Mar 17

The lost generation

A recent PRWeek editorial posited the view that industry leaders have done a poor job of Capt.7a23ccc1c683d417205acba34c397564
explaining why the AIG's and Citigroup's of the world are entitled to spend their bailout money to hire PR firms. Where, the publication asked, are our leaders?

I would ask the very same question. But I would apply it to 'helping the next generation of PR pros.' Where are our leaders? Where are PR Week (as well as every other trade publication and industry association)?

I may have missed it, but I haven't seen, read or heard a single word aimed at assisting PR/communications majors who are about to graduate from college.

Where are the 'how to' columns? Where are the guest by-liners? Where are the podcasts and blogs containing useful tips for the next generation?

Industry trade pubs and associations are quick to publish articles about cost-cutting best practices and ways in which agencies can provide more value for lower fees. And, I wish I had a dollar for every opinion piece about measurement and 'what's next' in social media. But, where's the long-term thinking? Where's the investment in our industry's future?  Where is the practical knowledge our college kids need before they enter what may very well be the worst job market in 70 years?

To be sure, there are some individual leaders who are helping the college seniors: Tom Martin and Brian McGee at the College of Charleston come to mind. So do Larry Parnell at George Washington University and Maria Russell at Syracuse. But, where are the editors, reporters, association presidents and agency leaders?

We're only one midsized firm, but we're doing our best to try and help. For example:

– We're hosting a podcast next week that will be composed exclusively of college seniors majoring in PR. We're going to ask them what they're doing to prepare for graduation, how they are differentiating themselves and ask them to share best practices.

– We’ve posted a podcast on our website created by our interns. It's an amazing 'how to' in terms of succeeding at one's first job. It also lists things the interns know now that they wish they knew then. And, it includes tips for winning a job interview.

– We're also actively lecturing at colleges such as NYU, Northeastern, Monmouth University, the University of Vermont, Baruch, the College of Charleston, and others.

The average college senior has about six weeks until graduation. Many, though, are like deer caught in the headlights. They often use words like 'terrified,' when I ask them how they're feeling about the future. They have no job prospects, are saddled with significant student loans to pay and, worst of all, have no industry media or associations providing mentorship or advice.

So, here's a quick note to PRWeek, et al: hold off on the navel gazing for at least one week and devote some ink and advice to the next generation. It's later than we think.

Mar 16

I Wish I Had Done a Better Job

Today Deb Brown, Partner and Managing Director Strategic Development, has written the following special guest post.

That’s one of the now infamous sound bites from CNBC’s “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer as 928_Medium
Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” hammered him Thursday night. This show created a lot of buzz, which I’m sure has been a home-run for “The Daily Show’s” ratings, and many reporters called Stewart the clear “winner.” However, there’s one topic that I haven’t seen covered in the articles I’ve come across (although, admittedly, so much has been written on the topic that I might have missed it).

The topic I find the most interesting is how a show that’s on a comedy channel turned one of the supposedly most respected financial news networks in the country upside down. Now, I happen to be a fan of Jon Stewart’s and I think he’s very smart, but what does this say about CNBC and the experts we allegedly trust?

We know when we’re watching Jon Stewart that he is what he is– a comedian. And, to make sure we know, he’s on Comedy Central. But, how are viewers supposed to feel and act when Cramer is basically apologizing for CNBC’s mistakes (and there seemed to be quite a few mentioned Thursday night) while Stewart underscores “the gap between what CNBC advertises itself as and what it is.” 

What does this say about not only Cramer’s reputation, but CNBC’s reputation as a whole?  What does this say about journalism when Cramer hides behind the fact that he didn’t know someone was lying because he was a CEO or he was Cramer’s friend? The showdown may have ended at 11:30pm last Thursday night, but can it take Cramer’s show down with it?  Or the cable network?  It will be interesting to see if this just completely blows over or if this is the start of a serious reputation issue for CNBC.  At last count, more than a thousand articles, blogs or TV segments wrote or aired segments about Cramer cowering under Stewart’s passionate attacks that “it’s not a (bleeping) game.”

But, come on… Stewart is a comedian.  What kind of lasting damage could he possibly do? 

Crossfire, anyone?

Oct 24

An Excessive Wardrobe Doesn’t Guarantee Success

Guest blog by Laura MillsShopping_spree

Evidenced by my guest RepMan post discussing Project Runway, it’s safe to say that I’m a fan of fashion.  So, during my morning scan of yesterday’s headlines, an article in the New York Times caught my eye : “$150,000 Wardrobe for Palin May Alter Tailor-Made Image.”

$150K Wardrobe.  Wait, WHAT?!

I have no doubt that Mrs. Palin needed some new clothes for the campaign, but that is such an amazing amount of money, it’s practically an economic stimulus for Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.  That’s equivalent to about 125 Jimmy Choo handbags, 190 pairs of Manolo Blahniks, or 234 Brooks Brothers suits.

The political implications aside, does it really require $150,000 to dress in a way that communicates success?  Not in my experience.

Each month, I volunteer as a personal shopper with Dress for Success, where I assist women who are trying to make strides towards financial independence by re-entering the work force.  I work with the women to pick out interview attire that fits appropriately and, most importantly, makes them feel good about themselves.  The majority of the clothes are donations, and while I occasionally stumble upon a Calvin Klein suit or Prada pumps in the shop, most of the time the ladies walk away with outfits originally from off-the-rack retailers like the Gap or Dress Barn. 

These women look good, no matter where their suit came from, because they are put together and dressed for their body type in an outfit that makes them feel empowered.  Whether you are dressing the part for a television appearance or a job interview at JCPenny, that confidence is the asset that has the strongest correlation with personal success. It is your most important accessory, and you can’t buy it.  Not even for $150,000.

Jul 14

Is full transparency always the smartest move?

Is full transparency always the smartest move?474910328_2a788caeff

Crisis communications 101 teaches us that full disclosure of an ‘issue’ early and often is the best course for mitigating negative fallout.

The approach seems to work especially well in politics. How many politicians have short circuited such potential career disasters as drug use and infidelity by pre-empting an investigative reporter with a hastily-called press conference? The announcement is followed a feeding frenzy of short-term coverage but, usually, life goes on.

As we know, the pre-emptive, full disclosure strategy is aimed at defaming the media in particular. So, I found it fascinating last week to see a top reporter employ the very same technique in his own behalf.

The reporter was David Carr of The New York Times. His subject: the alleged ‘pit bull’ media relations strategies of Roger Ailes and his Fox Network. Sensing that his kiss-and-tell column would engender a spiteful retaliation, Carr ‘outed’ his own prior drug and alcohol abuse. Fair enough, such an admission may well have pre-empted a Fox counter offensive. But, at what personal cost?

I’ve long admired Carr and his work. Now, though, I’ll always think of him as David Carr of the Times, the recovering drug and alcohol addict. And, all future news searches will pull up the same information. Is that a good thing? 

The Web 2.0 world in which we live enables us to create and manage our personal image and reputation. So, my question is this: by disclosing his past problems in order to prevent a future Fox assault, did David Carr win the image battle, but lose the war?

Jul 11

Let the seller beware

Abby Ellin’s article in yesterday’s Times re-reminded me why I love owning an independent public relations firm.Regret

Her article, entitled “After Selling the Company, Remorse” profiles a number of entrepreneurs who, having sold their companies, rued their lives reporting to parent companies.

The public relations world is littered with the debris of acquisitions gone bad. I know many, many erstwhile entrepreneurs who tell riveting, post-acquisition horror stories.

Don’t get me wrong: the buyer isn’t always to blame. Most mergers and acquisitions fail because of culture clashes. The other obvious problem occurs when the former entrepreneur finds himself shackled to new and strange rules and regulations. And, hey, after years of being the boss, it’s tough to take orders.

I’m hard pressed to think of one truly successful acquisition in the PR world. Sure, some are still in effect, years after the transaction. But, I can’t think of a single ‘seller’ whose image and reputation has improved as a result of a parent company’s acquisition. The latter like to ‘sweeten’ the acquisition talks by enumerating the various cross-selling opportunities within the holding company structure. But, when I speak with friends who have sold to the WPPs, Omnicoms and Interpublics, I hear the exact opposite. In fact, I’ve been told that some firms within holding companies have become arch enemies.

So, while I’ve learned to never say never, I continue to resist the notion of Peppercom one day belonging to someone else. I know Pepper, wherever she is, feels the same way.

Jul 07

There was never any doubt for T.R.

Anxious to put the bitter taste of a losing presidential campaign behind him,Trbrazil1_3  Former President Theodore Roosevelt decided to discover a new, 1,000-foot long tributary of the Amazon River. The year was 1914 and T.R. was 54 years of age.

To put things in perspective, 54 was not the new 34 in 1914. Rather, it was very close to the end for the average male, who lived to be about 60.

But, T.R. thrived on the new and different. So, along with his son, Kermit, a few specialists and about 20 local Brazilian soldiers, he set forth on what was then called the “River of Doubt.”

Three months and 55-pounds later, T.R. emerged from the wilderness. He’d contracted malaria, re-injured an old leg that became infected and watched as one of his men drowned and another was murdered. But he emerged victorious and returned to New York as a conquering hero.

I mention the T.R. story because a) it appealed to my sense of adventure and b) it struck me that none, repeat none, of our current leaders would ever contemplate such a risky trip.

T.R. lived his life in an all-out attempt to squeeze every second from it. He never walked around an obstacle but, rather, charged through it. There was no obfuscation. No flip-flopping.

What would T.R.  do if he were alive today? Impossible to say, of course. But, based upon his image and reputation, he wouldn’t let things linger in Iraq. Nor would he allow gas prices to edge ever higher. The old trust buster wouldn’t take kindly to the endless downsizings, either.

We need a T.R. in the worst way. Sadly, the lightweights we’re stuck with couldn’t find the River of Doubt, much less navigate its treacherous path. And, the River of Doubt itself? Well, it’s now known as Rio Roosevelt in honor of the first man to chart its entire course.

Jun 16

Read the non-verbals

It doesn’t take a behavioral psychologist to read the negative non-verbals of beleaguered Mets Manager7jz0fkb3
Willie Randolph.

Each post-game press conference is more painful to watch than its predecessor. Willie shuffles up to the podium, swigs some water, sits down, folds his hands and says, “Well, guys, that was a tough one to lose.”

A funereal air permeates the proceedings as Willie then tries to explain exactly why his team blew another, late-inning lead:

“Joe had good stuff in the bullpen. He just threw one bad pitch,” or “That’s why we pay Billy the big bucks. He’s going to succeed in those situations 99 times out of a hundred,” or, my personal favorite, “I saw some positives tonight, despite what the score might indicate.”

Willie will then shake his head, rub his eyes, emit a long-exasperated sigh and keep his arms folded. Rather than pump his fist, raise his voice and exhort reporters, fans and players alike to believe in the team, Willie simply retreats further into himself. Talk about a shell of a man. Phew.

Continue reading

May 02

What’s next? “To Catch a Cleaning Lady?”

Having exhausted the various permutations of their long-running ‘To Catch a Predator’ series, NBC is nowTomandjerrytomstrapomatic2
launching a new one called, ‘To Catch a Contractor.’

The promo heralds a show that will uncover all sorts of sleazy, diabolical and even criminal practices being perpetrated by those always perplexing, always behind schedule and always over budget contractors. Fair enough. Who hasn’t had a bad experience with a contractor? In fact, it’s almost a rite of passage to be a homeowner.

But, I draw the line with NBC’s tactics. I never liked ‘Predator’ because I thought it crossed over into entrapment. And, something tells me the same will be true with contractors.

I can just imagine the various ways in which NBC and some ‘social justice’ group will ensnare some unsuspecting, but altogether sleazy, contractor. We’ll hear an NBC ‘plant,’ posing as a sultry, seductive housewife call out: ‘The door’s open, c’mon in. I’m just folding some wash in the nude. I made some brownies and iced tea. Put your tape measure down and have some.’

In my opinion, the whole thing stinks.

And, where will this mindless content end? Will we see future shows aimed at ‘catching’ cleaning ladies? How about the mailman? The FedEx delivery guy? You know a country’s moral fiber is scraping the bottom when we sit around at night watching one strata of society entrap another. Get a life, America.

Feb 05

What you don’t know can hurt you, your career and your organization’s image

The marketing geniuses at Woolworths (now a UK company with no stores in the US) must150014678lolitaposters
have skipped their English Literature class en masse while growing up. How else to explain their total ignorance of the blockbuster book and movies, ‘Lolita’?

Woolworths just had to recall an entire line of girls’ bedding named after the ubiquitous and promiscuous 12-year-old heroine of the Nabokov novel, Lolita.

Parents were justifiably outraged at the mere thought of purchasing bedroom furniture that celebrated the antics and acrobatics of the pre-teen tart. And Woolworths’ defense? They’d never heard of the character, the book or the movie.

One would have to lead a fairly sheltered life to have missed the any of the movies, starting with the "original" featuring a comely Sue Lyon as Lolita, a sinister James Mason as her paramour Humbert Humbert and a pathetic Shelly Winters in an Oscar-nominated performance as Lolita’s mother. But, then again, the mass ignorance at Woolworths could merely be indicative of a prevalent and disturbing trend among marketers of a certain age (read: youngish): if an event happened before they ‘came of age,’ it simply didn’t exist.

The losers? The young girls, their parents. Woolworths’ image and reputation, and all of us. Which is why I urge young people to read, read and read some more. The more you know, the smarter you’ll be. The smarter you are, the less likely you’ll be to make foolish mistakes that can derail a career and sideswipe a corporate image.

Dec 30

Growth at Any Price – Including No Growth

Guest blog by Gene ColterTh12410
When my mom travels from my home to JFK airport this week, chances are her Florida-bound JetBlue flight will be substantially delayed, just as my dad’s flight was last week.

It won’t be the airline’s fault – New York-area airports have on-time arrival/departure percentages that rival the test scores of “successful” college football teams – but every little hiccup gets me thinking about what’s gone terribly wrong with the airline that only a short while ago had been the promise of the industry. More to the point, JetBlue stands as an object lesson on the mission that drives – and damages – many of America’s greatest companies.

JetBlue is near to hitting a couple of notable anniversaries. The discount carrier was founded almost a decade ago in 1998, and it was almost a year ago that JetBlue made worldwide headlines after allowing weather-bound passengers to spend 10 hours on the tarmac and canceling over 1,000 flights.

The root cause of that debacle – and the inevitable travel delays of the Colter brood – is not weather. It is JetBlue’s overreaching for “growth,” a sin that’s so common among notable public companies and their backers that we have trouble even recognizing its pervasiveness.

Please know that your blogger does not own sandals and hugs no trees. (In fact, given the latter’s tendency to invade his basement, he must often be physically detained by contractors from trying to cut down every tree in his heavily wooded Northern New Jersey neighborhood.) But the fact stands that there are reasonable growth strategies – often evidenced by their long-term parameters – and growth-right-here-right-now-don’t-care-how-it-happens strategies.

When David Neeleman founded JetBlue, he showed signs of getting it all right: limited, controlled reach; disdain for the all-over-the-place pricing and hub-and-spoke system that had damaged the major carriers; dynamite customer service; and a serious commitment to managing costs.

But Neeleman is also a “serial entrepreneur” and a man who seems to treat his much-discussed attention-deficit disorder as a public-relations messaging point. More to the point – and this is the real killer – JetBlue is a public company, with all the attendant quarter-to-quarter demands that entails. We should have known.

So it was a couple of years ago that Neeleman — since replaced in the top job, though he remains the company’s non-executive chairman – added another type of aircraft to JetBlue’s stable, plus a bunch more routes and a new training center. Costs – in an industry already legendary for high fixed costs – soared. The future is by no means bright for the airline with good TV, fun-loving attendants and tasty blue-corn chips.

Business luminaries with much more serious chops than I will see that I am making a lonely argument about controlled growth, and they will dismiss it. Yet the fact remains that sometimes – many times – companies would be better off reining in their urges to soar ahead and instead settle for steady profits and good cash flow, picking their spots for big strategic moves that will bring another wave of sustainable growth.

Just ask JetBlue, which posted losses for the last two years and whose stock price is near-grounded at about $6. Even fans of the airline have noted that it has grown too fast to manage its challenges.

It’s unfair (though certainly convenient) to single out JetBlue. Many companies have similarly stumbled. Countless more will follow. And even successful multinationals suffer at the hands of U.S. public markets, which, make no mistake, are a tremendous asset, perhaps more so than government and any other social entity.

Consider, for example, McDonald’s. The Golden Arches have pretty much penetrated every market they can operate in. Analysts ding the stock because it is no longer a “growth company.” But the cash flow from “Billions and Billions Served” is amazing, and what’s wrong with cash and the profits they produce? I suspect the company could fund itself from operations for eternity, or easily turn to banks or bond markets should it need to fatten up its customers, er, coffers. Does it even need to be public anymore?

So, as the New Year approaches, make your way to the airport and settle in for your long (long) trip home. Perhaps you can kill some time by working on a plan to take McDonald’s private.

* * *
Speaking of public companies, anyone who wants to get the real read on what the economy’s fate will be in 2008 would do well to skip the government data and instead turn to the companies’ financial reports. Your goal is to determine whether companies are spending down their cash piles. Right now, most aren’t. If that trend continues no amount of consumer spending or Federal Reserve intervention will keep the economy’s trajectory from looking like JetBlue’s stock chart.