Archive for March, 2014

Ms. Barra Goes To Washington: The Top 3 Things To Watch

Monday, March 31st, 2014

General-Motors-Logo.jpg.htmlTomorrow, April 1st, marks a significant and perhaps pivotal chapter in the public relations spectacle that is the GM ignition switch recall crisis.

Since GM released YouTube videos featuring CEO Mary Barra delivering the last company messaging, to modest numbers of clicks online but relatively large traditional media coverage of them, the company has recalled millions of vehicles and ordered dealers to stop selling one Chevrolet model. As many inside newsrooms suggest, they are getting as much “bad news” out of the way as possible before the trip to Capitol Hill for Barra to answer questions from Congress.

Here are three things to watch as Barra steps out from company-controlled forums into one of the most challenging cauldrons in all of public speaking:

1) Her Message

In prepared remarks reportedly already submitted to Congress, Barra will address some of the fundamental messages to any successful adversity communications campaign. She will lay out facts, as GM currently sees them. She will provide reassurance that the company is handling this properly to ensure future safety. And, importantly, the company’s lawyers, PR advisors and government affairs team has apparently agreed on a way for her to express human emotion to the families of those who were killed by this product defect. Should those remarks make their way into widely-covered news, the company will have scored well-earned PR points.

2) Her Questioners

But the biggest threat to success for GM for the next two days comes from those who will be asking the questions – politicians in an election year. At least some of the members of Congress will likely lob verbal grenades in an effort to make themselves “look good” and demonize GM. For GM and Barra to be successful, she needs to respectfully answer their questions without contributing to the creation of a spectacle. Her preparation for this was likely closer to the preparation Presidential candidates use before debates rather than the type of training CEOs typically receive before potentially challenging media interviews.

3) Reaction From Outside of Michigan

The news consumer of Michigan “met” Mary Barra when she became CEO in December. The big car buff nationally “met” her during the North American International Auto Show in January. But when most Americans picture the CEO of General Motors, they aren’t picturing someone who looks and sounds like Mary Barra. This is an opportunity for GM to capitalize on a unique communications asset – a CEO who looks and sounds like someone who could fit in just about everywhere, not just at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the country reacts. Also, in most of the country, GM’s sales have suffered for decade because, among other reasons, a poor reputation for quality. This saga is crucial if GM is going to turn the tide of Toyotas and Hondas dominating roads across the country in ways you don’t see around here.

PR Plans Must Reflect Blurred Media Lines

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

mobile_news_02Not too long ago, media relations components of PR plans typically had sections that read “print,” “trade,” “radio” and “TV.” They really shouldn’t anymore.

The always-fascinating 2014 State of the News Media report from the Pew Research Center is out and this year’s takeaways for the PR side of the media business demonstrate the continuation of trends we have talked about for the last several years. If they haven’t already, they need to start impacting the way every PR professional and every client thinks about “placements” and how its audiences consume news.

The study shows 82 percent of news consumers get news, at one time or another, on a desktop or laptop computer. 54 percent of them get news on their mobile devices. That’s more than half of news consumers, up from zero not too many years ago. 53 percent of smart phone users watch news video on their phones, while only 36 percent have shot video. That means that market for news video consumption, whether from a “newspaper” or “TV station” or even “radio station” is larger than the market for using the video function on phones.

The bottom line is that consumers want news when they want it on whatever type of device they’re using at that time. PR pros have to stop thinking in terms of the old “print” and “broadcast” and start considering if they have the right relationships and knowledge to get news into the hands of clients’ target audiences, through whatever news platforms are necessary. Clients also need to continue evolving their thinking. The “print clip” is no longer the brass ring. It’s about simply about reaching the audience (never mind that online coverage is easy to share via email, web and social media, extending its reach and life span).

Here’s a nugget that provides a reality check to those in PR and in news, who are obsessed with who breaks and announces what on Twitter. Only 8 percent of news consumers say they get news on Twitter. Think about that the next time it seems “everyone” is on any one branded platform.

What Malaysia Air Saga is Teaching Us About How We Communicate – or Don’t

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

malaysia_airline_flight_370Incredibly and excruciatingly painful for the families of passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight 370, another week has passed since the disappearance of the jumbo jet with virtually no new revelations nor clues as to its fate.  This mystery is, however, demonstrating how various factions involved in the event are communicating with each other, or, sadly and amazingly, how they are not doing so effectively, if at all.

Let’s consider first how limited and antiquated today’s technology is being revealed to be with regard to how air communications systems work.  Transponders can easily and manually be shut down rendering an airliner virtually invisible, save military radar.  Cockpit voice data recorders run on only a 2-hour loop; meaning in cases where a flight may continue for hours after an initial event of some type, the exact cause of the catastrophe can be erased.  Moreover, news coverage and aviation expert commentators have informed us, the black box ‘pings’ which begin transmitting after a catastrophic accident, only last for 30 days with a range of just a few miles.

We are also experiencing first hand that, rather than living in a “small world”, the countries of this earth are still light years apart when it comes to communication and cooperation.  37 countries are reportedly working together, including on search and rescue operations and covert investigation – this in a world of 196 countries. And while many nations may be fearful of showing their hands with regard to their satellite and surveillance capabilities, others appear to be playing games. Vietnam, for example, took 10 days to inform officials that they had picked up the flight on their radar at a crucial moment in the event timeline. When asked why they had waited so long to report the information, country officials replied: “No one asked.”

And, both Malaysia Air and the Malaysian government are demonstrating that they are ill-equipped to release news and information in an effective manner.  Over and over we see distraught family members, stuck in Beijing, yelling, screaming, fighting, fainting. This tells us that they are not being regularly nor adequately updated on search developments as a group nor one-on-one.  Family member privacy, further, should also be better protected and respected, limiting media access to these individuals who are in such agonizing turmoil.

Through it all, it is evident that aviation technology upgrades must be made, inter-country cooperation enhanced and overall communications efforts improved for the future.  It is unfortunate that positive change sometimes only comes after tragedy. One would hope that lessons are being learned and will translate into expedient advances.  An event such as this simply cannot happen again.



Media Maintains Focus on Malaysia Flight Mystery

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 11.53.44 AMAs investigators move through day nine in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, media coverage and speculation contained therein also continues at a feverish pace.  Is it too much? Is it at all inappropriate? Or, is it an important exercise in the quest for the truth and the fate of the 239 passengers on board? I would argue it is all of the above.

CNN and Fox News, in particular have been focusing the majority of their coverage on the mystery virtually around the clock – and it has often been riveting.  With a story that is baffling the aviation and national security agencies, let alone the world, it is difficult for many of us to look away. The theories are numerous and new information is trickling in almost continuously. Like the O.J. trial and 9-11, no one has seen anything like it.  We want to know more; we want to try to understand and solve the for now unsolvable.

Could a Boeing 777 be landed in a remote place?  What could a rapid descent or ascent portend? CNN continues to take us into a flight simulator to give us a glimpse and a sense. Former pilots, ambassadors, security analysts and aviation experts and reporters are all being trotted out to give their take, the New York Times largely among them.  It can make your head spin yet, as one talking head opined: In a case like this sometimes you need to throw a lot of possibilities out there as something is bound to eventually stick.

Yet, in theorizing what’s what, I feel greater caution should be exercised when it comes to pointing a finger at the flight crew, despite the fact that communications systems appear to have been deliberately turned off and evasive action taken. For now, none of us knows for sure what happened and, importantly, whether those initiatives were undertaken under duress.  The apparently liberal modus operandi of one of the crew members when it came to guests in the cockpit and the home flight simulator of another should not be fodder for indictment.

Yet, overall and as always in such a story of international importance and human interest, the national news media is at its finest.  In this case, holding a country to task for not being forthcoming, transparent or expedient in its efforts while continuing to report on what might have happened in order to figure out what ultimately did.

Where’s GM’s CEO This Sunday? Caught In A Tug-Of-War

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

General-Motors-Logo.jpg.htmlThe biggest domestic story in America this week was the slow drip of bad news for General Motors after the recall focused on a cheap ignition part that GM may have known was troubled for more than a dozen years.

Never mind that whatever happened at GM happened before the company’s bankruptcy, bailout and attempted reinvention. Never mind that two of the brands affected – Pontiac and Saturn – don’t exist anymore. For a company plagued by a 30-year history of quality questions and a degree of public resentment for its onetime standing as “Government Motors,” it has a very low margin for error in public opinion.

While the company has said some of the right things via emails and statements, it has yet to talk directly to the public, particularly through its potentially effective new CEO, Mary Barra. It’s time to, as a respected former client of ours used to say, “push people – not paper.”

But as I said on WDIV-TV in Detroit on Thursday night, a tug-of-war is surely happening inside GM’s headquarters between PR professionals who want to start influencing public opinion and lawyers who want the company to stay quiet. To use an analogy from sports, essentially, PR generally wants to play to win while legal wants to play not to lose. I’m hearing this weekend that few PR people are allowed “seats at the table” to make the case, while lawyers are, in fact, dominating the conversation in the corporate conference rooms.

With GM in the sights of the Federal Government as well as the public, today’s Sunday network talk shows would have been an ideal opportunity for GM to begin to explain how it is investigating, the facts about its quality top-to-bottom and express concern for those who may have been killed by this ignition problem by having Barra “make the rounds.” Instead, more news stories like this, in the New York Times, appear suggesting GM’s legal strategy may be flawed.

Sooner or later, PR will get an opportunity to tug hard enough at the rope and we’ll see Barra talking about this. Hopefully, for a company so important to Michigan and America, that will happen soon. But, today should have been the day.

Look To A College Radio Station As An Example For Your Business

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Unknown-1When we started Tanner Friedman, we started the company with values before anything. We look at that as our Constitution, guiding all of our business decision-making from hiring to deciding when to continue work with clients and every business decision in between. But I figured out this week that we shouldn’t be the best example of how and why to ground a business in values because I discovered a better example, in what may seem like an unlikely place.

Over the weekend, I was at the 29th annual gathering of alumni from student-run WJPZ Radio at Syracuse University. At this year’s event, the Alumni Association premiered a new documentary, “Greatest Media Classroom,” which chronicles the founding of the station on AM in the early 1970s (before going to FM 29 years ago) and tracks its rise as the birthplace of countless communications careers. Much of the film focused on the values behind the founding of the station – its commitment to a professional sound, a learning environment of students teaching students and a commitment to a Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) or “Top 40″ format. Those values have been passed down, almost exclusively through word-of-mouth, for more than 40 years.

CHR is an unusual format for college radio but, as I was told when I started at the station as a freshman, it is the most difficult format to master because it is constantly changing as you program for a fickle audience. As a rock music fan, I was sold on the opportunity to learn at a station with a format that would provide the best educational opportunity. Remarkably, as unearthed in the documentary in a newspaper article in 1976, one of the station’s founders, Mike Roberts (who would go on to a legendary career in urban radio and station ownership) was quoted as saying “Anyone who can master Top 40 radio can get a job at any radio station.” With no knowledge of the newspaper quote, it’s the same thing I was told years later and the same thing current students were told at recruitment.

Scott MacFarlane, the WJPZ alum and NBC-TV Washington investigative reporter who produced the documentary, said during extensive interviews, he heard the same language describing the WJPZ experience from alumni who are now 60 years old and current students young enough to be their grandchildren. Think about that. Could that happen at your company? Would the founders say the same things about the company’s fundamentals that would be said by management and employees 20 years from now? 40 years from now?

Only with a strong “constitution,” does your company stand a chance at being the same at its core from founding to 40th, like WJPZ.