Flint Demonstrates ‘He Who Hesitates Is Lost’

February 2nd, 2016 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.00.42 AMAmidst the ongoing trials and tribulations in Flint comes the latest news that the FBI is now involved, with the EPA and others, in investigating potential criminal aspects of the water crisis. It is yet another reminder how failure to act quickly in an adverse situation can have long-term ramifications.

I am reminded in fact of a recent client who came to us amid pending child pornography charges by state and local law enforcement officials against a youth soccer coach. The case was solid but the state entity wanted the soccer club to wait – perhaps as long as two or three weeks – to notify parents. The reason? The politician in charge needed to clear space on his calendar for a press conference. ’What should we do’ the club/client asked me. ‘Do not hesitate in taking action now,” I answered back.

Parents were immediately notified, as were, in turn the youth soccer players with club leadership available, one-on-one, to answer the questions they could while deferring those they could not to the police.  The coach was immediately fired. As such, the healing could begin and there would never be any question as to who knew what when and whether swift, decisive and correction action was taken.

He who hesitates is lost.  It appears to be at the very core of what went wrong in Flint.  Failure to take seriously the threat.  Failure to consider the health and safety of those you are responsible for. Failure to accept immediate responsibility and take corrective action.  I’m not piling on just underscoring the basic tenets of crisis communications and, in the end – no, at all times – doing the right thing.


In A Crisis, A PR Firm Isn’t A Luxury

February 1st, 2016 by Matt Friedman

Luxury-chinaAll of a sudden, hiring a PR firm is like buying a Rolex watch or wearing a Louis Vuitton purse or even traveling on a Lear jet. The Flint Water Crisis and uproar after Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s PR mistakes makes it seem like we’re viewed by many as a luxury item.

When there’s a legal crisis, nobody thinks twice when a law firm is hired. When there’s a serious tax issue, of course you bring in the accountants. In a complex real estate deal, there are always brokers and consultants involved. But hire a PR firm in a PR mess and it’s viewed like drinking hand-ground Kona coffee while working behind the counter in a 7-11.

Case in point is a quote from a column in the Detroit Free Press. The columnist argued that the Governor should pay more attention to the financial crisis in the Detroit Public Schools. That’s fine. But here’s some of the language that helped make that case:

“Rather than hire PR professionals, as he did to handle the Flint crisis, the governor might consider hiring someone to temporarily run the Detroit school district and really balance the budget…”

So that’s an either-or proposition? Can’t you hire a competent financial executive and PR counsel? This makes it seem like hiring PR help was somehow out of line.

This reminds me of a crisis I worked on not too long ago. Some on the client side didn’t want me talking to journalists covering their story, even though I had known some of them for many years, because “then they would know a firm was brought in.” So what? Would you complain if you were having service issues somewhere and the company brought in someone who you know personally to help serve you better?

In the case of the Governor, he and his office need the PR help. Their primary staff people have little to no experience on the client side of a crisis. Whether they brought in the right firms or sought help soon enough can certainly be questioned. But bringing in support in times of a crisis shouldn’t be considered an extravagance.

Simply put, no individual, or more importantly, no organization, can successfully withstand a crisis or turn any kind of organization around unless there is a successful communications component. Crisis management and PR are inextricably linked. Few in-house professionals have the experience or perspective to do it alone. So that’s where we should come in.

It doesn’t have to cost a fortune and it should be considered a necessity rather than a luxury.

What Time Should An 11:00 Press Conference Start? How about 11:00?

January 31st, 2016 by Matt Friedman

01134The PR aspects of the Flint Water Crisis are a case study in the making, albeit one written in pencil, as the “Wow Factor” seems to increase by the day. But here’s an easy takeaway that shouldn’t evoke controversy. It’s about the staple of PR that isn’t going away, even as the business changes quickly – press conferences.

This past week, Michigan’s Governor hosted a press conference that promised “major announcements” about the Flint situation. It also offered updates, which is always a good idea in a crisis. It promised Flint’s Mayor and other principals. The Governor’s Communications Office billed it to social media followers as a “Live Event” and encouraged online viewing at 11am. Local and statewide media outlets did the same.

But at 11:00, there was no press conference, just an empty podium. I know because, like others presumably, I was watching online. A staffer came out twice to say that the event would be starting “soon.” The second of those announcements came at about 11:15 and was met with resistance, almost heckling, from the assembled media. I could hear on the stream “That’s what you said the last time!” “We’re wasting batteries” and “We have live trucks running.” The frustration was palpable and understandable.

As a viewer, how long do you give something to start before you tune out. A few minutes? Ten minutes? Fifteen minutes? And then when do you go back to it? A few minutes later? Ten minutes later? Never? On time starts guarantee on time audience attention.

The press conference ultimately started at 11:23 a.m. That’s inexcusable. The Governor and other speakers basically started in a hole when they could have started on even ground.

A couple of days later, the University of Michigan announced its new Athletic Director in a manner promoted similarly by the University and media. That press conference started on time, to the minute. Audiences certainly felt more respected.

In this modern era, when press conferences are for more than press, it’s imperative to start them on time. In a crisis, it remains fundamental to not to anything to antagonize the media. It’s really not very complicated.

Flint Water Crisis Puts New Attention on PR

January 24th, 2016 by Matt Friedman

dirty-water-glassIt’s tough to find a story that can capture national media interest not involving a celebrity as much as snow in large amounts in New York City and Washington DC. But before that started happening, recent national attention was focused squarely on Flint, Michigan, where a multi-fold crisis involving the city’s water fits most of the traditional criteria for news. While we don’t know how long the national media will stick with it, regionally the story feels much closer to the beginning than to the end and there’s no turning point in close sight.

It’s also a story that everyone who has an interest in the future of public relations should study and think about. Here are four factors that should be considered:

-This situation demonstrates how PR is now a part of the story: Like other recent crises, the “new normal” in news coverage is to include analysis of how PR was handled and/or is being handled. In this age of driving clicks and shares, PR makes for a “talkabout” angle, where even “armchair communicators” can form an opinion. If you’re involved in handling a crisis, expect to be analyzed, scrutinized and, given the subjective nature of what we do, criticized in public forums.

-Should a firm get hired by a government entity, expect that, in an of itself, to be a bona fide news story. Critics will assail the subject of the crisis for how it handles PR and then, because the public truly does not understand PR, the criticism will intensify when a firm is hired ostensibly to improve things.

-Along the same lines, a crisis shows that the PR profession has, in and of itself, a serious reputation problem. PR pros are called “spin doctors” and worse. There’s plenty of social media content and conversation otherwise accusing “us” of helping powerful people lie. There’s no easy solution to counter this. Getting a group of PR people in a room to just to define PR would be a messy, time consuming, unproductive exercise. Plus, many on this career path have worked very hard to earn their negative reputations. So it’s time for a reality check. Those of us in these jobs need to understand how we are viewed and what we should do, individually, to work against that reputation.

-It’s impossible to know exactly what role PR played in the Flint situation. But, given the “resignation” of the chief spokesman of the Department of Environmental Quality and the front-and-center role of the Governor’s spokespeople, it’s easy to picture them right in the thick of things every step of the way. Read up on this story and you’ll see it’s a lesson on how PR should represent the public, not just “protect” its bosses. The culture of “don’t make the guy you work for look bad, no matter what” doesn’t work in the long-term. PR should be the voice asking for fact-finding and muscle pushing for the right thing for customers, especially when it comes to health and safety.

PR isn’t about cleaning up messes. Ideally, it should be about leading the way. In order to do that, it’s important to understand the evolution that a story like this illustrates.

Glenn Frey: Heartache Tonight

January 19th, 2016 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 1.24.44 PMThe year is 1975 and a youngster in Champaign, Illinois is listening as usual to his transistor radio and WLS-AM 890, playing Top 40 hits out of Chicago. Earlier in the year, Earth Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” had mesmerized the young man just as had the Ohio Players with “Fire” the year previously.  Then, haunting guitars, sorrowful vocals and soaring harmonies emanate from the tiny speaker as The Eagles’ “One of These Nights” produces chills on its way to the #1 song in the country. I was hooked. And I was not alone.

And though Don Henley dominated the vocals on that particular tune, Royal Oak, Michigan-native Glenn Frey was its co-author and chief harmonizer on what was their 2nd of five #1 songs over a career spanning decades.  As is all too common, we often and gradually forget the important role a particular artiss or artists play in our lives until they pass – in this case, quite unexpectedly and with an individual far too young (67).

If you grew up through the 70s and 80s in particular, Glenn Frey and the Eagles were likely an integral part of the soundtrack of your life. From 1972′s “Take it Easy,” which Frey co-wrote with Jackson Browne, his southern California neighbor, through 1980′s “I Can’t Tell You Why,” the band prolifically produced fifteen Top 40 singles in that twelve year span.  Everyone has their favorite and wonderful memories.  I also recall sitting in the lunchroom of Edison Junior High years later when the awe-inspiring guitar work of “Hotel California” came over the loudspeakers.  All I could utter was, “Amazing.”

In a band that successfully merged country/western and rock like no other, Glenn Frey’s voice seemed to possess the most “country,” the songs he sang on, the most “western” of his talented bandmates.  Transitioning later to a brief solo career, he channeled his inner-romantic (“The One You Love”) while also staying fun in the movies (“The Heat Is On”) and on television (“Smuggler’s Blues”) albeit with a more polished look and approach. Most recently, of course, Frey continued to build upon the Eagles legacy with critically-acclaimed tours and music.

As a friend of mine so aptly reminded me yesterday when word first started filtering out, the band in heaven just got that much better.  Here, among us mere mortals, his music and its impact live on.

What’s More Important: Results? Or Control?

January 13th, 2016 by Matt Friedman

ControlWhat’s more important to your communications program? Results? Or control?

Think about it and answer it honestly to yourself. Results? Or control?

From where we sit, control seems to be more important than ever in too many organizations, even though those who sacrifice results or even audience growth to maintain or seize control won’t admit it’s their real priority. They rationalize it, excuse it, even defend it. But control seems to be more of a priority now than ever in many organizations.

Sometimes, it’s just workplace self-preservation. It’s the insecure, in-house marketing lead who is always reticent to give any projects beyond press releases to the agency the CEO hired, so the manager can claim credit for the “big wins.” That precedes complaints to the boss that the agency isn’t earning their fees. After enough complaints, the contract isn’t renewed and the manager “wins” by maintaining control.

Other times, it’s corporate rationalization. We heard of a public company that eliminated all of its local PR positions. In communicating about the move internally, the line was along the lines of “By centralizing communications, the company will be more focused and efficient to serve local markets.” Huh? You’re serving local markets better by cutting the jobs of those who know the local markets best? Really, it’s about corporate control.

Then there’s this egregious example. A nonprofit organization asked a PR firm for a proposal for social media management. The firm proposed a discounted rate to professionally design and execute a program cohesive with the rest of the organization’s communications and brand. The proposal was rejected when the organization decided to “hire a part-time, in-house marketing person for the same cost.” For that cheap? You’re going to find someone with enthusiasm for the mission, professional communications skills able to run 24/7 communications platforms and be willing to work part-time? Yes, the executive director said, “we’ll hire someone young who just needs a job.” Again, that’s all about control.

It’s time for honest conversation in board meetings, leadership team meetings and annual reviews. If control is what’s most important, don’t go through the charade of seeking outside help. Just admit it and accept that you have made that choice. If results are most important, cede just a little control and spend what it takes for the support and guidance you need to be successful.

David Bowie: And May God’s Love Be With You

January 11th, 2016 by Don Tanner

bowie_on_tourDid any of us truly know David Bowie?  Or, with every new musical delivery were we still trying to figure him out as he took us, over the golden years, to one musical oddity and then another and then another after that?  Few would argue that Bowie’s artistry was enhanced by his mystique and unwillingness to be put into a categorical box.  Always experimental. Always ahead of his time. It’s what made him special and unique and us forever curious and intrigued.

Bowie was an innovator and an amazingly adaptable chameleon.  In the world of branding the old adage: Do what you do best and stick to it could never apply.  Born David Jones, he changed his name early to avoid confusion with then superstar Davey Jones of The Monkees.  He channeled 60′s psychedelics with his first and perhaps greatest hit ever, “Space Oddity,” (this blog’s headline comes from this song’s lyrics) before embracing the 70s Studio 54 scene with androgyny and “Fame.”  “Fashion” and “Ashes to Ashes” would continue in the club vein with the latter updating us on the trials of Major Tom, complete with an experimental video two years before the MTV astronaut first made an appearance.  And how can anyone forget his rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” in a duet with Bing Crosby on a holiday TV special. Bing Crosby? With Bowie, it made perfect sense to go along with those perfect harmonies.

Image was everything in the 80s and Music Television and other programming like “Miami Vice” (conceived by creator Michael Mann as “MTV cops”) saw Bowie once again fitting right in.  From Ziggy Stardust came a more polished, dapper musician and another sound direction. “Let’s Dance” evoked big band while “Blue Jean” borrowed from R&B with horn accents equal parts Earth Wind & Fire and Sly & The Family Stone.  The next moment, he was teaming with fellow art rockers Queen (“Under Pressure”), and the next with jazz master Pat Metheny for movie music (the haunting “This is Not America).  And radio airplay never came easier.

It is quite fitting that Bowie remained true to his eclectic roots for this 25th and latest LP, “Blackstar” which, Andy Greene reports in his November 23rd review in Rolling Stone, was designed to be unconventional, different, “creating a fusion sound that can’t be pinned to any one genre.”  For David Bowie, turning 69 on the date of the album’s release before succumbing to liver cancer just days later, it really was all about changes through a consistently amazing musical ride.

“Give Us Money Or Else” A Tough Message For Nonprofits

January 7th, 2016 by Matt Friedman

theateThe morning headline is a familiar across the country. A longtime nonprofit community organization must raise a large sum of money in order to stay operational.

This time it’s Detroit’s gorgeous Music Hall, as reported in the Free Press. It’s a terrific venue and there are some very intelligent, committed and business-savvy leaders on its Board of Trustees. But the organization owes its lender nearly $2 million and has until the spring to raise it. Or else.

Situations like this demonstrate the importance of communications to nonprofit organizations. The message now, as we have seen many other times, is “give to save us.” That is a very challenging situation under which to be successful and, importantly, it only works once. If you get into a financial pickle again, will donors want to save you again? Probably not.

The classic example we have used in discussing these situations for many years happened about 10 years ago. A relatively small organization faced a very serious financial shortfall. It decided to appeal to the public to “support us or we’ll go away.” One of its Board members hosted a radio show and he devoted an entire hour of broadcast to imploring the community to “save” the organization. And it worked. Once. The next year, the organization found itself in the same situation. Because the “save us” message didn’t ensure sustainability, only survival for another year, the public wouldn’t buy the line again. The organization eventually withered away.

The Music Hall situation, of course, is different because it needs to eliminate debt rather than just meet annual operating expenses. But it still provides a valuable lesson. A few years ago at a conference, I heard a line from a fund development expert I ripped off and have repeated ever since. “Donors don’t give money because you have needs. They give because you meet needs.”

The communications imperative for any nonprofit organization should be to ensure its community understands how the organization meets the needs of the community. Music Hall should get credit for its transparency. But it should also serve as a reminder for nonprofits. Communications must be a priority. You must regularly get in front of your audiences, articulating your mission and impact. Otherwise, the message can quickly turn into a “SOS.”

’16 to Mark Tenure of 10 Years

January 2nd, 2016 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 4.17.41 PMWhen the lights go on in our offices along Northwestern Highway in Farmington Hills on Monday morning, Tanner Friedman will be moving into its 10th year of existence. An unheard of milestone for a Metro Detroit business? No. An important reminder for our agency, clients, collaborators and friends that we have persevered and succeeded? Absolutely. And we could not have done it without each and every one of them.

Looking back, the uninitiated might consider leaving full-time, partner-level jobs behind in January of 2007 foolhardy if not downright foolish. Then again, the economic depression to come was still a year away and Matt and I had firmly decided on our desire to start a business, culture and environment from scratch that we believed in, could build upon and could stand behind.  We’ve never looked back nor taken a step back.

From the beginning we sought to be among the respected PR firms in Michigan. We continue to strive toward that everyday. Those are not words but, rather, a mission. And the recipe is very simple: treat people the right way - with honesty and integrity – no matter who they are. That means empowering and mentoring colleagues; providing the media with respect for the in-basket; and delivering true and sustained value and counsel to our clients.  Demanding is fine, we like to say, but mutual respect is demanded – of our partners and ourselves.

And those we want to work with and for get that.  Some clients have not and are no longer with us.  Most, on the other hand, have been with us from the beginning. And for that we are grateful.  As important are our people. In nine years we are proud of low turnover mostly borne of love (three have left to be with significant others in other cities).  We want Tanner Friedman to be the place not for a job, but for a rewarding career. Our staff is the best and we are proud of each and every one of them.

So, here’s to the next decade. May the years continue to be as successful and fulfilling for you as they have been for us.  Running a business is never easy. Nor is staying nimble and ever adaptive to evolving market conditions and industry dynamics. We will continue to learn and teach, adjust and move forward. We wouldn’t have it any other way.


Radiohead’s “Spectre”: Nobody’s Done 007 Better

December 29th, 2015 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 12.25.38 PMOver the past five decades there has never been a movie series as enduring and for millions as endearing as creator Albert Brocolli’s James Bond films. Never mind Furious 7, How about 24 x 007.  And through those dozens of movies the expert melding of action and music remains integral to the franchise’s success, in particular the opening credits which set the tone for each flick.  As detailed in Wikipedia, the actual iconic James Bond theme – featuring the surfer-esque “Dum-de-de-de-Dum” guitar riff was created by composer Monty Norman and scored by the legendary John Barry.  It has been utilized in the opening credits from the very beginning, including 1962′s “Dr. No” and 1963′s “To Russia with Love” as well as many of the closing credits through the very latest film.

By 1964s “Goldfinger” however, the movie’s openings would be dominated by popular singers and groups of that particular era.  And so it was that Welch singer Shirley Bassey took on that title track and took it to #1 for a 200 week run on the Billboard charts (#14 in the UK), garnering a Grammy nomination as well. Bassey would return in 1971 for “Diamonds are Forever” and again in 1979 with “Moonraker.”  As the Bond marketing and promotions machine continued to churn with radio airplay and soundtrack sales for its celluloid offerings, the franchise officially entered the rock era in 1973 with perhaps one of its best known and successful themes: “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney and Wings. Composed by George Martin, it marked the first Bond song to be nominated for an Academy Award (for Best Original Song), reaching #2 in the U.S. and #9 on the UK charts.  The song also won a Grammy for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists).

Thus would begin a non-stop run of popular artists in every film that has included, most notably: Carly Simon, Duran Duran, Tina Turner, Sheryl Crow, Chris Cornell and Alicia Keys. To say nothing of a slew of top performers that have contributed tunes to the closing credits: Louis Armstrong, K.D. Lang, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Moby. And despite mega superstar Adele performing “Skyfall” in 2012, no Bond song had every topped the charts in the UK until Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” entered them at #1 in recent weeks on behalf of the latest 007 chapter, “Spectre.”

Which brings us to what I and many feel is one of the best Bond songs ever: “Spectre” by Radiohead.  Released to fans this past week online as something of a “Christmas gift” it does not appear in the film nor soundtrack as the hauntingly beautiful tune was passed over in favor of Smith. It’s not the first time top artists have lost out in favor of other options.  Consider these “losers”: Johnny Cash (Thunderball), Brian Wilson (for a James Bond theme song: “Run James Run” which would later appear on “Pet Sounds”), Alice Cooper (The Man with the Golden Gun), Blondie (For Your Eyes Only [Sheena Easton] and Pet Shop Boys (The Living Daylights). It would seem, then, that Radiohead is in very good company. And thought enough to make it available to enjoy through the power of social media.

Take a listen, decide for yourself and let me know what you think. You’ll find a link to the Soundcloud version here as well as a YouTube version of how it might have worked/looked over the actual opening credits here. And, with Radiohead four years removed from their last studio LP, one can’t help but get excited by the shape of things to come.