The Fear Factor: It Still Dominates Business Thinking

November 22nd, 2015 by Matt Friedman

FEAR1“How’s business?” is a question we get every day.

Being one to try to avoid cliche answers, I usually try to give an honest assessment, particularly to those who actually care about the success of our firm. But, increasingly, it’s tougher to provide one in “soundbite” form.

That’s because, even after The Great Recession, things are far more complicated than they were a decade ago. Yes, we have many clients where we and they enjoy a positive, healthy, productive relationship. Yes, there are situations where business comes together quickly, with shared expectations. But there is more and more of what we, by default, casually call “weirdness” that can be frustrating and enormously counterproductive. More often, emotion overtakes logic. A force leads good people to make seemingly inexplicable decisions. The emotional force is fear.

Fear can take many forms, but here’s how we often see it play out, sometimes with more than one of these fears working together to create challenging situations:

Fear Of Risk – Change is hard. Change takes work. There’s a chance that change might not quickly lead to its intended result. Too often, this fear leads to inertia leading us to want to work faster than some clients will allow. Or, it leads to a business thinking about hiring a firm to not make a decision about that intention while the needs persist unfilled.

Fear Of Another Recession – The financial purse strings have not loosened as expected in as many places as anticipated. The sting of The Great Recession may be carried throughout the careers of some businesspeople. Even though additional funds are needed to accomplish goals in new ways, they are not being made available and progress slows.

Fear Of Getting Fired – This is especially acute in larger, corporate settings in the Post-Recession Era. Making the boss happy and keeping a job are the only priorities. Talk about quality work and innovative approaches happens less often. “Keep your head down so it doesn’t get shot off” is a mantra we see in action more than ever. (This is also why we have journalists telling us that corporate spokespeople have fewer phone calls and more email exchanges with media. “The Paper Trail” is paramount. “CYA” continues as a motivator.)

Fear Of A Lack Of Control – This is why some companies, even small ones, veer from their core business to employ as many disciplines as possible rather than work with focused “outside” firms. When the cubicle is filled with a body, there is a sense of control for a certain type of executive, even though that work could often be done more efficiently, with more expertise and perspective, for less money by hiring a firm. Or, by giving up a modicum of control, a firm could complement that internal resource to make him/her/them more successful.

Fear Of A Difficult Conversation – As we have written before, we see this more than anything. In an age where “ghosting” is part of the social realm, too many businesspeople do everything but have the tough talk. I find myself saying more than I could have ever imagined “Silence is the enemy of progress.” Yes, silence prevails while relationships either don’t improve as they would otherwise or wither away, sometimes unnecessarily.

The next several weeks will be spent by businesspeople “planning for the New Year.” But plans can go awry when fear gets in the way. It’s hard to imagine what could turn this complex scenario around. But awareness of what’s happening “out there” can’t hurt.

Detroit Lions and CBS Radio Part Ways, Beg Questions

November 21st, 2015 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 2.19.21 PMThis week ended with perhaps one of the most interesting sports radio stories in recent memory as the Detroit Lions continued their off-the-field changes by announcing they will be leaving CBS Radio and 97-1 “The Ticket” for Cumulus’ Newstalk 760 WJR after the season.  A veritable ‘he said, she said’ scenario ensued bringing to the forefront issues of censorship, media relations protocol and the power, money and control of professional sports teams in general. Who was right and who was wrong? I’d rather examine a couple of ‘what ifs’ and ‘lessons learned.’

‘What if,’ let’s assume for the sake of examination, both the Lions and CBS are telling it like it is.  ‘What if,’ as Ticket Afternoon star Mike Valenti asserts, the Lions sought to censor what he said during his show, going so far as to call him while on-the-air? I know that when I was an on-air talent back in the day, if I was in the studio and behind the microphone, I took direction from one person and one person only: my program director. After the show was another matter and a more appropriate time for a more in-depth conversation with listeners regarding what I might have said.  ‘If’ the Lions couldn’t reach Valenti outside of his show, trying to send him a message during it might not have been inappropriate. In the world of media relations, we always recommend going to the host or journalist first to discuss concerns. If that fails, going to their superiors is the next resort.

On the other hand, ‘what if’ the Lions did indeed threaten to leave CBS unless Valenti was let go, as Valenti charges.  Many years ago, another PR firm in town requested an editorial board meeting with one of Detroit’s major print dailies to discuss a client’s concern about negative coverage, a not uncommon and often recommended practice. However, rather than talk out the situation and seek a resolution based on dialogue and mutual respect, the PR firm relayed the message that unless coverage improved in tone, their client would be pulling its advertising from the paper – entirely wrong and unethical.  The PR professional was quickly told to do something unnatural to himself and that incident, when recounted, still entails steam coming out of the ears of the editors and journalists in attendance.

So, who really knows exactly what happened behind closed doors? CBS and Valenti say they won’t be bought nor censored.  Good for them.  The Lions, on the other hand, are saying publicly that the new deal with WJR is all about business and a return to roots. Good for them.  Because where any business relationship is involved, it should not be only about the money but also respect and a proper fit culturally.  In other words, not just dollars and cents but also what makes sense for all involved.

Network TV Breaking News Coverage With Civility and Insight? Yes. Really.

November 16th, 2015 by Matt Friedman

Unknown-1On nights like last Friday, TV news still can have a communal experience. Households across the country turned on their TVs to find out more about the Paris attacks they likely learned about first on social media.

But those of us on the northern border of the United States had a distinct advantage in trying to stay informed and try to make sense of what was unfolding across the Atlantic. We didn’t have to rely solely on American TV networks.

We hear frustration all the time from within our business network about the state of American TV news, especially when “the big story” breaks, especially internationally. The word “sensational” comes up often to describe the visual presentation of a clutter of attention-grabbing words on the screen. The word “political” comes up often to describe the I-can-yell-louder-than-you-can talking heads. Many even tell us they have stopped or delayed watching because the obsession with being first leads more often than ever to being wrong.

American adults with a real thirst for information and knowledge can get frustrated by “YouTube’s Greatest Hits” on traditional broadcast network nightly newscasts on top of Fox News’ political agenda (unless it’s their own), MSNBC’s seemingly constant reinvention and even CNN, which used to be the go-to destination for news consumers in times of crisis, is more often than not “CNN in name only” to many of its former fans.

I made a different choice on Friday night, the CBC, which is available via cable and even antennas here in the Detroit market. Granted, the Canadian network operates in a much different competitive environment. But its coverage hit the mark in every respect. It was serious, but understated. It featured reporters with information, even from foreign bureaus, something U.S.-based networks cut significantly to please their corporate owners. It offered commentary from on-set and via-remote analysts that was relevant, insightful and lacked a political agenda. There was a balanced sense of “here’s what we know, but here’s what we don’t know yet.” Watching simply as a viewer, with different expectations than when watch solely as a media analyst, I was fulfilled.

The American networks can brag about their Friday night ratings. They can pat themselves on the back talking about how they drew an audience that evening. Grading on a curve, some of them probably would score relatively highly. But CBC set the standard for those of us who could see it.

A Symbol of Peace for Paris

November 15th, 2015 by Don Tanner

Jean-Jullien_illustration_Peace-for-Paris_attacks_dezeen_square-300x300If any positives can be found in the aftermath of Friday’s tragic events in Paris, it is the nearly worldwide outpour of outrage and show of solidarity as we seek more information justice and healing.  As part of that process, many took to social media, including Facebook, which has offered the opportunity to convert profile photo avatars to pseudo images of French flags. And then there is the ‘symbol.’

Amid discord and chaos has emerged what calls an enduring image of “unity and peace.” French native and professional illustrator Jean Jullien eschewed pen and ink for paint brush to create, upon learning of the tragedy, a “symbol of peace for Paris” – a veritable peace symbol combined with the City of Lights’ most famous site: the Eiffel Tower.

Never could Jullien have imagined how his artwork would become such a unifying emblem for his country and beyond. After initially posting a cell phone image of his work on Instagram Friday evening, it quickly generated nearly 130,000 likes on his account and 48,000 retweets on Twitter. As of yesterday, according to, Instagram’s own post of the image had topped 1.3 million likes.

Why such resonance of this simple mark?  Because, like any great symbol, it is authentic and poignant; evoking emotion and beautiful in its simplicity. It is a lesson for anyone looking to communicate to the masses; start a movement; develop a campaign. Such communiqués cannot be forced but, rather, offered for consideration – through words and/or images crafted to move and compel.






They’ll Be Right Back…But Will You?

November 12th, 2015 by Don Tanner

radioguy_smNext to newspapers there is perhaps no other medium so closely watched, scrutinized and debated as radio.  This, despite the fact that radio remains among the most successful and far-reaching of them all (to the tune of 91% of all adults 18+ every week, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau).  Yet, can this trend continue, many ask, as generational tastes, consumption and alternatives for attention evolve.

Doug Spero, Professor of Mass Communication at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, opines on that very topic this week in a guest blog on In particular, he examines the dynamic of the commercial “stop set” where programming stops and a series of ads are run.  How intrusive to the masses are they, he asks, as many “breaks” have steadily grown to anywhere from 9-12 minutes – especially to younger demographics as comfortable with spot-less streaming and MP3s?

I know when I was an on-air rookie back in the day, radio mentors instructed me away from calling attention to a coming commercial break.  Why say, “We’ll be right back?” After all, where was I going? I was still there pushing the buttons. And I certainly didn’t want my listeners to leave.  Similarly, “More after these messages” was nothing more than a signal that ads were forthcoming and, at least temporarily, more music was not.  I also worked very hard at every radio stop to offer value to my listeners, giving them every reason to come to my show and stay.

Everyone has at least some tolerance for airwave interruption – but not a lot.  In Spero’s blog, he details a study of approximately 160 students (ages 18-24) demonstrating 50% of the small sample, unsurprisingly, preferred 1-2 minute breaks; 36% 2-3 minutes.  Interestingly, KNDD-FM, a Seattle alternative station, earlier this year instituted the “2-minute” promise of no more than 120 seconds of commercials per break. Of course, shorter stop sets mean more of them. After all, something has to give in money making enterprise.

When all is said and done, every media outlet seeks to attract and retain a significant audience as consistently and for as long a period of time as possible. To that end, content is king.  You’ll sit through commercials when you know the quality programming you are really there to hear can be found nowhere else and is coming back post haste. That includes, in very large part, the on-air personalities behind the microphone – those that generate the listeners and ratings through which advertisers and their dollars are ultimately attracted.

“Passion” No Excuse For Bad Business Behavior

November 8th, 2015 by Matt Friedman

burning-passionThe highlight of this past week was a long breakfast catch-up with one of my favorite colleagues from a job I had nearly 20 years ago. It had been two years since we had the chance to catch up in person and this time, with no agenda, the conversation was wide-ranging. Along the way, stories about two of the most despicable individuals I’ve encountered in business were told to illustrate points about values and perseverance, two themes that came up a few times during the extended dialogue.

In the car, leaving the restaurant where we had met, I hated that I had to think of this pair. More moments with the two dastardly characters who came up over breakfast flashed into my head. I realized those two antagonists led to significant professional changes. And remarkably, both of them used the same line in an effort to cover up reprehensible behavior.

The first example was a TV news director who didn’t like that I disagreed with her in a meeting. Instead of inviting me into her office for a “teaching moment” or otherwise providing guidance (I was only about 25 years old, after all), she verbally tore into me in the middle of the newsroom. While berating me publicly, she yelled “You need to go back to Producing 101.” It was a moment of humiliation like I had never felt before, or since.

At the end of that day, instead of apologizing privately or publicly, she walked by my desk and said, “What happened this afternoon was just two passionate people expressing their feelings.” That was it.

Fast-forward nearly 18 years to the second example – the new Vice President of a client organization who verbally abused one of my colleagues via phone the week before. I reported that unacceptable behavior to the CEO, who arranged a meeting between the VP and me. In that meeting, when I described behavior that led to my serious concern, the VP tore into me, in front of his boss, in a bombastic and acidic tone, even including an ethnic slur (Pro tip: saying “I’m not The Gestapo” to a guy named Friedman isn’t the best metaphor move).

When I responded by saying, “If you’re going to talk to me like that, we’re not going to be able to work together,” his response was, “Well, I’m just a passionate person.”

Professional passion isn’t about screaming or insulting. In fact, it’s the anthesis. Passion is about caring so much, that you go out of your way for other people to get the job done. It’s about giving maximum effort in every respect. Passion is about anticipation for the day to come when you get out of bed in the morning. It’s about putting the mission or the purpose of the work as the priority, even ahead of your own ego. Passion is admitting you are wrong, for the good of the organization. It’s about deriving true satisfaction out of the work.

“Passion” does not rationalize bad business behavior. Passion should actually prevent it from happening.

So what became of the relationships with these individuals? The first was no longer my boss just a few months later, because I resigned to make big changes in my career motivated, in part, by encounters like that. The second is no longer our client because the CEO refused to make any changes even after witnessing that exchange. Condoning bad behavior is bad as exhibiting it, if not worse. So we decided to end an 8-year relationship which, while financially painful, was the right decision because we have passion – actual passion – for our values as a firm.

Phil Collins’ Groovy Kind of Leave

October 31st, 2015 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 2.49.18 PMThey say absence makes the heart grow fonder and perhaps nowhere is that more apropos than in the world of music. I was reminded of this dynamic this week with the news that Phil Collins, he of Genesis and solo fame, is planning his first LP of new material since 2002.  While most of us strive for retirement at 64 years of age, Collins is coming out of it to record and tour. He’s obviously ready. Are we?

As New York Post music writer Hardeep Phull put it this week, throughout the 1980s and 90s, Collins’ music, “used to saturate radio and TV to the point of mind-numbing omnipresence.” And, indeed, Phil was here, there and everywhere – including radio stations from coast to coast, MTV, even “Miami Vice” – year after year after year.  And, after multi-million-dollar sales and sold out concerts, Collins flamed out and went away on an extended leave of absence. I know I, for one, welcomed the extended sabbatical.

More contemporarily, the seemingly unstoppable Justin Timberlake experienced this same dynamic with his legion of fans.  In the brightest spotlight of fame beginning in 1995 with NSync, his 7-year boy band career saw the selling of more than 50 million albums.  An even more successful solo recording career would last another decade including major forays into TV (“Saturday Night Live” and “Jimmy Fallon”) and movies (nearly twenty silver celluloid appearances).  When “20/20 Experience” was released in 2013, fans had grown weary with Timberlake reading the writing on the wall and heading for the mountains – for a time at least.

Today more than ever celebrities in general walk a fine line between popularity and overexposure.  Never have we had more access to news, information, photos, video and overall artist content.  From TV talk shows with “The Jimmys” to YouTube and other online media there exist a multitude of communications mediums for engaging fans – and potentially burning them out.  Do too little and you risk not capitalizing on what could be fleeting fame. Do too much for too long and you risk alienating your fan base and also becoming a footnote. To be sure, it takes a balance directed by audience input and gut.  And, rather than being too available perhaps keep ‘em guessing and coming back for more.





The Good and Bad of Public Communication…In Just One Day

October 29th, 2015 by Matt Friedman

2015-10-29T012940Z_2_LYNXNPEB9S01P_RTROPTP_3_USA-ELECTION-REPUBLICANS-725x506Like virtually everything else in business, successfully communicating in challenging situations isn’t easy. But just yesterday, we saw communicating with a high degree of difficulty done exceptionally well and exceptionally poorly, in two high-profile situations that couldn’t have been handled more differently.

In the morning, we saw the University of Minnesota’s Head Football Coach, Jerry Kill, retire suddenly because of health concerns. Rather than doing the easy thing like hiding behind a crafted statement, Kill faced the public with emotion and candor on full display. The media, and the public, looked favorably upon Kill, showing a very high level of sympathy, because he did the tough thing, but the right thing. He put honesty and authenticity first and left no doubt as to his intentions and rationale. Ideally, college athletics should be about setting an example and Kill set an example of how to handle a difficult communications moment, matching his reputation.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum was the Republican Presidential Debate, seen nationally on CNBC. Without question, sharing a stage with so many speakers, being asked point-blank questions and trying to maintain composure under those circumstances in front of a live audience and 14 million TV viewers is a challenge. Also, in politics, the Golden Rule is “don’t say anything that can be used against you.” But, what viewers saw was the vast majority of the candidates taking the easy way out by simply reciting memorized talking points and attacking the questioners. While those tactics score points with viewers in the short-term, they should not be emulated by anyone wanting to learn about best practices in communications. What “works” in politics doesn’t fly in the rest of the world.

If your objective is to be talked about, follow what the politicians did. If your objective is to be understood and respected, follow Jerry Kill and the University’s of Minnesota’s lead. When times get tough, be honest, be authentic and speak to, rather than pander to, your audience.

Your Website Is Probably More Responsive Than You Are

October 19th, 2015 by Matt Friedman

Unknown-1When I return a phone call, I’m receiving a salutation more often these days that I feel like I never heard a decade ago. Immediately, it’s “Thank You for calling me back.”

That’s because a returned phone call, just like an answered email, is becoming more and more of a rarity. I’m not talking about unsolicited sales phone calls or email. You can be in a professional relationship with someone and it can take days to get a response. We’re even starting to build time into projects for clients that includes follow-up, with them, the people who are paying us for our time. And this goes for “instant” platforms too. As I write, I’m waiting almost four hours to a response to a quick question sent via text.

Our business culture is less responsive than ever. The irony is, according to some significant professional service market research shown to me by a client, the top reason why a company hires a professional services firm is expertise in a particular field, followed by “responsiveness.” We have worked with multiple client firms who boast that their commitment to responsiveness is their key competitive point of difference. When you think about it, that’s pathetic. Something that should be a given is now a differentiator. Also, it’s frustrating that customers want their firms to be responsive to their needs, while too often failing to respond to the communication needed to fulfill those priorities.

Every business day, I get about 200 emails that require a response. They all deserve a response that day, even late at night if it’s a day of meetings and events, with driving in between. Every business day, I get about a half-dozen phone calls that require being returned. They all deserved to be returned within 24 hours, if at all possible. This is the hard way. We believe it’s the right way.

I know you’re “busy.” We all feel that way. Just about every business is “leaner” than ever. We are all doing jobs that used to be done by two or more people. We are all bombarded by interruptions when we’re not in meetings (that are too long). We’re eating lunch at our desks just to get the work done. But we have email at our fingertips and a phone in our hands virtually at all times. There’s just no excuse. The fundamental ingredient in every successful relationship has not changed since the days of secretaries and “while you were out” slips. That’s respect.

The Way Forward Down The Ford Field

October 16th, 2015 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 2.34.09 PMSo what exactly do we want from the Detroit Lions?  A competitive team and wins of course but what else?  In reading and listening to news coverage that has included opinions from reporters, fans and players alike I would argue that what we all, collectively, want is a demonstration of emotion, a message of ownership and a commitment for improvement.  How are the Lions doing in communicating these things? Let’s take a look.

Coach Jim Caldwell is no nonsense, no frills, with a straightforward approach to communication.   And, there is no confusing the fact that he is running the show. He speaks for the team and he takes full responsibility for how the team is doing on the field.  But is that enough? Many feel Caldwell should demonstrate more emotion.  Not Jim Schwartz crazy emotion but something more than his typically calm, cool yet stern demeanor. I would argue you are who you are and that emotion comes in many different forms.  And, as for how he is on the practice field, in meetings or in the locker room, who’s to say?  You either motivate or you don’t.  Some of the most successful coaches in football (think Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers) are calm but authoritative and, oh yeah, win.  You’ll recall so did Caldwell last year.

And what about ownership?  Obviously no Jerry Joneses here. The Fords have traditionally been hands off when it comes to speaking about or for the team.  That won’t change as long as fans fill the seats. Rather than words from the Fords, however, what fans and prognosticators appear to want from them is action – bringing new vim, vigor and talent into the front office.  What this team appears to need, most are saying, is a new team of football minds that can better evaluate talent and then draft, develop and/or sign it through free-agency.  Again, a close look at the Green Bay Packers demonstrates that all but three players on their roster were drafted by the organization.  The Seattle Seahawks, meanwhile, are rife with non-drafted free agents.

Finally, there are the players and reasons why Jim Caldwell continues to speak for the team.  In recent days, Golden Tate chided the fans for booing and leaving early; Eric Ebron announced his playing would have made a difference against Arizona; and Matthew Stafford outwardly continued to show zero emotion save a look of bewilderment and frustration.  Here, taking responsibility, demanding accountability and demonstrating frustration regarding on-the-field performance are sorely lacking. Remember the fire former Miami Dolphin and Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino used to show on the field, on the sidelines, in front of the media?  Stafford, a captain, someone should call out everyone on this team and demand it work harder, play better and give maximum effort for the fans that pay their salaries.

Say it. Mean it. Own it. Do it.  That’s what we want from the Detroit Lions. And, after 50-plus years of futility, it is what this citizens of this city so desperately deserve.