Archive for January, 2010

Toyota Works to Fix Acceleration Pedals, Reputation

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Toyota Motor Company has reportedly received clearance from U.S. federal regulators for a repair to fix the faulty accelerator pedals that necessitated the announcement of a recall this week of more than 2 million vehicles.  Considering the sheer scale of cars involved (and added to the more than 5 million recalled in September), Toyota’s actions were virtually unprecedented from two primary standpoints. First, recalls are almost never announced until a fix for a particular defect has been identified. Secondly, OEMs rarely if ever instruct their dealers to stop selling the vehicles involved.

As such, some would say, Toyota should be lauded for its swift, decisive moves, designed to protect consumers, which included recall information prominently displayed on the Home Page of its Web site. On the other hand, say others, Toyota did not act swiftly enough but rather has known for a decade of problems and associated deaths (and is looking to protect only itself).

With two major recalls in the past four months, Toyota now also faces further scrutiny by federal officials who will be looking closely at who knew what and when in the days and weeks to come. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing on Thursday, while, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has called for a Feb. 25th hearing and has asked for records from both Toyota and NHTSA.

In an attempt to combat what appears to be a growing storm, Toyota will run a letter in major newspapers Sunday and Monday to address customers and the public while communicating to its dealer base on parts and repairs protocol, logistics and instructions. Toyota President Akio Toyoda finally broke his silence on Friday while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, apologizing to consumers.

It is sure to be a long road back for the OEM with the storybook history. Moving forward, Toyota will need to be forthcoming, transparent and an “open book” focused only on corrective action. Further, its leadership will need to be front and center, available and communicative, reassuring and accommodating—something that will no doubt be challenging from a cultural standpoint but is vital to Toyota’s very future.

Unprecedented Multi-Media Approach Brings Hope for Haiti-NOW

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

If you were unable to catch at least a few minutes of Friday night’s international broadcast of “Hope for Haiti Now” you missed a truly amazing happening. Hosted by George Clooney and featuring an impressive “who’s who” from music and the movies, the event has, in just under 48 hours, raised more than $58 million—a new record for donations made through a disaster-relief telethon.

The “telethon” which ran on all of the major networks and most top cable channels was much more than just that; it was a true multi-media event like never before. Streamed online via Hulu, MTV, Fancast, AOL, MSN, Yahoo!, Bing.com, BET.com, CNN. com, VH1.com and Rhapsody, the 2-hour broadcast also ran on social media sites YouTube and MySpace.

Just as amazing: music performed was almost immediately available for downloading via iTunes.  With rousing performances and interesting groupings that included Sting, Madonna, Neil Young and a show-stopper from Jay-Z, Rhianna, Bono and The Edge together, the “Hope for Haiti Now” album is now the biggest one-day LP pre-order in iTunes history and currently the #1 album in 18 countries. The aforementioned song with Jay-Z and friends (“Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour)”) is currently the #1 song on iTunes in 12 countries.

The overall format was similar to 2001’s “America: A Tribute to Heroes” which ran in the weeks following the tragic events of September 11th.  A top movie star would make an appeal followed by top music artists performing. No audience, no applause. Somber, emotional, powerful.

This time, though, the multi-media approach afforded greater reach, immediacy and results for a cause and people that truly cannot wait until tomorrow. And, once again, music proved its ability to move people and mountains.

“Hope for Haiti Now” will continue accepting donations for six months via: Online: www.hopeforhaitinow.org 
» Phone: 877-99-HAITI 
» Text: Text “GIVE” to 50555.

CNN’s Decision Mirrors Local TV News

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Last Wednesday, about 48 hours after the earthquake in Haiti, I realized that with all of the radio and online coverage I had consumed up to that point, I had not yet seen any of the live TV coverage from Haiti. Since the networks got their teams into place that morning, I turned on CNN as its prime anchor, Anderson Cooper, has excelled in covering international news in the past.

But instead of seeing the stories of devastation and widespread impact at the beginning of their newscast, I saw their reporter/doctor Sanjay Gupta performing some sort of medical procedure on a child. I had to sit through for minutes of “LOOK – WE HAVE A REPORTER WHO IS A ALSO DOCTOR!” before I could finally see some news coverage. What came later in the show was excellent – Gupta revealing what early “hospital care” looked like and Cooper showing what was happening to human remains and to a prison where all inmates escaped. But to see the real news, I had to sit through staged news.

The issue of reporting doctors will be a lasting “J-School” lesson from this story. It is encapsulated well in this Columbia Journalism Review report. For me, though, it’s not about whether these news people should “wear two hats.” It’s about the right balance between news and promotion during a story for which the audience has a large appetite for journalism and almost no tolerance for marketing.

Here’s an example from my television news career: the night before a college football game in which the team in my market was ranked #1 and faced its biggest rival, which was ranked #4. This was a moment when sports should lead the local newscast – it was the biggest story in town. I had planned to lead my newscast with a live report from the team’s headquarters, where many fans were outside, making for a compelling visual with actual news to report. But, I was overruled by my management, who wanted a staged pep rally (featuring a high school band and the station’s sportscaster as ringmaster on the front lawn of the TV station) as our lead story instead. Let’s just say that I fought that battle, words were exchanged, and I lost. I felt a pit in my stomach as staged news came before the real story. The needs of the customer were secondary to the needs of the station.

Last week, CNN did the same thing. Their executives could high-five because their star looked like a hero on TV. And I’m not so much of a purist to say that that shouldn’t happen – it’s a fact of life. But, as a viewer, a communicator and a former journalist – I believe there’s a time and a place for those segments. It’s not four minutes and it’s not the lead story.

(How Not To) Do The Right Thing

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

The names and details have been changed to protect the innocent but I wanted to provide a real world example that speaks to one of Tanner Friedman’s core goals and an area we blog on quite often: treating people the right way. While that operating tenet applies, as far as we’re concerned, in and out of the workplace this particular scenario occurred in a “professional” setting and is wrong on a multitude of levels. 

A client and its consultant made the decision that a particular sales piece was necessary to effectively engage its target audience. It would not be a viral but rather an initiative that was high-profile, branded and aimed at soliciting a particular response. In other words, it would need to be very polished and professional.

As particular components of this piece were outside the capabilities of the partner firm from a technology standpoint, it became apparent that an outside vendor would need to be brought in to assist.  However, the vendor was nickel and dimed on price by the consultant to the point that an agreement could not be reached. Instead, the consulting firm in question decided it would attempt to replicate the capabilities of the vendor in-house. The end product, in turn, was woefully inadequate with the client aghast at what they were presented. The project was effectively back to square one.

How wrong was all of this? Let me count the ways:

(1)  The client obviously was not communicated to property from the beginning. Appropriate counsel by the consultant would have detailed and explained the outside costs that would be necessary and incurred for producing the piece. Either this firm told the client they were doing it all internally (and would not incur outside costs) or, they made a promise on price that was unrealistic. Regardless, false expectations were generated.

(2)  Proper respect was not shown to the outside vendor. While, oftentimes, particular budget realities are in play, unrealistic demands on what a particular service or skill set should cost is unprofessional and disrespectful. It is telling and interesting in this particular case that no other outside vendor was willing to be involved. Perhaps the “low ball” request was borne of a desire by the consultant for a large markup that would be passed on to their client.

(3)  The consulting firm’s liason for the client was put in a terrible position, forced by a higher up decision maker to attempt to produce this piece himself with inferior technology. Can you imagine the intense pressure this individual was under; put in the middle and unable to do what was right?

In the end, no one was treated ethically—not client, vendor, nor employee. A head scratcher and case study for how NOT to build relationships, earn trust or operate in general. Final takeaway? Re-read what they did, and then do the opposite.

Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien Situation Teaches Valuable Lesson On Transition

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Leno vs. Letterman was one thing.  But Leno vs. Conan is another thing entirely. In a battle that has gotten downright ugly, dominating opening monologues on both their shows and their competitors’, there is a lesson that stands out beyond merely who sits behind what desk in the days and months to come.

In our roles as communications counselors, we are often asked to develop communications plans for companies faced with adversity (i.e. a bankruptcy or restructuring) or transition (merger or acquisition). Often, the organization’s top person or longtime owner is stepping down and/or handing the baton off to another or a next generation leader.

Like “The Tonight Show’s” 5-year plan enacted half a decade ago by NBC to transition Leno out and O’Brien in, the plans we create on behalf of our clients often are a long-term proposition.  The key to success in this area? Walking the walk: doing what you say you’re going to do.

Leno put forth this plan to his audience (and his successor) very publicly. You can see it here as announced on national television in 2004.  How foolish this all now looks.

To promise succession and then revoke or ‘bastardize’ the concept in some way is worse than never offering the deal in the first place.  In turn, it can severely damage the credibility of those that originally offered it, negatively affect employee morale and, as appears to be the case with O’Brien, drive an organization’s professionals to leave—perhaps to a major competitor.

“Tonight,” it seems, should have given more thought to tomorrow.

A PR Risk Pays Off

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Sometimes, the job of the corporate, in-house PR staff is to protect the company’s executives from potentially dangerous situations. We’ve seen where that includes speaking only in scripted remarks or via statements drafted by both lawyers and communicators.

Other times, corporate, in-house PR staff has an opportunity to showcase an executive as the face of its company. Under the right circumstances, letting the executive talk in public forums can humanize the company’s message and build trust in its leadership. Last Friday, Ford Motor Company did just that with its President and CEO – an example worth examining.

Alan Mulally was was the featured speaker at a luncheon meeting at the Detroit Economic Club, hours before the Charity Preview for the North American International Auto Show. (Full Disclosure: Tanner Friedman handles media relations for all of the Detroit Economic Club’s events throughout the year, including the event that is the subject of this blog item). Since the beginning of the year, Mulally has spoken publicly at the Consumer Electronics Show, the Automotive News World Congress and in several interviews from the floor of the Auto Show’s media preview days.

The plan for this speech was simple – talk for about 10 minutes and then use the rest of the alloted time to take live questions from the audience. Some executives and their teams would look at that the same way they would view walking a tightrope 500 feet in the air. Not Mulally. He seemed to view it as an opportunity to connect with an audience. The 900 people in attendance “ate it up,” showing him respect and gratitude.

He didn’t say anything particularly different from what he had said in other venues over the last two weeks. In other words, he stayed on message. Here was a well trained, experienced leader who is used to being challenged via questions and knows how to answer them. As always, solid preparation and sound execution are imperative. He and his company let him use his talents to score PR points. It also resulted in some news coverage, like this Dow Jones story that ran worldwide, mentioning the fact that he took questions from the audience, broadening the appeal beyond the ballroom where he spoke. This is a reminder that when a company’s CEO can be a communications asset, it’s important to take advantage, without fear getting in the way.

Mark McGwire: Road Back From Perdition?

Monday, January 11th, 2010

And so it is official.  What we all suspected was true officially came to light today: Mark McGwire admitted he used steroids “off and on” for more than a decade during his career, including his legendary 1998 season. 

One of the harsher reactions coming out of the past player camp was from Hall of Famer and former Chicago Cub great Ryne Sandberg. He told the Des Moines Register that McGwire’s formal admission “stains the game,” was “too late” and “does nothing to help him at all.”

Other critics have been expressing their disdain for the carefully crafted approach to the public confession, which included a statement delivered to the Associated Press, a one-on-one interview with Bob Costas and former manager and new employer Tony LaRussa hitting the interview circuit to demonstrate his support (including on ESPN/ESPN.com).

McGwire’s “coming clean,” which also included calling the family of Roger Maris and the commissioner of baseball, could also be construed as more of a conscience-cleaner.  Still, whether suggested by handlers/image makers or something he personally felt strongly about, it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, McGwire’s “I’m sorry” moment is long overdue.  In fact, in light of his job offer to become the hitting coach of the St. Louis Cardinals this spring, it also comes off as self-serving.  

Too much, too little, too late as Sandberg suggests? I don’t think so.  As Matt and I have written (and counsel our clients) so often, in any adverse situation, admitting guilt, apologizing and seeking contrition is Step 1 in the long road to image rehabilitation.  This spring and summer, that road will be fraught with cameras and questions, jeers and, just maybe, cheers?

“Gen X Radio”: Will It Slack or Succeed?

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

As a member of “Generation X,” I was among those once branded by the mainstream media as “slackers” destined to be part of a generation holding college degrees without much interest in the things our parents found important, like careers and families. We were all going to be like the characters in “Reality Bites” for as long as we lived, right?

Fast-forward more than a few years and the visions of an entire generation stuck working in coffee houses while trying to sort out our lives has been transformed. Now, we’re raising families and making significant business contributions, while sharing an experience stuck in between the much larger Baby Boomers and “Gen Y” groups in American society.

“Gen X” is now such a consumer force, with real buying power, the nation’s largest radio station group owner, Clear Channel, has created a format for us. Less than two weeks ago, “Gen X Radio” went on the air locally in Tulsa. If it works there, it’s safe to assume that Clear Channel will roll it out to other markets. But will it work? To get the best possible analysis for Tanner Friedman clients and friends, I asked global radio research and programming consultant Hal Rood of Strategic Radio Solutions. Here’s Hal’s take:

“This will be an interesting case study as this new station is targeting a media savvy demographic group with very diverse tastes. One might even say that Generation X is more like a tribe of individualists than a common community. There was a vast foray of music and specialized radio station formats during the time that this demographic was developing their music tastes so it will be interesting to see if fans of certain genres of music like Grunge and Hair Bands will listen to Hip Hop and Boy Bands that were also popular during the 80s and 90s. If the station does not reflect the generation’s common tastes or point of view, the GenXers will see the disingenuousness from a mile away and the station’s “GenX” name will be a hindrance more than rocket fuel.”

OK, Xers, what do you think? What if “GenX Radio” came to your hometown? Would you listen?

Some Good News About Customer Service

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Bad news travels fast online. Especially stories about bad customer service.

There’s no question that thanks to social media platforms, more consumer oriented companies are paying more attention, at least online, to stories of bad service and taking steps to address them (if it’s not too late). But good stories don’t get as much attention. So I’m going to share one and the lesson that can be learned from it.

Over the holidays, my family and I spent about a week in and around Atlanta. We arrived on Christmas Day and it was slim pickings in National Car Rental’s Emerald Aisle (made famous recently by the humorous John McEnroe ad campaign). My choices were a small Pontiac, a big pickup truck or a Ford Flex that looked to me like it was a part of the Emerald Aisle (but there’s a brand new monstrosity of a parking garage that now houses all rental car companies at that airport. It’s huge and not yet well marked. Be warned, it will add time to your next trip there). Because I was hauling a family and all of our luggage, I picked the Flex.

When it was time to check out, the agent processed my rental like normal and I was on my way, driving what was a nice ride for 8 days. But, when I returned the car last Saturday, the computer spit out a receipt that cause immediate sticker shock – a bill for more than $1600!

I went inside, took a deep breath, then talked to the agent at the counter, explaining the situation. She let me know that I had made a mistake, taking a car from the premium row with a jaw-dropping rate of $283 per day. But she also quickly agreed that the “checkout” agent had made a mistake by not alerting me to this at the time of rental. After about five minutes of working the computer (and, I assume, seeing that I am a relatively frequent customer over the last 10+ years), she talked to her manager and within a few seconds, she let me know that they would honor my original rate quote. Talk about doing the right thing.

I share this story because it’s important to pay attention when businesses empower their employees to take care of customers and take a long-term view of relationships. It’s especially impressive when this can happen, on the spot, in dealing with a large corporation.

It’s really an example for all of us in business – listen to customers and join with them in creating solutions when challenges arise. It’s all a part of preserving relationships – the lifeblood of business.

Who Really Loses When PR Firms Get Cut?

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that you are the head of Communications for a division of a large, publicly held company headquartered on the East Coast. Your employer consistently ranks at or near the bottom of both the J.D. Power and University of Michigan ACSI customer satisfaction studies. Your industry is increasingly competitive and opportunities to tell your stories through traditional media are constantly shrinking. What move do you make entering 2010? Dump all of your local PR firms?

It sounds too ridiculous to be true, but that’s exactly what one executive did, with the company’s blessing, heading into this new year. This division’s communications department terminated its local agencies, including those in some of the company’s (and the nation’s) largest markets. Instead, it will rely solely on its relatively small and geographically far-flung in-house staff.

So will this in-house staff, stripped of its largest set of resources, be equipped with the latest communications tools? Hardly. The mandate from the inside is right out of the PR Stone Age – more press releases, press conferences and “lunches with beat reporters.” I wish I was making this up.

What’s the issue? Normally, it’s money or a cultural reticence to work with outside firms. But not here. The company reportedly spent more than $4 million on Washington, DC lobbying firms alone in the first three quarters of 2009. Another newspaper story reports that the company used an 800-attorney New York law firm to handle a recent deal. We’re told that firm’s lawyers bill anywhere from $500-$1100 per hour. The report listed more than a half dozen partners who worked on the case.

After analyzing this situation, the answer is simple. This company just doesn’t care very much about communicating with its customers or the communities where it does business. That simply isn’t much of a priority anymore. The company makes this decision at its own peril. It’s an established fact that the most successful business-to-consumer companies are those that communicate best.

It’s certainly bad news for the agencies who have lost their contracts, even though they have performed well under challenging circumstances. But it’s worse news for the in-house staff now asked to do their jobs with far fewer resources and unrealistic expectations. The agencies can replace the revenue. But the in-house employees are stuck working for a company that no longer appreciates what they do for a living.