Managing Adversity and the CEO

March 23rd, 2015 by Don Tanner

10208_thumb2_220x244Friday night marked a return to Michigan State University – this time in Lansing before students of the Eli Broad School of Businesses’ Executive MBA program – to talk about “Leading in Crisis”.  I had the good fortune to chat with MSU’s Troy-based class earlier in the year to discuss adversity management tenets and practices good and bad.  Both classes were smart and engaged.

During the Q&A session toward the end of the evening, the conversation moved, as it had in Troy, to dynamics related to how best to counsel, guide and motivate CEOs to do the right thing in a crisis situation.  As I relayed in a recent blog, with the tone of any organization set at the top, a CEOs acting expediently and appropriately is vital. At the same time, getting them to do so is often one of the most difficult things for any crisis consultant or team member to accomplish. Why exactly is that?

After all, escaping a crisis is rare if not impossible. Statistics show that 59% of all decision makers have experienced a crisis and 79% believe they will experience a another within the next year.  Of course, doing nothing is never an option. Yet, many executives hide their heads in the sand hoping things will “blow over.” Contrast that with the fact that public opinion polls indicate that 62% believe that when a company utters “no comment” or “could not be reached for comment” it implies guilt or that the company or individual in question has something to hide.  At Tanner Friedman, our argument is that you can always say something. And when a story is being prepared on the situation anyway, wouldn’t you rather tell your side of it – or at least provide perspective?

So how does one motivate the top person to proper decision-making and action? It definitely gets easier with experience but, first and foremost, the key is gaining that individual’s trust and respect overall.  Even then, however, fear, legal ramifications and ego can all muddy the waters and get in the way. My recipe in that case is to present a 360-degree perspective that presents possible ramifications should they act counter to what you are recommending. They might not want to hear them but you’re not doing your job if you don’t make such scenarios known.  Sometimes, in the end (and as long as nothing illegal or dishonest is being put forth) you may need to agree to disagree and live to fight another day.  They don’t call it adversity management for nothing.


Red’s ‘Rage’ True to Roots

March 18th, 2015 by Don Tanner

ofbeautyandrageOne of the best-known quotes of the late 19th century comes from Spanish philosopher George Santayana who famously wrote: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  In the world of music, I would suggest that artists who do not remember the past are condemned if they don’t repeat it -at least to some degree. Thankfully, for fans of the Christian rock band Red, recent lessons learned have resulted in a brand new masterpiece.

From the opening opus of “Of Beauty and Rage” with its mood-intensified strings, it is more than obvious that Red is back; not repeating themselves yet offering the unique mix of rock, angst and orchestral maneuvers that harken back to their groundbreaking early work of “End of Silence,” “Innocence & Instinct,” and “Until We Have Faces,” the latter going back nearly a decade.  And while ‘Beauty’ is far from formulaic, it does possess Red’s ‘secret sauce’ formula that makes for awe-inspiring music.

The band learned its lesson well with their last LP, 2013′s “Release the Panic.” Inexplicably gone were the accent strings and piano chords, replaced instead by a techno approach. Fans didn’t get it and didn’t buy it – literally.  Red’s response? Apathy? Indifference? Hardly. Instead, they put out “Release the Panic: Re-Calibrated” with cuts remixed to give the people what they wanted – a move virtually unprecedented.  This time around, “Of Beauty & Rage” offers a moody theme album to accompany a graphic novel.

Neil Young is well known for admitting he plays concerts for himself and not the fans. Eric Clapton also regularly performs shows without ‘playing the hits.’ Is it ego? Avoiding the ‘sell out’ tag? Or, is it merely a desire to do something different? All are legitimate in the short-term but, ultimately, shortsighted from the long-view (remember Young’s “Trans” album?). Growth and evolution are essential but, I would argue, so is embracing what made you popular in vinyl in the first place – in short, your unique brand and value proposition.

PR Needs To Stop Spamming Media Inboxes

March 15th, 2015 by Matt Friedman

flUvRvwWe, as an industry, are doing it wrong.

That’s the feedback from one of our most important customer bases, the journalists we depend on, at least in part, to help us tell our clients’ stories.

A week ago, I moderated a Detroit Regional Chamber panel that featured a TV news planning editor, a business magazine web editor and the senior managing editor of an all-news radio station. All talked about the hundreds of emails they receive every day from PR types, on top of “did you get my press release?” phone calls. All talked about PR being the lifeblood of at least part of their coverage. But all talked about the PR garbage that can get in the way.

Later in the week, a journalist friend called attention to this article via Twitter. It says, in part, “In no small part, corporate communications and PR agency teams are to blame for journalists’ increasing level of stress, a new survey reveals. Lazy PR practitioners send out ineffective emails and half-hearted pitches, most typically via email, for story opportunities they rarely expect to succeed.” 68% of journalists surveyed are unhappy with PR pitches.

This is a serious communications and image crisis for an industry that is supposed to know more than a thing or two about communications and image. The worst part about it is that this broken model is so profitable for so many. PR operations, especially the Big Firms, actually make more money assigning more “worker bees” to assemble bigger media lists and pitch more journalists, even for stories of limited interest, to feed their big overhead. The Detroit web editor’s complaint about a New York agency pitching her New York consumer stories when her employer is squarely focused on Southeast Michigan business news is in direct conflict with the New York agency’s business model. That’s troubling.

Call it “spray and pray.” Call it “mass distribution.” Call it “throwing sh** on the wall to see what sticks.” It simply doesn’t work. Instead, we should all be finely targeting our lists, as we encourage our clients to target their audiences. We need to make editorial decisions, of sorts, before anything goes out.

It’s time to start having respect for journalists. Let’s cut down the clutter in their inboxes and focus on helping them do their jobs, while helping our clients. Any PR professional should be willing to admit that a 32% approval rating means things need to change, even if it costs money.

Sometimes, Sportswriters Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

March 8th, 2015 by Matt Friedman

imagesWriting about sports for a living isn’t as dreamy as it seems. Generally speaking, the hours are lousy, the money is lacking and editors’ appetite for “clickable” content can seem insatiable. As consumers, though, we lap it up and rely on them as our sources of information.

But this weekend, maybe because of personal vendettas against a coach with a long history of erratic, at best, media relations and maybe because of the need to “feed the beast” with content that drives web traffic, some sportswriters ventured into an area where they showed ignorance more than insight.

Syracuse University Head Basketball Coach Jim Boeheim didn’t participate in a post-game news conference after his team’s last game of the season, the day after he was the subject of a blistering report on violations found by investigators from the NCAA after a lengthy process. The report is both ugly and controversial and the University has said that Boeheim plans to appeal at least part of the penalties. Multiple sportswriters ripped Boeheim for not answering media questions. Instead, the University issued a statement attributed to Boeheim and made top Assistant Coach Mike Hopkins available to answer questions about the game.

On the surface, this appears to violate high-level fundamentals of PR. And, on the surface and out of context, I agree with why journalists would be critical. However, in the Real World and in context, these sportswriters prove that they are ignorant to the factors that go into this type of decision-making. Unless you have sat in the conference rooms and participated in the conference calls, drafted and redrafted statements and gone toe-to-toe with administrators and legal counsel, you have no idea. We have done all of those things and, simply, in this case, the sportswriters don’t know what they don’t know.

Based on previous experience I can confidently say that the post-game press conference decision was not Boeheim’s alone, as sportswriters have alleged. This was a University decision made by a relatively large group of “main campus” and athletic administrators, PR people, most importantly, lawyers. They weighed all of the factors and, in order of magnitude, they very likely were:

-Legal: Make sure Boeheim doesn’t say anything that can be used against him in his appeal
-Human: After an emotional game, coaches (especially this one) can be emotional. Lawyers and PR pros would agree that emotional should be minimized in the wake of the NCAA report.
-Appearances: Balancing whether Boeheim as a no-show, with Hopkins still available as a “face” to talk about the game itself, would be worse than Boeheim providing “no comment” after “I can’t comment” and “It wouldn’t be appropriate to comment” in likely snarky fashion (see the human factor) on a loop on SportsCenter.

In cases like this, lawyers typically dominate the discussion. In fact, based on our experience, they are “undefeated, career” to use sports parlance, in these situations. PR people just have to advocate for the best deal possible for the media and public constituencies important to them, (but not at all to the lawyers).

The University would have helped matters if they had been able to add “On the advice of counsel, because of a pending appeal to the NCAA” somewhere in Boeheim’s statement. But, overall, this was handled by Syracuse in the way just about any school would have. The reality, at least for now, is that the school will be a “lighting rod” and should get used to being the subject of sportswriting, even when the writers step out of bounds.

Curt Schilling Throws Cyber Bullies a Curve

March 3rd, 2015 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 10.21.18 PMCyber bulling. We’ve all heard stories but consider a few alarming statistics from

  • 52 percent of all young people report being cyber bullied
  • More than half of young people surveyed say they never confide in their parents when cyber bullied
  • Only one out of every six parents of adolescents and teens are even aware of the scope and intensity involved with cyber bullying

This week, former major league star pitcher Curt Schilling and his 17-year old daughter counterpunched all three statistics, and, in turn, taught at least two internet hoodlums a lesson they won’t soon forget.

After publicly congratulating his daughter on her college acceptance and plans to play softball in school, Twitter trolls began harassing the youngster – many crossing the line with inappropriate, even sick, sexual innuendo.  Rather than attacking the tweeters directly as is often the case with far too many athletes, Schilling instead wrote and posted an extensive blog post, which referenced posts and posters alike – and with far-reaching results.

One individual, Adam Nagel, was suspended from the community college he was attending.  Another, Sean MacDonald, a part-time ticket seller with the New York Yankees, was terminated. Both of their Twitter accounts, meanwhile, have been terminated.  Consequences far too harsh? Hardly.

Rather, it is an important reminder to never post anything online that you wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing published in the newspaper. And, while many feel emboldened, even anonymous (even though they are readily identified via handles and avatars), social media is exactly what it professes to be: public.  Perhaps trolls and haters should consider the immortal and apropos advice of ‘Thumper’ from the 1942 Disney classic, “Bambi”: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.  It might just save them their jobs if not their reputations.



Students Who Understand The Real Keys To Crisis Communications

March 3rd, 2015 by Matt Friedman

IMG_2890Last week, I had the privilege to lead a discussion on crisis communications at the chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) at my alma mater, the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. To say the least, it was an impressive group that showed a level of sophistication about advanced strategies most students can’t quite comprehend.

I started the presentation with the fundamentals of discovery and messaging when entering or preparing for a crisis. But, I spent most of the time answering questions about the “make it or break it” factors when guiding an organization through a period of bad news.

While these students understood quickly that both words and actions are significant, something some groups don’t always “get” right away, they were most curious about the dynamics that can often determine success. This is what many professionals often forget. These are factors like ego, the tug-of-war between PR and legal, bureaucracy, “the blame game,” and other business and psychological elements that influence whether a client will even take your advice. On these topics, the Newhouse students had a thirst for knowledge and a high level of curiosity.

They should serve as an example to others to are trying to determine how to be successful the next time bad news strikes. It’s crucial to perfect the fundamentals of communication. But, also, you must look inward to your organization. Will your decision-making be fast enough, avoiding “analysis paralysis?” Will you empower the right people? Will your lawyers convince you to play not to lose, or will you play to win? Will you do right by your customers, or let fear steer you to silence?

The students engaged in thoughtful discussion about those questions, understanding they are paramount. They are questions every company should be asking.

Thank you to the Syracuse PRSSA for the opportunity to begin this discussion. Now it’s your turn to continue it. Aims to Bring “Wow” Factor Back to Radio

February 19th, 2015 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 3.01.13 PMFormer Cleveland radio super-programmer John Gorman bemoans the state of traditional radio today where, he recently described to “Studios are all empty. They don’t have an air staff. Most of them are disembodied voices coming from another city.” Gorman aims to change that with an exciting new internet station:

Tom Taylor’s daily Now online newsletter, which reports on the radio industry, also covered the new property prominently this week including the station’s key differentiators: Local ownership; live, local, experienced air personalities well-known to the Cleveland marketplace; and a wide variety of music (programmed locally) featuring as the station describes on its website: “A diverse blend of rock and roll featuring both new and timeless music, most of which gets little to no media exposure in the Greater Northeast Ohio region…an eclectic playlist of rock, progressive pop, singer songwriters, reggae, and more.”

Importantly, the site goes on to say: “oWOW’s airstaff serve as musical gatekeepers, presenting and providing the best in new music combined with timeless album tracks from the past.  oWOW’s playlist is the result of a collaborative process in which all staff members have a voice.  We’re real live people. We’re based in Cleveland. We can do all the things that radio can no longer do.”

It is an approach harkening back to the hey-day of commercial music radio where stations reflected the local landscape of the cities they served – including its jocks and music – free of interference from outside consultants and voicetracking. And, Gorman has the chops to make it work – having programmed Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame rock station WMMS “The Buzzard.”  Even the oWOW logo possesses a touch of nostalgia – with original Buzzard logo designer David Helton doing the honors in creating the look of the new upstart media outlet.  And, as for the all-important question of funding, early ‘buzz’ is bringing significant returns including support from a local bank, a grant from the city of Cleveland and private investors.

Only time will tell whether oWow can sustain long-term listener and sponsor interest.  I for one am rooting for them as a potential model to be returned to elsewhere – whether on-air or online.  In Detroit, imagine a property that returned personalities such as Dick Purtan, Ken Calvert, Arthur Penhallow, Lynn Woodison and others to the airwaves with musical variety that featured a plethora of Detroit-grown artists.  It’s enough to make both mouths drool and ears perk up in eager anticipation.

Reminder: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

February 16th, 2015 by Matt Friedman

i-dont-knowSome of America’s best and brightest students had to spend their lunch hour listening to a PR guy today. But that’s OK. They signed up for it.

The Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit is teaching second-year medical students how to be physician leaders. It’s a groundbreaking program that is teaching them about advocacy, the real world of health care, government affairs and today, communications and PR. The School invited me to talk about the new realities of marketing medicine and the mindset shift needed for them to be successful.

I want to share part of my message to them, as it’s one we often have to articulate, sometimes gingerly, to “professionals” with degrees highly valued by society. They don’t know what they don’t know.

These students, like the physicians they will join in practice in a several years, made it into medical school and onto that career path because because they are good at science. That doesn’t mean they are good at everything, nor should they be expected to be. But our culture anoints them to such a high level and for some, it leads them to think they they are the ultimate authorities on all matters of business.

Today’s environment requires doctors (and lawyers, accountants and others in the service industry with advanced degrees) figure out how to think like businesspeople and marketers in order to be successful. But the problem often lies with the fact that they are neither. Like with every business, communications can be a differentiator from increased competition. But if you don’t know what to do, how much to spend and have the time or inclination to stay on top of the trends, how does it work?

The answer is pretty simple. They need to admit that they don’t know and align with professionals, either within the organization or from an outside firm, who are as good at communications as they are at science. Complementary skills, working in collaboration, make for positive relationships and business results. That’s what I hope these students will remember from today, no matter what their field looks like when they arrive after their training.

Entrepreneurs: Success Starts With A Solid Foundation

February 16th, 2015 by Don Tanner

blue_panel_report_fThis past week was Detroit Entrepreneur Week and, as reported by Crain’s Detroit Business reporter Amy Haimerl, it was seven days filled with resources for recent and aspiring entrepreneurs, most notably through the Michigan Center for Empowerment and Economic Development.  The week’s activities, in fact, included what was termed a “Small Business Legal Academy,” hosted Saturday at Wayne State University Law School, where a track advised attendees on marketing, branding and legal considerations. Amy moderated the panel and I participated.

The room was filled with talented and engaged individuals either on the verge of launching an endeavor or looking to take their enterprise to the next step and questions ran the gamut: How can I determine the best avenue to take – whether PR, advertising or marketing? How do I target my customers more effectively? I have had early media stories on my product, but what should I do next?

With panelists Dan Dalton of the law firm of Dalton Tomich and Trevor Pawl of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the importance of laying the initial groundwork – no matter the initiative or undertaking – was stressed as the best starting point.  Has a business plan been developed? A handbook with legally-binding verbiage protecting the business owner from operational and intellectual concerns? From a branding standpoint, the discussion progressed, attendees were challenged to introspection: Do you know who you are? Who your audience is? What sets you apart from the competition? What is your value proposition?

A woman looking to start a non-profit. A successful snackmaker looking to create a like-minded entrepreneurial community. A bed and breakfast owner aspiring to open another. A tech provider seeking to gain greater awareness for his product.  No matter the project, it was discussed, the key tips and takeaways of the nearly      2-hour session were the same: The exact road to success varies and potential tactics are many, including the ability, beyond stories in the newspaper or on TV, to tell your own stories via social media, video, e-communications and strategic networking; in short, a multi-platform approach based on the best means by which to reach your customers with as many touch points as possible.

Finally, while many in the room acknowledged they needed additional guidance from professionals they were far less sure of how best to go about it from a due diligence and cost-effectiveness standpoint. Our best advice: shop around. Seek recommendations from friends, fellow business owners and the media. That’s right, call a reporter or newsroom and see whom they most respect. From there, narrow the field and conduct one-on-one face-to-face interviews to talk-out not only how they work but also to ensure similar values and ethics and, as importantly, flexibility in billing to meet budgets and expectations.


NBC = Needs Basic Crisis PR

February 8th, 2015 by Matt Friedman

CrshV_OaNow that NBC’s Brian Williams mess enters its second week, and public reaction seems to range from amusement to outrage, we see, once again, how no industry handles a PR crisis worse than the media business.

This is something we first pointed out two years ago. In this case, think about about this situation was handled. First, the highest-profile company spokesman is put on TV, within an hour of the story breaking, to talk about it. Two factors made this unsuccessful. First, the spokesperson was the subject of the story and second, he was woefully underprepared, using the term “misremembered” that may forever be associated with this ordeal. What a difference it would have made if NBC had bought itself some time.

Then, NBC failed to contain the crisis on Thursday and Friday by letting it spread and grow on multiple platforms while, by its relative silence, taking the “Frank Drebin Approach” to PR. The only thing the network announced is that it would handle an investigation about what happened internally, with one of its own journalists leading the investigation. A news organization, with its credibility under scrutiny because of the actions of its main anchor (and, importantly managing editor) decides someone else from its own ranks should investigate? How does that make sense?

Finally, on Saturday, Williams issued a statement saying he will take a leave of absence for “several days” because he was the subject of so much news, which had been the case for more than three days. What a mess. If this had been a corporation or government agency making so many PR missteps, you can bet NBC’s talk platforms would be filled with analysis and criticism.

This is a very challenging point for NBC News management, which is now an organization mired in multiple crises. Its longtime cash cow, “Today,” has slipped almost beyond recognition. Its nightly newscasts are watched by an increasingly elderly audience. Its cable unit, MSNBC, may need yet another remake. Its iconic “Meet The Press” lags behind rivals. Networks don’t have the anchor stables they once did by throwing cash at talent just to keep them away from other networks. Do they fire Brian Williams? Do they suspend him? Do they send him on an apology tour (which, if so, should include its hundreds of affiliates who are unwillingly dragged into this)? Whatever they do, a PR strategy should be paramount. We’ll soon find out if they have one.