Archive for May, 2011

The Jim Tressel Saga’s PR Lesson

Monday, May 30th, 2011

For many sports fans in this part of the country, it was hard to focus, as Don notes below, on the true meaning of Memorial Day. That’s because, as family and friends gathered in person and online, the subject of Ohio State Head Football Coach Jim Tressel’s resignation dominated discussion.

Here’s the PR lesson of the Tressel saga and it’s one we have heard too many times before. People intoxicated by power forget that we live in the most forgiving society imaginable. They really can do something wrong, apologize, reassure and the public can move on. But so often, public figures just won’t own up to their bad behavior.

Tressel, like so many others, motivated by greed or fear, lied and covered up, rather than facing the facts and the truth. That, of course, was his undoing.

While our society can forgive (and so often forget), we are simply not tolerant of lies and cover-ups. In the court of public opinion, those are capital crimes. So the old Watergate-era saying “The cover-up is worse than the crime” once again rings true.

Memorial Day Is For Remembering

Monday, May 30th, 2011

In between our cookouts, sun worshipping and extra day off, one hopes more than a few of us also take the time to pay tribute to those that have sacrificed so much for us. And while we often hear or read about aspects of military operations that don’t go as planned, when a Bin Laden is caught or an oppressive dictator removed from power we should all marvel at the dedication and incredible abilities of our armed forces, including their ability to communicate and coordinate.

Among history’s most amazing military communications endeavors dealt with efforts to “reverse engineer” and decipher enemy communications during World War II.  As Germany’s “blitzkrieg” rolled over Europe, to ensure that the enemy would not intercept vital information, they used an electro-mechanical device called Enigma to encode the data. They believed that even if the enemy were to capture a machine, it would be useless unless both sender and receiver were also in possession of the same “key” which described how the message was encoded. The Poles and later the British would prove them wrong.

Ingenuity and espionage on the part of the allies and sloppiness on the part of the enemy would eventually break the system the Germans had thought unsolvable.

How important was this development? Very likely, say historians, the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic might have been lost, and England forced to capitulate. Further, America could have been denied a staging ground for the invasion of Europe and the War might have dragged on for another two years, with many more millions of lives lost. And, with Hitler working on intercontinental ballistic missiles, the entire tide of the War could have tragically shifted.

Today, pause, thank and remember.

PR Pros: Our Long National Nightmare Is Over

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

As I write, the last first-run Oprah Winfrey Show is on TV the Eastern Time Zone. During its remarkable run, the show has made enriched the lives of many people and many companies, including, as I saw first hand as a young news producer, TV stations that used Oprah as the ultimate 5:00 news lead-in.

The show has also befuddled many people and many companies, including, as a saw first hand as a more experienced news producer, TV stations that had to “climb Mt. Oprah” to compete in the evening news race when a competing station was “an Oprah station.”

But, in my years since leaving TV, the show is the stuff of nightmares for me, my colleagues and thousands of others in PR across the country. Simply put, other than clients who refuse to pay their bills, the worst clients are the ones who demand to appear “on Oprah.” Typically, those are the clients with the worst “stories,” the worst people skills and, in many cases, are the least likely to have ever seen the Oprah Winfrey Show, its female-centric bent and its lineup of celebrity guests.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I were talking to a potential client company owner who had developed an over-the-counter health care product he wanted to market nationally. When talking about goals and objectives, he declared that his top goal was “to take this product to Oprah’s couch.” I let him know that that doesn’t happen 99.99% of the time, even in successful business-to-consumer campaigns. But, he insisted that was his goal and he wanted to find the firm to make it happen. Yes, he did us a favor by waving that red flag. A Google search reveals – surprise- he never made it to the Harpo Studios in Chicago.

A runaway media brand success has caused countless PR firm/client headaches. The last Oprah episode is like a collective aspirin for this business.

Athletes Behaving Beautifully

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

As our Tanner Friedman blog quite often discusses people behaving badly, it is a refreshing change of pace to put ‘pen to paper’ on individuals who are doing the right thing. And athletes no less! Last week a story was relayed to me from an individual who had had dinner the night before at a local fine dining establishment and witnessed an interesting scene. The first part was not surprising but the final outcome surely was.

Evidently a group of Detroit Lions players, no doubt in the area for informal workouts, was seated together at this restaurant and making quite a bit of noise. Nearby was a smaller group of women of foreign descent wearing veils. I add this only to underscore that this second group was much more reserved and conservative then their counterparts. After a few expletives flew between teammates at the adjoining table, the women asked to be moved to another part of the restaurant; something that did not go unnoticed by a couple of the Lions.

And what was their reaction? More expletives? Laughing or rude comments? How about two of the players getting up, going over to the women, apologizing and then paying for their dinners, followed by toned down discourse for the remainder of the evening.

How refreshing that these players had the maturity, wherewithal and understanding of the tremendous responsibility they have, as public figures, to set an example and represent their team and organization in a professional manner. Actions, without a doubt, worthy of a standing ovation.

Why Partners Really Need To Be Partners

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Don and I have a combined 30 years of working in and with professional services firms. In fact, professional services has become one of Tanner Friedman’s most solid areas of client service. One of the great ironies we have observed over the years is that firms of all kinds (law firms, PR firms, financial firms – you name it) promise a “partnership” with their clients but too often can’t keep that same promise among the equity shareholders of their businesses.

A new example has come to light this week with some recent reporting on the Fieger law firm here in Michigan (for those outside the state, that is the attorney made famous by representing Jack Kevorkian in the ’90s). In this blog by Chad Halcolm of Crain’s Detroit Business and this column by Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson, the public is taken inside the firm to learn that, essentially, not all partners are created equally, at least in the mind of Mr. Fieger.

In our experience, we have found this type of scenario to be relatively common. We know of business “partners” yelling and screaming at each other, within earshot of staff members. We know of a firm where two top “partners” literally do not speak to one other. We have dealt with very large firms where caste-like systems are in place based on which “partners” bring in more business than others. We have even seen firms in which “partners” are so competitive with one other, they set up what are essentially rival companies, under one roof, with shared resources.

Some business owners, based on their personalities and values, are just better off being the only “boss” and having employees “under them.” Others thrive off the chemistry of a sound relationship that makes everyone around them better. Most top performers in professional services fit into one category or another. But, because “partnerships” can often be lucrative (under the “more is more” category), some who should run their business, their way, on their own end up with one or more partners. Money can too often cloud issues in relationships, and often for years.

For consumers of professional services, the important lesson is this – before making a business decision with a firm, try to gauge the health of the partnership between its partners. That can often be a determining factor for staff retention, the viability of the business long-term and, most importantly, your experience as a client.

Multi-Media High Technology: Headache or Heaven Sent?

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

For many, new technology is synonymous with convenience and selection. iTunes with its immediate access to music and video alike.  The Kindle and Nook offering books in a flash. Netflix delivering movies online or by mail. But, a closer examination and day-to-day experience demonstrates things are not always what they seem.

My daughter was recently tasked with writing a report for History on the movie, “The Conspiracy Theory.” Released nearly 15 years ago (1997) and starring then hot stars Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, the flick at one time was a staple of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores everywhere. Trying to find the film in 2011 proved virtually impossible. Video stores, which at one time offered an incredible selection of movies from its earliest days to present, are gone, replaced by OnDemand and Netflix. Neither carry the movie. Thankfully, a fan had downloaded it in 10-minute segments to YouTube and that’s how it was ultimately viewed and reported on.

Similarly, I can still recall the first time I set foot in a Border’s. It was like a library, offering virtually anything you wanted to read, at your fingertips. Amazon.com comes close to offering the selection but forever jettisons the excitement and impulse buy of a new book, discovered and perused directly from the shelves. And, while the Kindle and its ability to possess a book within seconds brings some of that magic back, the selection is far from adequate.

And then there is music. Once again, the deep catalogue selections once offered by the record stores are rare if not inexistent. The Big Boxers and then downloading are largely to blame; today, even the Walmarts and Best Buys devote little more than a row or two to tunes, and even then just new releases and Greatest Hits packages. Conceding defeat, by limiting inventory they have forever driven their CD buying audience to iTunes and the online-like. This presents a real problem for listening to music in the car. iPhones with headphones are one option but if you don’t have Ford or Lincoln with Sync, sharing your downloaded music with others is an uneven process at best.

We’re at an interesting multi-media crossroads, now nearly mid-way through 2011. And I would argue that high-tech, while intriguing and sexy, is not always more practical. It is however, for better or worse, here to stay.

An Obligation To Be Ethical

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Though I have written and spoken quite a bit about ethics of late, I was proud to be recently asked by PRSA Detroit President Susan Ferraro to serve as a guest writer for her President’s column in the May 2011 “Bulletin.”  I’d like to share an excerpt of that with you here:

How we conduct ourselves – with colleagues, clients, the media and community at large – defines us.

So, how do we treat and interact with the audiences mentioned above? Do we operate with honesty, integrity and transparency? At Tanner Friedman we are staunch proponents of teamwork, professionalism and empowerment, all put forth on our website in “What We Stand For.” Matt and I wrote this along with our Mission Statement before doing anything else when forming our company nearly five years ago.

With colleagues, do we give credit where credit is due or do we throw them under the bus? Do we support our employees’ career paths with direction and open dialogue or do we attempt to keep them “in a box” and controlled? When a client issue arises, do we provide internal support and problem-solving counsel to our team members or do we instead try to assign blame in deference to the paying client?

Regarding clients, do we truly provide strategic counsel or just tell the customer what he wants to hear, even if it is not in his best interest? Are we totally transparent when it comes to dynamics related to retainer vs. project vs. hourly fees, and team member transition and conflicts? We’ll never take on a competing client, yet others have been known to do this as well as pad hours and, as such, outright lie. Unethical approaches all.

And, where media are concerned, what would you say is the most important dynamic of interacting with them? Securing placements for our clients? I would argue that, rather, it is about building and maintaining trust through professional interaction; respect for the in-basket (making sure what we are pitching is truly newsworthy) and using print, broadcast and online media appropriately and with integrity. Telling an assignment desk editor, for example, that he should send out a crew to an event because there are “hundreds of people on site” when there are not is the total opposite. A similar ethical approach to social media is paramount.

Ethics are about choices. They are a reflection of who we are. Each one of us has an obligation – to co-workers, our clients, our collaborators and our industry – to operate honestly and ethically. It is the only way to advance our profession and truly experience a rewarding, purposeful career.

Why Are Gas Prices So High? A Question Media Can’t Answer

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Over the past few years, we have helped you follow the impact of unprecedented cuts and consolidation in the traditional news media. Now, here’s a new example that affects everyone.

Because of cutbacks in national and local news organizations of all kinds, one of the top questions on the minds of Americans has not been answered – “Why are gas prices so high?”

As the price of gasoline climbed above $4 per gallon, the story remained at the top of the nation’s news agenda. But no reporting has definitively answered the question – “Why?” In dozens of news stories we reviewed, we saw and heard plenty of consumers complaining, many pundits blaming politicians and others. CNN even spent the time and money to commission a poll focusing on who consumers blame for the high prices. But we have yet to find any piece of journalism that reveals why gas costs what it costs.

We have seen and heard a lot of coverage telling us that “the market” sets the pricing. It has been reported the “crude oil prices have jumped.” We have also heard from some that “speculation drives the market.” But the dots have yet to be connected in any logical, explanatory way.

This is not anyone’s fault. It’s just another impact of fewer journalists having to handle more stories, with very few given the time and the resources to take a complicated story and boil it down for a mass audience, without any political bias.

Mackinac Conference Can’t Be Missed

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I was honored to be asked to speak this week by the Detroit Regional Chamber at a pre-Mackinac Conference event, attended largely by individuals contemplating attending for the first time, to discuss “best practices” for making the most of time spent on the island. The panel also included Tricia Keith of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan and was moderated by Sandy Baruah, the Chamber’s president and CEO.

The best advice given centered around one key component: Having a plan. Here are a few specifics:

*Paid registrants are allowed a link to the attendee list. It is always prudent to look the list over to identify those you know and those you want to get to know;

*If possible and appropriate, schedule, in advance, brief meetings to be held once you are on the island. Cold-calling off a list, though, is never advisable. Leverage existing relationships to help bridge those gaps;

*Identify which forums key targets are speaking at and/or anticipate which they may be attending. Then, get up early and get there. If, during the course of a particular session, you have comments germane to the discussion, by all means stand up and identify yourself and make your presence known;

*When it comes to business cards, think quality over quantity. Again, leverage relationships to secure introductions (and return the favor).

In the end, while everyone should have an action strategy in advance of heading up north in June, be flexible, adaptable – and relax. A lot of what occurs on Mackinac happens “organically”.  Things do get done on the island; and what happens on Mackinac doesn’t stay on Mackinac – relationships built can follow you home and beyond. Truly, there’s nothing quite like it.

Historic Night, A PR Plan Gone Awry

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

All day, the news about the killing of Osama Bin Ladin has captivated the nation and much of the world. It has been a day of pride for Americans and, based on initial reports of how U.S. Special Forces executed their risky mission, that makes sense. But purely from a PR perspective, last night’s announcement fell short of what could have been.

It all started with a tweet from the White House’s Dan Pfeiffer, before 10pm Eastern announcing “POTUS to address the nation tonight at 10:30 PM Eastern Time.” An unscheduled Presidential address on a Sunday night? This must be huge news. The Twitterati took it from there and the networks took to the air minutes later, as their anchors and reporters arrived, leading up to what was supposed to be a 10:30 address.

This was an opportunity for the President himself to break the story to the world. It appears that’s how the White House planned it. From a PR standpoint, that was the right call. It was an opportunity to control the message before it leaked. It was an opportunity to lay out the story, directly from the President’s mouth, in his own words, before media reported the story for him. But, despite the well orchestrated plans, the story got away from the White House.

For whatever reasons (maybe it was Congressional briefings that went long, maybe it was the President putting “finishing touches” on the address, maybe it was a combination of things), the President did not speak until after 11:30pm. In that hour plus, the news starting leaking in a big way. At 10:45pm, a quarter-hour after the President was supposed to start talking, CNN couldn’t sit on its hands any longer. Correspondent John King, not President Obama, broke the news that had broken minutes earlier on Twitter and CNN had confirmed since before 10:30 – Osama Bin Ladin had been killed by U.S. forces. The other networks reported the same news at about the same time. By the time the President’s “10:30pm” address began, he told much of the world what it already knew.

Also in that hour of lost control, some outlets reported incorrect information, like Bin Laden was killed in Afghanistan, that it happened a week earlier and that bombing is what killed him. The facts the White House tried to keep straight had been twisted by sources telling sources telling journalists.

This sequence of events shows important PR lessons the White House staff tried to follow:

1) Act quickly – they got the word out fast of the planned 10:30 announcement, using multiple platforms
2) Manage expectations – they slotted a time, so much so that networks like CNN kept information from the audience to give the President a chance to announce it, but the President (and likely many others involved) couldn’t stick to it
3) If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you – instead of the President making the announcement, Congressional and other government staff tipped off journalists because they were given the time.

As powerful and memorable of a news night May 1, 2011 will prove to be, imagine if it had been pulled off as planned.