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.



The PR You Want May Not Be The PR You Need

November 24th, 2014 by Matt Friedman

shutterstock_73029673Here’s some perspective from our colleague Kristin Sokul, based on some recent experience:

With so many avenues to communicate in different ways to different audiences, it’s no surprise that when it comes to business communications, sometimes what you think you want isn’t what you need.

I recently met with a business to discuss the media relations and social media strategy their former PR firm had recommended before they parted ways. They didn’t want to skip a beat with local television and radio stations that covered them for annual consumer pieces, and they were ready to take the social media plunge because, simply, “isn’t every company investing their resources in Facebook and Twitter?” Yet, when we talked about who their target audiences are and how they generate business, neither of these answers pointed toward the business-to-consumer targets they were reaching under their current strategy.

After spending some time listening to their actual goals and whom they really needed to reach, it became obvious that the campaign they were sold on should have actually been a business-to-business strategy. Unfortunately, they had been led astray from the media outlets that should have been hearing their story and the social media platforms that would make the connections they need.

By the time we concluded our meeting, the business’ management determined it needed to rethink its entire approach to communications.

As public relations strategists, it’s our responsibility to counsel our potential and existing clients with strategies tailored to their business objectives and exhibit the kind of leadership to help businesses consider what communications tactics they need.

Sometimes what the company needs is obvious, and sometimes it takes a dedicated planning process to identify those needs and prioritize them, but any firm that has all the answers without first asking the right questions should be viewed with a critical eye.

The strategies and tactics selected should support the end goals of the overall business plan if it’s really going to be effective. Some firms may rely on the “easy wins” or build a strategy based on what the client thinks it wants, not what it needs. In the short term, both are happy with one another, but weeks, months or years later when all the communications goals have been met, but the “needle doesn’t move,” someone has some explaining to do. Instead, it should be the firm that does the explaining, right from the beginning.

The CW: Up and Atom with Arrow, Flash

November 23rd, 2014 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 5.46.35 PMMore than a year ago, I wrote about an overnight TV hit that was taking the network television world by surprise storm: The CW’s Arrow. As Season Two has now come and gone and Season Three will soon complete its Fall run, the show, network and its first spinoff are continuing to stay faithful to both its audience and comic book continuity – to super results.

Already, Arrow has featured major characters such as Roy Harper/Arsenal, (Black) Canary, Deathstroke, Suicide Squad, and Batman arch-nemesis Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Assassins. The show also introduced Central City police scientist Barry Allen (better known as The Flash) last year and has spun the character off and into his own show for 2014-2015 to rave reviews and outstanding ratings. Notable this season has been a prominent story arc with Ray Palmer, who has taken over Queen Consolidated and, last episode, is seen examining a holographic bio-suit looking very much like that worn by The Atom.  Oh, and by the way, Ray Palmer is played by Brandon Routh, who played Superman for one movie.

Almost as fun are the liberties Arrow continues to take with characters and settings.  On TV, the Emerald Archer’s base of operations is Starling rather than comicdom’s Star City, although in an episode this season, Ray Palmer suggests the city’s name should be renamed from the former to the latter.  Also, from the beginning, Oliver’s pet name for his sister Thea has been “Speedy” – a nod of course to Green Arrow’s funny paper sidekick.  And, Boxer Ted Grant recently made an appearance – not as Wildcat but as a former vigilante with a not-specified costume and handle.

The Internet and social media sites are ever-abuzz with what could or should happen next.  Will Laurel eventually take over as the Canary for her recently murdered sister? Will the Atom actually make a costumed appearance; whether on Arrow, Flash, or his own show? And, will rumors of another lesser-know D.C. comics character, Firestorm, come to fruition in the weeks and months ahead? The creative teams behind these shows are keeping us guessing and watching with twists and turns that are often counterintuitive but, for lovers of the genre, always true.

Here’s How High-Profile Execs Should Be Fired

November 17th, 2014 by Matt Friedman

UnknownWhen I was a TV news intern back in the analog days, I remember being told by one of the managers that there were two kinds of news directors. There were “those who have been fired and there are those who will be fired.” The same is true in many industries where high-profile businesspeople get fired all the time. It comes with the territory.

As we have written before, so many of the communications surrounding those firings is pure bull****. Statements around those firings are filled with euphemisms, vagueness and, often, downright lies. They rarely, if ever, answer the question that all audiences want to know – “why?”

But here’s an example from sports, where firings are talked about much more openly than they are in the rest of business. Over the weekend, the University of Florida fired its Head Football Coach, Will Muschamp. The simple reason is that his teams didn’t win enough games, and that was clearly reflected in Athletic Director Jeremy Foley’s statement. This is how the firing was communicated to public audiences:

“Upon evaluation of our football program, we are not where the program needs to be and should be. I’ve always said that our goal at the University of Florida is to compete for championships on a regular basis,” Foley said. “Coach Muschamp was dedicated to developing young men both on and off the field. Our student-athletes showed tremendous growth socially and academically under his leadership. His players were involved in campus activities, engaged with the local community and represented the University of Florida with pride.”

Sometimes, it takes a forensic scientist to decipher statements when an executive is fired. In this case, it’s abundantly clear. It is handled with distinct lack of bull****. Also, a statement like this helps both parties move forward. It helps position Florida as place with high-expections, but where coaches can be treated well. It also lets potential employers know that Muschamp has potential to succeed otherwise, elsewhere. The lawyers should even be happy with this one.

This should be a model for this type of communication. Yes, you can be classy, clear and controversy-free.

When Clients Collaborate, Coordinate

November 11th, 2014 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 8.50.46 PMIf you view the brand video on the Tanner Friedman website Home Page, you’ll see the term “making connections” in describing our firm’s areas of expertise (click here to take a look). In the world of public relations there are few things as rewarding as bringing clients together on a particular initiative.

Today is Veteran’s Day and client Detroit Public Television has just debuted a new series of video vignettes featuring veterans in the workplace.  When we initially heard that programming was being prepared we immediately turned to clients Goodwill Industries, whose “Operation Good Jobs” trains vets and IT firm GalaxE.Solutions who not only has collaborated with Goodwill on that very initiative but whose Chief Security Officer is also an ex-Marine. You can view the series here.

And, tomorrow morning, Tanner Friedman will be ‘ringside’ as the Greatest Show on Earth comes to Detroit Public Schools.  In this case, our firm brought together DPS with Feld Entertainment, which we assist in promoting a range of top national shows including the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Together, an elementary school attendance competition was put in place with the winning school incentivized by and soon to be treated to an exclusive student assembly filled with show performers. It truly will be a sight – and sound(s) – to behold.

Collaborations. Partnerships. Teamwork.  When accomplishing project goals it is often who you know as much as what you know. And when you can build relationships while also achieving specific objectives, so much the better – for all involved.

From The White House To Your House, Act More Quickly In Crisis

November 3rd, 2014 by Matt Friedman

Businessweek-Obama-Crisis-Management-cover1The public and private sectors have something in common. Organizations in both sectors must get with the times when it comes to publicly responding to crisis.

A recent cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek examines the crisis management style of the Obama White House. It mirrors what we see in business. When there is bad news, decision-making lags, despite the “right now” environment that is not likely to get any slower. Customers and media often are vocal, via Twitter and other platforms, while waiting out a response that is caught up in a process of “analysis paralysis.” As Businessweek reports about the White House, “Administration veterans describe Obama’s crisis-management process as akin to a high-level graduate seminar.” The same could be said about corporations and other institutions.

Here are some ways we recommend that you work as fast as the marketplace dictates during a crisis:

1) Quickly bring in an outside resource with the experience to know and practice the fundamentals but the vision wide enough to recognize and account for the nuances of your situation. Give this expert (it doesn’t need to be a team, especially when you have to work fast), latitude to offer counsel and relationships that can help you.

2) Keep the decision-making group small. Organizations are often plagued by the “too many cooks” syndrome. Instead, consolidate power in a crisis.

3) Minimize the involvement of lawyers. Yes, their voice can and often should be heard. But putting them in charge or involving too many of them distances you from your audiences and lengthens the process as the attorneys obsess over commas in statements.

4) Remember the ticking clock at all times. Even the biggest organizations can work quickly when tasked with a goal, as long as egos and insecurity are checked at the door. A constant focus on the vision for success should be balanced by a need to communicate fast or, better yet, get in front of your audiences.

The Businessweek piece ends with a quote from former White House advisor David Axelrod. He says, “As Obama used to say all the time, this sh** would be really interesting if we weren’t right in the middle of it.” All of usewho work with crises have felt that way at one time or another. But we don’t have time anymore to think that way when it’s time to get to work.

It Doesn’t Have To Take 14 People, $782k For Crisis PR

October 29th, 2014 by Matt Friedman

imagesAnytime there’s a news story about PR agency fees, it can’t be good. And the latest story paints PR firms as greedy, overcharging, budget-sucking wastes of money.

Here’s the story from the Raleigh News and Observer about how much the University of North Carolina has spent on a global firm that threw a bunch of bodies on a crisis project, billing what would be the annual revenue of a robust small to medium firm in just a few months.

To be fair, that’s the size of a small national advertising campaign. Also, I’m reasonably certain the firm did deliver some results. I was able to see a communication sent from the UNC Athletic Department to alumni after the investigation findings were announced and it was an impressive piece of communication – candid, straightforward and comforting. But make no mistake, it does not take 14 people and $782,000 to manage a crisis.

In the late ’90s, I was part of a team that managed communications during a significant client crisis. Three of us worked on the business and in a full year, we billed probably around $200,000 (keep in mind, there has been some fee deflation since then). We achieved results and built long-term relationships on the client side. And that was, by any definition, a huge undertaking.

Today, we are frequently asked to work with clients of all sizes on crisis management and recovery projects. Don and/or I lead those projects frequently. We wouldn’t even know what to do with 14 people. Sometimes, we are able to help clients via short-term engagements that wouldn’t raise a single auditor’s eyebrow. Then again, we don’t have the overhead of the global firms, nor their billing mandates.

Please let me reassure you that this UNC work is on the high end, nationally, of cost and resources. There is absolutely no reason to think that that is what it necessarily takes, for an organization of any size, to communicate during or after an adverse situation. Hire a nimble, experienced, cost-consicous firm and you can get counsel, results and value at the same time.