Archive for September, 2013

Ethically Speaking

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

ethical-decision-makingOn Friday, I was honored to be a part of a distinguished panel of public relations practitioners who were asked to speak on ethics before the Public Relations Society of America’s Detroit Chapter on the campus of U of M-Dearborn.  Joining me were Nancy Cain of AAA Michigan, Bob Sadler of the Michigan Historical Museum and Tim Wieland from Airfoil.

The forum’s format presented a wonderful opportunity for each of us to pose a particular case study, offering a respectable ethical dilemma, which was then discussed by an audience offering solutions, followed by the actual resolution. Cain recounted a scenario where a ticket snafu by a vendor threatened to usurp a customer Rose Bowl trip, Sadler an act of vandalism at the museum. For both instances, the PR pros asked, should the occurrences have been acknowledged publicly or kept behind closed doors?

Tim Wieland described a client whose employees had posted positive product reviews online without proper attribution, made more complicated by the client CEO publicly criticizing a prominent journalist for discovering and writing about it. I, finally, told the tale of a major festival we had been involved with where board member collusion and other unethical behavior continually blocked our ability to further the event.  What would you do, we queried those in attendance?

With ethics serving as the foundation for sound public relations practices, Cain and Sadler did not stick their heads in the sand. Rather, they first informed internal audiences (for Cain, those participating in the contest and AAA employees; for Sadler, key board members, donors and Michigan Historical Society/Museum employees) before also making events known (including corrective actions taken) to the media. Wieland’s firm recommended employee reviews be removed or given proper attribution while also going into relationship rebuilding mode between the client CEO and the discovering reporter.

As for what our firm did? After many months of our counsel being rebuffed in the wake of egregious conflicts of interests by board members that threatened the event’s very future, we resigned the account, post event, while working afterward to train well our replacements and preserve relationships with board members who did act for the “greater good”.  In the end, and all things said, ethics in PR is all about doing the right thing – with honesty, transparency and selflessness. It’s a lesson for the forty-five PR students/future professionals who were in attendance, for the industry at large and for how each of us operates every day.





When is a Mascot Offensive and Why?

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 4.09.25 PMIn Saturday’s Detroit News, reporter Josh Katzenstein wrote an extensive and informative frontpage story which chronicles and contemplates the current debate over the Washington Redskins name.  The discourse intensified last week, in fact, with a Washington Post editorial calling for a name change from the NFL team, deeming it “a racial slur of Native Americans so offensive that it should no longer be tolerated.”

The issue is a tough one with passion and emotion on both sides tempered with tradition and often confused intent.  My Alma Mater, the University of Illinois, saw its legendary Chief Illiniwek eliminated in a recent year due to pressure from special interest groups, some Native American, some not. This despite the fact that the Chief, who appeared briefly during halftime at U of I basketball and football games, was always portrayed tastefully and with great reverence and respect. Closer to home, of course, we are well aware of Eastern Michigan University’s switch to the Eagles from Hurons some 22 years ago.

Before their move to the nation’s capital, Washington was originally known as the Boston Braves in 1932, changing its name a year later. Some stories indicate that the team became the Redskins in honor of their then-head coach, who some say was Native American. Do those calling for the name change know this? Do they care? And what about a baseball team such as the Cleveland Indians, whose Chief Wahoo’s wide-grinning caricature is, I feel, as offensive as anything in sports?

The key, I think, is education, dialogue and sensitivity. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder remains defiant, telling the USA Today: “We will never change the name – It’s that simple. NEVER. You can use caps.” In Champaign, the debate over the Chief was less a discussion by all parties than a pressuring of politicians that led to his ousting before most supporters knew what was happening.  In Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, Central Michigan University works closely with and receives incredible support from the Chippewa tribe; consulting regularly on the proper use of the tribal name.

In D.C., Snyder would do well to welcome and encourage discourse and thoughtful debate from all parties – pro and con. Sit down with all constituents. Listen. Consider. If not, the loud protests are sure to continue; perhaps to the point that the NFL will be eventually forced to force Washington to take name-changing action.

Here’s How PR Broke Its Own News

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

-bb6a8866fc89a3c1When important news or sensitive stories arise, we often talk to clients about how to avoid leaks and how to manage their own messages and timing of announcements with respect for all audiences – including internal, external and media. In this environment, that includes a multi-platform approach, essentially breaking your own news over platforms you control, such as email, your website(s) and social media and working closely with journalists on a traditional media approach that fits the bigger strategy.

Such a plan was conceived and executed to perfection last week, I’m proud to say, by my alma mater, Syracuse University. For only the 12th time in history and first time in the modern age of social media, the University’s Board of Trustees hired a new Chancellor, after a search that lasted 10 months. The Chancellor of the University is the most significant figure in the University’s global community and one of the most high-profile leaders in Upstate New York. This is a big story in every respect for all of the University’s most important audience and the University broke it, its own way.

Early last Thursday morning, before 7 Eastern time, alumni received emails from the University’s Board Chair, announcing that Kent Syverud, Dean of the Law School at Washington University, had been selected as Chancellor. At the same time, the University released a comprehensive press release announcing a 1pm introduction on campus and put the news on its social media accounts. A short time later, a story provided to (a local commercial news organization, essentially the web site of the local newspaper) appeared online including an interview with Syverud, which had been conducted the day before but embargoed.

This felt like the absolute correct approach from a PR perspective. All audience got the news in the way the University wanted. Kevin C. Quinn, the University’s Senior Vice President for Public Affairs told me the simultaneous announcement is exactly what was strategized. “Yes, that was our goal— to ensure that members of the full SU community – students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends- had the opportunity to hear the announcement of our next leader at the same point in time,” he told me in an email.

What is also intriguing is that during the relatively long search process, there were no leaks, no rumors, no short lists and no “trial balloons.” I asked Quinn about that too. “Like most private universities, this search was a confidential one. I have never been directly involved in a search at a public university, although I understand some have public disclosure requirements that might apply to a search. I would really stress that the goal was not to keep anything secret just for secrecy’s sake, but was to try and make it possible that the full SU community could have the opportunity to hear of and learn about next leader at the same point in time,” he wrote.

Syracuse may be 1-2 in football so far this year. But the school is undefeated in big PR opportunities. Here’s hoping this approach is copied more often by organizations that want to break their own stories.

Personal Loss Sheds Light On A Media Loss

Monday, September 9th, 2013

obit_avA week ago, one of my favorite people and great characters and mentors in my life passed away. Rob was my second cousin, although, to make things easier I just referred to him as “my cousin in D.C.” and he referred to me as “my nephew.” Not even his larger-than-life persona could outdo leukemia. While I already miss him terribly, I can go online and look at this – an obituary written by his friend, the legendary writer John Feinstein, in The Washington Post. It is a perfect encapsulation of the man and allowed his story to be widely known in death, even though he never sought publicity in life.

But the only reason why my family can savor and share that public tribute is because my cousin’s story features prominence. I have realized in recent days that while death is a part of life and death is most certainly a part of news, very few individuals have their life stories told via the reach and relative permanence of traditional media anymore.

Across the country, papers and their websites still publish the funeral listings (which represent a revenue stream), but resource cuts at newspapers and the disappearance of many community news outlets mean many fewer obituaries that detail a person’s life and impact. While celebrity deaths gets more trending topics than just about anything on social media, the lives and deaths of people known only in our communities get less attention than ever.

What’s the way to fill this void? One example comes from a funeral home near us, The Ira Kaufman Chapel (full disclosure: the Chapel is a client of ours), installed a fixed camera to capture services and now offers families the opportunity to live stream and post videos of services, to help share their stories to those unable to attend funerals. They expect the idea to catch on for funerals of many faiths in the coming years.

Another opportunity to embrace new media in new ways to, as we often advise clients in the face of traditional media cutbacks, is tell your own stories. One way to honor a loved one’s life and share stories and memories with family, friends and the public, much as a newspaper obituary would have, is to post online video with photos and stories.

But you don’t have to wait until death to tell the stories of those important to you. Just ask many of my colleagues and friends over the years, who have heard of the the wisdom and wit of “my cousin in D.C.” while I shared anecdotes. For them as well as for me, the memories will continue.

A Reading Rite of Fall

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Though many prefer Summer, I am among those who revel in is successor – Fall.  Call me nostalgic, even romantic, but give me sweatshirts, cider mills and Friday night lights. To be sure and with regard to the latter, sports is what really drives this nostalgia as pennant races near and the crack of pads and marching bands in the distance echo in the air once again.

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 7.52.16 PMThe late author George Plimpton was a master of encapsulating this love of the games in his many books, which detailed his exploits moving from behind the scenes to between the lines. Every year at this time I read his tome on pro football, “Paper Lion” where he ‘joined’ the Detroit Lions for camp and pre-season as the team’s “last string quarterback”.  Published in 1966 and featuring the exploits of legendary player/characters Alex Karras, Dick “Night Train” Lane and others, Plimpton provided us with a never before seen behind-the-scenes look at the game; before “North Dallas Forty” and long before HBO’s “Hard Knocks” (or even ESPN)!

On my recent vacation I also re-read one of his few fictional athletic accounts that many at the time though was anything but. “The Curious Case of Sid Finch” began as a Sports Illustrated story in 1985, detailing a devoted student of “yogic mastery” and New York Mets pitching phenom with a reported 165-mile fastball.  Though published on April 1st, the piece generated national buzz (fueled in large part by participation by the Mets) a book and a standing among the top April Fool’s Day hoaxes of all time.

‘Finch’ is the type of fun deception that will most likely, in the world of the Internet, and unlimited access to information, never be perpetrated again.  ’Lion’, on the other hand, allowed us for the first time to eat in the player’s cafeteria, leaf through a playbook and strap on a (for Plimpton) ill-fitting helmet. Perhaps it is why I like to go back and re-read both books, almost seasonally, as they, like my memories of youth and sports, harken back to a simpler time – where incredible stories could be told, albeit with something still left to the imagination.


Denny McLain – Perspective On A Life, A Legacy

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 6.12.05 PMBaseball can be a game of highs and lows, of trials and triumphs.  In many ways it mirrors life – certainly that of former Tiger pitching great Denny McLain who reached the pinnacle of success in the late 1960s and the lowest of lows in the decades to come. He positively affected millions of fans years ago with his accomplishments on the field and is now poised once again make a difference and help others off of it.

During my vacation last week outstate I noted online that the Detroit Tigers’ low-A minor league affiliate, the West Michigan White Caps, would be in town with McLain visiting. In the late 90s I served briefly as his traffic reporter when he had a morning radio show on WXYT-AM 1270. And though I had not grown up here nor was I old enough to appreciate his record-setting 31-6 campaign in 1968 (which would net him a Cy Young and MVP award and help propel the Tigers to a World Championship), I was a fan of his career both as a ballplayer and broadcaster (including his demonstrated on-air broadcast talents, including on TV’s “Eli and Denny Show”. At the same time, I was well aware of his many life’s challenges, both through the news and McClain’s own written, published words.

I found I was both intrigued and reticent.  As I entered Fifth Third Field outside of Grand Rapids and saw the long line of fans in the concourse awaiting a glimpse of and autograph from the baseball legend I wondered if the exercise of reconnecting would be worthwhile. After all, I had read much about this ego and run-ins with teammates and managers. There was also the “checkered” past and a question of autograph cost and where the money would be going.

The visit was more than worth the several inning wait. As I edged nearer to the signing table on this hot August evening, I was able to read some of the table signage as well as speak with one of McLain’s handlers. Autographs were free and part of his summer tour of minor league ballparks to raise money and awareness for the U.S. Military All-Stars baseball team. Once up for the autograph, I reintroduced myself to the featured guest and, after nearly 20 years, he remembered me with great warmth and interest – updating me on his life and health and thoughtfully asking me if I wanted a new ball when he slightly botched a particular date while signing. An offer to pose for a photo and well wishes punctuated by a firm handshake ended the brief encounter that I will always cherish.

Though I don’t know him well, I feel I am an excellent judge of character. And while humility is probably not a word anyone would ever associate with Denny McLain, he exhibited it here. He seemed as genuinely honored to sign for and interact with fans as we fans were honored to be in his presence. Certainly we all deserve second chances and an opportunity to atone for past transgressions. One also got the impression that this was not about PR or image reconstruction. This was a man looking to put forth a positive legacy – just like the game, steeped in history and heritage, that he played so well so long ago.