based on performance rather than pedigrees. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of the CEOs of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies hold an Ivy League degree (fewer than half as many as 15 years ago). That trend brings back an interesting memory of my days at a division of J. Walter Thompson, where it was all about style and pedigree. I recall a working lunch with the CEO, CFO and creative director of our firm. At the meeting, the CEO was praising the agency’s strategic planner, "She went to Brown, you know. That accounts for her rigor and intellectual energy," he sniffed. The CEO then asked each of us where we’d gone to college. When we were done, he paused and said, "We should all be ashamed of ourselves. Here we are at a major firm and not one of us has an Ivy League diploma."

I thought his logic was twisted then, and it’s even more perverse in hindsight. Happily business and industry seems to be getting over its affair with the CEO superstars of yesteryear and is, instead, opting for people who’ve proven themselves in the trenches….where a degree from Harvard or Yale doesn’t mean a thing.

Dec 06

This time it’s personal(ity)

Over in the UK something rather remarkable happened today. The 250,000 members of the Conservative Party, a largely aging group of upper middle class and establishment types, recognized that the reputation of their party needed an overhaul and duly elected David Cameron as their new leader. David_cameron_at_2005_conservative_party_1

While the election of a new Conservative Party leader has become a regular fixture in British politics since Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, Cameron’s election represents more than just another chapter in the leadership merry-go-round. For 26 years the Tories (as the Conservatives are commonly known) had just two leaders, Cameron however will now be the fifth man in eight years that Blair has faced in the House of Commons.

So what’s the fuss? Why is this man different? On paper Cameron represents everything the Tories are trying to get away from, he is a well spoken, Eton educated establishment man. Cameron’s opponent, David Davis grew up in a single parent household on a tough estate and has many years of Parliamentary experience under his belt. While many respect and admire Davis, it is Cameron, the young telegenic communicator that has galvanized the imagination of the party. Moreover, Cameron and his team have learnt the lessons of Blair’s successful media management.

Tony Blair’s rebranding of the Labor Party into New Labor propelled the party to three electoral victories, now, with David Cameron at the helm, the Tories have a similar opportunity for success. As for Cameron’s critics who claim he is all style and no substance, well, only time will tell, but even if that is true, perhaps style is all that matters anyway?

Hat tip to Carl Foster in Peppercom’s UK office for his thoughts.