Archive for October, 2009

Redskins, Pirates and Looking Before You Leap

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Whenever we embark on a new communications project or initiative with a client, we always start by talking out all particulars and considerations  so that our approach is well thought out and as strategic as possible. What are we trying to accomplish? Are there any potential negatives? It’s a bit akin to “looking before you leap” and “thinking before you speak.” 

In the past day or so I’ve come across two instances where, in my opinion, those tenets were not followed. Take, first, the case of the Washington Redskins and owner Daniel Snyder, who has now banned all fan-made signs from entering the stadium. In the midst of an abysmal season and mounting losses, Snyder evidently took a page out of the Matt Millen playbook with a “knee-jerk” reaction to fan displeasure. Even team spokespersons, when asked, had no information to share on exactly when or why the ban had occurred; demonstrating that the move was not thoughtfully discussed in the boardroom with PR. Fallout from fans and the media has been rightfully brutal.

Tonight I also watched a CNN story detailing a new shipboard security system that, it is claimed, makes ocean liners virtually “pirate proof.” My immediate reaction upon viewing the story was: that sounds what they said about the Titanic. Who knows if the security firm that developed the technology approached CNN or vice-versa but the story was very visual and detailed, demonstrating how, for example, jet streams of water might be utilized to keep seafaring privateers at bay. Promoting that the basic technology exists  (ala a burglar alarm commercial and home signage in order to market a product and deter would-be burglars) is understandable; actually showing how it works is, on the other hand, highly questionable and, quite possibly, the first step in a criminal reverse engineering. 

Purpose, message, approach and anticipating potential fallout. All should be important considerations, thought out carefully, for any strategic communications initiative. Proceeding otherwise risks negative backlash or worse.

Twitter on The Firing Line

Monday, October 26th, 2009

We promised to keep you updated on the intersection between traditional media and social media. There’s a new example of how close the two can get in the current environment. I watched it all unfold, online, on a Sunday night (formerly a “down time” in the old “news cycle”).

Last night, ESPN announced it had fired baseball analyst Steve Phillips, former General Manager of the New York Mets, after a widely reported (especially by the New York tabloids) affair with a production assistant. That announcement was made via ESPN’s Vice President, Media Relations Mike Soltys’ Twitter feed.

Just a few minutes later, via Twitter, CNBC’s sports business reporter, Darren Rovell, reported the news via his Twitter account. Approximately 40 minutes after that, ESPN reported the news via its own Twitter feed (with a link to a short item on espn.com). Just a few minutes later, Phillips’ page on Wikipedia had already been updated by those who had been following the news unfold online. About an hour later, si.com’s baseball writer Jon Heyman reported via his Twitter account that Phillips had entered an inpatient treatment facility last Friday, attributing that information to Phillips’ agent. During that time, none of this information appeared, as far as I know, on television.

While this does appear to be celebrity gossip news, it does involve a primary “star” analyst who appears on TV, radio and online for ESPN, which is, in itself, a newsworthy entity. And Phillips’ career as a baseball GM had been at least partially ended by an extramarital affair with an employee (his team’s on-field performance was also a factor).

As others have said, while Twitter serves as a social networking tool, it is also a powerful news vehicle, allowing for instant reporting. As we saw last night, PR professionals can break news to their “followers” of journalists via Twitter, sparking bona fide news coverage. While sports media seems to be ahead on this trend, it’s only a matter of time before “major” news stories are broken and reported this way.

Popular “Rap” on Media is Wrong

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

The media is many things to many people. A “watchdog” working in the public interest; an entity focused on sensationalism and ratings/sales; and, the “root of all evil.”  In recent days, the media has found itself once again publicly “called out” on a number of fronts—and unjustifiably so.

This week during WADL-TV 38′s live Detroit City Council candidate debate, Ron Dzwonkowski of the Detroit Free Press asked the candidates why, in their view, people were leaving the city in droves and what they would do to stem the exodus. Council hopeful Mohamed Okdie, answering first, put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the media—specifically citing Time magazine.  Kwame Kenyatta, up next, said he agreed with Okdie. Subsequent responses (including by Gary Brown and Charles Pugh) cited more likely suspects: crime, schools and public corruption. 

The Detroit Free Press, this week, is also being cited for wrongdoing in the Kilpatrick whisteblower case (you can read today’s story here). And, on a national scale, many are criticizing the early gullibility of the press in covering the “balloon boy” story.

As someone who works hand-in-hand with the media everyday (and worked within it for over a decade early in my career) I am no doubt biased in their endorsement. Yet, hear me out. The argument that the media only covers bad news is false.  While there is no doubt that scandal and heartache often “lead,” any true news consumer knows that, in reality, mainstream media also covers stories on good news and other important issues of the day. And, when it comes to rooting out wrongdoing, one need look no further than the investigative excellence of a 60 Minutes and the Pulitzer Prize winning work of the Freep in exposing Kilpatrick and his corrupt reign. Further, when 6-year old Falcon was reported missing, media immediately sprung into action, to the pleas of his parents and at the direction of police, to locate a child that may well have been in grave danger.

Media can be a convenient scapegoat for the ills of the world.  In reality, we’re fortune to have them and the “checks and balances” they provide.

Charles Pugh Poised to Overcome Adversity—Again

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

As I write this, Charles Pugh is appearing with five of his fellow aspiring Detroit City Council candidates on the second of WADL-TV’s live debates. It has been a rough several days for the former broadcast newsman with widespread press coverage on his condo foreclosure trials and tribulations. Thus far these evening, he has come across well—likable, personable, thoughtful. To be sure, Pugh, a longtime TV journalist, is good on camera.

He is also no stranger to adversity. Google the man and read about his past and you will see that he has overcome almost unfathomable personal tragedy and loss. He is also homosexual which, for anyone in the public eye (in particular an indivdual running for public office), can bring a range of challenges.  Placed in the context of his life, then, potentially losing a $350,000 Detroit condominium would seem, for Pugh, a more than surmountable bump in the road.

That said, Charles Pugh can’t afford another gaffe.  Soon after announcing his candidacy last year, Pugh demonstrated an initial lack of judgment in, evidently, consulting with disgraced former Detroit Chief of Staff Christine Beatty regarding his political aspirations. He quickly covered his tracks, yet, some initial damage was done; if nothing else his inexperience in the realm of public service was brought to light. Now, at a critical time, news coverage of his financial challenges (including in past years where he was still a well paid journalist) threatens to further damage his credibility in the minds of potential supporters.

How will Pugh fare in the end? He has much going for him including his aforementioned likability and presence. Like Dave Bing (who also overcame issues of credibility regarding his education and place of residency), he represents change and a new start where both are sorely needed. From a communications standpoint, he also handled this current “crisis” well—immediately addressing the issues “head-on” in a seemingly forthright and honest way.  A few weeks from now, we’ll see exactly how Detroit voters feel.

An Epidemic of Unprofessionalism—Part II

Monday, October 19th, 2009

As Matt hands the baton to me for Part II of our blogs on “bad business behavior,” a couple of points do need reiterating. What we are experiencing is far from isolated—it is, unfortunately, something we hear from others (in our industry and out) almost every day. We are also sure that at least some of those employing a ‘hurry up and wait forever’ modus operandi are not necessarily bad people but, rather, are caught up in a combination of analysis paralysis and economics fear.

Unfortunately, current economic realities—both real and imagined—seem to have emboldened some to justify an approach to business that is, plain and simply, disrespectful and wrong. Though the instances are thankfully few (and thank goodness for the many, many great clients we have the privilege to work with every day), we have seen a preponderance in the past six months that are particularly perplexing, including individuals who approach and hire  us for our expertise, are provided with tangible work product and results and then attempt to devalue our counsel. In my four-plus decades of life and nearly three in the workplace, I have never before had to enlist the assistance of the judicial system to be paid for contracted work. That has changed in recent months.

The fact of the matter is, things will improve. The economy will come back. In the meantime, it should be incumbent upon all of us to take an accounting of how we are behaving and operating in the interim and examine just how, exactly, we are treating others both inside and outside our respective organizations. Remember the old adage: Treat people well and they’ll tell someone else. Treat them poorly and they’ll tell 10 others. Here’s another: this is a very small town.

It’s a short-term vs. long-term view dynamic.  Are we positioning ourselves for future roads best traveled or irreverseably burning bridges as we come upon them?

An Epidemic of Unprofessionalism – Part I

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

The big story in the economy this past week was the Dow Jones Industrial Average returning to the 10,000 mark. Some say it might be a sign of an economic turnaround.

After nearly three years with “our own firm,” Don and I strongly believe that no turnaround will be possible without a change in business psychology. While the past few years have provided countless financial challenges nationwide, we believe the legacy of this recession will be how it has led to worse business behavior than we ever envisioned. We can’t see anything changing significantly until the pendulum of behavior swings closer to where it was, say, five years ago. We feel so strongly about this subject that both of us will blog about it in the next day or so.

This isn’t a trend – it’s an epidemic.

We aren’t talking necessarily about corruption or greed. It’s a lack of professional respect, stemming apparently from fear and/or extreme risk aversion – much of which we believe is irrational. Case in point – the unacknowledged proposal. This is happening multiple times each month in our company and cuts across age, gender, geography and industry.

It goes something like this:

We receive a phone call or email from someone interested in our services, usually because of a referral from a satisfied client. They typically need to meet “right away” because of their “urgent” communications need. Don and/or I take time out of our schedules to meet with them and learn about their business and their needs. Then, they ask for a proposal, so they can have an idea, for internal purposes, of potential scope of work and costs. They promise a quick review.We then prepare the requested proposal and meet the deadline set by the potential client.

Then we never hear from them again. Literally.

Often when we try to follow-up and get some sort of answer, we are treated like door-to-door salespeople, met with unreturned phone calls, unanswered emails or gatekeepers who won’t let us near our original contact. Never mind that they called us!

We aren’t the only ones noting what’s going on. Check out this article from a candid national sales expert – who has encountered similar experiences.

So what does this mean? For one, it’s an early warning system. Anyone who acts so unprofessionally, with no respect, is probably not going to be a Tanner Friedman client. But there are likely some good people exhibiting bad behavior, because of the circumstances surrounding them. If nothing else, it’s represents a slap in the face that is extremely frustrating and costly to our business. And it’s a sign that things are not getting better for business in America.

If you have a proposal sitting on your desk, especially one that you requested under a process that you initiated, act on it. If it’s too expensive, then say so. If situations or priorities change, then say so. If your gut tells you to do it, then do it. Whatever the outcome, communicate it. Right away.

Don’s comments will follow as we call attention to this disturbing behavior.

Michael Jackson’s New Record, “This is It” Debuts—Is It Too Soon?

Monday, October 12th, 2009

In the annals of pop history,  there’s never been anyone quite like Michael Jackson—in life and, now, in death.

Last night at midnight, “This is It,” Jackson’s first posthumous release, was made available online at michaeljackson.com.  Ala John Lennon’s “Free as a Bird,” a previously released demo which the surviving Beatles would complete many years later, production values and backing vocals from the brothers Jackson were added to complete “This is It.”  Later this month, the concert movie of the same name will also debut for a two-week limited engagement in theaters from coast to coast.

The timeliness of these multi-media offerings truly boggles the mind. Traditionally, posthumous anythings have typically taken many, many months if not years to compile, master and complete. It is a telling sign of our times that, in 2009, mere weeks are necessary (Jackson, you’ll recall passed in June).

Some might say it is all inappropriate; opportunistic—too soon. Yet, the Jackons family realized that, in this era of YouTube and online piracy, acting in as timely a manner as possible offered the best chance of preserving the integrity and legitimacy of the final product.

It is almost ironic that, had Jackson lived, his Fall London concerts would be, right now, at their midday point. “This is It,” in a way, offers a new beginning for fans of Jackson, his music and his moves. And it should truly be just the beginning—evidently there are at least 100 unreleased tunes in the MJ vault. Don’t stop ’til you get enough, indeed.

Communications Group Ahead Of Its Time

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Last Friday, I enjoyed the privilege of speaking to a group of professional communicators in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was really a first-of-its-kind experience for me. That’s because I have spoken to many groups over the years, but typically either niche-oriented groups of specialists or groups of non-communicators who want some led shed on the fundamentals of what we do.

InterCom is a 20-year old group in Kalamazoo that is ahead of its time. Its membership is comprised of a variety of communications professionals from writers to ad sales to photographers to PR to marketing to fundraising to entrepreneurs. All of those groups (and seemingly more) were represented in the group I addressed on Friday.

When Don and I started our firm and we chose “strategic communications” as part of our branding, a lot of observers wondered what a couple of “PR guys” where doing with that moniker. In the years since, we have educated our clients and others about the need for a well-rounded communications program, grounded in a spirit of collaboration and designed to support business strategy, in order to succeed in an evolving world. But the members of InterCom have known that for many years.

I hope the group learned a few things on Friday, I know that I did. The session helped remind me of the variance in comfort level with new platforms that really depends on where you “sit” across the continuum of communications. What I heard around the room in Kalamazoo, once I thought about it, really reflects what we at Tanner Friedman encounter every day. Things are moving so fast, it’s impossible for everyone to stay ahead of the technology trends. I was reminded on Friday that by sharing experiences and ideas, the organizations we need to communicate will all benefit.

Learn From Delphi’s Mistake

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Delphi Corporation is out of its long bankruptcy today. Those who pay attention know there are always lessons to be learned from corporate bankruptcies. This time, though, there’s a powerful communications lesson.

The CEO who led the company through the bankruptcy, veteran Robert “Steve” Miller, answered questions from the Wall Street Journal that ran in yesterday’s edition. It’s very important to note that communications served as perhaps his biggest regret.

I invite you to read the exchange below. It’s further proof that the most successful companies, even in tough times, are the companies that communicate the most effectively. It’s an opportunity for other businesses to learn from Delphi’s mistake.

WSJ: In 2005, you said management of a bankrupt company should be communicative. How did that work at Delphi?

Mr. Miller: I was very outspoken when we went into Chapter 11. But there was a lot of pushback and criticism. We made the decision to shut up. But if I had to do it all over again, I would keep speaking out. When you are in a controversial situation, you are going to be criticized whatever you do. The critics said, “Steve Miller is the devil incarnate,” and we said, “No comment.” The only thing left out there for the public was the notion of a devil.

CBS’s Smooth Jazz Makes Way for Amp Radio

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Though today’s official debut of Detroit’s latest radio station, “Amp Radio,” came as little surprise to most, there are a couple of notables surrounding the format change of 98.7 FM.

First, the decision to take “Smooth Jazz” off the terrestrial radio airwaves. Many thought one of CBS’s other Detroit properties would have been switched before WVMV and its 15-year success story. Smooth Jazz has also been a pioneer and innovator in online promotion. One would assume this will continue.

Second, the decision to not entirely eliminate the smooth jazz format. HD radio and online streaming will keep at least the station’s music intact for long-time fans—a good thing. The AOL Radio option, in fact, is making all CBS radio stations accessible virtually everywhere—from vehicles to handhelds. Unfortunately drive-timers Alexander Zonjic and Sandy Kovach will no longer be heard on the station, it appears. 

Finally, CBS’s multi-platform approach to teasing the format switch, including setting up a Web site (987takeover.com) and Facebook and Twitter pages. On-air promos drove listeners to their computers and cell phones and vice versa, building “buzz” and anticipation in the interim, including calls to watch for the “Takeover” vehicle around town for giveways and online photo opportunities.

Changing formats in a changing media landscape. CBS did this well. One hopes that the media giant also realizes that in order to go head to head with powerhouse Hit station Channel 95-5, they can’t forego the personality factor and should bring on-air talent on accordingly.