MSU Class, PR Counselor Contemplate Crisis Communications

January 26th, 2015 by Don Tanner

crisis_communications_1This past weekend, I had the privilege of speaking to students of Michigan State University’s Executive MBA program as part of their leadership series training. And while my morning long presentation was designed to get these growing executives thinking, the tremendous minds in the room – most from major corporate entities – also prodded me to exercise my brainpower in the area of crisis communications.

Where adversity management is concerned, over the course of my more than 20 years in the field, I have counseled clients in all manner of crisis situation, including those involving loss of earnings, loss of jobs and, unfortunately, loss of life. As I walked the soon to be MBAs through a range of case studies and scenarios, I continually stressed the core tenets of effectively dealing with crisis: Inform, Take Responsibility, Reassure and Take Corrective Action.

As the class and I discussed case studies and interactive scenarios – including those involving service interruption, CEO bad behavior, corporate downsizing and more, many in the lecture hall asked my opinion on an array of difficult, recent and high-profile ‘real life’ crises; in essence asking me: What would you have done?

Top of mind for most in the room was the current New England Patriots ball inflation craziness. One of the most successful teams in the NFL, the Patriots are arguably the league’s worst at cheating. What would I do if I were the NFL? Simple: Follow the rulebook.  At best, the Pats should be fined for tampering. At worst, a coach suspension and/or equipment person firing should be enacted depending on what the league investigation (which should be swift and judicious) uncovers.

Several students brought up Bill Cosby and his failure to speak to the public on his alleged travails.  If I was innocent, I told the class, and Bill Cosby, I sure would not be silent.  I’d be suing the women who have come forward for defamation while very publicly denouncing their allegations.  To not speak, I suggested, instead spoke volumes.  Further, Cosby’s recent off-the-cuff and inappropriate remarks to a female audience member at one of his shows regarding alcohol underscores further his lack of sensitivity for the topic at hand. If it looks like guilt and smells like guilt…

One question that took me most by surprise was what I might recommend to just convicted murderer Bob Bashara.  Earlier questioning had delved into the ethics of providing communications counsel to someone the police and court system have assigned guilt.  Since a PR professional should always counsel its clients to be ethical and truthful, my advice to Bashara, Kwame Kilpatrick or any convicted felon who continues to deflect blame would be the same:  Admit your wrong doing, seek forgiveness from those wronged and then shut up and do your time.

A final question posed by the class that made me stop and think was the query of which types of crises were the hardest to handle.  And while virtually all such situations – with reputations and careers often on the line – have at least some degree of difficulty, it really gets down to whether the CEO or person in charge is willing to accept your counsel; the, you can lead a horse to water dynamic.  As PR guru Jason Vines puts it: “PR should serve as the conscience of any organization.” It is something many top managers should consider carefully (in good times and in bad) and a role that those of us in the field should never take lightly.

Why PR Needs Newspapers

January 18th, 2015 by Matt Friedman

newspapersFor nearly 30 years, the Detroit market has served as something of a laboratory for the media business. Because of a joint operating agreement (JOA) that survived a challenge that went all of the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the two Detroit-based daily newspapers have survived a labor strike, multiple regional and national recessions and profound global changes in customer information consumption habits, while sharing business operations and maintaining editorial operations. Even with shrinking staffs and plunging revenues, the two “papers” (as they’re still called even though their primary focus has tilted toward their online products), still, for the most part, set the agenda for daily news coverage.

A new report by Crain’s Detroit Business reporter Bill Shea provides a potential reality check into the business of the JOA, suggesting that looming ownership changes at both the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News and an opt-out close that could take effect later this year could create more uncertainty about the papers’ futures.

We, in PR, despite the constant consolidation of the past decade, have benefitted greatly from having two daily, regional newspapers with statewide impact in print and often national impact online. As challenging as it is to get stories told in the mainstream media now, it is even tougher in markets with just one “daily” in a current form. Overall, two newspapers leads to better and deeper relationships for professionals who have the ability to develop them.

Other than paying for subscriptions and regularly providing compelling content, I’m not sure what else we can do. But, for all of us in PR in the Detroit area it’s in our best interest that these two outlets to survive and, if it’s possible, thrive for as long as possible. Elsewhere around the country, PR should have the same interest in viable newspapers, along with strong online-only news outlets, TV stations legitimately committed to news and radio stations that will do more than just read headlines.

But it’s about a lot more than just coverage for our clients. The fear of “bad press” can be a motivator for those in power, whether it be in politics, business, education or anywhere else where a case could be made that public trust matters. Sometimes, that fear is what ultimately compels those who would otherwise ignore a situation, or worse, to do the right thing. Without a fraction of that factor or, shudder to think, all of it, having fewer “news holes” would be the least of our challenges on this side of The Business.

“Je Suis Charlie” Fights Terrorism With Words

January 11th, 2015 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 9.10.58 AMThis week’s terrorist acts in Paris, centered around the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hedbo, have once again underscored how misguided and outrageous acts perpetuated by proponents of radical Islam just really are. While bringing temporary fear, in the end they once again accomplished the very opposite of what they intended – serving instead to unite the world against them and their heinous acts.

Just consider the fallout for Charlie Hedbo.  Nothing can ever bring back those staffers so callously murdered.  Yet, once struggling with a typical circulation of 60,000 issues per run, the January 14th issue of the paper will see a million copies printed and distributed (and no doubt purchased and read worldwide) – thanks in no small part to donations of between $1-$2 million from the likes of the French government and Google’s press innovation fund. This money will also serve to assist with underwriting ongoing operations for the once fledgling media outlet.

Moreover, T-shirts, banners and signs showcasing the message: “Je Suis Charlie” (French for: “I am Charlie”) have gone viral across the globe, with celebrities, including NBA stars, publicly wearing t-shirts to communicate solidarity and support of freedom of speech, religion and thought.

The Charlie Hedbo incident is tragic but far from isolated. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten sparked worldwide controversy and protests when it published 12 editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad.  A plot to firebomb the paper was even uncovered and foiled, yet, several hundred people still lost their lives in demonstrations and other acts of violence across the world. And, more famously, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, published back in 1988, instantly saw a bounty placed on the author’s head by the supreme leader of Iran.

Perhaps most importantly, in the wake of such terrorist actions, true Muslims and followers of Islam are speaking out publicly against those who would compromise their religion.  On this week, NBA Hall of Fame legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it well: “I and other Muslims long for…the day when these terrorists praising Mohammad or Allah’s name as they debase their actual teachings are instantly recognized as thugs disguising themselves as Muslims.”  Powerful words and further proof that through it all, the pen and virtue are truly the mightiest of weapons.

Why The CNBC-Nielsen Divorce Had To Happen

January 6th, 2015 by Matt Friedman

UnknownAs much as the media business has changed in recent years, the TV business is still, to a great extent, set up to cater to Ward Cleaver’s lifestyle.

The same network evening weekday schedule, developed in a bygone era, is in place today, as if to cater to early dinnertimes, after dad walks home from his 9-5 job. Local news at 6, network news at 6:30, an hour for local stations at 7, followed by network programming in the evening then a late local newscast, before a late night network show. It’s one of the few media elements that can unite generations.

The same has gone for the way TV has been measured. While technology has evolved, the most important number in the TV ratings game has been the count of “households” watching. That’s because, when the Cleavers and their contemporaries watched TV, it was only at home (and only one TV). All of these decades later, the Nielsen ratings system is still home-based.

But consider CNBC. The network’s live business coverage and conversation is among the rare “DVR-proof” content on TV. That makes it theoretically more valuable to advertisers.But they don’t have the ratings to show for it because, not surprisingly, businesspeople watch daytime TV at work (where there’s a flat screen in virtually every office suite), rather than at home. Since CNBC’s inception, those sought-after viewers have never been counted to determine the channel’s ratings. That’s why CNBC has dumped the Nielsen ratings service, as explained in the Wall Street Journal.

This overdue move could signal an increasing intolerance for the flawed system that has long determined fates and fortunes in the TV business. One advantage Web platform have over broadcast is the precision of audience measurement. For example, we’ll know exactly how many individuals read this post. But, we will never really know exactly how many will see a story that appears on TV. In order for broadcast outlets to maintain their roles as cash cows for their corporate owners, they must be able to sell advertisers on their audiences.

Some company must be able to deliver accurate audience data. It appears if broadcasters just “Leave It To Nielsen,” they will fall behind in the analytics game.

Watching More Than Football On New Year’s Day

January 1st, 2015 by Matt Friedman

UnknownWhen the University of Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh to be its Head Football Coach this week, the millions in salary announced along with the hire shocked those who don’t follow the businesses of media and sports closely. But the reason why he and other football coaches outlearn many business CEOs is on display on your your flat screen TV today.

If you’re watching college football today and/or tonight, you’re watching TV differently from how so many will watch TV in 2015 and it’s the fuel for bigger money and bigger stakes in big time college sports. That’s because you’re watching commercials too, rather than fast-forwarding through them on your DVR.

College football is America’s second most popular TV sport, second only to pro football. And it’s just about DVR proof, as virtually all fans prefer to watch games live, whenever possible. That means advertisers are virtually guaranteed the maximum value for their commercials and they will pay a premium for them. That translates into rising rights fees paid from the TV networks to the colleges that are members of the “Power 5″ athletic conferences. That “football money” gives them more to do whatever they feel like they need to do to have a competitive football team that wins games and the prestige that comes along with that. That is the money that makes even assistant coaches millionaires.

It’s a chain that starts with getting you in front of the TV to watch commercials, along with football.

Emagine Eschews Cinematic Terror-Dictate

December 27th, 2014 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2014-12-27 at 4.53.05 PMIt is so outrageous one would think it was a plot created in Hollywood.  A communist country cyber attacks a major movie company preparing to release a movie offensive to that country. Moreover, that country threatens violence should the studio place the film into theaters. And so it is pulled from distribution. In the case of Sony Pictures’ “The Interview,” life is truly stranger than fiction.

Thankfully, in the name of freedom of speech and good, old-fashioned entrepreneurship, the show is going on with, most notably, Emagine showing the Seth Rogan/James Franco satire for free (or donation to charity) in select theaters.  The move is a stroke of PR genius by Emagine CEO Paul Glantz.  While touting freedom of expression Glantz’s actions also symbolically and publicly does what each of us would like to do: thumb our collective noses at North Korea while telling Sony to demonstrate a bit more backbone in the future.

And while Emagine reports it will lose between $15,000-$20,000 for the free showings, the brand equity it is building is incalculable, especially at a time when our society is growing weary of terrorist threats dictating our lives.  Moreover, from an immediate economic standpoint, losses in ticket sales should be defrayed in large part by concession sales.  As industry consultant Jack Oberleitner recently told Marketplace regarding the theater business: “We’re now in the popcorn business.” To be sure, concessions represent 40% of a theater’s profits with profit margins at 85%. As a comedian once joked of exorbitant candy prices, “It’s no wonder they keep their offerings in jewelry cases.”

While Sony Pictures did finally come around, inking a deal with YouTube to show “The Interview” online and on demand, their image will be tough to repair, internally and externally.  And while such threats must be taken seriously, giving in to cyber bullies and terrorist states is far more dangerous.


The 6 Months That Changed Detroit Media Forever

December 16th, 2014 by Matt Friedman

01Everywhere you go in and around Detroit this week, you hear talk about the death of a true media icon- Bill Bonds, the news anchor at undisputed #1 WXYZ-TV from the ’70s through the early ’90s. He was a bona fide TV star and attracted a now unfathomably huge audience of both fans and what would now be called “haters.” As one of his former producers once told me, “With Bill, we could have run test patterns and Bonanza reruns in between newscasts and still been #1.”

I never worked with Bonds or competed directly against him, but I ended up in his Detroit News obituary over the weekend because of a little insight I shared with a reporter. I remarked that “Detroit really became the competitive news market it is today after he left Channel 7.”

While I know that statement to be absolutely true, I decided to do some digging about the context of his departure, as I was working in TV outside of the market at the time. Sure enough, it was the first in a series of coincidental events over just six months that changed the Detroit media market forever.

WXYZ-TV fired Bill Bonds on January 11, 1995 after a series of alcohol-related issues. At the time, the station’s general manager told Crain’s Detroit Business “We are not concerned” about his departure. As a reporter noted, “Life without Bill Bonds isn’t expected to be much different from life with him at Channel 7 – except calmer – said executives.”

How wrong that proved to be. Bonds’ departure from WXYZ paved the way to parity in the Detroit TV market. WDIV-TV, which had been nipping at WXYZ’s heels as a strong #2 station, thanks to consistent anchors and strong NBC lead-ins, did what would have been unthinkable just a decade earlier and frequently overtook WXYZ in the ratings in the coming years making it, as one consultant called it in the late ’90s, “the most competitive two station race in the country.” Although, when I started at WDIV in 1996, 18 months after Bonds left WXYZ, many of the WDIV newscasts were still arranged in what can only be described as “Beat Bonds” mode. It took another year or so to break those habits in news rundowns and react to changes WXYZ had made after he left.

Just two weeks after Bonds was fired, on January 23, 1995, the O.J. Simpson trial began. The “Trial of the Century” was essentially free ratings-grabbing content that helped teach local TV stations how to attract an newscast audience without any local reporting. That proved to be catnip for cost-cutting managers in Detroit and everywhere else.

At the same time, starting in earnest with the February ratings period, new Fox affiliate WJBK-TV (which had recently switched from CBS) was adding news in the morning and establishing itself at 10 p.m. It was capitalizing on underserved day parts for news. The longtime #3 news operation (one 1995 article described its ratings in key news times as “anemic”) was establishing a point of difference rather than just trying to compete head-to-head-to-head.

In July of 1995, workers at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News went on strike. Without going into the gory details, it’s safe to write that the once-mighty newspapers were diminished by decreased circulation, hits on advertising and striking, experienced journalists who never returned.

The firing of the biggest TV audience draw the market has ever seen, the TV trial that helped form a “new normal,” the beginnings of three-way competition among TV outlets and the “game changing” newspaper strike all occurred within six months. Of course, the proliferation of the Internet (not to mention digital cable and satellite TV) had a greater impact on collective media than even this remarkable confluence of events. But that all happened over a much longer period of time. Much of what we see at work, in this market and others, is directly attributable to what happened in a fraction of 1995.

One additional note from the research for this piece. In February 1995, Crain’s Detroit Business reported that during the end of the Bonds Era at WXYZ-TV, a 30-second spot on the 11 p.m. news cost up to $3000 at both WXYZ and WDIV. In today’s dollars, according to two calculator websites, that’s $4670. A media buying professional tells me the most seen spent this year on a 30-second spot this year was just $1000. That, above all, explains the expansion into morning news, weekend morning news, late morning news, afternoon news, early evening news all, of course, with continuing budget cuts and restrictions. Like many businesses, TV stations have had to add volume to deliver mandated profits to their corporate owners.

Pink Floyd Fades to Dark, Louder Than Words

December 12th, 2014 by Don Tanner

UnknownThey went out very much as they came in, amid an almost other-worldly, ethereal landscape of thematic sound.  Perhaps not 60s psychedelic but still with a musical approach time appropriate yet rooted in their history.  That’s Pink Floyd’s newly-released and final album titled, “The Endless River.”

The record is a farewell to fans and also an ode to fallen band member Rick Wright.  In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, guitarist David Gilmour credits the keyboardist, who passed away in 2008, for providing the group’s melodic foundation around which all of their music was built. To go on, says Gilmour in the article, would be pointless.

Expanding upon music originally created in 1994 around Pink Floyd’s last album, “The Division Bell,” ‘River’ is largely and appropriately instrumental, in turn shining an especially bright light on Wright’s talents.  It is also a format that has worked well for the group over the years; just consider  their swan song, “Dark Side of the Moon.”  And, like most of Floyd’s work, the record is meant to be played in its entirety with each song melding into the next, something all too unfamiliar to music consumers (and creators) today.

And while Roger Waters (for better or for worse) has not been a part of a Pink Floyd recording since “The Final Cut” some 30 years ago, it is almost too bad he could not have been involved in some way with this final effort.  And just as it is not a stretch to discern that the theme of this album (the importance of communication in solving problems and furthering humanity), is at least partially rooted in the epic battles between Waters and his founding bandmates, could there not have been a truce for this ending opus?

After all, as Gilmour sings on ‘River’s’ last and only tune with words:

             It’s louder than words

            The sum of our parts

            The beat of our hearts

            Is louder than words.

Chicken S*** Nation Is Bad For Business

December 3rd, 2014 by Matt Friedman

Dont-be-a-chicken-shitChances are you’re part of a dubious club. Just about everyone is. In fact, we’re seeing more and more of your ilk all the time.

Chances are you’re like the client we had to fire last year. When I went out to her office to see her, and have a very difficult 45 minute conversation about why the relationship had to end, she asked “Why didn’t you just call me and tell me I wasn’t paying you enough to make it worth it?” For one, that wasn’t true. For another, as a human being, she deserved better. But she just couldn’t get over the fact that I wouldn’t take the easy way out.

Chances are you’ve done something like the PR agency rep who called last month on behalf of a potential client. She was looking for a Detroit-area firm to support the opening of a new location of her client’s chain. I explained that on one hand, we are very qualified as we often work with local or regional operations of national companies and we work daily with clients in fast-growing Downtown Detroit, where this business will be located. On the other hand, I explained that we don’t have much experience in her client’s industry, per se. Intrigued by our relevant experience, she asked for a proposal and needed it “tomorrow.” I cleared a big chunk of my next day to write the proposal. A month later and days away from opening, I still have not received any kind of acknowledgment or response. The referral source even followed up and received no apology from this rep, who took the easy way out.

This growing club – Chicken S*** Nation – avoids difficult business conversations at all costs. It’s like all of the rules of dating have extended to doing business. “I’m just not into them” means unanswered emails and calls. I guess we’re supposed to get the message that it’s time to move on? In a technology-enabled culture where couples break up via text and employees get fired via email, it’s no surprise that Chicken S*** Nation is growing in ranks.

It’s not just in relationships’ beginnings or ends. There’s almost a new adage in business that if your customer likes your work, he’ll tell you. If he doesn’t, he’ll probably not say anything and will start thinking about options behind your back.

Business can be fun. It can be rewarding. But it can also be hard. One of the hardest parts used to be having difficult conversations. It’s so tempting to make your challenging work life easier by just zooming by the tough stuff. But think about the people on the other end. Mutual respect dictates the same honesty and level of communications you would expect. You owe it to them to suck it up, talk about it the right way and give up your membership in Chicken S*** Nation.

Jason Vines Recounts PR Done Right, Rotten and Religious

November 30th, 2014 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 4.18.27 PMWhen you’re home sick with the flu over the Thanksgiving holiday, you have a veritable doctor’s note to relax, heal and, it follows, do what I love to do: read.  It was in that context that I was finally able to sit down with a book I’ve looked forward to digging into, “What Did Jesus Drive? Crisis PR in Cars, Computers and Christianity,” by one of the ‘deans’ of the craft: Jason Vines.  Best known for his work guiding Ford through the Firestone firestorm, Vines also worked his magic at Nissan and Chrysler with a number of other stops amid his respected career, including Compuware during the Kwame Kilpatrick madness. Fascinating, all.

Though I have had the opportunity to chat with Jason on a couple of occasions I do not know him well nor have I had the good fortune to work with him. I have, however, admired him from afar, including his involvement in some of the most talked about vehicle launches ever – including 1992′s debut of the Jeep Cherokee through a plate glass window and the 2008 ‘cattle roundup’ introduction of the Dodge Ram – both at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.  Read his book, however, and his tenets for effective public relations are even more impressive.

I won’t go through them all as you really need to read this book for yourself.  Yet, a couple that stand out are among those that Matt and I tout loudly and often. First, it is essential that business leaders provide their PR advisors with a seat at the ”C Suite” table and a voice in company direction. Whether at Nissan with Carlos Ghosen, Ford with Jacques Nasser or Chrysler with Dieter Zetsche, Vines was plugged in at the top.  No surprises, total transparency, mutual respect and a true say in decision making.  Vines demanded it and then proved, through high-level performance and impeccable judgment, that he deserved it.

Second and just as important: A PR counselor has an obligation to tell those at the top what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.  And, while battles often need to be picked wisely, doing the right thing, with honesty, transparency and foresight, is paramount; as is acting in the best interests of your customers at all times.

Looking for the ideal stocking stuffer this holiday season? Strongly consider “What Did Jesus Drive” for an inside look at high-stakes PR with reputations, careers and lives hanging in the balance. You’ll have a new appreciation for what those of us in the field do and strive to do everyday.