Archive for March, 2015

Detroit Tragedy a Call for Personal Responsibility, Accountability

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 7.43.33 PMThe horrific happenings of the past week in Detroit where children Stoni Ann Blair and Stephen Berry were discovered murdered in their home by their mother underscores what is really so sorely, painfully lacking in our society today.  It’s not about race and its not about poverty – its about a lack of personal responsibility for one’s actions and the actions of others.

Columns today by Rochelle Riley and Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press and Nolan Finley of the Detroit News each touch on these issues (and far more eloquently than I) yet I felt compelled to encapsulate some of their views, melding them with mine.  Maybe if we all write about it and talk about it and, in turn, live it, a difference will have been made.

Stoni Ann Blair and Stephen Berry were innocent children who deserved to be protected, loved and guided through life like any other 9 and 13 year old.  Instead, they were tortured and murdered by the very person that should have sheltered them most vigilantly.  Far be it for them to have counseled their mother on personally taking responsibility for actions that lead to four children by two fathers; neither of whom seemed to care for the ramifications of their actions before or after their children were born.

Albom also asks where the neighbors in the family’s apartment building were and it is a legitimate question.  National news outlets last night showed video of a man on a public transit train in St. Louis repeatedly punched and kicked by three young punks. And no one did a thing.  Not one person stepped in to intervene, even though the men were using fists and appeared to have no weapons. Would you have stood by idly? What kind of human being does?  Riley asks other, equally legitimate questions in the Detroit case: Where was the state?  Where was the school truancy officer? It is obvious that these poor souls were not heard or looked out for by anyone – and that cannot stand.

In the end it all gets down to family.  As Finley writes, 70% of all babies in Detroit are born to single mothers. Moreover, teen mothers give birth to half of all babies in the city.  It is a recipe for a vicious cycle of despair.  My grandparents immigrated to America from Italy in the early 1900s, settling in southern Illinois. Terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan and dirt poor they worked hard in the coalmines, grew and raised much of their own food and survived – largely through love, support and community.  They raised their own with great responsibility and looked out for their neighbors. Idyllic? Concepts whose time have passed? No, they are ideals that need to be brought back and fast.

In an urban world where traditional family units are few and far between, community leaders also need to act and speak more responsibly.  This week at a vigil of mourners for the slain children, the Reverend Horace Sheffield did just the opposite, saying:  “We can run this city. We need another Coleman Young-like mayor…I’m tired of being treated like we can’t run nothing.”  Ridiculous comments that give the irresponsible an open door to continue destructive behavior. Instead, we all need do all we can to underscore the importance of taking responsibility and accountability for our actions, working hard to better our station in life and, most importantly, possess a selfless concern for humanity. To do anything less dooms our society to failure and our children to a terrible future.

Remembering Mike Fezzey and the Media-Community Connection

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

B99256315Z.1_20150328132245_000_GKMFLRBV.1-0There’s no business in a community that has enough potential to do good for the community than the media business. While reflecting on the sudden loss of friend, client and role model, Mike Fezzey, who ran Detroit’s WJR radio for nearly 20 years, it’s easy to see the stark contrast between those who “get” that potential and those who don’t. The bad news is, so many don’t.

Fezzey often made statements along the lines of “what’s good for the community is good for business.” In WJR, he realized that he had a 50,000 watt asset that could bring the community together and make money for its parent corporation at the same time. It was not one or the other, as it seems to be so often in this age. WJR was a very high-billing radio station and a very community-connected one. That feels like an endangered species today.

Here’s an example. More than a decade ago, I represented a national corporation that had formed a national partnership with an anti-drug organization. They wanted Detroit to be a pilot market to host a local “town hall” meeting on “keeping our communities drug free.” They wanted local broadcast media as partners. I called Mike, who I didn’t know as well at that time as I would later, and he immediately said “yes,” on the phone, to WJR giving up an hour of time to air the forum, with one of its talk personalities as its moderator. There were no corporate approvals needed and no meetings to plan meetings about it. Could that happen today? It doesn’t seem like it.

In this age of corporate mandates, syndication, automation, voice tracking, cost cutting, click baiting and ratings grabbing, how much community involvement do we really see from local media? Not much. How many local media executives do we see sitting on community boards, as Fezzey did so passionately? Very few. How many local media executives can pick up the phone and put coalitions and projects together, as Fezzey did so often? Very few, if any.

After Mike surprisingly (even to him) left radio and became a regional president of a bank, because he saw an opportunity to “do more good” helping Michigan out of The Great Recession with business access to capital, he went “off script” and spoke about his values, rather than just a company pitch, to a business group session I helped put together for him. In the October 2011 speech, he credited former Capital Cities Communications executive Dan Burke with teaching him how business and community can go together. I remember Mike saying, “If you focus on doing business the right way, the profits will come.” I related that to our values and culture at Tanner Friedman and it felt validating and reassuring. Later that day, Burke passed away. Now that we have lost both Fezzey and Burke, who will fill their void in media? If trends continue the way they are, it will be a missed opportunity for so many.

Managing Adversity and the CEO

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

10208_thumb2_220x244Friday night marked a return to Michigan State University – this time in Lansing before students of the Eli Broad School of Businesses’ Executive MBA program – to talk about “Leading in Crisis”.  I had the good fortune to chat with MSU’s Troy-based class earlier in the year to discuss adversity management tenets and practices good and bad.  Both classes were smart and engaged.

During the Q&A session toward the end of the evening, the conversation moved, as it had in Troy, to dynamics related to how best to counsel, guide and motivate CEOs to do the right thing in a crisis situation.  As I relayed in a recent blog, with the tone of any organization set at the top, a CEOs acting expediently and appropriately is vital. At the same time, getting them to do so is often one of the most difficult things for any crisis consultant or team member to accomplish. Why exactly is that?

After all, escaping a crisis is rare if not impossible. Statistics show that 59% of all decision makers have experienced a crisis and 79% believe they will experience a another within the next year.  Of course, doing nothing is never an option. Yet, many executives hide their heads in the sand hoping things will “blow over.” Contrast that with the fact that public opinion polls indicate that 62% believe that when a company utters “no comment” or “could not be reached for comment” it implies guilt or that the company or individual in question has something to hide.  At Tanner Friedman, our argument is that you can always say something. And when a story is being prepared on the situation anyway, wouldn’t you rather tell your side of it – or at least provide perspective?

So how does one motivate the top person to proper decision-making and action? It definitely gets easier with experience but, first and foremost, the key is gaining that individual’s trust and respect overall.  Even then, however, fear, legal ramifications and ego can all muddy the waters and get in the way. My recipe in that case is to present a 360-degree perspective that presents possible ramifications should they act counter to what you are recommending. They might not want to hear them but you’re not doing your job if you don’t make such scenarios known.  Sometimes, in the end (and as long as nothing illegal or dishonest is being put forth) you may need to agree to disagree and live to fight another day.  They don’t call it adversity management for nothing.


Red’s ‘Rage’ True to Roots

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

ofbeautyandrageOne of the best-known quotes of the late 19th century comes from Spanish philosopher George Santayana who famously wrote: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  In the world of music, I would suggest that artists who do not remember the past are condemned if they don’t repeat it -at least to some degree. Thankfully, for fans of the Christian rock band Red, recent lessons learned have resulted in a brand new masterpiece.

From the opening opus of “Of Beauty and Rage” with its mood-intensified strings, it is more than obvious that Red is back; not repeating themselves yet offering the unique mix of rock, angst and orchestral maneuvers that harken back to their groundbreaking early work of “End of Silence,” “Innocence & Instinct,” and “Until We Have Faces,” the latter going back nearly a decade.  And while ‘Beauty’ is far from formulaic, it does possess Red’s ‘secret sauce’ formula that makes for awe-inspiring music.

The band learned its lesson well with their last LP, 2013′s “Release the Panic.” Inexplicably gone were the accent strings and piano chords, replaced instead by a techno approach. Fans didn’t get it and didn’t buy it – literally.  Red’s response? Apathy? Indifference? Hardly. Instead, they put out “Release the Panic: Re-Calibrated” with cuts remixed to give the people what they wanted – a move virtually unprecedented.  This time around, “Of Beauty & Rage” offers a moody theme album to accompany a graphic novel.

Neil Young is well known for admitting he plays concerts for himself and not the fans. Eric Clapton also regularly performs shows without ‘playing the hits.’ Is it ego? Avoiding the ‘sell out’ tag? Or, is it merely a desire to do something different? All are legitimate in the short-term but, ultimately, shortsighted from the long-view (remember Young’s “Trans” album?). Growth and evolution are essential but, I would argue, so is embracing what made you popular in vinyl in the first place – in short, your unique brand and value proposition.

PR Needs To Stop Spamming Media Inboxes

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

flUvRvwWe, as an industry, are doing it wrong.

That’s the feedback from one of our most important customer bases, the journalists we depend on, at least in part, to help us tell our clients’ stories.

A week ago, I moderated a Detroit Regional Chamber panel that featured a TV news planning editor, a business magazine web editor and the senior managing editor of an all-news radio station. All talked about the hundreds of emails they receive every day from PR types, on top of “did you get my press release?” phone calls. All talked about PR being the lifeblood of at least part of their coverage. But all talked about the PR garbage that can get in the way.

Later in the week, a journalist friend called attention to this article via Twitter. It says, in part, “In no small part, corporate communications and PR agency teams are to blame for journalists’ increasing level of stress, a new survey reveals. Lazy PR practitioners send out ineffective emails and half-hearted pitches, most typically via email, for story opportunities they rarely expect to succeed.” 68% of journalists surveyed are unhappy with PR pitches.

This is a serious communications and image crisis for an industry that is supposed to know more than a thing or two about communications and image. The worst part about it is that this broken model is so profitable for so many. PR operations, especially the Big Firms, actually make more money assigning more “worker bees” to assemble bigger media lists and pitch more journalists, even for stories of limited interest, to feed their big overhead. The Detroit web editor’s complaint about a New York agency pitching her New York consumer stories when her employer is squarely focused on Southeast Michigan business news is in direct conflict with the New York agency’s business model. That’s troubling.

Call it “spray and pray.” Call it “mass distribution.” Call it “throwing sh** on the wall to see what sticks.” It simply doesn’t work. Instead, we should all be finely targeting our lists, as we encourage our clients to target their audiences. We need to make editorial decisions, of sorts, before anything goes out.

It’s time to start having respect for journalists. Let’s cut down the clutter in their inboxes and focus on helping them do their jobs, while helping our clients. Any PR professional should be willing to admit that a 32% approval rating means things need to change, even if it costs money.

Sometimes, Sportswriters Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

imagesWriting about sports for a living isn’t as dreamy as it seems. Generally speaking, the hours are lousy, the money is lacking and editors’ appetite for “clickable” content can seem insatiable. As consumers, though, we lap it up and rely on them as our sources of information.

But this weekend, maybe because of personal vendettas against a coach with a long history of erratic, at best, media relations and maybe because of the need to “feed the beast” with content that drives web traffic, some sportswriters ventured into an area where they showed ignorance more than insight.

Syracuse University Head Basketball Coach Jim Boeheim didn’t participate in a post-game news conference after his team’s last game of the season, the day after he was the subject of a blistering report on violations found by investigators from the NCAA after a lengthy process. The report is both ugly and controversial and the University has said that Boeheim plans to appeal at least part of the penalties. Multiple sportswriters ripped Boeheim for not answering media questions. Instead, the University issued a statement attributed to Boeheim and made top Assistant Coach Mike Hopkins available to answer questions about the game.

On the surface, this appears to violate high-level fundamentals of PR. And, on the surface and out of context, I agree with why journalists would be critical. However, in the Real World and in context, these sportswriters prove that they are ignorant to the factors that go into this type of decision-making. Unless you have sat in the conference rooms and participated in the conference calls, drafted and redrafted statements and gone toe-to-toe with administrators and legal counsel, you have no idea. We have done all of those things and, simply, in this case, the sportswriters don’t know what they don’t know.

Based on previous experience I can confidently say that the post-game press conference decision was not Boeheim’s alone, as sportswriters have alleged. This was a University decision made by a relatively large group of “main campus” and athletic administrators, PR people, most importantly, lawyers. They weighed all of the factors and, in order of magnitude, they very likely were:

-Legal: Make sure Boeheim doesn’t say anything that can be used against him in his appeal
-Human: After an emotional game, coaches (especially this one) can be emotional. Lawyers and PR pros would agree that emotional should be minimized in the wake of the NCAA report.
-Appearances: Balancing whether Boeheim as a no-show, with Hopkins still available as a “face” to talk about the game itself, would be worse than Boeheim providing “no comment” after “I can’t comment” and “It wouldn’t be appropriate to comment” in likely snarky fashion (see the human factor) on a loop on SportsCenter.

In cases like this, lawyers typically dominate the discussion. In fact, based on our experience, they are “undefeated, career” to use sports parlance, in these situations. PR people just have to advocate for the best deal possible for the media and public constituencies important to them, (but not at all to the lawyers).

The University would have helped matters if they had been able to add “On the advice of counsel, because of a pending appeal to the NCAA” somewhere in Boeheim’s statement. But, overall, this was handled by Syracuse in the way just about any school would have. The reality, at least for now, is that the school will be a “lighting rod” and should get used to being the subject of sportswriting, even when the writers step out of bounds.

Curt Schilling Throws Cyber Bullies a Curve

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 10.21.18 PMCyber bulling. We’ve all heard stories but consider a few alarming statistics from

  • 52 percent of all young people report being cyber bullied
  • More than half of young people surveyed say they never confide in their parents when cyber bullied
  • Only one out of every six parents of adolescents and teens are even aware of the scope and intensity involved with cyber bullying

This week, former major league star pitcher Curt Schilling and his 17-year old daughter counterpunched all three statistics, and, in turn, taught at least two internet hoodlums a lesson they won’t soon forget.

After publicly congratulating his daughter on her college acceptance and plans to play softball in school, Twitter trolls began harassing the youngster – many crossing the line with inappropriate, even sick, sexual innuendo.  Rather than attacking the tweeters directly as is often the case with far too many athletes, Schilling instead wrote and posted an extensive blog post, which referenced posts and posters alike – and with far-reaching results.

One individual, Adam Nagel, was suspended from the community college he was attending.  Another, Sean MacDonald, a part-time ticket seller with the New York Yankees, was terminated. Both of their Twitter accounts, meanwhile, have been terminated.  Consequences far too harsh? Hardly.

Rather, it is an important reminder to never post anything online that you wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing published in the newspaper. And, while many feel emboldened, even anonymous (even though they are readily identified via handles and avatars), social media is exactly what it professes to be: public.  Perhaps trolls and haters should consider the immortal and apropos advice of ‘Thumper’ from the 1942 Disney classic, “Bambi”: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.  It might just save them their jobs if not their reputations.



Students Who Understand The Real Keys To Crisis Communications

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

IMG_2890Last week, I had the privilege to lead a discussion on crisis communications at the chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) at my alma mater, the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. To say the least, it was an impressive group that showed a level of sophistication about advanced strategies most students can’t quite comprehend.

I started the presentation with the fundamentals of discovery and messaging when entering or preparing for a crisis. But, I spent most of the time answering questions about the “make it or break it” factors when guiding an organization through a period of bad news.

While these students understood quickly that both words and actions are significant, something some groups don’t always “get” right away, they were most curious about the dynamics that can often determine success. This is what many professionals often forget. These are factors like ego, the tug-of-war between PR and legal, bureaucracy, “the blame game,” and other business and psychological elements that influence whether a client will even take your advice. On these topics, the Newhouse students had a thirst for knowledge and a high level of curiosity.

They should serve as an example to others to are trying to determine how to be successful the next time bad news strikes. It’s crucial to perfect the fundamentals of communication. But, also, you must look inward to your organization. Will your decision-making be fast enough, avoiding “analysis paralysis?” Will you empower the right people? Will your lawyers convince you to play not to lose, or will you play to win? Will you do right by your customers, or let fear steer you to silence?

The students engaged in thoughtful discussion about those questions, understanding they are paramount. They are questions every company should be asking.

Thank you to the Syracuse PRSSA for the opportunity to begin this discussion. Now it’s your turn to continue it.