Apr 24

Response to Julia Hood

Julia Hood’s editorial in today’s PRWeek raises some interesting and valid counterpoints to my post from last week on large agencies. As Julia knows, my original bone of contention concerned the out-of-proportion editorial coverage afforded to the big guys by her trade journal and others. And while there are exceptions to my comments about the dearth of innovation and thinking from big agencies (Ketchum and Edelman are notable exceptions), the fact remains that the big guys simply aren’t the best examples of today’s swift-moving, rapidly-changing marketplace. And, that’s a direct result of what I call the "holding company mentality." Having come from J. Walter Thompson before founding Peppercom with my partner, Ed, I know that the publicly-traded companies worry about:

1.) their stock price

2.) their overhead expenses

3.) their profitability

Notice I didn’t mention the client or agency employees in my list.

While all firms worry about the cost of doing business, the WPPs, Omnicoms and Interpublics of the world exert tremendous pressure on their respective agencies to tow the financial line (which, by necessity forces them to allocate time to satisfying their owners first and their clients and employees second). This sort of pressure also creates a "quarter-by-quarter" management mentality and an environment in which offices with separate P&L’s will often battle over the same client dollar. As a result, we’re seeing very little innovation from large agencies and, from what I hear, dramatically reduced management development programs. Why? Because R&D and management training are expense items.

At the same time, we’re not seeing any serious industry thought leadership from most of the big agencies. Why? Because to speak out too loudly is to rock the boat. And as the Nick Naylor character in "Thank you for Smoking" said, "We all have mortgages to pay." So, Julia, while I expect you to continue to cover the big guys in full-page spreads, give some thought to similar-sized profiles of people like Phil Nardone, Mark Raper and Jennifer Prosek. These are the people who, if asked, would place the client and their own employees at the top of their lists of business concerns. They’re also the people who are reinventing the business to develop new service offerings and future leaders.

The issue isn’t advertising vs. PR (although I’ve waxed poetic on that in past posts). Rather, it’s all about the future of PR. My question to you, Julia, is this: do we have the type of leaders and agencies who will develop the services and train the people to delight clients now and in the future?

Apr 19

In the PR industry, big most assuredly doesn’t mean better

The PR Week rankings issue is an extremely well done analysis of who’s hot, who’s not and why. It analyzes the strengths, weaknesses and points of differentiation of 35 different firms.

But, like its fellow trade publications, PR Week suffers from one fatal flaw: it obsesses over the relatively few large agencies. It devotes full-page coverage to Edelman, which it describes as "the provocateur." (Now, I’ve heard many different descriptions of that firm over the years, but never provocateur), Fleishman-Hillard (which PR Week calls "the machine." As in Glengarry Glen Ross’s ill-fated Shelley "the machine" Levene?), Ketchum ("the fighter." And, ya gotta love Ray Kotcher’s Fashion Week pose in the photo accompanying the text), Hill and Knowlton ("the rebounder." OK, if you say so), and Weber Shandwick (which the pub describes as "the juggernaut." Is W-S trying to position itself as the modern-day equivalent of the Mongol hordes?").

After the full-page odes to the aforementioned big guys, PR Week next devotes half-page spreads to the Ogilvys and Porters of the world. It’s only after they’ve finished profiling the big guys that any coverage is afforded to the independent small and medium-sized firms. And, there’s the rub.

In my opinion, the best thinking and the most innovation is coming from the smaller guys. But, you don’t see a full-page profile devoted to Margi Booth or Ken Makovsky. You don’t see Bob Angus or Patrice Tanaka profiled or described as provocateurs or juggernauts. And, yet, these are the people and the firms that are leading the industry’s evolution.

As far as I can tell, the big guys seem to be revolving doors, with one EVP leaving his post as head of the health care practice of one giant to do the same thing at another one. Every week, the trades are full of personnel pieces covering Jane Doe’s departure from Burson to do the same exact thing at GCI, or vice versa. At the same time, we never really know how the big guys are performing because their holding company parents forbid them to disclose their numbers.

One thing’s for sure. When we hire, we usually stay away from large agency people because, without a bureaucratic infrastructure to support them, they fail miserably. I’ll never forget one H&K alum storming into my office to complain she had to personally undertake some research work. "In my old agency, I’d just pick up the phone and call the research department," she huffed. Needless to say, she didn’t last.

So, here’s a plea to the Hoods and Holmes and O’Dwyers to open their minds (and their pages) to the little guys. I think you’ll find we have just as many, if not more, fighters, rebounders and provocateurs. Oh, and if you’re looking for thought leadership on what it all means and where we’re all headed, just call one of us. Contrary to what Paul and Jack write, there’s plenty of industry leadership (and leaders). They just need to look below the Top 10 to find it/them.

Apr 18

Has anyone lined up the brass bands and Osama look-alikes for the fifth anniversary of 9/11?

It’s probably just me, but does anyone else have a problem with the festivities underway in San Francisco to "observe" the 100th anniversary of the "Great Quake"?

The morning shows were chock-a-block today with marching bands, jazz ensembles and other Sf_earthquake_1 performers cavorting in the background as San Francisco Mayor Newsom held one interview after another, grinning from ear to ear as he described the various events being held in the City by the Bay. The New York Times says the hoopla is the brainchild of Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, chief of protocol for the City of San Francisco and the State of California, and says she’s the one responsible for "…striking the right tone" for the anniversary.

In addition to a reunion of survivors, all of whom were too young to recall anything about the quake, the City held a massive ball at the Palace Hotel that apparently included people dressed in period costumers and Enrico Caruso look-alikes (btw, talk about a tough way to earn a buck! Aside from Quake re-enactment events, there can’t be too much demand for Caruso look-alikes nowadays). In addition to the galas, there’s also been some cool computer simulation footage that shows how SF would fare if a similar quake should rattle the city today.

All of this obviously makes for great media buzz, since newscasters revel in tragedy. It’s also probably doing wonders for San Fran’s tourist trade, but what about the 3,000 poor souls who lost their lives in the 1906 disaster? It seems to me that, in their rush to create a media feeding frenzy, the fine folks from Frisco have badly mistreated the memories of the victims and their families.

On the other hand, Ms. Shultz, the protocol chief responsible for today’s festivities, has accumulated some serious marketing and special event credentials in the process. Just imagine the kind of kick-ass business model she could develop if she turned her attention to the plethora of other mega tragedies from the archives of U.S. History.

If I were Ms. Shultz, I’d start a special events company specializing in "commemorating" horrific events from yesteryear. I’d name my firm "Blast from the past" and take it on the road. Just imagine the year-round business: there’s the great Galveston hurricane and flood that killed more than twice the number of people who died in the SF quake. Or, how about the great Chicago fire? What about special events to trivialize the Challenger disaster? Major plane crashes? Hurricane Katrina? Or, of course, the mother of all disasters, 9/11?

My point is that I think San Francisco went overboard in its 100th anniversary and, from an image and reputation standpoint, set a bad precedent. It’s critically important to remember and mark these events, to learn from them and to try to do everything possible to ensure they don’t happen again. But brass bands, parades and Caruso look-alikes are just too far over the (fault) line for me.

Apr 13

Talk about not giving a damn…

It must be nice to just not give a damn about your corporate reputation. That has to be the case with Exxon Mobil, which yesterday said it had rewarded recently retired Chairman, Lee R. Raymond, with an eye-popping $398 million compensation package. Raymond

In response to cries of outrage from media and pundits alike, Exxon’s Mark Boudreau, said, "The numbers reflect the long-term nature of Mr. Raymond’s leadership at the corporation, and a long and distinguished career." Yeah, sure.

Juxtapose Mr. Raymond’s princely package with the ever-rising prices at the gasoline pumps and one has to assume Exxon Mobil simply doesn’t give a damn about how the public perceives it. Which is understandable when there aren’t any other low priced options for consumers to choose from.

So, I guess if Exxon Mobil were my client I’d advise them to keep raking in the dough and taking advantage of their unique market situation. With the Middle East situation getting shakier by the day, oil prices will probably continue to skyrocket. Which means egregious pay packages like Raymond’s will continue to be doled out while the average American gets screwed. It certainly makes one wonder if anyone in Washington is really paying attention.

Apr 07

I’m still waiting to meet a real version of “Dauri Rathbun” or “Samantha Jones”

One of my favorite cable shows is Showtime’s "Huff," starring Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt, Brewster Padgett (love her btw), Blythe Danner and a bunch of other, awesome actors.

Sharon Stone has joined the ensemble cast this season, playing, what else, but a sleazy, sexy PR Sharonstone_3 siren named Dauri Rathbun. Stone’s character has been accused of padding her invoices and over-billing her client (shades of Fleishman’s LA debacle) and has turned to Platt’s lawyer character to defend her.

While her character’s misdeed is rooted in fact, Ms. Stone’s portrayal is yet another negative and false stereotyping of our business by Hollywood. Like Kim Cattrall’s PR persona in "Sex and the City," Stone’s character is vapid, vacuous and voracious. She’s responsible for arranging "parties" and is on a first-name basis with many celebrities.

I must be moving in the wrong circles within PR because, aside from an occasional Lizzie Grubman sighting, I haven’t come close to meeting anyone who does work like this or comports herself (himself) like the Stone/Cattrall characters.

Since we can’t control Hollywood, maybe it’s time for the industry to pony up some money and fund our own production of a reality TV show or drama series. We could have lots of fun casting the lead characters considering some of the personalities we have to choose from: Richard Edelman, Harris Diamond, Ronn Torossian and Jerry Schwartz would be my initial recommendations for the leading man role. And, I could see Julia Hood, Helen Ostrowski, Patrice Tanaka and Marina Maher vying for the Scarlett O’Hara role in my PR "docudrama." There’d be supporting roles for the likes of Harold Burson, Darryl Salerno, Larry Moskowitz and Dan Klores. Mike Lasky would, of course, be cast in the role of industry consigliore.

Regardless of who we select, I guarantee we’ll come out with a more accurate portrayal of public relations than the slop that Hollywood dishes out. I’m open to suggestions for naming the new series. How about "24×7"?

Mar 30

It’s OK to be sorry…

Legislators in British Columbia proposed a law on Tuesday that would allow companies, government officials and individuals to apologize without making it an admission of liability. So if the law passes, people who make mistakes (you probably know a few) can apologize without fear that it will automatically be used against them as an admission of guilt.

That’s not to say that Canadian people or companies or government entities who commit wrongdoings out of negligence or malevolence won’t be held accountable. But for them and especially for those who genuinely just mess up or even cause danger or difficulty for others through no fault of their own, such a law would make it possible for them to do the right thing.

And doing the right thing makes all the difference to an organization’s reputation. While many organizations and executives who do admit fault and apologize for their transgressions are able to "move on," those who don’t tend to not only prolong, but exacerbate the problem. One needs only to think about Watergate and President Nixon’s inability to apologize for what he himself called a second-rate burglary to remember how important the words, "I’m sorry" can be.

Think about the times you’ve been mad at a spouse or friend, or someone in the public eye for their actions. But when they apologize, the anger pretty much passes. It’s ridiculously simple really. So why shouldn’t we allow it here for our companies, public figures and government? Truth be told, I can’t imagine our legislature or Administration contemplating such a law. Most of them consider themselves infallible, so an apology law would probably seem extraneous to them. Besides, the trial attorney lobby would go into a frenzy.

Still, I applaud the BC legislature for its practicality and common sense, and truly hope that the legislation passes. Maybe some of our nearby states will take notice and consider similar laws. Our government, public figures and corporations — along with the rest of us — can only benefit.

Hat tip to Ann Barlow for sharing this.

Mar 30

Attention Wal-Mart bashers….PR is playing an increasingly important role in managing the beleaguered retailer’s image and reputation

A New York Times article today reports that Wal-Mart is looking to hire two senior PR executives ASAP. One would hold the title of director of media relations and be responsible for overseeing crisis communications. The second gig is described as a "senior director of campaign management" who will be responsible for directing Wal-Mart’s communications staff and the "war room" from which it monitors and responds to the many, negative attacks leveled at the company.

The two new hires will also be tasked with keeping tabs on "opposition research" and "relations with bloggers," many of whom beat the living crap out of Wal-Mart on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Wal-Mart’s investment in a sophisticated public relations capability is emblematic of the rise in respect and responsibility our field is experiencing. You don’t see the giant retailer pouring more and more moola into print advertisements or broadcast commercials that consumers are increasingly tuning out or dismissing outright. Instead, the organization is attempting to harness the power and effectiveness of public relations to create direct, honest one-on-one conversations with friend and foe alike, leveraging new and emerging technologies in the process.

I’m no fan of Wal-Mart or its practices, but I salute their recognition of the growing importance of PR in shaping, maintaining and defending an organization’s image, credibility and reputation.

Hat tip to Ed Moed for suggesting this.

Mar 07

If NYC is slamming the ad industry for its lack of diversity, can PR be far behind?

New York City Councilman Larry Seabrook has announced that he will be convening public hearings in the next three weeks to slam Madison Avenue for its near total lack of diversity. Seabrook is a man on a mission and has called the New York ad industry’s hiring practices "an embarrassment for a diverse city." In his quest, Seabrook says he intends to subpoena agencies and clients alike.

In my mind, clients are the key to solving the diversity challenge. Until they begin to mandate that agencies become more diverse, we won’t. We’ll talk the talk, undertake studies and keep our eyes open for smart, diverse candidates. But, truth be told, the average public relations firm isn’t spending a lot of its waking time figuring out how to be more diverse. Instead, we focus on staying one step ahead of our clients and competition.

We, for example, are proud of the diversity strides we’ve taken and are happy to have established relationships with traditionally black colleges and universities. But, does our workforce population reflect the greater society? Nope. Does any top public relations firm’s staff reflect the greater population? Nope.

So, before Councilman Seabrook comes gunning for the NYC PR community, here’s hoping that our clients will be a little tougher on us, and mandate that we become more diverse. Because, as we all know in our heart of hearts, diversity isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s a smart business strategy. One day soon, the McDonald’s and Coca-Cola’s are going to wake up and say to themselves, "Hey, wait a minute. Our firms are almost all white. Yet, they’re helping us market to an extremely diverse population. Maybe it’s time we found some new partners?

Oct 21

Journalism’s Evil Twin

I’m in the midst of reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, "Bait and Switch: the (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."  As she did in her incredible "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" tome of 2001, when she went "undercover" to see what it was like to be a member of America’s working poor, Ehrenreich goes incognito in search of a new story.Int_ehrenreich_25

This one really hits close to home, as the former New York Times columnist reinvents herself as a 50-year-old unemployed public relations freelancer and event planner.  She takes the reader along as she goes job hunting for a full-time corporate PR gig.

Unlike "Nickle and Dimed," however, the story is slow and unappealing. The author spends far too much time ridiculing the various self-help job search gurus and PR executives she encounters on her sojourn. What really got my attention, though, were Ehrenreich’s constant jabs at, and put downs of, the public relations field, which she refers to as "journalism’s evil twin."

Ehrenreich reminds me of so many other "holier-than-thou" journalists who look down their collective noses at PR and refuse to admit how much they depend upon us for ideas and access.  This has obviously been an age-old problem for PR people and isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

Still, I’d love to hear or read something from a journalist that speaks objectively about PR, and recognizes what we bring to today’s 24×7 world.

Well, I can always dream. Oh, and by the way, Ms. Ehrenreich?  We’d never hire anyone with such preconceived notions and such an obvious chip on her shoulder.  Better hang onto that day job.